Black Stalin: king of kings

Donna Yawching profile Black Stalin, the region's Caribbean Man

  • At the Calypso Monarch competition, 1992. Photograph by Mark Lyndersay
  • On stage in full flight. Photograph by Noel Norton
  • At Dimanche Gras 1988. Photograph by Mark Lyndersay
  • Black Stalin the Dimanche Gras show 1995. Photograph by Mark Lyndersay

“A kaisonian is always a warrior. The more the odds are against him, the better he works.”
— Black Stalin, interviewed by Small Axe: A Caribbean Journal of Criticism; no. 9 (2001)

“Hello, I’d like to speak to Stalin.”

Anywhere else in the world, that request would elicit raised eyebrows, at the very least, and possibly a quick phone-call to the men in the white coats. But in Trinidad, the response is a polite “Could you hold the line, please,” and a minute later, there he is. It’s not THE Stalin, of course, not the Russian one, anyway. This is  Black Stalin, five times crowned Trinidad’s Calypso Monarch, and last year proclaimed the King of Kings. That’s a heavy load of honour for someone who stands barely 5’6” tall and wears the huge good-natured grin of a cheerful garden gnome.

A veteran with 40 years of kaiso under his belt, Black Stalin is the calypsonian’s calypsonian, the voice of a  people, the conscience of a nation: a griot in the true sense of the word. Framed in the lineaments of classic calypso (a.k.a kaiso), his songs expostulate, educate, honour, record, celebrate, dream — in short, they are the society of which he finds himself a part. Says fellow-calypsonian Denise Plummer: “He is our Bob Marley.”

High praise? That’s nothing compared to what others say about him. “I put him as one of the greats,” affirms steelband stalwart Pelham Goddard, Stalin’s current arranger. “A friend and a brother,” declares musician Roy Cape, who has played backup for Stalin on and off since 1979. “The ultimate interpreter of the voice of the people,” avers soca superstar David Rudder.

It seems impossible to find anyone who has a negative word to utter against Black Stalin, and why would anyone want to? With his messy grey dreadlocks and the face of an African totem, Stalin is a man who exudes humour, peace of mind, goodwill. His concern for his fellow man — in particular his fellow Black Man — is not just professional affectation, not just a lyrics thing; it crops up in conversation, it colours his life. His greatest hit is Caribbean Man, and Stalin is considered by his peers to be its avatar.

Calypsonian Gabby, in his sweet Bajan lilt, describes him as “one of the greatest people, not just artists, people, that the Caribbean has ever produced.”

I met with Black Stalin at the Port of Spain home of Junior Telfer, his long-time friend and events promoter. We sit on the minuscule porch and Stalin, dressed in jeans, a vest and a rasta cap to restrain his locks, talks of his work in a gentle diminuendo that leaves me, towards the end, straining to hear. This is the pensive Stalin, the flip side of the “big clown” who Roy Cape enjoys “liming” with. He struggles to explain the force that drives his music. “I always feel,” he says slowly, “that people are giving me this opportunity to spend this time on stage, and I think that during that time I must be able to leave them with something they can carry for the rest of their lives.”

Who is this man with such a serious mission? Black Stalin’s story is not particularly extraordinary. He was born Leroy Calliste, in 1941, into a working-class home. His father was employed by Texaco (labour leader Uriah “Buzz” Butler was “one of the first heroes in my house,” he says) and his mother, to help make ends meet, also worked outside the home. Young Leroy was often left in the care of his older brother Dennis, a steelbandsman who spent a lot of time in the Free French panyard and who, logically, hauled his baby brother along with him. “My eyes opened in the panyard,” jokes Stalin. Clearly, his ears opened as well, since the music of the yard has never left him. Even now, many of his compositions feature the sweet counterpoint of a tenor pan reinforcing his melodies.

By the age of 15, Leroy was expected to follow in his father’s footsteps and start an apprenticeship at Texaco, but somehow he never quite got around to it. Instead, the siren call of calypso began exerting its pull. “Since I was young, I just decided I wanted to be a calypsonian,” he says with a shrug. “What I wanted to express, playing pan and dancing couldn’t bring it out.” He needed only the encouragement of the calypsonian Successor to persuade him to go for it.

In 1959, calling himself the Mighty Stalin (the “Mighty” was changed to “Black” in the consciousness-raising 70s), he sang for the first time in the South Brigade, and made it to the semi-finals. In 1962 he won the South calypso crown and went on to the national semi-finals. In 1964 he joined the Mighty Sparrow’s Original Young Brigade tent in Port of Spain, but by 1966 he was back in South. The year 1967 saw him returning to the capital city, this time attached to Lord Kitchener’s Calypso Revue, and making it to the Dimanche Gras Calypso King finals in the Savannah (the Big Yard). Then came the years of “getting himself together” and developing his craft, under the mentorship of the Grandmaster (Kitchener).

