Calypsonian Helon Francis: From Paradise to Pain

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A report from Trinidad’s Guardian.

“The calypso audience, specifically the audience at Skinner Park for Kaiso Fiesta, is harsh, no nonsense and without mercy.”

 “They are a very discerning crowd,” says 23-year-old calypsonian Helon Francis.

He chuckles while thinking about the audience he faced for the first time four years ago, when he performed his song Stalwart at the semifinals of the Calypso Monarch competition in Skinner Park, San Fernando.

“They don’t make joke. Anything they don’t like they let you know immediately. They are real and definitely the cornerstone area of calypso in T&T,” Francis said.

“So the Kaiso Fiesta audience is scary?” I ask.

His voice lowers to a whisper. “Of course, they are scary.”

We sit on coloured plastic chairs in the lobby at the University of T&T (UTT), National Academy of Performing Arts (NAPA) campus in Port-of-Spain.

A few minutes before Francis walks in, steelpan rhythms start and stop repeatedly from a nearby classroom.A young man reading music from a wide open folder softly strums his guitar.

A few students smack a miniature ball with wooden paddles, at a table nearby.Standing next to this group of students is a former monarch, Roderick “Chucky” Gordon, chatting with a group of students.

Well-respected author Earl Lovelace opens the door, wearing a white shirt and light-colored trousers, his satchel draped across his body and proceeds to sit at a nearby chair.

In this small space, there is creativity everywhere.

From a doorway, dressed in a purple tee with a hat covering his hair, is Francis, the second place finalist at last year’s Calypso Monarch competition.

I’m impressed before I meet him. His songs of last year, both of them- Real Bandits and Paradise- sucker-punched me to get my attention.The comments on the Youtube video of his performance show hundreds of people who profess either a love for his voice or his lyrics.

The smooth-voiced singer, who most said deserved to win last February, though he certainly doesn’t say this, is happy to point out that the actual winner was his cousin Devon Seales.

Francis started his formal foray into the calypso world as a shy youngster at Newtown Boys’ RC School.

In primary school he entered the junior category of the National Schools Calypso Monarch Competition and never made it to the finals of the event.

In his last year competing in the schools competition for Woodbrook Secondary, he placed second. The following year, he nervously walked on to the Skinner Park stage.

“I think if any calypsonian could tell you about their most terrifying time, I think they would talk about Skinner Park. I’m talking about where there is probably the most nerves.

“The Skinner Park audience will make it clear to you at that moment, whether they accept what you are doing or not. It’s like the hook from those old movies, that embarrassing moment when the hook comes out and pulls you off the stage. And you have to have the belly to take it. That is what the audience is like,” Francis says.

That first year, Francis had walked onto the stage following a performance by a shunned Sugar Aloes, a performance which saw roti and toilet paper flung onto the stage.

Francis recalls seeing toilet paper on the stage as he walked on.

“That is the most terrifying stage I’ve ever been on. Skinner Park is terrifying. I swear, it’s scary. Now I’ve grown confidence, but the first time, it was terrifying.”

He laughs.

“The young boy who just cross over from juniors, with my first appearance at Skinner Park, looking on and seeing roti and toilet paper pelting and people waving like they going crazy. I think I was shocked into understanding what it was. I had been there before.

“Of course, I had been there before but I had never seen it happen like that from backstage so close. I never saw it from that point of view.”

Calypso is life

Calypso has been a part of Francis’ life for as long as he can remember.

“I remember once going to look at my aunty Singing Sonia in the queens competition, then it was in Globe and I wasn’t yet ten years old. I remember she was competing against Denyse Plummer. I looked at her perform, the joy in her.

“It is a clear moment in my memory though I cannot remember what song she sang, but I remember one side of her clothes was red and the other side was blue. When she was finished there was such joy on her face. I remember that joy.”

He said that as he got older he started to appreciate calypso more.

“When everyone was listening to dancehall alone and only interested in Mavado, I was still interested in calypso. I would sing calypso, which was odd to my peers, so I got talk about it sometimes.”

He said his love of calypso doesn’t surpass his love of other music.

“I like the other music just as much as I like calypso.”

He doesn’t seem very convincing. I ask what type of music equals to calypso. He thinks about it.

“I’m probably lying, I don’t like other music as much as I like calypso. But I like other music as well.

“I’m a music lover but I’m rooted with calypso. I feel like calypso is the mother music and people don’t realise it.

“Calypso is life. The way you speak and play on words, the way you say something, the stories. It is an entire reflection of life. I just think calypso overall touches everyone.”

It touched him and hasn’t let go.

Despite the many achievements that followed, Francis said his favourite calypso moment was his second place performance at the junior competition.

“That was the first moment of reward and feeling of accomplishment and there is nothing like the first feeling.

“Placing second made me feel like I worked for that and I saw what I was working for and from there, the work got serious. I started doing my own research.

“I started the Bachelor of Fine Arts in Performing Arts with a specialisation in music at UTT and I was very serious about my music.”

Truth people don’t really see

Last year was Francis’ first time at the Calypso Monarch finals as a competitor. He tells me he was nervous but that he puts a lot of trust in prayer and prayer helped.

“When I was done praying, I figured how this thing was supposed to go was how it would go. What’s meant to happen would happen and I put my best foot forward.”

While performing he tries to make sure that he represents youth.

“I’m kind of one of the first in a while to grace the finals stage and there are a whole lot of other young conscious calypsonians who would love to make their mark also and I figure that those of my generation or this point in time that I am a part of, I’m somewhat of a representation of them so I also cannot disappoint them.”

With that pressure added to his own nerves walking on to the stage, he felt the weight of his task.

“But there was also something that happened when I was on stage that took my performance to a different point.

“I started enjoying performing the song that I had written. There is no feeling that can compare to that when it comes to performing, when you enjoy what you created and what came from your heart.”

While last year’s Paradise was rife with the type of sarcasm that moves and dances until it cuts, this year’s Pain tackles issues head-on.

“I think my music this year represents the reflection of the poor man and a piece of what people don’t see on an everyday basis.

“A lot of people talk about something that affects us all the time. I prefer to show the truth people don’t really see,” he says.

“This message is directly to the doctor,” he tells me.

“The message is to understand the people that you dealing with. To understand how they would react to certain things.

“I understand that you would try your best but you have to understand how things affect and what was already bad it has become worse.”

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