Barnie Duncan is a little bit crazy. Actually, he might be more than a little bit crazy, but in such a good way. Everytime I've seen him in anything (Constantinople, ...him), I've spent half the time laughing just at his face, and the other half convinced he's a mad genius.
For the first ten minutes of Calypso Nights I wasn't sure I was going to get it, there was a lot of bewildered giggling going on in my head. It seemed as if Barnie had decided to do a comedy show the day before and was kind of making it up as he went along. His character, Juan Vesuvius, strolled through the crowd asking incomprehensible questions in Spanish, and then inane ones in broken English, and I wondered what could possibly happen next.
What happened next was brilliant, but I still don't know exactly what it was. We were suddenly learning about Calypso music and Juan's philosophies about how to put an end to war and strife. Barnie was playing turntables and maracas (as were the front row). We listened to heartbeats and mysterious German music. At one point half the audience was engaged in a swaying group hug, and by the end everyone was dancing and Barnie was hugging us all. Every single inane question or comment from the beginning of the show proved itself not to be inane at all. It all tied up neatly into one ridiculous, hilarious, crazy hour.
Calypso Nights is partly a comedy show, partly a party, and it was one of the best and most unexpected things I've seen during the past three weeks. Go tonight or tomorrow, it's at 10pm at the Basement and it's definitely worth staying up for (the fact that I even have to say that proves I'm aging rapidly).
Being of a generation that thought Harry Belafonte was the King of Calypso, cried “Day-O!” from Wellington hilltops, sang ‘Island in the Sun' and ‘The Jamaica Farewell' around campfires and heeded his warning about that other ‘Matilda' who didn't waltz but took his money and ran to Venezuela, I thought I was Calypso literate. But that was before I encountered Juan Vesuvius.
The latest creation of Barnie Duncan, the ultra-suave and very sexy Juan Vesuvius hails from Venezuela (could he be the son of Matilda?) and comes with his own applause and laugh tracks the via twin turntables and mixing desk atop a table adorned by … the flag of Mexico (because he couldn't get a Venezuelan one).
This we gather from his mucho speedy and fluent introductory chat in what I take to be Venezuelan Spanish (based on a Castilian dialect), in which Gloria Estefan gets a mention, I'm not sure why.
His on-mic vox pops with audience members suggests we all speak Spanish (or Creole or a convincingly accented gibberish; there are talented people at his opening night). Eager to get our measure, Juan checks out what we like and it turns out – amenable and malleable mob that we are – we like anything and everything, except the sudden and intrusive noise from the Fringe Bar fridges.
Despite our compliance, something tells him we want his show in English so he backtracks (think turntables) and on resuming discovers, with some consternation, that everything he does gets a laugh, albeit canned. I discern a critique of comedy audiences here, and/or the fabrication of audience responses on TV comedy shows.
It has felt like a long warm up/introduction, saved from tedium by this audience's absolute trust in Duncan's judgement and skills. And now the show becomes more focused – on enlightening us as to the true qualities of Calypso. This he achieves – thanks to his two turntables and an admirable ability to juggle discs (not to mention album covers later in the show) – by comparing and contrasting Calypso with different genres, involving some surprising choices.
We learn extraordinary facts about Trinidad and Tobago, the birthplace of Calypso; we're alerted to the mysteries of the maraca; we're initiated into the three essential qualities of Calypso music: sex, politics and making fun, and we discover how The Mighty Sparrow combines all three. (Google him.)
On the political front, we come to understand how the relationship – or lack of one – between Kim Jong-Il and Calypso has become a threat to world peace, via an ingeniously spun ‘documentary'.
Barnie Duncan is a master of unpredictability and subverting expectations so if you think you have the measure of this show from my indications, you haven't. You really do have to be there – and there are many elements which, by their very nature, will be very different in every performance.
Calypso Nights is ideally scheduled as a late night show. Treat yourselves.
Kiwi Barnie Duncan cunningly raises the percentage of offshore acts next, with his smolderingly quirky Venezuelan Calypso-nova Juan Vesuvius. Certainly the strangest and most original act of the evening's eclectic line-up, Juan's somewhat meandering, surreal sonic pseudo-lecture using old-school vinyl turntables give us a curious taste of his solo show Calypso Nights, coming to Auckland in this final week of the festival.
The laughter and simple joy that Calypso Nights generates makes it an excellent choice for late-night comedy punters who haven't quite had enough yet, or even those who think they have.
Two turntables and a microphone, and a box of mostly twelve inch vinyl discs (once a popular form of audio-playback entertainment, as we twentieth century folk recall) are reverently dressed in the Mexican flag. Our host for the evening – one Juan Vesuvius, sweeping in ominously with his black cape across his face like Dracula – is actually Venezuelan.
The absence of any substantial explanation for the flag discrepancy is one of several mercurial features in this bizarrely festive, music-based late-night festivity. Another is the distinct language barrier, most acute during the first ten minutes or so as Vesuvius appears to be under some misconception about which country we're in.
If his segment in last Sunday's Le Comique at Sky City was like the seven-inch played on a jukebox, then the full Basement Theatre hour is the LP in the upstairs lounge. The more intimate setting makes it easier for Juan to project his sensual radiance throughout the small (full) house, and the crowd seems well lubricated and up for it from the get go.
By chance I heard actor Barnie Duncan interviewed on bFM earlier in the day where he explained how he came up with the character many years ago, when invited to a porn themed costume party. Initially feigning shyness with his earnest queries as to ‘do you like this?', Juan's smouldering intensity seems to know no bounds, and his maraca-mad compulsions endear him to his adoring public, particularly in the front row.
His Spanish is impressively fast and fluent, his shirt extremely frilly and his cummerbund dramatically red. He has the confident air of one who believes he's God's gift to women and if he's really as skilled in a certain particular amorous pastime as his vocal obsession suggests, he just may be.
Through the medium of his decks, Juan illustrates the three themes in his beloved Calypso and its more electronic cousin, Soca: Love, politics and ‘making fun'. The mention of politics admittedly brings to my mind the recent passing of President Chavez, South America's greatest socialist hero of our time, but Vesuvius makes no mention of him. Too soon perhaps? Instead he waxes philosophical on the plight of Kim Jong-un – understandably more of a comedy goldmine.
The satisfying hour of semi-cultural entertainment comprises a handful of key routines, my favourite being the ingenious interactive dance piece performed using album cover illustrations as sort of puppets. It's not all Caribbean music either, various contrasting styles are played for comparison purposes, one or two of which may surprise you…
The message underpinning the whole audio-spectacle is the ever-welcome idealistic notion that the world would be a better place if everyone used their bodies to dance instead of fight wars. The inherent truth of that is punctuated and given traction through the experiential all-in maracas-and-booty-shaking climax.
From Titty Bar Ha Ha, a female two-piece with their at-times cringe-inducing medley of songs about love and masturbation, through to Juan Vesuvius (who wins the award for ethnic hybrid of the night; coming from Venezuela, wrapped in a Mexican flag, and boasting a Romanesque surname) who spun some comedy magic on his turntables, right through to local-kid-turned-superstar The Boy With Tape on his Face, turning in his staple fare of side-splitting improv with members of the audience.