In a 1985 interview, Stalin recalled: “Kitch always showed me that anytime you making kaiso, no matter what you singing about, it should be well done . . . Staying close to Kitchener, I was always learning something.” In Kitch’s tent, Stalin also developed a reputation as a first-rate MC (Master of Ceremonies), introducing the artists with wit and charm, and keeping the show flowing smoothly. No question about it: Leroy Calliste paid his dues.

By 1976 though, Stalin was disillusioned. Kaiso was his love, his life, but commercialism and an ever-increasing stress on competition were only serving, he felt, to narrow the focus of the art form. Serious kaiso was being squeezed out by party music: the upsurge of what Trinis call wine-and-jam soca had begun. Bidding his au revoir to the Revue, Stalin, with a handful of other calypsonians, formed the People’s Kaiso Court, a kind of anti-tent. Its mission was multi-fold: to encourage serious kaiso with meaningful and instructive lyrics, to nurture up-and-coming young calypsonians, to eliminate exploitation by unscrupulous tent managers, to take live kaiso out into the rural areas, and to break through the seasonal boundaries that traditionally restricted the art form to the Carnival season.

Like most ambitious dreams with poor organisation and insufficient financial backing, the Kaiso Court soon foundered, but its cast, under the sponsorship of businessman William Munro, was quickly reincarnated into a new calypso tent, Shadow’s Kingdom of the Wizards. And it was from this forum that Stalin, in 1979, riveted the national attention with his first album (also produced by Munro), To the Caribbean Man, which has been described as “a monumental achievement in the history of kaiso”, and “one of the greatest kaiso albums of all time”. It featured the song that was to become his signature, Caribbean Unity, better known as Caribbean Man. Openly dismissive of the various abortive attempts by regional politicians to forge political and economic links between the islands, Stalin’s new anthem was a cry for a spiritual unity based on the recognition of a common history:

Ah man who doh know his history

Cyar form no unity

How could a man who doh know his roots 

Form his own identity?

He points out that while the West Indian Federation and Carifta had fallen by the wayside, the Rastafarian movement (of which, by this time, he was a staunch adherent) was “spreading through the Caribbean”, and concluded that there must be

Something them Rastas on

That them politician don’t know.

Even as it catapulted Stalin into the spotlight, securing for him his first Calypso Monarch crown, Caribbean Unity  sparked no end of controversy. Its catchy chorus (and most of Stalin’s choruses are catchy, even when the subject is serious) described the Caribbean Man as being of “One race . . . From the same place.” In Trinidad, where almost half the population is of East Indian descent, this was incendiary stuff. Stalin’s philosophical point of socio-historical similarity was ignored by some spokesmen for the East Indian community, and he was denounced as racist — a criticism that shocked him deeply. “I really didn’t know that (people) was paying so much attention (to kaiso),” he exclaimed in a later interview. Typically laid-back, he didn’t have much to say in the ensuing debate. “I think the kaiso spoke for itself,” he explains now. “I just let the controversy play itself out.” Which, like most controversies in Trinidad, it quickly did.

The next few years found Stalin moving back and forth between a number of venues, ending up at the Revue once more in 1983, and staying there until 1988, before starting his grasshopper routine again. Once more on the competitive circuit, he won the crown on four other occasions: in 1985 (Dorothy/Ism Schism), 1987 (Burn Dem/Panmaker), 1991 (Feeling to Party/Bright Side) and 1995 (In Time/Sundar). In 1996, he and Shadow joined TUCO’s (the calypsonians’ union) Kaiso House “to give it some strength.” They’re both still there. “After so many kaiso seasons,” Stalin says with a sigh, “I go to the tents now simply because the tents are the birthplace of kaiso. I mean, I born in a kaiso tent. I feel I should be able to use my name so that some other youth could born too.”

That sense of duty, of owing something to his people, his art form, his predecessors and his successors, is perhaps the trait that defines Stalin more than most other calypsonians. It is what has led him, consistently, to reject the popular tendency toward smutty calypsos and to write, instead, “conscious lyrics”: songs of social comment, songs of upliftment, songs designed to make people face the realities of their lives and to want to make things better. He is not interested in either political pandering or political bacchanal. As he writes in Song for the Land: “I does sing for the land, and then for the man.”

If his commentary is often bluntly outspoken, it is because, as he continues in the same song,

It’s my obligation

To make sure that the island

That how I meet it, I could leave

It in a better condition.

It’s an obligation which Stalin takes very seriously, and frequently his frustration at a recalcitrant populace, not to mention a long line of unsatisfactory governments, seethes within his music.

