Celebrating Our Bards

By Raffique Shah
January 09, 2023

Raffique ShahUpon rereading my column last Sunday, I thought I did grave injustice to Leroy Calliste, the Black Stalin, by attempting to evaluate his immense contribution to calypso, the art form, and culture as a whole in Trinidad and Tobago, or indeed in the Carribbean, by summarizing his works in a few paragraphs. My apologies to the late bard who passed on and was given one of the most impressive funerals I’ve witnessed in my lifetime.

As I watched on television at the seeming spontaneity of the masses, hundreds of people walking purposefully towards the performing arts center in the city of San Fernando where he was born, lived his entire life, and now died, I grasped the measure of the man. Stalin was our Pele, our hero not on a sports field, but in an art form that he all but dominated, churning out great calypsoes year after year, straddling the big-stage at the Savannah like a colossus, dashing the hopes of many a new artiste in competitions that are part of our Carnival.

It was the singer and his songs, which he composed, that made him such a giant. Very early in his career he had chosen to use his talents to champion the causes of the downtrodden. True, calypso’s origin lay in protest, in the bards, who were primarily slaves on the plantations. The colonial masters had no problem with slaves, who in drunken stupor, made fun of their fellow slaves, and at times the masters, but chantwells who targeted only the power structure, were deemed dangerous.

That was what Stalin chose to be. He was talented enough to deliver serious indictments against the ruling classes in the country who dared not touch him because he was protected by the masses. He would later prove to be even more talented, shifting from the protest-calypso to the party-mood: that was, and continues to be where the big money is, in calypso. But Stalin’s conscience did not permit him to do that. At the peak of his protest-flight, he would storm the stage with ‘Dorothy’ who wanted the Black Man to ‘wine and jam’ with her. Oh, he did it alright but with utter sarcasm: ‘Wait Dorothy wait’. Dorothy had to wait while Stalin attended to the people’s business. I must confess that I was among his fans who feared he would fall into the wine-and-jam dollar-fest that had sent many a-good calypsonian singing ta-ta for big bucks while those who stuck with the art form could hardly find place in the traditional tents.

The Black Man blindsided all of us. Not only did he party away with Dorothy while protesting the ills of the society, the economic inequities, the collapse of infrastructure, rising crime and high unemployment among young people but he also took an almost sadistic delight in ‘bunning’ (burn) the notorious oppressors who wreaked havoc on colonised people across the world. The theme of that calypso was as serious as you could get -punishment by fire- for the greatest transgressors. Yet it came across with much humour as new names for burning were randomly added at fetes where the racy, melodious calypso became a runaway hit.

Stalin showed his philosophical depth and his sense of responsibility that he wanted to share when he composed and sang one of his biggest songs, Black Man feeling to Party. Here was Stalin, well in the mood to party but ensuring that his children were well taken care of during their absence and however much he and his wife will lose their sanity temporarily with the music, they’ll return home to continue to take care of their family. That was a powerful message to irresponsible parents and breadwinners in the Caribbean who allow drunken stupor to overwhelm them when Carnival comes around.

The irony of Stalin enjoying healthy relations in the home while at the same time dancing the night away to good calypso music, is that no one could accuse him of being irresponsible even as he earned money. Stalin confronts low productivity and patriotism in the population at large in a very subtle way: We can Make it if we try/ Just a little harder. He puts the politicians to shame in one of his earliest political songs, ‘The Caribbean Man’. Many attempts to bring even limited co-operation among countries in the Caribbean have collapsed owing to lack of trust among governments.

Indeed in paying tribute to the bard, Justice Gillian Lucky, among other accolades, called on the authorities to introduce his works to the schools’ curriculum. I joined with Judge Lucky in calling for the printed works of not only Stalin but De Vine, Sparrow, Kitchener, Chalkdust, Rudder and dozens other calypsonians to be taught and studied not only in secondary school but at tertiary level as well.

Read some of these lyrics online and you’ll see Judge Gillian and I are alluding to.

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