When the African slaves began to arrive in small quantities, that is, before the French people brought them in greater numbers in the 1780’s, they had found a form of singing. They took up local songs and of course sang their own songs too. Sampson says “they introduced more pep, more vigour, more liveliness and more animation”.
Mitto Sampson was able to draw from the memories of “old timers”, such as famous sportscaster Ken Laughlin’s father and Tony de Boissière, who knew a lot about the French Creole tradition of the origins of calypso.
Long ago, in the 1780s, a certain Frenchman by the name of Begorrat had a big estate in Diego Martin. There were many caves up in the mountains, and “Lawa” (King) Begorrat used to hold court in one of them, “to which he would adjourn with his favourite slaves and guests on occasions and indulge in a variety of entertainments,” says Mitto. Well, that is putting it mildly!
In Begorrat’s courtly cave would be his African slave singers of “cariso” or “caiso”, which were usually sung ex temporare and were of a flattering nature, satirical or directed against unpopular neighbours or members of the plantation community, or else they were “mepris”, a term given to a war of insults waged between two or more expert singers.
Gros Jean, or Big John, was a slave belonging to the Begorrat family. He was the first of these bards or “chantwells” to be appointed master of caiso or “Maît Caiso”.
Begorrat was a man who had many wives. Whenever he was vexed, the women would send for Gros Jean to sing him back to serenity. Begorrat, it is said, liked to think of himself as a monster, pitiless, destructive, and terrifying. A patois song he liked went like this:
Begorrat est diab’la, c’est un
Begorrat est diab’la, c’est deux
Begorrat for, cruel et mauvais
Begorrat roi-la dans son pays.
Gros Jean and Begorrat had a close relationship, so close that one of the wives of Begorrat poisoned Gros Jean. It is said that when Begorrat heard the news of his death, he first fainted, then raged and cursed, then swore. He did not eat for three days. He had Gros Jean’s body wrapped in a flaming red cloth and put a gold cross on his forehead, and buried him in the family grave on the estate. Another chantwell on the estate sang:
Gros Jean, you have a voice like thunder
Your voice can raise my mother from the dead.
So So also had a real good voice and succeeded Grow Jean as Maît Caiso. Begorrat discovered him and promoted him to this high position. It was said of him that he had a taste for “wrinkled and decrepit women ... and making his house a cross between a hospital and a house of refuge”. Thus, bringing into the vocabulary of Patois the word “so so” for one who seeks lovers amongst the aged, he was known to be a good, generous and sometimes quite religious man. Begorrat had him sing terrible songs against his enemies, and in so doing met his death in a terrible manner that may not be described in theses pages. It is said that one of his murderers confessed on his deathbed, naming two others, Fouchet and Dardaine, who in turn were tortured to death in revenge.
The third great calypsonain that we know about is Papa Cochon (Daddy Pig). He is remembered perhaps more as a notorious obeah man. He had the power of finding gold. There was quite a quantity of buried treasure around Trinidad in the 1800s. People who had money, gold, silver, precious stones, would bury it in times of danger or if they had to go away for a while. Then, for various reasons, they would leave it. Sometimes they were killed or died otherwise. Papa Cochon, through his dreaming ability, is reported to have discovered large quantities of pirate gold for his masters on Manzanilla Beach and at Mucurapo. He whistled, and the birds flew to him. He prayed snakes to death and mad dogs grew docile in his presence. He is reputed to have saved the lives of many. He would concoct a potion made from the blood of a young female slave, the brain of a black cat, sea water and two dead crapauds. He could transfer the suffering from one person to another. While preparing for his obeah work, he ate snakes and dogs, slept in graveyards, allegedly to hold meetings with the dead. It is thought that he belonged to Henri “Diable” Boissière. When they came to Begorrat’s court to sing against rival chantwells, Begorrat always got predictions from Papa Cochon. One day, Papa Cochon was invited to sing at the estate of a certain French family whose name begins with “L”, and was never seen again. Rumours had it that he had been locked up in an underground room and starved to death.
On this manner ended the life of the third great calypsonian, Papa Cochon, arch gossiper and scandal monger, impostor and chantwell. It was said by Mitto Sampson that his scarlet life hung like a black cloud over the period of slavery.
The fourth famous chantwell, Danois (the Dane), was not a slave. He may have come from the Virgin Islands. We are now in the 1850s, and from then on, many chantwell’s names have come down to us. Possum, son of the slave Ofuba, Hannibal the Mulatto, Surisima the Carib, of whom we spoke earlier, and Cedric le Blanc, the famous white calypsonian. Picong was always on the rough side. Zandolie, for example, sang:
Hannibal, your mother was a prostitute
I am singing the truth.
Hannibal was born in jail.
Hannibal was the mulatto son of Soucoush Piwi and an African carterman. He enjoyed poking fun at black people. He himself was a dandified, fair-skinned man, with slicked-down hair, two-toned shoes, black walking stick with a silver handle, pin-striped suits and ruffled shirts. He sang:
Black and black make pure devil
Black and white make half angel.
Outside of the thin veneer of Victorian respectability, mostly imposed by the English upon themselves, Trinidad’s creole life was one of considerable social disorder. Rumours would sweep the town like the one of the nun and the leper.
Black, white and mixed-race people lived in an ongoing near orgy of six, crime, rum and ribald songs. This was placed against a highly developed sense of sin which as Catholics they cherished. All this had evolved in Trinidad from the heritage of slave dancing societies, and the relationships between masters and slaves, which eventually evolved into Carnival bands. One can say that with the arrival of the French planters, the history of Carnival may be divided into four phases, viz slavery, the time right after emancipation, the end of the 19th century and a period from the 1890s to after the First World War. Carnival in slavery days was a white people affair. After emancipation, the ex-slaves took it over, mostly with depictions of burning cane plantations. The end of the 19th century almost saw the end of Carnival, which only survived because of the pressure put upon it by the British authorities who felt sufficiently strong to want to impose their ways. The more they tried to stop it, the more is sprung to life. The advent of the 20th century gave Carnival an even more important audience. The emerging middle class loved it. In the period after the First World War, it was motorized, amplified and participated in by thousand of movie-goers. The transition from the mad old days of bambula and tamboo bamboo was made with the increasing addition of modern musical forms and instruments.
Wire masks imported from as far afield as Austria served to hide the faces of the respectable ladies. Bands were roped off to prevent intruders and eventually ended up on the backs of trucks.