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'One Hand Don't Clap': An Insight Into 1980s Calypso

One Hand Don't Clap (US 1988, Dir Kavery Kaul); image courtesy of Barbican Cinema

In danger of being damaged and forgotten, One Hand Don’t Clap (1988) lay for 30 years as a hidden gem, until one day director Kavery Kaul was contacted by the Academy Film Archive and the Women’s Film Preservation Fund to restore the film. Transformed into a project of revival, it was released again to the general public through screenings at the Barbican Cinema on the 17th & 29th May, and will be shown at the Cinema Rediscovered festival in Bristol in late July. One Hand Don’t Clap follows calypso legends like Lord Kitchener and Calypso Rose in the lead up to Trinidad and Tobago’s infamous carnival.

Kaul shows tremendous skill in displaying the leading calypso artists' numerous personas. We are first introduced to Lord Kitchener as a performer, dancing on a small stage and performing along with his band. We are then taken to a quiet music shop where he is signing records, his playful personality shining through when stating to a fan that he has “a girlfriend by the name of Cynthia”, prompting laughs across the cinema room. Calypso Rose is up next, however, her introduction is in a slightly different setting. Sat down, drink in hand and candles burning, Calypso Rose is singing along to one of her songs (which at that point was a work in progress). As a performer, she is energetic and bright, dressed in all gold and commanding the stage. Through all the personas that are shown in the film, one constant that remains throughout is their burning passion for calypso.

One Hand Don't Clap (US 1988, Dir Kavery Kaul); image courtesy of Barbican Cinema

Calypso remains at the heart of the documentary, its worldwide influence made abundantly clear. In Trinidad and Tobago, children sing to calypso melodies in their school. In the UK and America, calypso is welcomed with open arms, as Lord Kitchener makes up a jingle on the spot to his western audience. As much as its importance is shown, its decline is just as significant. The transition of calypso into soca, called “calypsoca” by many, is a focal point of the film. Although known as the ‘soul of calypso’, soca differs from calypso in that it is slightly more technical, which Kaul evidences through the uptempo beats of soca music. The older generation of calypso artists were critical of the upcoming genre, with Lord Pretender vilifying soca in an upbeat calypso freestyle. Lord Kitchener was also critical, however acknowledged that moving with the change into soca music was the wise thing to do. This prophecy is fulfilled in the next scene, with his performance of Sugar Bum Bum, which is soca inspired.

As the film progresses, we are teased with the crowning of the new calypso monarch as it switches between scenes of Trinidad and Tobago’s carnival in the day, and performances from Mighty Duke, Black Stalin and David Rudder in the night.

One Hand Don't Clap (US 1988, Dir Kavery Kaul); image courtesy of Barbican Cinema

One Hand Don't Clap captures beautifully the iconic carnival, focusing on the extravagant costumes and face paints, as well as the floats, towering above the crowd. There’s an air of excitement; the feeling of community is ever-present as adults and children alike are gathered together in the streets. Plunged into the night, we are placed on a square stage, with Black Stalin performing to the audience surrounding him. The documentary draws to a close through these two scenes, as David Rudder is crowned the winner and the camera pans to close-ups of carnival floats. One Hand Don’t Clap shines in displaying the importance of calypso music and Caribbean carnivals through filming where it all began, in Trinidad and Tobago. Carnival being a key aspect of the film is also bound to appeal to British audiences, with Notting Hill Carnival being the treasured event of the summer. This was definitely special to watch, and should be made accessible to watch on all platforms.

The work of the AFA and the Women’s Film Preservation Fund extends beyond One Hand Don’t Clap: the AFA have restored hundreds of films such as William Wellman’s G.I Joe (1945), and Ericka Beckman’s Cinderella (1986). The Women’s Film Preservation Fund specifically focuses on films directed by women, such as the 60 minute film Kiss Grandmama Goodbye (1989) by Debra J. Robinson. The re-release of One Hand Don’t Clap has opened up a world for the restoration of films, especially films directed by women.

'One Hand Don't Clap' was screened as part of Snapshot: Caribbean Cinema Close Up at Barbican Cinema from 17th - 31st May 2023. To see upcoming seasons and screenings at Barbican Cinema, go to their website or find them on Twitter.


Edited by Oisín McGilloway, Co-Film & TV Editor


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