Joker, the Bard of Trinidad

By Raffique Shah
June 28, 2021

Raffique ShahI imagine that like me, most calypso aficionados first became aware of the existence of the late Winsford ‘Joker’ Devine when, in 1980, a virtually unknown calypsonian, ‘King’ Austin Lewis, emerged as a favourite for the calypso monarch title in his debut appearance, singing Devine’s record-breaking composition, ‘Progress’. The affable Austin didn’t win the title, running second to accomplished performer Lord Relator.

But ‘Progress’ shot to the top of the charts with its poetry-like construct and haunting melody, that made it so infectious, it triggered a musical pandemic long before we knew what a pandemic was.

Twenty years later, in the year 2000, ‘Progress’ was acclaimed the Calypso of the 20th Century across the world, wherever calypso was recognized as an important genre of music. And Austin’s open recognition of ‘Joker’ as the composer of the song and its music, brought into the focus a genius, a virtual Bard of Trinidad (and Tobago, if you all behave nicely!), who had already stamped his larger than life influence on the art form, only most of the public did not know it, or know him, even as they danced, ‘wined’ to his poetry-delivered-with-saucy-lyrics, dressed with must-dance melodies.

The Joker, as Devine was fondly called, ran wild,

It took his passing last Thursday, though, to tear-open a cupboard full of skeletons, to expose to the world charlatans and quacks who masqueraded as master-calypsonians, or master-calypsonians who did not always sing their own compositions, but were never honest enough to give credit to the composers of the songs they sang.

As radio stations devoted much of the afternoon programming to honour him by playing his compositions, and I found myself among the mass of calypso fans who listened. Suddenly, I heard Sparrow belt out ‘Drunk and Disorderly’ which Birdie never credited Joker as being its composer. The story of that song tells the sordid side of the entertainment industry, of senior calypsonians who exploited his ‘Country Bookie’ innocence, who bought his inspired compositions for the proverbial song, never crediting him as composer of the lyrics and music. In an interview with TriniSoca.com in 2007, he spoke of putting ‘about 50 songs’ on a ‘reel-to-reel’ tape, a friend taking him to veteran tent manager Syl Taylor, who, after listening to samples, ‘bought the whole tape and gave me $360’.

One song he had titled ‘Drunkard Calypso’. Sparrow would sing it as ‘Drunk and Disorderly’ in 1972, never crediting Joker as the composer. It was a huge hit. Cut. Enter this kaiso-fanatic, yuh boy self, listening to that song way back when, saying to myself that Sparrow ‘is a borse composer’…couldn’t believe my ears. Check dis: ‘Dey never teach me rum control/so put as much mih glass could hold/dey say ah hungry man is ah angry man/a drunken man is a happy man/Good Friday could fall on Ash Wednesday/as long as is Rum Day, I ‘ent goin’ no way…’ What eloquent description of a drunkard.

Back to Joker being taken for…well, a joke. Take ‘Phillip My Dear’, a super-classic, and again, lyrics to kill for: It’s a risqué take on an incident in Buckingham Palace when a near-vagrant stole into Her Majesty’s chambers one night in 1982. Sparrow sang, with confidence and authority: ‘…(Phillip my dear)…There was a man in my bedroom/wearing your shoe/trying on the royal costume/dipping in the royal perfume/…loaded with brew/Yes, this malodorous urchin/on top of my bed was perching/like a cockatoo…’

Literary genius!

Now, there were always stories of Blakie, Sparrow and others buying songs outright, many times for the value a verse or cheaper, certainly much less than the proverbial song, and not giving even credit to the composers. Except this was no run-of-the-mill composer. Joker’s imagination was wild. His vocabulary was immense. And while he was not perfect in English usage (who is?), the volume of work he churned out is unimaginable-some 500 calypsoes.

William Shakespeare, the Bard of Stratford-on-Avon, produced in contrast just 38 plays and 150 poems. And while it is true that plays are lengthy and complex, he didn’t have to add melodies to them. Devine not merely added music, his melodies were…sweet. Think of songs such as ‘Somebody’ (Baron), which 28 steelbands chose to play at Panorama 1989; ‘Queen of the Bands’ which Sparrow recorded in 1971; Sailing; In time to come; Maharajin; Memories; Who will guard the guards? And a thousand more.

For reasons advanced above, and many more manifestations of the impact Devine had on local music, he should have been accorded greater honour. The doctorate conferred on him by The UWI was a fitting gesture. But some agency or NGO should ensure that the intellectual property rights that are due to him by this huge body of work that he has left as his legacy, yield appropriate recompense for his family.

Also, awarding him The ORTT posthumously would be a nice gesture.

Gifted men like Joker Devine pass this way only once in a lifetime. Count ourselves fortunate to have known him and enjoyed his incomparable lyrics and music.

2 thoughts on “Joker, the Bard of Trinidad”

  1. Raff, thank you for writing such fitting piece on the late Winsford Devine. Your comments solidifies you as one of our foremost patriots and nationals that is so rare in our land. There are those who profess to have our national interests at heart but when tested, they are only in it for the M-O-N-E-Y. You eat, drink and sleep Trinidad and Tobago and you are not afraid to let friened and foe alike know it.

    I felt compelled to add my comments because Winsford was one of many boys in our then little known village of Morne Diable (proper pronunciation), who aspired to great heights without the benefits of formative institutions such as libraries, high schools,
    arts and cultural guidance, electronics and enhancing utilities.
    In the village, he was only known as Mervyn Cooper. He had two brothers (different mothers), Allan and Dash who were all brought up by his father affectionately known as Cao (pronounced as Kaawi..). He lived with his father, grandfather and brothers in a thatched house an did not get the schooling most of the village children got. What we got (as children of the village) were role models that we all looked up to. In his book, Winsford mentioned one of his mentors as “Mano” (my cousin).
    While I too, had my sights on Mano as someone to learn from, my dad would have none of it. Mano concentrated on building the steelband. Mano was good at almost all instruments, guitar, cuatro mandolin etc etc but he was our musical genius. I was policed by my dad, my mom and older brothers because being connected to ‘pan’ in those days were considered demeaning by some in our environment. Mervyn, did not have such restrictions so he spent quality time with Mano and his brothers who were musical geniuses. As I mentioned before, due to the lack of structures, we relied heavily on learned elders for knowledge (outside of the one elementary school). In that regard, Mano and his brothers provided music, Mr Castillo provided law related issues, Mr. Melon who worked on the Panama canal provided international knowledge, Mr Guyton was our village intellectual along with Mr Noel and Boysie Paul. They were versed in history and international affairs and they parted knowledge to alll who were willing to listen. Mr. Defoe and Sonny Fortune provided insights into building and construction. On the spiritual side, there was Mrs. Nelson, and mother Gatha. On the medical side there were Miss Mary (the only name known to us). She delivered almost all the babies born in the village and was a known pharmacist as well. This, in a nutshell, is the background from which the greatest calypso composer cam from and I am proud to shed whatever light I can on his ascent in the world of music. His composition PROGRESS will live into eternity because every word in it relates to the then NOW. The mastery of his knowledge of literature in Phillip My Dear is great, which remind me that we were not totally ignorant of it either. We had local productions of concerts that were not just musical but lirical and theatrical as well. This I believe, was the nurturing environment that provided Winsford (Mervyn Cooper) Devine with the aspirations he propelled towards greatness.

    I was also happy to learn that he was a good family man. May his soul rest in peace and May God bless his family.

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