Scrubbing the Bench | Calypso Tents in Trinidad

Image via by Sebastian Bouknight/Befunky Artwork 
Today we are heading back to the well from which today's Carnival music originated, Calypso! Calypso music blossomed in Trinidad and spread to the rest of the English-speaking Caribbean islands during the early 19th century. Century. Calypso is well documented in Trinidad and Tobago, and, for this post, we will focus on the Calypso tent. 

Now that we have punted on the topic, let's get to it. We are focused on a term familiar to Calypsonians who perform in calypso tents during Carnival season. Let's do some housekeeping on Calypso tents before addressing the main topic up for discussion. In Trinidad, the first Calypso tent opened in Port-of-Spain in 1921; it was the "Railway Douglas Tent". Those Calypsonians who wanted fame organized and joined a tent to sing their songs. Calypso tents (temporary sites during carnivals) became very popular with singers hoping to get on stage. Newbies and wannabes and even some regulars found themselves 'on the bench' waiting and hoping to be called upon to perform on any given night. That was the way it worked during the glory days of Calypso and Calypso Tents! Fast forward to the present day where Calypso tents are not as popular as they were prior to Soca music. Calypso thrives in Trinidad, but you will not know if you listen to the local radio station. This is except WACK Radio 90.1 FM. Many have 'scrubbed the bench' and many have risen to the top after paying their dues 'on the bench'.

As mentioned previously, "The Bench" existed during the glory days of Calypso but let's quote one calypsonian, "Heart Lion" for an informative inside view of the topic: "There was literally a bench at the back of the stage and, night after night, many artists just sat there hoping to be called on stage... so literally speaking, their tails (backsides) were like scrubbing the bench. At 'Kaiso Showkase', we felt it was disrespectful, so we selected a cast where all the artists performed each night".

So there you have it, "The Bench" at the Calypso tent was a physical bench where prospective Calypsonians, hoping to perform on a given night, sat and waited to be called to perform. "Scrubbing the bench" was a term used to describe the nervous and fidgety nature of the 'prospective and hopeful artists' waiting to be called to appear on stage to entertain the bespoke audience. 

As with everything in life, as we progress as a society, attitudes and tenets change. Some change is positive, but not all change is worthwhile. Kaiso Showkase adopted a progressive view by physically eliminating the bench and the stigma of its divisive nature. Having said that, being on 'The Bench' meant you had to be better at your craft to become the next man or woman up... c'est la vie!

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Music/Production Notes:
Video Title: Celebrating 100 Years of the Calypso Tent Virtual Concert 2021
Presented by: Ministry of Tourism Culture & the Arts + TUCO (Trinidad & Tobago Unified Calypsonians Organization

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Gailos said…
Very nice history summary.