Extempo, Mepris, War Calypsos | Trinidad & Tobago

Photo via Adobe Stock Free Graphics.
What is Extempo?  Extempo is an art form practiced in the islands of Trinidad and Tobago. The art-form is also known as "Extempore", "Mepris" and "War Calypsos". It is a calypso competition where two or more singers improvise lyrics to deride (in most cases) the opposing singer. This can be a lot of fun and is done in a very slow and deliberate style. In the early period the singing developed in the stick fighting (Calinda or Kalinda) arena accompanied by drumming rhythms.

This form of calypso may have started during the formative years of the art form. One must remember that the Africans who were enslaved and put to labor in the islands of the Caribbean were not permitted to communicate with each other. As a result, they sang as a form of communicating their thoughts about the abuse of the slave masters and lament their cause. This was done in the call and response style of the West African Griots, and this essentially replaced personal conversations that were banned by the slave masters in an effort to control the enslaved people. 

One has to take into account the act of the Cedula of Population in 1783 that allowed migration to Trinidad with the offer of free land. Most of the new immigrants were fleeing unrest from some of the French populated islands (Haiti, Martinique, Guadeloupe, Grenada, etc). It is reported in the history of Trinidad that in 1784 a slave named Gros Jean was brought to Trinidad from the island of Martinique by his master Bergorrat. Gros Jean was given the title of 'Mait Caiso' (Master of Caiso) in 1790 because of his singing abilities. This is the first instance of the word 'Caiso' that I have seen and could be the forerunner of the term Kaiso or even Calypso (we really don't know and there is so much speculation).

The songs that were sung during this period were not calypso, as we know it today, but they were the beginning of the art form and were sung in patios. Gros Jean was a griot and led the singing with the traditional African call and response style. This could be referenced as the beginning of the extempore style of calypso singing. Of course, the slave owners probably enjoyed listening to the singers trading insults at each other during that period. The calypso art form really blossomed when English started replacing patios as the major spoken language.

To expand the conversation we must also take into consideration the impact of the Panyols who came from Venezuela. Their music impacted the calypso art form as did the French Carnival and music.

The following was sourced from Wikipedia:
Extempo (also extempo calypso) is a lyrically improvised form of calypso and is most notably practiced in Trinidad and Tobago. It consists of a performer improvising in song or in a rhythmic speech on a given theme before an audience who themselves take turns to perform. It is inherently competitive and success is judged by the wit and ingenuity of the performance.

It is similar in form to what has been defined as a traditional African song: "a recitative or chants with a short chorus. The soloist gives the melody while a chorus sings a refrain. As the melody is given out, they turn to one another, each improvising in turn. Extempo tends to comprise topics from current events treated with mockery, ridicule, and sarcasm, or with flattery or praise.”

The Art of Extempo
It is characterized either by the “single tone”, consisting of four-line stanzas, or the “double tone”, which has eight-line stanzas. There are four basic melodies common to extempo; “Santimanitay”, “Matilda”, “Miss Mary Ann” and “Big Bamboo.” The most widely used is Santimanitay. Another characteristic of extempo is that the performer must be able to think quickly on his feet since the subjects are handed out on the spot and the lyrics are improvised.

Extempo War
The competitive nature of extempo is reflected in the annual Trinidad Carnival with a formal extempore competition for the title of National Extempo Monarch. Extempo War, or warring, is the practice of competitors attacking each other's efforts at extempo in the course of their own performance. It is not an essential part of the competition but is a regular feature and an entertaining one.

Extempo war may also be called simply Calypso War.
Not all extempo performance is competitive. Away from competition formal roles for extempo performers are typical as MCs or hosts at private functions.

Related oral/musical traditions
It is similar to the United States tradition of 'yo mama' or the dozens in its competitive aspect but may be distinguished in that the aim is not to improvise humorous abuse to an opponent incorporating a given form of words but to entertain an audience of one's competitors while extemporizing on a given theme. The abuse or sarcasm may be directed either at one's competitors or at subjects relevant to that theme, ideally both.
It is also similar to the United States tradition of freestyle rap.

Notable Extempo Artists
Big B
Black Sage
Lady Africa
Lord Relator (Willard C. Harris)
Shortpants (Llewllyn Macintosh

Post a Comment

Your comments can also become a Post!