Kaiso Feminisms

“If yuh waist could talk, gyul—it woulda cry—” David Rudder

Last year, I had a paper accepted for reading at the University Carlos III of Madrid’s first International Conference on the Caribbean: “The Myth of the Caribbean woman.” While I couldn’t make it to Spain, my paper, a labor of love topic from my undergrad days—became reworked and will be included in the upcoming conference publication later this year. In the paper, I focused on a selection of women in soca and the ways in which these women articulate, celebrate and claim ownership of their bodies in song and wining (which Ayanna on facebook the other day, in quoting the smart & eloquent Atillah Springer, rightly declares “wining is a revolutionary act.”) Yuh damn well right it is, Ms. Springer. So, because my paper was centred on the women–I didn’t (for that paper) take the time to seek out men who sang (if any) feminist or women-centered calypso.

Not those songs that simply feature women through the gaze of the male calypsonian or male soca star mesmerized by her bumper and wining skills (of which there are plenty songs), but songs that articulate (like some of the women): a woman’s autonomy that is critical of social and gender norms and serious about interrogating them; songs that locate the woman as agent of this and her own sexuality, and complicates the woman’s positionality in Trinidadian society. David Rudder’s “Carnival Ooman” (1992) from the album Frenzy does this very well. I happened to listen to it recently on disc two of my Gilded Collection (of which, disc one is on heavy steady rotation inside my car).

This song is sufficiently amazing for several reasons that I will tap into later and I don’t know why I have never noticed this song on the cd before. Dr. Rohlehr and other calypso and carnival scholars have all asserted how calypso is deeply rooted in an Afro-Trinidadian male construction of self and the society in which they live; and thus, the gender norms historically prescribed in song have been predictable.  Concurrently, Rohlehr observes how several calypsoes of the 1930s and 1940s involved “several male strategies of ego-retrieval;” “the projection of a mask of machismo;” and “the recourse to ‘robustness’ or violence in relationships with women” (204).

Therefore, songs tend (overwhelmingly) to reflect our heterocentric, rigid gender norms among other things. Traditionally, calypso rarely inverts, complicates, or seeks to break, or examine gender. In the early days of kaiso, women rarely enter on the stage scene, save for Lady Trinidad’s 1937 song (Rohlehr 205). As a result, even the norm-breaking jamette woman later gets reinscribed negatively in Trinidadian society (even though we see Denise Belfon proudly reclaiming her in “Jamette” (2002)). Somewhere on the flip side of the jamette, “Jean and Dinah, Rosita and Clementina”, (and the wajang), the quintessential carnival woman emerged in contemporary Trinbagonian society as a wide-spread meme.

She is (relatively) autonomous, works for her own money, can make a down payment on her own costume, decides she will play mas in whatever the hell she wants, runs around the savannah or what have you, then unleashes into the streets in droves on Carnival Monday and Tuesday.  She is invariably middle-class, somewhere in the vicinity, or at least appears to be. Clearly, this is not every woman’s story but the meme has taken root and flourished, especially during and around carnival time. The ever popular “carnival is woman!”  tagline takes root inside of this same space, and all this happens hot on the heels of the proliferation of bikini mas, which dominates carnival culture today.

The lens of carnival then gets firmly trained on the woman and the female body, (not coincidentally) the skimpier that costumes progressively got. On the other side of this coin too, the “strong men” of carnival, currently seen in Legends, Tribe, Poison band of yore and other mas bands, do not get a similar equivalent lens. For one thing, they disrupt the heterocentric male gaze (allegedly) and secondly, they are increasingly regarded with suspicion by vast numbers of the viewing populace, in their wonderfully snug gold lame short-shorts, however unfounded said suspicion may be.

In addition to all this, there were changes taking place in Trinbagonian society from the late 70s and onwards, with regards to access and women working and making their own careers both on and off the kaiso stage. As opposed to Calypso Rose, robbed of her Road March winnings in 1968, purely because she was a woman infringing on a historically male cultural space. Through their careers and highlights, calypso women like Rose, Singing Sandra, United Sisters and Denyse Plummer espousing “Woman is Boss” have entered the arena singing women-centered kaiso (many penned by men, interestingly).

