Winthrop Holder offers a wide-ranging appreciation of Black Stalin’s ‘Hard Wuk’ as the University of the West Indies prepares to confer the Honorary Doctor of Letters (DLitt) on the people’s calypsonian.
“You cannot see a light if it is put in a place of brightness, so it was necessary that [European colonialists] create darkness so that their light would shine.”
—Earl Lovelace, T&T Review, June 1998
“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.”
Debate, rather celebration, broke out on Spiceislandertalkshop.com, an open Grenadian forum on the Internet, when word leaked, from the ivory showers of the Mona Campus of the University of the West Indies, revealing that at the October 31, 2008 graduation ceremonies on the St. Augustine Campus, Trinidad, the university would be conferring an Honorary Doctor of Letters (DLitt) on Calypsonian Black Stalin. And it was from this lively, borderless, yet temporal, symposium that I first heard word that the academy had finally caught up with The Black Man’s awesome indigenous knowledge and his embrace and celebration of the ‘ritual discourse of the streets’. Elation reigned supreme among the masses and beyond. And, soon people were testifying, anew, how Stalin’s work resonates among so many “sufferers”, in particular, and civilians in general.
“Leroy Calliste [is] one of the truly great exponents of the calypso art” wrote Bigdrumnation on the Internet thread. Attesting to his ability to bridge the gap between the sacred and the secular he continued, “Black Stalin is revered by legions of calypso fans, including the Roman Catholic Bishop of Grenada.” Such testimony to the reverential awe that encircles Stalin paved the way for an exploration of The Black Man’s life journey, pilgrimage if you will, and a dialogue around his ability, not only to foment contemplation as a precursor to action, but also about the force of his work to engender hope and renewal. And in a flash, breaking out in cyberspace, the rum shops, market places and limes throughout the Caribbean and the world, was an electrifying discussion on the enigmatic and iconoclastic Stalin, the “Emblematic Figure of Calypso”, and his centrality to our very being and sense of selfhood.
RealPolice, another contributor to the thread, thundered, “Most of the pioneer calypsonians in Trinidad and Tobago were either born in Grenada or have Grenadian roots. Gypsy, Faye Anne Lyons [and her] father ‘Super Blue’ [have] ties to Grenada. Therefore, Grenada has lost out culturally to Trinidad and Tobago.” Commie, another contributor, wrote “I was in Port of Spain when Stalin won the crown with ‘Caribbean Man.’” All of this and we haven’t heard from any “Trini” or “’Bago” voices “to the bone” yet.
Sometime in late July 1988 I received a call from Dawad Philip, then the editor of The Daily Challenge, New York’s only Black daily, informing me that he had scheduled a five minute interview for me with Black Stalin to get background information for a short piece for the Friday paper to promote Stalin’s historic performance at the famous, now defunct, Village Gate Jazz club in NYC. But, the Stalin Symposium—rather Dialogues—-went on for more than 90 minutes. And, when I sat down to write, I realized that (even now) I had a serious problem: How to truncate Stalin’s words into the few lines that the editor had set aside for the piece. Or, as The Black Man, himself, would, in a later interview, pose the dilemma of kaiso research/writing thus: “How to capture/bottle the spirit of calypso in a few words?”
Picking up the Friday newspaper I was elated on seeing a picture of Stalin staring at me from the centerfold between the two pages filled with his words. And when he was presented with the paper Stalin, rather nonchalantly, said: “Man, you guys really allow me to talk!” The paradox of someone who has continuously used the vehicle of calypso to advance the cause of the underclass being amazed at his being allowed to talk, stunned me. It was then that it dawned on me that my editor had experienced the power of Stalin’s words even before hearing them read, for he recognized the error of the academy’s and media’s penchant for authenticating some voices and de-authenticating others. And this may have been the epiphany that moved him to reorganize the center pages thereby giving voice to, and validating, Stalin’s words beyond his lyrics. Little wonder, then, that around the same time Phillip started a weekly column, “Word! A Youth Forum,” which brought the marginalized and suppressed, though resilient, youth voices into the mainstream of the media and our popular imagination.
While in the interview Stalin may not have set out to seek and reshape landscapes, his written words provided him with a new vision. The catch phrase—a core element in his work—“allow me to talk,” helped us see more clearly how the calypsonians’ voice beyond the lyrics, had been muzzled in the discourse on the calypso. And this may well have compelled us to embrace Stalin’s quest to ‘bend de angle on them,’ by unearthing and validating more voices from the so-called margins.
‘Ah Home-Grown Kinda Thing’
“In times of joy we must be thankful/ Because life really have its ups and its downs.” “In Times”
How did we get to this point and why have so many been so willing to join Stalin on his “ongoing reflective process of self-discovery and self-creation”? By sampling the poetry of everyday people to contest the discourse and dogmas of the downpressors and, to use dub poet Mike Smith’s apt term, ‘intellectual pen dragons’, hasn’t The Black Man extended roles from being mouthpiece of the oppressed to that of our ultimate warrior intellectual? How have we been connected to, and drawn into, his message and method and what animates his vision/work? Stalin elaborates in a late July 2008 interview:
“It was really nice to hear of the UWI recognition. It feels good to know that over the years I’ve been able to make a contribution in people’s lives. And that’s all that I set out to do.”
