Calypso, Country, and a Fulbright
I’m sitting in the spacious upstairs living room of a home outside of Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago. Seated next to me is a sprightly man of nearly 80 years, whose age has diminished neither his energy nor his enthusiasm. A gentle breeze wafts through the open windows as he reflects on a 60-plus-year career. He intersperses his stories with singing and demonstrations on a well-loved guitar.
His name is Andrew “Lord Superior” Marcano, known affectionately to aficionados of calypso simply as Supie. In the 1960s, he toured the world with legendary calypso artists Lord Kitchener and Lord Melody and was the first calypsonian to appear at Madison Square Garden. He still performs regularly. A week after our interview Supie was awarded an honorary Doctor of Letters from the University of the West Indies for his contributions to calypso. It’s obvious why he is a worthy subject.
I’m here on a Fulbright U.S. Scholars grant for Trinidad and Tobago, awarded to me in March of 2017. Founded shortly after World War II and named for Senator J. William Fulbright of Arkansas, the Fulbright is the U.S. government’s premier educational exchange program. Fulbright promotes cultural appreciation and goodwill between the United States and other countries through grants that support American scholars, professionals, and artists who teach, study, and conduct research abroad. Additionally, Fulbright offers grants for non-American scholars to travel to the United States.
My path to the Fulbright grant was circuitous and traces back several decades. I attended Berklee in the mid-1970’s. Afterward, I returned to Nashville, where I had previously graduated with a degree in history from Vanderbilt University. During the next 25 years I worked as a professional songwriter on Nashville’s Music Row, then later as a singer-songwriter, releasing my own albums and touring folk clubs in the United States and Europe.
In the late 2000’s, I enrolled in a master’s program at my original alma mater. During a course on the history of the Caribbean, I wrote a research paper on Trinidad and Tobago. During the process, I was introduced to a multicultural nation with a musical tradition that surprised me with its depth and richness. In particular I was drawn to the calypso musical style, which originated on the island. Its ability to tell a story and elevation of word craft were similar to aspects of country songwriting that I have admired and practiced. A classmate with experience as a Fulbright adviser told me about the program and encouraged me to apply.
As I began considering a Fulbright, I started making contacts and learning as much as I could about the music and culture of Trinidad and Tobago. I joined the university steel band (steel band, or “pan,” also originated there). The band’s director put me in touch with a faculty member at the University of Trinidad and Tobago, who was also from middle Tennessee. I ultimately rented the second bedroom of his apartment for the duration of my grant. The apartment, in which I now sit, overlooks the Savannah, a large park in Port of Spain and the site of the big musical competitions during Carnival.
My professor for the Caribbean history course—a two-time Fulbright recipient himself—suggested that I make a visit to my potential host country to demonstrate that I was serious and to develop contacts. Following his suggestion, I traveled to Trinidad and Tobago at my own expense for a week in the spring of 2014, met with faculty members at the two universities that might serve as host institutions, visited the National Library, the National Archives, and more.
The central part of any Fulbright application is the project. Mine has both research and teaching components. Interviews with calypso composers, including Supie, about their writing methods comprises my research. To date I’ve conducted nine interviews, asking questions that range from how a writer is influenced by his or her community to what time of day and place are most productive for writing. Transcriptions of the interviews will reside in Vanderbilt University’s Global Music Archives and be available online to researchers of calypso and fans alike.
Teaching is the second component of my project. I taught a class at the University of Trinidad and Tobago’s Academy of Performing Arts on the Nashville Number System, the musical shorthand developed by Nashville session players. In addition to teaching students how to read and write numbers charts, I used the system as a springboard for discussing chord theory, song form, and comparing country and calypso. Fulbright recipients are to consider how their work abroad might increase understanding at home. I plan to bring calypso back to Nashville via live performances by a calypso singer for students, and to create classroom materials for them.
The competition for Fulbright grants can be stiff, depending on the country and number of grants it offers. My first-year application made it to the final round of the selection process, but wasn’t chosen. The second year, I didn’t get that far. I continued to refine my application, and in the third year, I was successful.
My grant lasts for four months, divided into two separate segments. When I arrived in Trinidad and Tobago for the first segment in September 2017, things quickly fell into place. My shared apartment is a 10-minute walk from the school. I was able to find a gym, church, grocery, and a barber shop, along with several, good inexpensive restaurants, within walking distance. I didn’t have access to a car, but I was grateful to find that Trinidad and Tobago has DropTaxi, a local version of Uber, as well as Uber itself, making getting around economical and easy.
Teaching and conducting interviews has kept me busy, but music is what brought me here, and I’ve heard a variety of styles in a short amount of time. As the focus of my project is calypso, I’ve seen performances by several calypso artists, some of whom I’ve interviewed. Steel bands maintain individual practice areas, known as pan yards, that are often open to the public. I can stroll around my neighborhood and hear several steel bands rehearsing in an evening. I’ve also heard tassa drumming (one of the traditions imported from India) in a procession celebrating the Muslim holiday of Hosay. Recently I attended a portion of a seven-hour, 10-band, festival of parang, a Spanish-influenced music that is traditionally performed in the months leading up to Christmas. Played on acoustic instruments, parang is wonderfully groove-laden.
I’ve also explored the nation’s beauty and history. One morning I visited a private hummingbird sanctuary in the mountains where 13 of the island’s 15 hummingbird species zoomed around. Another day I took a bus to the central part of the island, an area that once featured extensive sugarcane and cocoa plantations. The plantations were originally worked by African slaves, and later, by indentured laborers brought from India. At one location, we passed Muslim, Christian, and Hindu cemeteries that adjoined one another, a perfect metaphor for Trinidad and Tobago’s multicultural nature. The country’s national anthem recognizes this: “Here every creed and race find an equal place, and may God bless our nation.”
For a complete picture of Trinidad and Tobago, I must also mention its high crime rate and the struggles of its petroleum-dependent economy as a result of the recent downturn in oil prices. The residents are resilient, however, and remain fiercely devoted to their country—and perpetually skeptical of their politicians.
One of the most fulfilling experiences during my grant has been with calypsonian Clevin “Lord Surpriser” Romero. Less well-known than some of his contemporaries and relatively unrecorded, Surpriser, who will turn 87 in February, still wakes up in the morning thinking about new calypsos. After our interview, I arranged for the Carnival Institute of Trinidad and Tobago, an institution that preserves information related to the country’s festivals, to film Surpriser as he performed. I also plan to write about Surpriser to increase the number of people who know about his art and artistry.
Looking back, I couldn’t have predicted any of these things, but the interests that led me to Supie’s living room are the same ones that brought me to Berklee 40 years ago. I don’t see that changing. As Surpriser says in one of his calypsos, “And when I dead, I done.”