Interview of Professor Haroun Shah 

 

The Association of Calypsonians UK (ACUK) Interview of Professor Haroun Shah The London Calypso Tent

 

8thJanuary 2018

Interviewer Sade Hewitt-Ibru

“My name is Sade.  I am collecting information on the behalf of the Association of the Calypsonian UK HLF project which is the Heritage Lottery Fund.”

“I have with me Haroun Shah.  Thank you for agreeing Haroun to share your stories and memories with the Association of the Calypsonians UK and wider community.”

Interviewee Haroun Shah

“Thank you very much for the opportunity to participate in this Sade.”

Sade

“Ok thank you.  So, can you remember the day that you first attended the Calypso Tent?”

Haroun

“Yes, I first attended the Calypso Tent back at the YAA Asantewaa Centre in 1998”

Sade

1998, ok.

Haroun

I remember it well because it was the year my last daughter, Laila was born.

Sade

What made you attend, was it an invite or a special event?

Haroun

I play with the UK’s oldest steelband, Nostalgia whose panyard is just a short distance from the Yaa Asantewaa. Growing up in Trinidad it was customary to try and listen to original calypsos in the Tent and how arrangers translate their music onto steelpan.  So, I was intrigued to know whether something like this could work in London.  Nostalgia did so in 1999 with a Mighty Tiger’s calypso for Notting Hill carnival but unfortunately this has not been maintained. In the last few years another steel band called St Michael’s and All Angels Steelband (now Phoenix Rising) has been doing this with Alexander D Great with great success.

Sade

It quite interesting how you want to put calypso to the pan to enhance the lyrics.

Haroun

No, this is only novel in the diaspora. In Trinidad this would be seen as normal and is at the heart of the history of calypso itself.  Calypsos were sung for several decades before the steelpan was invented in Trinidad.  However, when steelbands arrived, their arrangers naturally turned to the calypsonians for their music for carnival. The most poignant example of this was when the Grand Master, icon and legendary, Lord Kitchener, domiciled in Trinidad from 1962 after decades in England and devoted this entire period until he passed away on 11thFebruary 2000 to writing calypsos for steelpan. I think this solidified the bond between calypso and steelpan in a way that was never achieved before.

Sade

So what was your first personal experience of calypso?

Haroun

Just as you learn nursery rhymes in this country, in Trinidad we grew up singing calypsos and also nursery rhymes. Nursery rhymes were from England and most of it had no relevance to our lives. Calypsos on the other hand did.  So calypsos such as, ‘Jonah who teef a bake here’, ‘Brown Skin Gal’or the Mighty Spoiler’s funny calypsos resonated with us. Now this didn’t distract us from singing pop songs and rock and roll and all the other things that happened then. But, I think with certain individuals calypso had a greater attachment and I was one of them. I felt closer to it than all this other forms of contemporary music even though I took a very broad interest in music. My mother was a pianist and we had no choice, we had to learn to play piano using classical pieces, not calypso. So up now, calypso in buried in the deepest part of my soul and plays daily in our home!!! My three daughters grew up with calypso and it is very much a part of their daily lives too.

Sade

Wonderful, it’s in your blood so to say.

Haroun

Absolutely. I was so lucky that from five or six years old, my parents took me to the Calypso Tent.  This is quite amazing because at that time calypso was barred in many homes. At that time, calypso music from the Tent was broadcasted live, so I would rush home from school and do my homework (to please my parents) so that I could sit glued to the radio each night to hear each calypsonian. Even when television arrived, radio was still the medium for broadcast. So as I grew up, right through to my early years,  and teens until I left Trinidad, our family would listen to the radio every night and follow all the calypso’s that came out every year.  So it was a natural progression when I came to England to see if this was possible, to follow it and thank God we had people like the Mighty Tiger, Lord Cloak, Admiral Jack, Lucky, Explorer and some of the great early calypsonians who brought calypso alive at the Yaa Asantewaa. Being able to go there, in heart of London and relive my experience of Trinidad is something I look forward to annually.

