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By 10:45 p.m. on June 16, supporters and hecklers are 200 thick at Studio 15 in Brentwood, Md. Sitting and standing in a hall lit only by string lights, the mob looks to a stage decorated with regal red fabric, a colorfully painted canvas, and D.C. Caribbean Carnival commemorative posters. “Carnivalitis” hangs high in the air tonight, the night of the D.C. Calypso Monarch Competition—and not only because defending Calypso Queen Faith Nelson is singing that song.
Tonight, after performing two songs, one out of the eight contenders will reign supreme over D.C.’s calypso world, and the others will bow.
Well, not really. The vibes at this show of vocal ability are so chummy—”One love!” an organizer notes—that as things get under way, some of the competitors are helping each other with background vocals or solos on the steel drum. Tunes range from tributes to the late calypsonian Lord Kitchener to comments on young people today to a musical statement against domestic violence.
Panmasters Steel Orchestra is sponsoring the competition for its third year. This year’s location is new; since its beginning, the contest-cum-festival has outgrown the orchestra’s rehearsal space, where the last two competitions were held. In the tradition of Trinidad’s ongoing calypso contests, the organizers of this week’s annual Caribbean Carnival are steadily expanding events to highlight the skills of local calypsonians. The difference, it seems, is that D.C.’s calypso “tent” is more of a breeding ground for those new to the art form than the Caribbean version, which features more established singers. Unlike the Caribbean competitors, none of the locals sing calypso for a living. But by donning stage names such as Lady K, Shortmus, and Preacher—as well as work-of-art costumes and an undying supply of acting skills—every summer they manage to pull off the event.
“Press-shah!” someone yells in approval of Preacher’s grand entrance. As he struggles to the stage with legs and back bent in simulated agony, his head, like those of his backup singers, is banded tight in a white head wrap. His second tune, “Gimme de Water,” finds them all in construction hats, and Preacher gets doused in the middle of the fray with bottles of spring water. “Who don’t hear with they ear, go feel with they rear,” warns Lady K in “Save the Children,” brandishing her index finger and clutching a large handbag during a song dedicated to her grandmother. Trini Rollo, dressed in his national colors of red, white, and black, makes the audience hoot and holler as he spreads his legs and toes apart during “Pan Party.” The show-stopper is Mutema, aka Lennard Jack. Not only does he render two lyrically and musically complex songs— “Kitchener’s Legacy” and “Doh Watch Me”—of his own authorship, he plays the pan during other musicians’ songs, wrote lyrics for them, and plays the drum. He is rewarded with the title of monarch and awarded a gold trophy and a cash prize. Mutema and first runner-up Trini Rollo will advance to other competitions to defend their calypso titles, in Baltimore and, possibly, New York.—Ayesha Morris
Mutema and Trini Rollo perform with Image Band, Panmasters Steel Orchestra, and Burning Flames, at Banneker Field, Barry Place and Georgia Avenue NW on Sunday, June 25, noon-7 p.m. Free. For more information, call (202) 726-2204 or go to www.dccaribbeancarnival.com.