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Thora Best: proud calypso ‘mama’

FLASHBACK: Thora Best beams with her Hummingbird Medal (gold), awarded for National Development and Public Service at the National Awards ceremony held on Republic Day 2017. Photo: Elmo Griffith.

By Lara Pickford-Gordon, lpgordon.camsel@rcpos.org

Thora Best, the current chair of the Trinbago Unified Calypsonians’ Organisation (TUCO) Junior Calypso Committee describes herself as a “proud mama” for the young men and women going on to shine in the national calypso monarch competition having graduated from the junior event.

In the VIP Lounge of the Queen’s Park Savannah January 23, at the launch of the TUCO/First Citizens’ National Junior Calypso Monarch Competition, Best related when 2018 reigning monarch Helon Francis sang backup for his sister, the St Theresa’s RC calypso monarch, he did so reluctantly as he was shy. Best said before performing he would say he did not want to sing, and once hid under a table.

In 2012, the top five contestants came out of the juniors: “So it means all the juniors beat out all the seniors,” she said with a broad smile. That year the Calypso Monarch title was won by Duane O’Connor Snr, with second to fifth positions held by Kurt Allen, Karene Asche, Devon Seales and Heather McIntosh.

Best is an educator, spending many years in the education system as a teacher then principal.  She has been involved in the Junior Calypso Monarch since it was put under the auspices of TUCO in the 1990s.

Culturally active

An appreciation of local culture was inculcated from childhood. Her father, Winston GE Best was once the Chairman of the Uptown Carnival Improvement Committee. Before this, he was a member of the Carnival Development Committee (CDC) the organisation which preceded the National Carnival Commission (NCC). She said her mother worked as an usher at the Queen’s Park Savannah.

One of the family outings was to panyards. Best said, “I grew up on Ana Street,Woodbrook. We had Starlift Steel Orchestra and Invaders and it used to be a walk. We would go and listen to pan one night and another [steel band] the other night.”

Her grandmother “was a good storyteller” often sharing ‘Anancy Stories’ and local history: “My grandmother told me stories about (labour leader Tubal Uriah ‘Buzz’) Butler and that is how the culture was passed on to me.” Best said because of discussions at home, her daughter also knew a lot by the time she went to school.

When she was 12, Best and her family moved to Morvant. In 1974, she became a teacher at “culturally active” St Dominic’s RC, Morvant under Principal Randolph Nathu. A stage was set up in the school and classes paraded as bands for Carnival. She started a folk choir and choral speaking for pupils.

When Junior Calypso started in 1976, Best said George Martin, another teacher involved with the choir, wrote calypsoes for students. The school had success in the competitions with pupils Andrew Baptiste, Vanetta Adams, and Natasha Wilson, a national monarch finalist. Also going on to the adult competition were Sonia Francis aka ‘Singing Sonia’ and Alana Sinnette aka ‘Lady Watchman’.

Best was invited to be part of the junior calypso committee formed by TUCO in 1997 when the NCC divested the management of calypso and Carnival to the respective interest groups. She became the committee’s head when Danny Gittens, a school supervisor, opted out when he retired.

Calypso in the classroom

She is a proponent of using Calypso to teach in the classroom. Best refers to a calypso Martin wrote titled ‘Teach me by Calypso’; the calypsoes of the late Winston Bailey aka ‘Shadow’ and David Rudder are “poetry”.

“If you use the calypsoes as poetry, it is wonderful and remember it is the children’s culture; it is coming out of them…We express ourselves through calypso; we put the beat to it; and if you use that as the jumping off to teach the other things…” Best said.

The Committee runs a ten-day camp during the July-August school break which teaches stage craft, word craft, history of calypso, women in calypso, composition etc.

She said social commentary themes are often the focus of many calypsoes in the junior competition. Participants are encouraged to sing on other things. There are 12 categories to choose from including preservation of the environment, Gospelypso, and HIV/AIDS. A new category ‘Calypso Legends (Alive or Dead)’ has been added.

“To me this is not work. To me this is leisure…a way of giving back because I see the development of these children. I see how they mature, their self-confidence is improved, and I feel so proud of that,” Best said.

They overcome shyness—like Helon Francis—to having stage presence; they begin writing their own songs, like Deslie Julien of St Mary’s College who also wrote songs for competitors last year.

Some children are eager to go on stage like Aaron Duncan. Best said from the age of three, Duncan wanted to perform. He came with his parents to support his sister Jaylana in the competition.

At five years, a song was written for him and he was on stage. He also had “the cute factor”. Best added, “…the way that child commands the stage, he rivals any senior…So we think of the topics they sing about, the manner they present themselves could rival all the seniors.”

Duncan won the Junior Monarch title 2010–2012 and 2015. He has also won the Junior Chutney Soca Monarch five times, and is the reigning monarch.

The junior Calypso show does not always have support by some parents because Calypso is viewed as a distraction, against the Bible and not of Christ. Best said she does not try to convince these parents otherwise. The junior committee members have even been verbally abused and taken to court for the results of the competition although they are not involved in the judging.

Best lives by the mantra ‘to whom much is given, much is expected’, having been blessed she has to pass on to others. “We get our talent, everything from God and we cannot hide our talent under a bushel. If you have a talent and I have the ability to encourage that talent, that is how I see it,” she said.