Sade

How did you find the Tent in London, who informed you of it?

Haroun

Well, it was advertised but in those days such events were known largely by word of mouth. Luckily, because I was in the community and involved with carnival, I knew about it.  We didn’t have the internet or mobile phones then but the Caribbean community were really quite good at transmitting such news.  How did I find it?  An incredible experience and I was truly amazed at the high level of respect given to artists. The Yaa Asantewaa had a wonderful ambience with great audience participation. An evening at the Calypso Tent was not like a  concert; you are much more involved in what’s going on and I was absolutely astonished that the early calypsonians here at the YAA was able to create that environment.  They were of course singing to a very receptive audience because most of the people who were there would have been accustomed to seeing this in Trinidad and the Caribbean.

One of the things that I would compliment them on in this very early years of calypso in London is the reverence paid to both new and older calypsonians. In Trinidad if you weren’t a very good calypsonian, you were booed off stage; there was no regard for even newcomers. I can recall seeing some potentially good calypsonians who left the stage in shame and tears.  The most prominent was the appearance of  the very young, new comer, the then unknown ‘Mighty Sniper’ at the Naparima Bowl in San Fernando. Appearing after some of the well-known names such as the Mighty Bomber, Lord Christo etc who had very upbeat and catchy rhythms, Sniper’s calypso ‘Portrait of Trinidad’ was slow and his beautiful, profound lyrics were missed while he was heckled, jeered and booed off stage.  Luckily, he had the courage to stay there, sidestep this dreadful behaviour and finish his calypso.  Interestingly by the time he did other performances and people listened properly to his masterpiece, they realized this was a remarkable calypso and he got a standing ovation at the next level of the competition. He then went on to become Calypso Monarch in 1965 against a powerful field of finalists in 1965.  Today, this calypso, ‘Portrait of Trinidad’ is celebrated like a ‘National Anthem for Trinidad’.  What I found at the YAA is no matter how poor a calypsonian was, they were never given such appalling treatment. The audience there encouraged people and that was the big difference between Trinidad and what I saw at the Yaa  and all credit to all the calypsonians and the organisers who encouraged and fostered such a spirited, pleasant and vibrant atmosphere.

Sade

That’s wonderful, so everyone had the opportunity to……

Haroun

Yes. But what I also applaud in London, especially as we moved from the YAA to the Tabernacle in 2008 is the increased number of female calypsonians who began coming forward; gender was never an issue here. Some such as Akima Paul, were short-lived but created a huge impact and even went on to win the first Extempo competition.  I think we should compliment Alexander D Great and all the other calypsonians in the Tent for maintaining such fantastic race and gender equality and the willingness to promote everybody

Sade

What would you say was one of your favourite memories, an artist, an event, because they have done several competitions here haven’t they or Haroun, can you tell me about your favourite performances at the Tent. Any favourite performances, events, competitions etc

Haroun

It is difficult to single out one particular event, one evening or one calypso over the years because every year you think it’s great, it gets better the next year and so I have memories going back from  the early days of the Mighty Tiger.  He sang a calypso to acknowledge the YAA Asantewaa and that’s used even to this day as a theme tune to open the calypso season.  He also sang a calypso called ‘Little Birdy’ which I absolutely love because the melody is so wonderful and it was also the last calypso I heard him sing sadly before he left the stage and was incapacitated. But, I think one of the nicest traditions that have been maintained in this Calypso Tent is the calypsonian’s ability to relate stories of contemporary life in the UK and around the world and that’s what calypsonians do so well as musical journalist. I remember being struck by the sheer terror of the earthquake in 2010 in Haiti, one of the poorest countries in the world and the devastation that followed.  And yet the wretchedness of all this situation was beautifully captured in a calypso by Alexander D Great.

