An Amerindian, in fact a Carib presence, haunts the origins of calypso in Trinidad. Over the last 100 years or so, this presence has been thickly overlaid by an Afro-French veneer, displacing this strand that forms a rich and significant part of the fabric that is part and parcel of our national festival. The story goes like this.
The Caribs had all but faded away from Trinidad by the 1840s. They had been wiped out with the advent of western civilisation and their remnant had retreated to Venezuela. With the arrival of the cocoa planters of the 1870s to the 1890s, they had faded back into the wilderness of the Northern Range and had drifted into urban life. This is where we pick up a little-known story, which Mitto Sampson in his paper on calypso legends recounts.
Jo Jo was the son of Thunderstone, who was the chantwell of a band called the Congo Jockos, that once dominated upper Nelson Street. He was reputed to have lost his wife Cariso Jane to Surisima the Carib, a well-known calypso singer. Jo Jo, in his 90s, told Mitto in 1947 about Surisima the Carib. The word cariso, by which term calypso was known prior to the 1890s, is descended from the Carib term “Carieto,” meaning a joyous song. Surisima was famous also as a folklorist and raconteur. He would be paid by people to come to their homes to tell stories of long ago. He was a wayside historian in the style of the late Jose Ramon Fortune, Harry Pitts and Alfredo Codallo. Whenever he spoke, people gathered.
Jo Jo possessed the Carib tradition. Carietos, he said, could heal the sick with music, embolden the warrior and seduce the beautiful. It is said that during the reign of the cacique Guamatumane in Spanish times (before 1797), singers of carieto were rewarded with special gifts of land, and, apart from the caciques themselves, they also had the most beautiful ladies.
It is related that during the regime of the cacique Guancangari the two great singers were Dioarima, a tall, good-looking, powerful personality, and Casaripo, an “undersized weakling” who had a voice that was capable of making cowards brave, invigorating the poorly and calming the crazy.
Dioarima had two lovely daughters who were watched over day and night. One dark and windy night, a singer hid in the bushes and proceeded to sing several beautiful and hauntingly soulful songs. The songs had a very upsetting effect on the lovely daughters of Dioarima. The singer returned the following night and once again sang his haunting songs. The two girls slipped out into the night and met the singer in the high forest that surrounded the village in which they lived and went with him to Conquerabia (now Port of Spain). The three lived together for many years “in regal splendour”, and Dioarima was never able to get back his daughters.
When the Spaniards came to Trinidad, they heard of these wonderful singers whose voices spurred men to battle even in the face of fearful odds. According to Mitto Sampson, “they used bribery and clever manipulation and finally ambushed the two [singers] through the treachery of the Carib slave-woman Goziria. The singers were subjected to unspeakable tortures, and molten lead was poured down their throats.”
After Casaripo and Dioarima had been killed, the power of the Caribs began to fade in Trinidad until they were eventually conquered by the Spanish. Guandori, a famous stickman of the 1860s, was the last descendant of the daughters of Dioarima, the fabled singer. He was a great stickman in the tradition of Tiny Satan, Rocou John and Cutaway Rimboud.
“Surisima himself used to organise a procession of Carib descendants from the city of Port of Spain to the heights of El Chiqueno,” relates Mitto Sampson. “Up in the mountains of the Northern Range, they would make a huge figure of the Carib slave-woman Goziria, the betrayer of their ancestors, and burn this giant figure after much feasting, drinking and singing of obscene songs. The song remembered from those times went:
‘Cazi, cazi, cazi, cazi,
Dende, dende, dende, dariba.’”
Shiffer Brathwaite told Mitto Sampson that his father said that when the people sang this song, they remembered and felt the sorrow experienced by the Caribs for the loss and betrayal of Casaripo and Dioarima.