Lord Blake: farewell to the warlord

Michael Goodwin remembers calypsonian Carlton “Blakie” Joseph and his inimitable, trademark laugh

  • Lord Blakie. Photograph courtesy the Main Library, University of the West Indies, St Augustine

Carlton “Blakie” Joseph

3 November, 1932–6 January, 2005

When Carlton Joseph, best known by his calypso sobriquet of Warlord Blakie, passed away early in 2005, Trinidad Carnival was ramping up to its wildest frenzy. It was an appropriate season for Blakes to slip away; his best-known calypso, Steelband Clash, celebrated an older form of Carnival that, for all its violent joy, had itself already slipped away. Blakie was 72 when he died, a number that must have come as a shock to his fans and friends who adored his boundless energy and high-power performances.

David Rudder once described Blakie as “a street-smart urban warlord,” and “one of the original rude bwoys.” He was also one of the last calypso giants, a reminder of the glory days of the 1950s, when Sparrow and Blakie (along with a very few others) raised calypso to a creative level never seen before.

Blakie’s biggest hits — Steelband Clash (which won the Road March title in 1954), the hauntingly beautiful Maria (which won another in 1962), and the shamelessly  bawdy Hold the Pussy — were recorded in the 1950s and 60s, but Blakie remained a favourite at Port of Spain venues like the Mas Camp Pub well into the 21st century, where his inimitable, devilish laugh became a trademark.

He was revered by his fellow calypsonians — Rudder not least among them. In fact, one of my most treasured memories of Rudder is his face lit with fierce joy on that night in 1994 when he, Gypsy, and Prowler sang backup for Blakie on Hold the Pussy. That concert, which was recorded, videotaped, and released on both video and CD under the title Raw Kaiso, is probably your best chance to experience the Warlord in his fullest glory, although a CD collection of live performances, Lord Blakie’s Vintage Music, has just been released as well.

Over the years, Blakie took several swings at Sparrow in song; Sparrow never responded. But in a radio interview shortly after Blakie passed away, Sparrow noted that he remembered Blakie’s laugh most of all. Oh, that laugh! But does anyone dare to ask what Blakie was laughing at? If the author of Steelband Clash remains something of an enigma, that laugh is the heart of the mystery. If you could hear it! Surely he was laughing at some truly cosmic jest; nothing less could possibly have inspired that long, rising tide of all-too-knowing, slightly sinister merriment.

Myself, I can’t help wondering if Blakie was laughing about Jean and Dinah. For many years there have been whispers: Blakie and Sparrow both get in trouble in the early 1950s and end up in jail. They become pals, they collaborate on something that may have eventually turned into Jean and Dinah. Sparrow gets out of jail first, and the rest is history. I have never seen the slightest proof that any part of this fanciful tale is true — but in all these years it’s never gone away. That would have given Blakes a laugh either way.

The Warlord feared no man. He took on Sparrow, he took on the police commissioner, he took on A.N.R. Robinson, he even took on the Doc himself, Dr Eric Williams, portraying the prime minister in a calypso as a card-sharp who cheats opposition members and colleagues alike. And Blakie got away with it.

Ultimately, he will probably be remembered best for Steelband Clash, a marvel of poetic compression and evocative detail that records a real incident, one of the last of the serious battles that used to break out when rival steelbands met in the streets during Carnival. Chances are that Blakie (who was only 18 when the clash occurred) read about it in the paper. But when Mervyn Taylor asked him how he came to write it, Blakie simply replied, “Ah was dey!” One can only imagine the long, irrepressible laugh that must have followed.

Among other accomplishments worth remembering, as we bid Blakie a last goodbye, is that he gave Leroy Calliste his calypso name, Black Stalin. Nice one, Blakes.

It’s always heartbreaking to lose an artist of Blakie’s stature, and obituaries typically remind us that these great ones are “irreplaceable.” The saddest part in Blakie’s case is that nobody seems interested in replacing him. Today’s soca stars — Bunji Garlin, Sherwayne Winchester, Senelle Dempster, Faye Ann Lyons, and Machel Montano — play a very different kind of music. Losing Blakie feels a bit like losing calypso.

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