Many of the Calpysonians in the Tent have sung very interesting calypsos.  I remember two years ago, G-String, sang and also played an absolutely beautiful calypso on the problems in Nigeria and my daughter was with me as a little kid. We have a copy of his C.D in our car and often play it while driving.  Lord Cloak always amused the audiences and we always look forward to him.

Rev B and De Admiral also produce interesting calypsos.  But as I said earlier I think the women in calypso Tent have been extremely powerful.  I remember a truly amazing female calypsonian by the name of Akima Paul who became Calypso Monarch in 2009. I learnt that she was a law student and never did music before, yet she performed like a professional.  She took on the tent contestants in Extempo and reached the final. She competed against Alexander D Great and won the final.  I think calypsonians such as Helena B, Brown Sugar and Cleopatra are truly amazing.  I feel the women in the Tent have absolutely beautiful voices and all in all I think I’ve had really fantastic experiences, not just in a single year but over many the years.  Over the years, the ABC has brought over many distinguished artists, Lord Explainer singing ‘Lorraine’ is one my most memorable experiences.

Sade

And that’s probably the reason you keep coming back.

Haroun

Yes! Because it keeps getting better every year and from time to time you see new calypsonians making their mark.  I recollect in 2013 when a white youngster made his debut and was introduced in a very circumspect, offhand manner. But this youngster came on stage and brought down the house. I was particularly overwhelmed by his performance, humour, ability to adapt so well to the Tent and connect with the audience. I remember speaking to people like Alexander D Great later on and saying, I hope we are going to see that guy back in the Tent.  Three years later he won the Groovy Soca Competition and up to last year 2017 he performed again to a house that was screaming their support for him – his sobriquet is Santiago. One of my own colleagues from Nostalgia steelband entered for the first time last year under the name ‘Muffinman’ and has already made his mark with the audience. We see new talent coming in the Tent regularly and it’s interesting to see how the more experienced calypsonians nurture and inspire them.

Sade

It’s good because they are very diverse, it’s a very diverse community it’s not secluded.  So what do you look for then in a good calypso Tent performance, how do you spot talent, say you have the younger generation coming up.

Haroun

With calypso, the lyrics are extremely important because it charts a particular event at a specific time. If we listen to early calypsos by the Lord Kitchener in London  it’s like listening to a documentary on life in London; about his landlady, about cricket when the West Indies team was aspiring to become a superpower in the world of cricket.  Others tells his experience on travelling on the underground, the Coronation of the Queen, life in early London and many more. It is wonderful that calypso today continues to maintain that theme; eg in the Tent you will now hear calypsos on ‘Brexit’, War in the Middle East, Crime in London, the USA president etc.

But beyond the lyrics, the calypsonian also has to have an accompanying striking original melody to get the attention of the audience and beyond the Tent, the Steelbands. Annually, there is a lot of anticipation and eagerness to see who achieves this interface between good lyrics, good melody and also being able to deliver their composition best in the Tent. I feel this must be a monumental task but I can’t gauge it as I’ve never sang a calypso in public. But siting in the audience, you feel the mood intensifying and people getting excited when that message begins coming across very clear and appealing.

If we go back to Trinidad and look at the way one at the superlative maestros of all time, the Mighty Sparrow’s you can see that he went beyond the Tent and interacted with the whole population of Trinidad and Tobago. It was as if Sparrow carried on a dialogue with the whole country and specifically with Prime Minster Eric Williams. His calypsos had a profound effect, influencing major political and social changes in Trinidad and Tobago. Sparrow’s calypsos even caused dramatic changes to the British educations system that was embedded there. Roy Cape, a brass musician and whose brass band backed up the Mighty Sparrow for decades gives deep insight into the life of this incredible man. Cape’s states that Sparrow dedicates his whole life to calypso, he walks with dictionaries and books to improve his lyrics. Calypsonians here in the Tent do likewise with minimal remuneration.