Rudder’s carnival ooman, who just might be an even more fully actualized woman in song, in many ways, than his earlier “Bacchanal Lady”  (1987) mixing “milk with puncheon rum”, exuding “sweet scandal when she walk”. In “Carnival Ooman”, we get a rendition of a more nuanced, more complex and multi layered representation of Trinbagonian womanhood. We get a complication of the memetic carnival woman who is gyrating like she never christen. Clearly, Rudder is an epic poet and storyteller; few have crafted the range of stories, characters and unique snapshots of Trinbagonian life and society in the various ways that he has. He also pens interesting, increasingly complex and beautiful representations of women in song.

This chune opens poignantly with the troubling scene of domestic violence and a woman fighting back hard :

I hear he raise he han’ again and he lash you

Dis time yuh sen’ he tail, straight to casualty

And den yuh put on yuh jeans and went panorama

Yuh see how carnival does make woman strong, den does set dem free

Now you is a carnival ooman, yea (Cyah stop de baby/ Cyah stop de girl)

You’s a carnival ooman, whoa. Free-ist of women, in all de world

I hear how yuh fling it, yuh cock it, yuh jam it, yuh roll it and yuh wheel and tumble down–but woman is yours.

Later, the carnival ooman’s freedom to get on bad and misbehave in de fete is distinctly and significantly yoked to her own autonomy. As Rudder aptly notes and reiterates: woman is yours, and even though this is a married woman, with children, obviously involved in an abusive relationship–Rudder evokes a kind of feminist reimagining of domestic roles when he sings, “I hear yuh leave him home to mind all de children”. This is not a broken woman who sets out to fete, free of man, chile and such responsibilities. She is fierce, frenetic and most of all, free. The fact that her freedom is tethered to carnival, fetein, and wining is also central to the song. Wining is of course, by definition, a dancing movement but it can also be a metaphor for sex, sexuality and sexual agency. The carnival ooman’s wining here also functions as a reclamation of her own self and her sexual agency.

We also see the carnival ooman in her office job and Rudder goes to great lengths to maintain the autonomy of this woman, and she remains unapologetic for any fete indiscretions. She will “make no excuse” for almost killing her supervisor (metaphorically), nor for having no mercy on men on the dance floor. In fact, the fete for her becomes a kind of heaven (and haven) and Rudder reminds her to never apologize for her own joys. Later in the chorus, Rudder paints a powerful scene filled with a host of women, surrounding this carnival ooman in the throes of cathartic merriment and oscillations urging her to, “make him pay, oh lawd sister make him pay, doux-doux make him pay. Turn him, twist him, gi’ him pepper.” Through this act of wining, the man pinioned against the wall under her becomes a metaphor, no doubt, for all of the stresses and tribulations of her own life, her own marriage, its violence and by extension, for all the women present who connect to the image and emphatically encourage her to “grind him dong”. And, she does.

Suggested further readings, references and further listening:

“Ju Ju Warrior”, Calypso Rose

“Fire Fire”, Calypso Rose

“Calypso Blues”, Calypso Rose

“Solomon”, Calypso Rose

Calypso and its Morphology, JD Elder

Rituals of power and rebellion: The Carnival tradition in Trinidad and Tobago 1763-1962, Hollis Liverpool

“Woman is Boss”, Denyse Plummer

“Tabanca”, Denyse Plummer

Carnival and Calypso in Pre-Independence Trinidad, Gordon Rohlehr

“Images of Men and Women in the 1930s Calypsoes”, Gordon Rohlehr

The Gilded Collection, vols 1 and 2, David Michael Rudder

“Die with my Dignity”, Singing Sandra

“Women Their Own Worst Enemy”, Singing Sandra

“A Woman Could”, Singing Sandra

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One Response to “Kaiso Feminisms”

  1. How Sweet the Sound « creative commess Says:

    […] popular culture, of course, offers no end of fodder —whether it’s sex and dancehall; kaiso feminisms, the performance of masculinity by male soca stars, peripatetic postulations around black […]

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