“Chalkdust”: Calling it like he sees it

Garry Steckles tips his hat to Dr Hollis Liverpool, otherwise known as the Mighty Chalkdust, who won his sixth Calypso Monarch title this year

  • The Mighty Chalkdust

Among other things, Dr Hollis Urban Lester Liverpool is a university lecturer, author, schoolteacher, historian, political pundit, and fearless social commentator. His heady accomplishments in a long, distinguished, and varied career in the worlds of academia and literature would have been enough to keep the average human more than busy over the course of a lifetime.

But the achievement for which Dr Liverpool is revered throughout the English-speaking Caribbean has nothing to do with the lecturer’s podium, the classroom, or book launches: he’s most famous as the Mighty Chalkdust, one of the greatest exponents of calypso ever to draw breath.

This year, for the sixth time in a singing-songwriting career that dates back to the 1950s, Chalkdust captured the most prestigious award calypso has to offer — the monarch title at Trinidad’s annual Carnival. And, astonishingly, his latest triumph came only 11 days before his 63rd birthday.

It was, as he was quick to point out, a triumph not only for Chalkdust personally, but also for the traditional art of calypso, and for its hugely important role in society in Trinidad, in much of the rest of the Caribbean, and in cities throughout the world with significant populations of people from the West Indies.

In an era in which traditional calypso, like traditional reggae, has been under constant bombardment from the world of dancehall, with its emphasis on frenzied rhythms and often meaningless lyrics, Chalkdust is a passionate defender of roots values, of songs that have more to say than “jump to your left, jump to your right”.

Only hours after being crowned, Chalkdust told a Trinidad newspaper of his fears for an art form that has always been viewed as the voice of the people. “I get scared because we are stamping on the roots, trying to pull up the roots of the calypso and throw them away. The calypso art form is heading in all different directions, but we can’t kill the roots because it’s the roots that sustain the art form, and so I am happy for my victory because it’s a victory for calypso roots.”

Few people are better qualified to comment on calypso and its role in our society. Chalkdust’s musical stock in trade biting lyrics, often on subjects that are virtually taboo in polite society, and frequently naming names in a way that would inevitably result in libel action if the comments appeared in print. (As the Mighty Sparrow, the only man to have won more monarch titles than Chalkdust, once told me: “We say what you fellows in newspapers can’t . . . we sing about what the people are thinking and talking about on the street, and the politicians can’t do a thing about it.”)

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Hollis Liverpool wrote his first calypsos in 1954, when he was a pupil at St Mary’s College in Port of Spain, and turned professional in the late 60s. He won his first monarch title in 1976, and proved he was no flash in the pan by holding on to the coveted crown the following year. He won two more monarch crowns in the 80s, another in 1993, and, of course, his sixth this year.

Along the way, this remarkable man found time to graduate from the University of the West Indies (where he now lectures) with a bachelor’s degree in history and sociology; to teach at both primary and secondary schools for 35 years; to earn a master’s degree in history and African history, and a PhD in history and ethnomusicology from the University of Michigan; to become Trinidad’s Director of Culture (a senior post in the civil service); to become director of the Carnival Institute of Trinidad and Tobago; and to publish a variety of books, among them Rituals of Power and Rebellion: The Carnival Tradition in Trinidad and Tobago and From the Horse’s Mouth, a socio-cultural history of calypso from 1900 to 2003.

Today, at 63, Chalkie — as he’s affectionately known throughout Trinidad and Tobago — is showing absolutely no signs of slowing down. Along with Sparrow, Stalin, and Shadow, the best known of his fellow elder statesmen of calypso, he’s continuing to prove that there’s more — much, much more — to Trinidadian music and culture than exhorting the masses to shake their collective booties.