A pope, a king and a duke: remembering the Mighty Duke

Keith Smith pays tribute to the Mighty Duke, the veteran calypsonian who died this year

  • The Mighty Duke onstage, displaying his famous sartorial elegance. Photograph courtesy Trinidad Express

In the long lineage of English nobility, to be a duke is to hold the highest hereditary title. Calypsonian the Mighty Duke, who died on January 14, as the 2009 Trinidad Carnival season began, was, then, well and truly named. For even if he never ascended the kaiso throne in the manner of say, the Mighty Sparrow or Lord Kitchener, he may well have been first in the line of succession.

It was not that Kelvin Pope (as he was born and christened) did not have a taste of kingship. For four straight years (1968 – 1971) he won Trinidad and Tobago’s Calypso Monarch crown in that intense competition held on Carnival Sunday night on what used to be a huge “killer stage” in the Queen’s Park Savannah.

However, he carried to his grave his belief that, unprecedented as that feat was (and, indeed continues to be), it destroyed his chances of winning another, with the then Carnival Development Committee (CDC), later the National Carnival Commission (NCC), “bringing back Sparrow” in 1972 to deny him what he thought would have been a deserved fifth.

Why the Carnival authorities would have gone to such lengths to block Duke’s royal path has never been really explained by anybody, least of all Duke. But there is no denying that, in the perverse way that may be particularly Trinidadian, there were those who claimed to have become tired of his winning style: one serious song accompanied by a bacchanal, barrack-yard one, in the days when calypso’s premier prestige competition was so tight that it took two calypsoes to separate the king (or queen) from the pretenders.

It is to Duke’s, well, undying credit that, whatever the fatuous “fedupness” of his feats (based as it was on no substantial criterion), he continued even after 1971 to have a mighty presence in the calypso mix, with many, even most, of his songs having some impact on the public imagination, such as when his “Thunder” in 1987 won the road march competition, the nearest thing these days to a people’s choice contest.

Even here, however, Duke and his friends and supporters sensed treachery afoot. David Rudder had run off with all the top calypso prizes the year before, but instead of putting this down to his creative talent (to say nothing of his years of learning experience singing back-up to the likes of Lord Kitchener in the Calypso Revue tent), the claim was that Rudder had as the major arrow in his bow a “Chinese mafia”, this based on nothing more than the happenstance of his manager, the late Ellis Chow Lin On, being of the suspicious extraction.

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So, suspecting a set-up, Duke, on Carnival and Monday of that year, went from music truck to music truck as they approached the various Port of Spain competition judging points, singing his heart out to make sure his “Thunder” accumulated enough “plays” to all but set his victory in stone – thereby setting a precedent (no calypsonian had ever done that before) that not a few singers were to follow in the following years.

I relate these stories simply to place Duke squarely in that long-lived calypso tradition in which members of the fraternity detected threats even among friends. And Duke was a traditional bard in such an absolute sense that it was difficult for him to accept new directions such, as for example, calypsonians singing (and winning!) competitions with calypsoes that they had not themselves written – even if the art was bound to go in that direction once it moved away from its folk moorings and became commercial, with a crown-winning song these days bringing the singer/composer hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Strangely enough, while Duke, on the one hand, never warmed to (in fact, as I have told you, he was hot against it) the idea of professional composers, who couldn’t or wouldn’t sing, writing for people who couldn’t write a calypso line, Duke wrote “99 per cent” of the songs sung by Lord Nelson, whose own career (bar official crowns) was almost as successful as Duke’s.

I find this to be a staggering truth (Lord Nelson, while Duke was under death-watch, as it were, took to denying it but he himself told me as much in our long liming days), since in addition to his own huge output it meant that from Duke’s fertile calypso brain also came the likes of “Mih Lover” and “King Liar”, the question begging to be asked being what would have been Duke’s overall stature had he sung his Lord Nelson songs himself – up there with Sparrow and Kitchener, I’d imagine. I suppose for Duke, it was all right for a calypsonian to write for a brother calypsonian; but not for a non-calypsonian to write for someone whom he would consider to be a mere “calypso singer” which is a term, incidentally, I got straight from him.

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Standing up for traditions, though, can have its positive side, which, in Duke’s case, was an adherence to calypso’s classic rules in that his compositions were of a consistently high lyrical standard, with never a forced rhyme; his melodies never repetitious, pertinent to the tenor of his tunes; and as for what, in the old days, used to be called “rendering”, well, he was the performer worthy of emulation – so clear was his diction, whether he was chortling over women engaged in a fish-wife bacchanal (“One Foot Visina”) or bewailing the atrocities of South African apartheid (“How Many More Must Die?”).

Moreover, in the highest calypso tradition, Duke was more than adept in all of the genres – social/political commentary and party – with his “Streakin’ Freakin’” being one of the most humorous calypsoes ever. Duke, long and lanky, drew gales of laughter every single time he regaled his audiences with tales of this well-endowed streaker carrying on in the burning heat in Frederick Street, the main street of Trinidad and Tobago’s capital. To hear him sing it was something else. To see him sing it was something else again.

If you were to ask Duke what calypso he would like to be remembered by – as Allyson Hennessy did on television – he would have told you “Teach the Children”, which is an indication of how Afrocentric he was. Calypso historian Chalkdust, in his eulogy, claimed that nobody has sung more calypsoes on Africa than Duke (I don’t suppose Rudder’s entire South African album Dawn of a New Day would count), with his classic “Black is Beautiful” first ringing out during the convulsions of the 1970s when black people, not only in Trinidad and Tobago but elsewhere, rebelled against the white stereotype of beauty.

One of the songs that won Duke his first crown in 1968 was “This is Calypso”, in which he sang:

What is calypso?
I’m sure you really don’t know.
I wonder if you know
The true meaning of calypso.
Because the words that we rhyme and sing
Is only half the thing.
I can tell you that
Calypso is more than a work of art.

It is a feeling which comes from deep within;
A tale of joy or one of suffering;
It’s an editorial in song of the life that we undergo.
That and only that, I know, is true calypso.”

By this yardstick and more, Duke towered as a true-true kaisonian.