There is a curious practice in the Caribbean that could not possibly exist in the US. Or anywhere else for that matter. Whenever a calypsonian becomes the inevitable favorite to win a contest, people start calling for him to step down.
Dominance of any kind is considered unfair. The thinking is that all calypso singers should have an equal chance of winning a contest, and when someone becomes the inevitable winner, the playing field is no longer perceived as level. So when performers like the Mighty Sparrow or David Rudder came to ascendance, at some point folks started grumbling for them to step down. So powerful is this cultural expectation that they both did.
Officially, dominant performers have every right to enter any contest they chose. But unofficially it is understood that they had better not because audiences would be most unhappy. And so, usually at the point at which their dominance peaks, they start being pressured to give others a chance. Or to paraphrase John McEnroe during his post-match interview of Federer, they start feeling that it is time to throw the other guy a bone.
This tendency has persisted in the world of calypso. Dominant performers are encouraged to find other lucrative ways of earning an income. In fact, it is assumed that they should have no difficulty filling concert halls and putting out CDs. But competing for money is not a welcome option.
Of course from time to time one encounters a performer who refuses to play by these cultural rules. Iwer George and the Mighty Chalkdust (Chalkie) are two performers who have dared to continue to compete despite loud grumblings asking them to disappear. It takes guts to go against the cultural mores. You have to admire the thickness of their skin.
This is what I thought about at two different moments in the aftermath of Federer’s history-making performance today. The second time I had these thoughts was when McEnroe made the comment that I already referenced above. The first time was when Federer was being interviewed by the BBC and seemed to be trying his best to be empathetic towards his opponent.
Federer recalled his own tears at past painful losses and offered encouraging words to Roddick. In response, Roddick let out his inner churl and shouted to Federer something to the extent that that was easy for Federer to say because he already had five previous wins.
As is said in the Caribbean, it was a low class moment. But I understood the level of pain behind it and the momentary resentment that inspired it. I also understood that this is part of the thinking behind the rejection of dominance in the world of calypso. Everyone likes a winner, but when that winner starts becoming predictable, inevitable, then there emerges a cultural consensus that it is time to step down and stop causing other competitors unnecessary pain.
So I was shocked when McEnroe made that comment to Federer today, asking him jokingly to throw Andy a bone next year. It was such a Trini moment. And I thought, wow, even though he's dressed like one, that Federer is damn lucky he’s not a calypsonian yes.