In my view, one of the most poignant statements on this topic is that of C.L.R James’s. The West Indies, just prior to Independence of Jamaica and Trinidad, were part of a West Indian federation.  The federation was short-lived and there is a complex story of why it did not work and books have been written on it. When CLR James was asked in a public meeting about the complex situation of the federation of why it broke up, he said “listen to Sparrow’s calypso, you will learn everything you need to learn in that one calypso.”  It emphasises the power of the medium of calypso and to me to be able, in three to four verses, to compact so much information into a melody, make it coherent, humorous, clear and lucid to that population is equivalent to what we get in the highest form of literature.  One of the most powerful statements on this topic in my view is the book called the The Political Calypso;True Opposition in Trinidad and Tobago 1962 – 1987 byLouis Regis.In Britain, we have literary giants such as Shakespeare, Tennyson, Byron, Wordsworth etc who chart the history of this country;  in Trinidad and now here in the UK, the Caribbean community has calypso which is our literature and a powerful medium for recording our history in song.

Sade

Yes it’s historical, political and reaches the wider community.

Haroun

I don’t think that we should ever loose the pivotal role of calypso in the history of the Caribbean and how it was born and evolved. If I had to name one or two calypsos to illustrate this, it would be Sparrow’s “Slave” and the Mighty Terror’s “Heading North”. I would love our entire community to listen to these powerful lyrics. I have played these frequently for my three daughters as they grew up and even today they also play them and many others to their own kids. Slave vividly translates the torture, the pain delivered by the slave masters, humiliation, the agony of the plantations, the dismay and horror of their lives. This is not even a very popular calypso yet in my view it should be played in every school as part of the history of slavery. In the Mighty Terror’s  “Heading North” he charts the reasons for the vast moment of African-Americans moving to the north of the USA to escape the racist politics and their abysmal treatment in the south. In my opinion what make this calypso so powerful is that Terror was courageous enough to sing this calypso at a time when the Civil Right movement was not even born and to even question the system was tantamount to a crime. At that time, Trinidadian-born Claudia Jones faced the ultimate penalty for speaking out and was imprisoned and eventually expelled from the USA for such views. You can’t help speculating, if she had conveyed her messages for equality in calypso, would the authorities have responded in the same way?

Sade

At the Tent

Haroun

At the Tent, all of this comes alive. On the final nights of the Tent, the Calypso Monarch and Groovy Soca Monarch competitions take place.  Calypsonians use every means possible to convey their meaning and sometimes use very wacky and amusing props to enhance their message.

 Sade

Thank you Haroun. So what is the role of the Calypsonian to you?

Haroun

In most societies, stories of peoples’ lives and experiences are narrated through folklore. In the Caribbean, calypsonian narrate interesting stories through song and they survive for decades – who can forget Sparrow’s Jean and Dinah of 1956 that is frequently sung today.  In Kitchener’s early days in London he was the spokesman for the first 5,000 immigrants of the West Indies and kept people entertained with stories from home. But he soon switched his calypsos to stories around him in London. One of best remembered is his cricket victory calypso called “Cricket Lovely Cricket” which was written to celebrate the West Indies first victory over England in the 2ndtest match at Lords in 1950.

I remember when my daughter was just 10 years, she entered a school quiz and one of the questions was, “What is the date of Ghana’s independence?”  without her thinking she blared out “6thMarch 1957” because she knew Kitchener’s calypso ‘Birth of Ghana’.

This year I heard a fantastic calypso by Tobago Crusoe about Teresa May at the time of the general elections, about his opinions on Brexit and Donald Trump and while they are highly amusing calypsos they are also very topical.  So like the past, even though we are very far away from home, Calypsonians have kept the tradition very much alive here.

Calypsos are often documentaries of legendary figures while many, such as David Rudder’s ‘Sweet TnT’ reminds us of home. Alexander D Great’s tribute to the icon Russell Henderson or Cyril Khamai’s 84’s birthday are outstanding examples from the Tent.  In 2017 Brown Sugar’s calypso dealt with gender issues at home and women’s rights which won her the Calypso Monarch.