“Get up, get up, get up, Black man,” he urges in Time, “Yuh sleeping too long, Black man”. But always, the love is there: he’s not just lecturing the Black Man from a position of superiority, he’s one of them, a “sufferer” like everybody else, struggling to get water in his taps and “a piece of the (national economic) action,” just as they are. His words, as David Rudder points out, are authentically theirs. “His language and the way he puts things across really sounds like the block,” explains Rudder (Stalin himself calls it “Resistance language”). “He communicates with Everyman.”

The love, however, seldom extends to government authorities, whom Stalin regards with the small man’s distrust. In 1981 (Vampire Year), he described the politicians as (you guessed it) vampires:

Big vampire, small vampire, party vampire, maestro vampire

. . . vampire with PhD

vampire from the university

vampire with dashiki, jacket and tie

. . . is every five years dey does pass

— five years, of course, being the space between national elections.

Twenty years and several administrations later, he is no happier about the elected authorities. “We ain’t get no real change,” he explains. “I go on stage and sing songs that I did 20 years ago, and people scream for more. All my songs are still relevant today.” In last year’s Ah Smellin It, with threats of official censorship hanging in the air, he sang about an unpleasant odour emanating from the national kitchen:

Is a strange smell, a weird smell, a funny kind of food

Is the strange kind of food the Kremlin used to cook. 

Lenin’s brainchild reduced to a pot of pelau: that must be a first!

Stalin’s other recurrent theme is the defence of the culture: kaiso, steelband and its many unsung heroes. He traces their decline, confronts their challenges, honours their stalwarts. He thinks that the whole Carnival mentality has done immeasurable damage to kaiso by trapping it in a seasonal matrix, with calypsonians hopping from one international Carnival to the next, oblivious to the possibilities of broadening the applications of the art form. He himself eschews the Carnivals, except for Trinidad’s; he is more interested in projects like the one in St Thomas, where his music has been intertwined with modern dance choreography.

These days, Stalin spends more time performing abroad than he does at home: up the islands, New York, Toronto, Quebec, New Orleans, Finland, Helsinki. His five children, he says wryly, “grew up knowing Daddy coming home tonight and leaving in the morning.” Amazingly, he enjoys a solid family life. Patsy, his partner of more than 30 years (18 of them married), has supported him unflinchingly. Since they first met at a calypso show, she knew what she was getting into right from the start. “We went through some hard times,” she admits, “but I never had doubts. Sometimes when he felt the pressure was too hard and he wanted to give up, I encouraged him.”

The travelling, she knows, comes with the territory: “That’s my bread and butter. It’s part of his work and I have to live with it.” She’s never accompanied him abroad, because of family constraints. “He goes and does the work,” she says, “and I see about the children”, although the oldest is now 31 and the youngest 21. Despite his fractured schedule, Stalin is firm that his family comes above all else. “I’s a family man,” he says, “and that is a big gig that I have to cut everyday. When I’m home I try to make up — though I can’t — for when I’m not there.”

Stalin’s “tribe” extends far beyond his family and his 28 godchildren: it embraces a body of friends whose loyalty to the man is unshakeable, and whose respect for his work unbounded. “That man is a king,” declares Denise Plummer, the current Calypso Monarch. “I learned everything I know from him,” Barbadian Gabby says. “I admire his work because I know every time he opens his mouth he’s doing it on behalf of Caribbean people.” “His lyrics are far and away outstanding, in many ways,” says Junior Telfer, “they are a kind of poetry that is very difficult — the metre and the rhyme. I admire the intelligence behind his music. There are not very many people today who actually sing (classic) kaiso.”

Roy Cape has been Stalin’s close friend for 25 years. He has played back-up for the artist at home and abroad, and on countless recordings. In 1986, Cape started handling all Stalin’s bookings (“By that time our friendship had passed friendship”), but recent commitments have brought an end to that. Even so, Cape  insists, “We still have that relationship, and will until one of us goes.” He describes Stalin as tireless and hardworking, and above all, “He’s a caring person. He cares about people, the poor and the destitute, he cares about humanity in the general sense.”

Most of all, Black Stalin cares about his music. There’s no mistaking it. The utterly delirious grin on his face as he invades the stage: eyes squeezed shut, mouth stretched in wide abandon. It hits you like a blow: This man loves what he’s doing. At this precise moment, he could not be happier. Shirt swinging open, untidy locks sticking out from under his leather cap, he connects. Unequivocally. The audience is his for the duration. The energy, the affection is flowing in both directions, redeeming, rejoicing, rejuvenating.

David Rudder explains it thus: “When Stalin hits the stage, there is a laugh that immediately bursts out from him. It says to the audience, you are me and I am you.” Couldn’t have said it better myself.

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