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Study traces political conflicts through Calypso

Everard Phillips’ book, The Political Calypso: A Sociolinguistic Process of Conflict Transformation, published by Personal Power Unlimited (2009) recognises the calypso as a syncretic popular art form.

It shows how the art form, which has been influenced and adapted by the experiences of enslaved Africans in the diaspora, has been fused in the vortex of plantation society so that today the calypso engages simultaneously in inviting and reflecting social movement.

The book addresses aspects of the role of the language of calypsos that offer commentary on the social, political and/or economic issues within Trinidad and Tobago.

In doing so, it questions whether by offering such commentary, these calypsos generate social interaction and ultimately drive Trinidadians and Tobagonians to think about prevailing issues.

It suggests that through this process, audiences can gain understanding, derive meaning and construct their own knowledge of the prevailing pathological situations within their country.

The book draws from the fields of dialogue theory, alternative dispute resolution and cultural studies, while also making a significant addition to the field of legal anthropology.

Illuminating the key processes that underlie calypsonians, singers of calypso, as agents of non-governmental political action, the book recognises its formal and informal modes of dispute resolution and notes its use as a community conflict management mechanism.

The author uses American philosopher Kenneth Burkes’ notion of “language as symbolic action” to explore aspects of the capacity of the calypsonian who skilfully frames a collective identity through the adroit use of emotion, coupled with appropriate narrative, to engage the political transformation that inevitably, is usually accompanied by aspects of social conflict.

Focusing on calypso music in this way, the book offers insights to how calypsos mediate the challenge for acknowledgement, equality and representation in Trinidad and Tobago. It brings to the fore the real meaning of American sociologist Charles Tilly’s statement: “Contentious conversations between challengers and powerholders.”

This approach is underpinned by the view that this type of calypso can animate public action.

The book goes on to address the question of whether audiences are better able to interpret their lived experiences, effect changes in their socio-economic and/or political behaviour and engage in a process of co-creation, managing their locally occurring conflicts.

In making out such a holistic case, the book illustrates the place of the caller, the word and the receiving audience. The reader is led by the author to note the deep and sustaining effect that the calypso deposits on the agents and agencies of conflicts in Trinidad and in the wider Caribbean.

* Curaçao artist Hellen Chirino-Roosberg reviewed The Political Calypso: A Sociolinguistic Process of Conflict Transformation, by Everard Phillips, at the recent Caribbean Studies Conference in Curaçao. Trinidad-born Phillips holds a PhD in dispute resolution from the London School of Economics.