Sade

What is the role of Calypsonians, how can the Tent be improved, what would you like to see, how would you like to see the generations moving forward in the Tent?

Haroun

I believe that over the years the Calypso Tent has largely catered to an audience who knows about calypso and it depends very much on people bringing others to experience the events. Part of the reason for this is that it only happens during a very short period in the summer leading up to the Notting Hill Carnival and its literally about four evenings when all of this happens. Something that sprung out of all of this has been organised by Michael La Rose, Alexander D Great and others is the ‘Kaiso Lime’. Annually, this starts May and ends in November and this is regarded by many as an extension of the Calypso Tent.  I would like to see the Calypso Tent activities spread throughout the whole year.  I think we can focus it very strongly during the Notting Hill Carnival but I would like to see it also taken out of the Tabernacle to venues such as the Festival Hall and various theatres where wider audience can experience this prodigious artform. Of course this will need massive funding but I believe it would pay for itself in the long run.

A few calypsonians such as Alexander D Great, D’Alberto and Tobago Crusoe go directly into schools and work with youngsters. I would like to see more youngsters coming in and experiencing this artform. I feel part of the role of the Calypso Tent is to try to reach further outside the Caribbean community, let them know we have this amazing talent and music. I feel it would also be nice to have some workshops in which we analyse some calypsos and the impact of these on peoples’ lives.

I already mentioned Sparrow. I can remember him singing about the “Russian Satellite”and a calypso in 1958 called ‘Pay as you earn’ about income tax rises in Trinidad and Tobago.  What do these sorts of calypsos mean in the context of life?  It would be interesting to explore this perhaps even by interaction with an audience.

I have been fortunate to work with Alexander D Great through our biennial steelpan conferences from 2006 and this has extended my understanding of this art form even more. We incorporate one session of the conference on Calypso which allows us to ‘get behind the scene’ and search deeper into the history of calypso by the people who bring this music to us annually.

Sade

Haroun, can you see the Tent taking calypso more globally?

Haroun

I think this is a really very interesting question.  Calypso started in the very small island of Trinidad and has now spread to other Caribbean islands. Harry Belafonte popularised it in the USA and this then brought in a lot of well-known Americans artists. Another American, a contemporary writer and journalist, Ray Funk has been documenting many of these events and has shown clippings at the Tabernacle. Renowned artists such as Nat King Cole, Dean Martin, Robert Mitchum and even the great Louis Armstrong were shown singing calypso around the 1950’s and 60’s.  This was a great period for calypso but paradoxically it was also a difficult time for calypso because it could have been taken over by the USA and lost from the Caribbean for good.

Here in England, we had calypsos being sung by various pop groups.  I remember a calypso called ‘Last Train to San Fernando’ being sung by Johnny Duncan that reached number two in the UK charts. This was very personal for me as I was born and grew up in San Fernando.  We now know that groups such as the Beatles, the Rolling Stones etc also had a deep-routed interest in calypso. The Beatles were actually mentored by a calypsonian called Lord Woodbine who was also on the Empire Windrush in 1948 with Lord Kitchener and Lord Beginner, but whose work was largely obliterated from history until the awe-inspiring work of James McGrath at Leeds Beckett University. Woodbine was an accomplished pannist and a calypsonian who took the Beatles from obscurity to fame under Brian Epstein. So with all these groundbreaking activities one would have expected that calypso would have gone more global by now.  But it was superseded by the more commercial music that was coming out of Jamaica in the 1960s, largely driven by another Trinidadian, Nerlin Tait. Great singers such as Millie Small, Desmond Dekker, Jimmy Cliff, Toots and the Mytals, Lee Perry and many more drove the reggae movement into it becoming more acceptable and more commercial. For the large Jamaican population living in London it was more commercial and this took precedence over from calypso and went global, especially with the arrival of Bob Marley in London in1972. Calypso stayed inaudible in the meantime but luckily was never lost and continues to maintain a strong presence while other genres slowly declined.

