Maria Bhola is a brilliant calypsonian whose lyrics are imbued with narratives that tackle social issues and advocate for the downtrodden with equal parts empathy and rage. When she delves into hard issues, she is not willing to simply make noise; in fact, according to Bhola, “When I sing, it must be that I have something to say.”
What separates Bhola from most is her love for the lyrics. This year she has penned two compositions. “No Entry”, which was written in October 2019 during the Caribbean Premier League (CPL) cricket. She was moved to write the song when she heard about the move Sunshine Snacks made to disbar local nuts vendors from selling their nuts in the Oval during the games.
Her other composition is titled “Carry On” which plays on the name Carrie-Ann. In this song she is highlighting sexual harassment in the workplace and drawing reference to a particular story that had been making headlines concerning a former government minister and the wrongful termination of his personal assistant.
30 years of calypso
Bhola is celebrating 30 years in calypso this year. She has been attached to the Divas Calypso Cabaret International for the past four years and this is her fourth consecutive year at Calypso Fiesta—the semi-final stage of the National Calypso Monarch competition—although she has had about but eight appearances overall at the Fiesta. Last year was her second appearance at the National Monarch finals.
She has won numerous regional and national titles but the ones that have meant the most to her thus far were National Calypso Queen (2007); two-time National Political Monarch (2007, 2017); and being the first ever National Young Composer Monarch (1999). The mother of two children ages 11 and six, is an entrepreneur with an events, decor and design business and the owner of a mobile spa.
Bhola recently spoke to Kitcharee about her 2020 contributions, her passion for the art form and her plans for the development of the art form. Although tackling the hard issues comes with some risk, it is a price she is willing to pay.
“‘Carry On’ is a song that highlights sexual harassment. Sexual harassment sadly seems commonplace in our society. It is almost as though women are expected to understand and accept that ‘this is how men act’. I strongly disagree with this notion.
“When I wrote ‘No Entry’, my heart went out to the nuts vendors who not only cannot compete with such large corporations but more importantly I felt that the very sanctity of our local culture was being tampered with. How can there be cricket in the Oval without the likes of our nuts men? Keith ‘Jumbo’ Martin posted a video about their plight and it went viral. A public outcry ensued and before long Kristine Thompson of Sunshine Snacks released the news that the ban was lifted due to public appeal,” Bhola said.
Something to say
How does she know when she has “hit the nail” on a topic? Well, Bhola said she is her biggest critic. “Once I am to the point of satisfaction then I know the product is worthy of sharing. I have opted on a few occasions to stay away from competing when I did not feel my contribution was up to standard. I am not willing to simply make noise. When I sing, it must be that I have something to say.”
She said getting comfortable with writing her lyrics took time. “I started writing at the age of eight. I very carefully observed certain calypsonians and composers. I studied both writing and performance styles. I considered what I like best and what made me comfortable. At one point I teamed up with a composer I was drawn to for assistance in terms of lifting my writing to the next level. I learned a lot from him. He started by fully writing for me, then we moved into collaborations where he would pen part and I would complete the song. Eventually the training wheels came off and I began doing it on my own again,” Bhola said.
Bhola said there is much work to be done. She is giving back to the art form through mentoring young people. “This year I decided to begin my process of mentoring by penning a calypso for a Junior Monarch contender by the name of Xavier Caraballo. He is ten years old and this was his very first year competing in any calypso competition whatsoever. He made it to the semi-final round of the national competition and I am so proud of him. I already see that I will be working with him in the future and I have my eyes set on a number of other young persons I would like to work with. I have also done some work this year with a seasoned performer.” The season is looking up for her but “more on that at a later date,” Bhola said.
“I know of a number of young females interested in calypso... even older women but the mentoring in my personal opinion is largely absent. I am aware of only a few calypsonians today who actually take people under their wings and mentor them.
“My intention is also to encourage them in writing as well, if it is something they take to. Writing I am fully aware is not for everyone. God has given us all varied talents and abilities and I find it senseless to knock people for a talent God may not have blessed them with. How silly would it be for me to be persecuted if I were not able to pen my own songs? A song on paper cannot go on a stage and sing itself. There would be the need for a singer. It is my humble opinion that we spend way too much time focusing on who may have more talent than whom than we spend trying to build each other up for the purpose of the holistic growth of the art form. When I hear a really good calypso, my first reaction is never ‘ah wonder who wrote that boy’? Why should it even matter? There is so much we need to do to encourage those around us who are already involved in calypso even before we attempt recruiting new talent. Our fellow calypsonians are discouraged and hurting and many of us know why. There is much work to be done in-house.
Bhola is looking at fundamentally developing the art form through theatre. “I want to encourage whomever I can and if I am able to create new opportunities for artistes, I am ready and willing to do so. I have also started writing a biography on my journey in calypso thus far from the standpoint of a female entertainer.”