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Spoofs & Satire

Calypso Now

With the U.S. military engaged in multiple battles around the world, it’s time to revisit that haunting classic of war and steel-drum cinema, Apocalypso Now.

Julio Bittencourt, Ramos 15, 2008. Courtesy of the artist and 1500 Gallery, NYC.

Bucky: [voice-over] Nassau... shit; I’m still only in Nassau. Every time I think I’m gonna wake up back on the Emerald Princess.

[swats at flying insect]

Bucky: [voice-over] When I was home after working my first cruise, it was worse. I’d wake up and there’d be nothing, no steelpan strapped to my waist, no pansticks in my hands. I was an empty papaya, scooped out and left to rot. When I was here, I wanted to be playing on a ship; when I was on a ship, all I could think of was figuring out how to stay. I’m here a week now, waiting for a boat to show up, getting softer. Every day some other pannist is out there pounding out the calypso for clumsy Midwesterners on the Lido Deck, he gets stronger.

 

Cruise Director Hawley: I want you to join up with the band Calypso Sunshine when the Princess docks here next week. On the cruise is a man from New York, a man named Michael Stubbs.

Bucky: The music critic?

Cruise Director Hawley: Yes. Play with the band while the Princess sails to Aruba; learn what you can about Stubbs along the way. When you find him, change his mind about calypso music by whatever means available. You’ve got to make him limbo.

Bucky: Make him limbo, sir?

Cruise Director Hawley: He’s out there writing about calypso music without any decent restraint, totally beyond the pale of any acceptable human conduct. He’s waging a personal war on the musical heart of the Caribbean cruise and all-inclusive resort industries.

Assistant Cruise Director: Make him limbo with extreme prejudice.

Cruise Director Hawley: You understand, Bucky, that this assignment does not exist, nor will it ever exist.

 

Bucky: [voice-over] Calypso Sunshine’s members were mostly kids, Carnival junkies with one foot in the grave. The bongo player, the one they called Daddy Lover Lover, was from Grenada. He was wrapped too tight for the Princess; probably wrapped too tight for Grenada. Sugar, on the trombone, was a famous player from the slums of Port-Of-Spain. One look at him and you wouldn’t believe he ever picked up a trombone his whole life. Patty–Peppermint Patty–was from some Dominican shithole, and the light and space of being in a floating city on the open sea really put the bazodee on him. Then there was Mister Boom, the vocalist and band’s leader. It might have been my assignment, but it sure as shit was the Boom’s band.

 

Sugar: Swimming with dolphins? Fuck, man, this is better than swimming with dolphins!

 

Mister Boom: Smell that? You smell that?

Sugar: What?

Mister Boom: Conga, son. Nothing else in the world smells like that.

[kneels]

Mister Boom: I love the smell of a conga line in the morning. You know, one time we had a conga line going for 12 hours. When it was all over, Daddy Lover Lover laid down his drums. No one was left standing, not one stinkin’ pale tourist body. The smell they make, you know that sweaty, pork-like smell, the whole room. Smelled like—

[sniffing, pondering]

Mister Boom: victory. You know some day this ship’s gonna dock…

[walks off]

 

Bucky: [voice-over] Part of me was afraid of what I would do when I got to Stubbs. I knew the risks. What if he tried to change my mind about calypso? What if he actually had a good point? The thing I felt the most, much stronger than fear, was the desire to confront him, to play for him, to bathe him in the warm, harmonic rays of Calypso Sunshine.   

 

Mister Boom: What the hell do you know about rhythm, [looks at nametag] Steve? You’re from goddamned Minneapolis!

 

You have to have players who are moral, who will play without regard for the hordes demanding entertainment, who will look the other way when someone screams for a Belafonte song. Belafonte! It’s Belafonte that defeats us.

Stubbs: These men who sent you here to find me, what did they tell you about me?

Bucky: They told me that you want to destroy calypso.

Stubbs: And you believe them. You believe them because you are like them. You want to entertain these people.

Bucky: I want them to love calypso.

Stubbs: You’ve forgotten what calypso is. I expected they would send someone like you. What did you expect me to be? Are you a band leader?

Bucky: I’m a steel pan man.

Stubbs: You’re neither. You’re a village boy, sent to collect coconuts for some fat chief’s table.

 

Stubbs: I’ve seen limbos, limbos that you’ve seen. But you have no right to judge me. Calypso—calypso has a face…but it’s not the face you see here when you play for these people. I remember when I played with the band PANic Attack—seems a hundred centuries ago. That’s right, I played calypso! I was studying abroad in Trinidad, and I took to the pans like they were oxygen. We went down to the docks one day to meet a boat, the biggest boat I’d ever seen, and we played for the tourists coming down the gangway. They loved us, you know how they do, and this little boy, he couldn’t have been seven years old, he came up to me and he said he wanted to grow up to play steel drums like me. I was elated, about to respond when his father grabbed him and said, “You can’t play calypso at home in St. Louis. It’s a joke. These guys are dirty clowns. Do you want to be a dirty clown?” And the boy was laughing because now he was amused by us. And I remember: I—I cried, I wept like some old woman. I wanted to cut my hands off, the hands holding those filthy sticks! I can’t forget that. I don’t ever want to forget that. Because it hit me, like an arrow, like a golden arrow shot through my brain. And I thought, my God, he’s right! These people don’t dance because they feel the calypso supernova, the sparkle of a pan hit with the force of a million beautiful comets. They dance because it amuses them, because they want to laugh and yell “Day-O” and stuff their faces with six kinds of shrimp. Your precious calypso, my precious calypso, it’s become nothing more than the soundtrack to an amusement ride. Do you see that? Give me ten bands of pan men, good players who understand, and I will change the face of calypso very quickly. You have to have players who are moral, who will play without regard for the hordes demanding entertainment, who will look the other way when someone screams for a Belafonte song. Belafonte! It’s Belafonte that defeats us.

 

Bucky: [voice-over] If the cruise directors back in Nassau could hear what I heard, would they still want me to make him limbo? More than ever, probably. But he knew I wouldn’t do it, knew it before I knew myself. The limbo is a prison and we keep locking ourselves in it, night after night. I’d never seen a man look so torn apart at the opening call of “Banana Boat Song.” His sad, fucked-up face. I can’t get it out of my head.

 

Stubbs: [voice-over] The limbo... the limbo...

Sloan Schang is a writer and photographer based in Portland, Ore. He co-creates a line of greeting cards called Tinder Mill and has contributed to McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Outside, McSweeney’s Quarterly, Hobart’s, and Wend, among many others.  He can be found online here. More by Sloan Schang