Pick of the Crop by Nailah Folami Imoja

The annual calypso competition is a big deal in Barbados, so when I saw a novel about it on a recent trip to a second-hand bookshop, I wanted to give it a try. It has a promising start, but the trouble is that the success comes too easily and quickly.

The annual calypso competition is a big deal in Barbados, so when I saw a novel about it on a recent trip to a second-hand bookshop, I wanted to give it a try. It has a promising start, but the trouble is that the success comes too easily and quickly.

The annual calypso competition is a big deal in Barbados, so when I saw a novel about it on a recent trip to a second-hand bookshop, I wanted to give it a try.

The setup of Pick of the Crop is good: we start with the teenaged Leroi Baines hanging out on the block with his friends and getting in trouble with his mother for staying out late. He loves music and dreams of being a calypsonian, but the prospect seems remote.

When Leroi is invited to try out at a calypso tent, however, things start to look up. The best performers from each tent go forward to the national finals and a chance to be Calypso King at the annual Cropover festival. Even better, he meets a girl there and falls in love.

Pick of the Crop by Nailah Folami Imoja

It’s a promising start, but the trouble is that the success comes too easily and quickly. Before you know it, Leroi is a huge success, with his songs being played on the radio and Vanessa falling in love with him too. There’s still the open question of whether he will become Calypso King, but to be honest it’s not that much of a question. There will be obstacles, both romantic and musical, and his determination and his friendships will be tested, but it’s pretty clear that things will work out well.

I think that if Imoja had devoted some more time to Leroi’s struggles, then his successes would have seemed harder won and would have meant more. But in this 100-page novella, things move along too quickly. There’s a promising note of tension when Vanessa’s ambitious middle-class parents seem set to disapprove of the working-class Leroi, but again, it’s too quickly diffused when he meets them, they like him, and everything’s OK.

I still enjoyed the book—Leroi is a likeable hero, and it’s a pleasure to see him succeed. There’s a villainous rival in the calypso competition who gets a pleasing comeuppance too. These things feel good.

I think, for the right audience, Pick of the Crop could be a great read. Perhaps my reservations came because I saw that it was part of the Heinemann Caribbean Writers Series and expected something different. But this would be a great book to stock in school libraries or to give out to young people who are struggling to know what to do with their lives and need some encouragement. Leroi’s life could easily have gone down the wrong track, as his mother feared, but by making the right choices, believing in himself, following his dreams and getting help from some good people, he gets what he wants out of life. It may not be a surprising or nuanced conclusion, but it’s a good story for a young person to read.

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There are 4 comments

    1. Yes!! It’s a big deal, not just for the music but also for the social/political commentary that’s often included. Some of the calypsos are pure fun or party songs for people to “jump up” to, but others are heavily engaged with current issues—often with a humorous or satirical slant.

  1. Is it as easy to find second-hand copies of these series there, as it is to find orange-spined Penguin classics in England, say? I’d love to read through this series just to get to “know” some of the writers.

    1. It’s not very easy here—there must be copies floating around, but there aren’t many second-hand bookshops, or at least not that I’ve found. It would be great to read through the series, though! I think the Longman Caribbean Writers series might be a better one to read through, to be honest—it has more of the big names from Caribbean literature, and the copies might be easier to find internationally. Someone put together a list of that one on Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/list/show/98751.Longman_Caribbean_Writers.

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