One of the things that I think you have to compliment the Calypso Tent here in London is in fostering more global connections.  Under the Mighty Tiger a programme started that brought up the Junior Monarchs from Trinidad to perform at the Calypso Tent.  They also brought up well known calypsonians such as Lord Explainer, Sparrow, David Rudder, Mighty Chalkdust and others. There is an exchange programme between the calypso tent in Toronto and the ABC here.  The winner of the Monarch here goes to Toronto and vice versa and hopefully that can extend to other cities such as New York and other parts of the world where there are calypso tents.

I am an optimist and believe that the programme which was started by the ABC 25 years ago will continue under the ACUK and will foster more globally interactions. Newer forms of calypso such as Soca are more commercial and appearing in dance halls and keep-fit classes such as Zumba in gyms across the UK and North America. Calypsonians such as Machel Montanocan be heard daily in these classes and is now a global phenomenon. So this might be another avenue through which calypso might gain a more global arena.  But the traditional calypso hopefully will always stay because that is its roots that perpetuated it through generations.  I am confident that the great calypsonian of the Tent will ensure its long term future.

Sade

Just to round up, of the many Calypsonians and the amazing songs that they have sung, which one would you say is one of your favourites.

Haroun

In the Calypso Tent here I would have to choose Alexander D Great’s ‘Russell Henderson, the Panman because of its powerful lyrics, beautiful melody and the expressiveness of this tribute to the late legend. However, I grew up in Trinidad with calypso in my daily life. There were of course the mythical figures such as Lord Kitchener, Mighty Sparrow, Mighty Spoiler, Lord Christo, Mighty Bomber, Lord Melody, Mighty Terror, Lord Shorty, Mighty Composer, Mighty Sniper, Lord Blakie etc. I loved the originality and wit of Spoiler and Christo and the immense fun, shrewdness and music of Lord Melody. Sparrow’sJean and Dinah of 1956 was so special and even at that age (10 years), I had the feeling a new type of calypso had arrived. And sure it did, as Sparrow just kept going without a serious rival except perhaps Melody. When Kitchener burst in on the scene in Trinidad from the UK in 1963 and sang “The Road”, he not only won the Road March but a real dual ensued between the two giants of calypso for the next two decades. So powerful were the melodies of Kitchener that steelbands began to grow is size and the age of the “Big Band” arose in the 60s with the start of Panorama in 1963. The sky was now the limit and this glorious era of calypso, led the grandmaster to win the Road March competitions eleven times; the last being ‘Flag Woman’ in 1976.  During this period, it would be difficult to select a single calypso as there were so many great calypsos.  But I left home in 1967 and that year Kitchener sang a calypso called “67”. Our family band, Guinness Cavaliers under the helm of the legendary Bobby Mohammed also won Panorama for a second time with this calypso and established them as a tour de force in the highly competitive world of steelpan. In a few week’s time, Nostalgia will be participating in its first carnival in Trinidad in February 2018. We are teaming up with Southern All Stars and will play “67” on the road.  So for all these reasons, if I had to name a favorite and special calypso, it would have to be “67” as it was such a memorable year for me. But this also emphasises how indelible and visible calypso can mark out the footsteps of one’s life. Thank you Lord Kitchener this great calypso but also thanks to all the calypsonians in Trinidad and Tobago and here at the London Tent for enriching our lives immeasurably.

Sade

Ok, thank you Haroun for sharing your treasured memories of the Tent with us and the Calypsonians, the music, the art for the wider community and on behalf of the Heritage Lottery Fund.  We thank you and we appreciate your generosity in sharing today.  Thank you.

Haroun

Thank you very much Sade for your time and patience.  I enjoyed the experience and look forward to seeing the end product. Thanks again for the opportunity and to the Heritage Lottery Fund for making this possible.

Sade

Thank you.

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