Ol’ time calypso: long time music

It took him more than 30 years, but Garry Steckles finally discovered the joys of real old-time calypso

  • Old-time greats: Caresser, Atilla the Hun, The Roaring Lion, Lord Executor. Photograph courtesy the Roaring Lion/Digitally Mastered by Kevin Burke
  • Atilla was also the deputy mayor of Port of Spain. Photograph courtesy Donald Hill

It’s all too easy — in fact, it’s something of a tradition — for one generation to criticise the musical preferences of another. It happens all over the place, and the Caribbean is no exception.

“Call that music? It’s nothing but rubbish,” is a familiar refrain of the older generations, whether they were brought up on the Roaring Lion and Atilla the Hun in the 1940s, Kitch and Beginner in the 50s, ska and Sparrow in the 60s, Bob Marley and the Wailers in the 70s, or David Rudder in the 80s, as they listen to today’s Caribbean hits.

“That’s old-time music. It’s boring. We don’t listen to that,” is the equally adamant response of the younger generation.

All of which is rather sad. Certainly, the younger fans have a lot more to learn about music than the older ones — it would be decidedly odd if they didn’t. As for the veteran fans, they should have acquired enough wisdom to know that there’s always new and exciting music to find if you look hard enough.

In some cases, it can even be old and exciting. Over the past couple of years, I’ve been thoroughly enjoying catching up with a substantial slice of Caribbean music history that somehow passed me by in the almost four decades I’ve been involved with it as a writer, radio host, concert promoter, and fan. I’m talking, basically, about early calypso — which, in my case, is loosely defined as anything before 1968.

That’s the year in which I was first introduced to the wonderful music of this region. I was immediately fascinated by it, and threw myself with considerable enthusiasm into listening to it as often as I could and learning as much about it as I could. With reggae, it wasn’t too difficult to trace its comparatively modern roots, beginning with ska, which was created at the tail end of the 50s, and evolving through rocksteady and into the classic roots era in the mid and late 60s. Calypso, though, was a different matter. It went way, way back, and, for one reason or another, I never got round to doing my history homework.

Fast forward to around 2002. The reggae and soca scenes had changed, and not, in my opinion, for the better. Where once we were uplifted by lyrics like “emancipate yourself from mental slavery”, we were now being told we should “jump to the left, jump to the right”, and exhorted to shake our collective booties. Occasionally, in a flash of pure inspiration, a songwriter would dream up something novel and instruct us to wave a flag or a towel in the air. Pretty heady stuff.

To be sure, there still were calypsonians and reggae artists producing music of substance, but the majority were churning out lyrics that were banal at best, violent, sexist, homophobic drivel at worst. That, thank goodness, is around the time I stumbled on a whole old world of calypso — the music that happened before 1968. Sure, I knew Sparrow’s Jean and Dinah from 1956, and a handful of “big tunes”, but I had no real clue about how utterly brilliant the calypsonians of earlier eras had been. I’m talking, particularly, about the 30s, 40s, and 50s, the key decades in which calypso as we know it today evolved from its 18th-century origins as Carnival street music and became an art form embracing every conceivable topic.

These were the decades that gave us the Roaring Lion, Atilla the Hun, Caresser, King Radio, Tiger, Pretender, Lord Invader, Lord Blakie, Lord Executor, the Growler, Sparrow, Kitchener, and dozens more.

And these guys, believe me, had a way with words. Though they seldom got international recognition, they were craftsmen on par with Cole Porter and Irving Berlin. Mostly, they were of the street, and they lived largely on the fringes of polite Trinidadian society. They drank their rum and they chased their women, but they wouldn’t have dreamed of demeaning themselves by using a word that was in questionable taste, much less of the four-letter variety.

Topics of choice ranged from major political events to everyday happenings. A nightmare trip to Grenada on an inter-island schooner. A Christmas spent in hospital. A West Indies cricket triumph. A scandal at the Treasury. Ghana’s independence. A clash between rival steel bands during Trinidad Carnival. The origins of calypso. The coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. An unfaithful or capricious lover. Avaricious London landladies. Tight-fisted concert promoters. The price of rice. A jealous husband. A dishonest politician. And, of course, there was always “smut” — lyrics rampant with double entendres and sexual innuendo, but never, ever, overtly crude or profane.

The Mighty Sparrow once told me that he saw calypso as the voice of the people. “We write about what the man in the street is saying, what he’s thinking . . . and we can say things you guys in the media could never get away with.”

A classic example of early calypsonians’ willingness to tackle difficult and controversial topics came in the late 30s, when Trinidad was in the throes of a strike by chronically underpaid oilfield workers — a turning point in the island’s history. The oil workers’ leader was Uriah “Buzz” Butler, and among their unlikely supporters were both the governor of Trinidad and Tobago, Sir Murchison Fletcher, and the acting Colonial Secretary, Howard Nankiwell, both of whom spoke in the island’s legislative council citing substandard wages and living conditions as the true cause of the strike. Their honesty cost them their jobs. It was a complex subject, and the names alone were a daunting challenge to any songwriter — but not too daunting for those old-time calypsonians.

Here’s what Atilla the Hun had to say about those turbulent times:

Han’ me the Port of Spain*
To read Mr Nankiwell’s speech again
Replete with tac’ and sympathy
Fair play and Christian charity
We promise that whatever they do
Trinidad will remember you

Imagine the moral courage of that man
In the legislative council to stan’
And give his opinion without no fear
In the midst of the members sitting there
To get to his feet and openly say
That the oppressed worker deserves more pay
We should erect, right in this city
A monument to his memory

— From Mister Nankiwell’s Speech by Atilla the Hun

And here’s Atilla’s take on the report of a crown-appointed commission into the unrest (during which, incidentally, 14 people died when police were called in to break up a rally in Fyzabad in support of the strike):

They criticise our ex-governor
The beloved Sir Murchison Fletcher
And Howard Nankiwell, they said that he
Had uttered speeches wrong to a marked degree
They castigated him severely
Our ex-Colonial Secretary
But all these things just appear to me
An example of English diplomacy

They said, through the evidence they had
That the riots started in Fyzabad
By the hooligan element under their leader
A fanatic Negro called Butler
Who uttered speeches inflammatory
And caused disorders in this colony
The only time they found the police was wrong
Was when they stay too long to shoot people down

A peculiar thing of this Commission
In that 92 pages of dissertation
Is there no talk of exploitation
Of the worker or his tragic condition
Read through the pages, there is no mention
Of capitalistic oppression
Which leads one to entertain a thought
And wonder if it’s a one-sided report

— From Commission’s Report, by Atilla the Hun


Perhaps the greatest lyricist of them all was the Roaring Lion. Here’s what he had to say towards the end of his long life about the condition of mankind — not exactly a hot topic with the shake-your-bootie brigade. This is from a song the Lion, whose legendary career started?in the 30s,?recorded in 1993:

If your grandpas were slaves centuries ago, what’s that got to do with you?
You were never slaves, you were free, and also quite independent too
It is true that whites bought African slaves and treated them like pigs in a pen
But according to history who sold those slaves
Was blacks sold blacks to white men

But we’re all God’s children and we need one another
This the Bible has emphasised
So regardless of colour you better believe
Six feet of earth makes us all one size

— From Six Feet of Earth by the Roaring Lion

It’s a far, far cry from the music that reigns in the Caribbean today.


* Attila was using the common term for the Port of Spain Gazette

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