Launching his career in 1959, as a citation to be presented to the Black Man later this year by the Emancipation Committee of T&T notes, “with ‘Why I Want to be a Calypsonian’… he remained true to what he conceived his profession to be about, a position he states in ‘Wait Dorothy Wait’:” ‘In this world of nuclear and revolution/ The calypso man still singing ‘bout rum and woman/ So ah just making sure that when they runnin they big mouth/ It ain’t Black Stalin music that they talking ‘bout.’”
Though Stalin may never have struggled much to find his voice but walking with him on the road to (re)fashion his distinctive message we may have encountered one or two bumps. Still, an aversion to smut and degrading lyrics runs deep in Stalin, as less than uplifting lyrics were firmly expunged by the Black Man in 1965 when, as Keith Smith and Kim Johnson revealed in The Official Calypso Review ‘88, after “being encored night after night for a smutty song [that] he was uncomfortable with… he walked out of the [Original Young Brigade] tent mid-season never to return.” Such tenacity, faith and conviction in the ultimate supremacy of the progressive over the merely crowd pleasing is at the core of his work and appeal.
In our July 2008 Symposium Stalin reflects: “I grow up in a God-fearing home and I couldn’t go on stage, night after night, and sing smut with my mother still alive…. So the positive vibes were ah home grown kinda thing.” Here Stalin demonstrates the quintessential human and noble character of engaging in self-reflection as a means of inspiring self and others to greater heights. Stalin adds, “We have to hope that who on smut would make the change one day” And there can be no better testimony of hope, renewal and transformation than “Wait Dorothy Wait” which percolated in his mind for a long time before unleashing it in 1985 as an anthem for many.
Getting to the core of The Black Man’s reach, the Emancipation Support Committee citation continued: “The Black Man has placed himself from the outset, within an emancipatory process that has many dimensions and levels. It is political, cultural, economic, intellectual and spiritual, but his work is always in this emancipatory mode.” It’s a mode of resistance that Stalin embraces and projects, in his own words, and as he says, “Just to make a difference. And I’m so happy that over the years my work has been taken up by people in different quarters and has been used to make a better life for themselves.”
Few recognize the potential and reach of his work better than Stalin himself, who grounds his work in the people’s life stories, travails and aspirations. He continues, “Because pieces of Black Stalin’s work is people’s anthem, whether it’s like a family would say to each other, ‘We could make it if we try’. Or when one is in problems to say, ‘Let’s Look on the Bright Side’, or draw on ‘Better Day are Coming’ and the ‘The Caribbean Man’ for inspiration and guidance.”
Popular Education Thru Calypso
“Notting, notting … eh strange/ In de life of a man out for change.”
Oh, how have numerous sectors of our global village been drawing from, and on, his work for inspiration and a guidance that’s life-long and life affirming. Moreover, through the portal of Stalin’s work many seize the opportunity to use the calypso, in general and his work in particular, to reflect on personal, emotional and, even spiritual growth. Commenting on the Spiceislandertalkshop.com, Bigdrumnation recalls that “Stalin and Valentino headed a ‘Grenadian Posse’ in a 1979 tour of Grenada, Carriacou and Petite Martinique in the immediate wake of the triumph of the Grenadian Revolution. Posse members included calypsonian Gypsy- whose roots run deep in Paraclete, and bandleader Roy Cape, whose parents hailed from Grenville.” Thus this new honor for Black Stalin forces people to remember and reflect on the selfless spirit characteristic of the Black Man life’s journey sowing seeds of possibilities/empowerment in its wake.
Let’s listen in on the reflections of Martin Felix, a Grenadian activist and educator residing in Brooklyn, “Although short-lived, the PRG/NJM Revolution in Grenada was a memorable and educational experience for me as a youth growing up during that period. It was a moment filled with rich political, cultural, and literary lessons [and] that experience… enriched my life and made me a better person.”
Indeed, in “No Way” (1988), Black Stalin reflects on the revolutionaries devouring the revolution:
“When they try and they fail to stop Maurice Bishop/
Yes, they get he own people, Ah say, to Lick him up.”
Although concerted attempts are made to denigrate and revile that period in Grenadian history, the glories, memories and possibilities linger in the minds of many. Felix continues: “Much credit for the cultural capital of that era has to be given to the many artists who emphasized the true essence of calypso – popular education…. There were many examples of such compositions and I witnessed many memorable moments, but a Black Stalin performance one very late Saturday night (sometime on or around African Liberation Day in 1980) made an indelible impression on me. Black Stalin came to Grenada with Brother Valentino and some performers of NJAC’s cultural arm on a solidarity tour. Though all the performances of that series were outstanding, it was Stalin’s performance of ‘Caribbean Unity (The Caribbean Man)’ that I can recall most vividly. It was simultaneously theater, spoken word, and a history lesson.” Felix continues, “Probably it was because the song provided some answers and set the parameter for discussing one of the most burning questions I had at the time,” and he breaks out singing:
“You try with a federation/ De whole ting get in confusion
Caricom and then Carifta/ But some how ah smelling disaster
Mister West Indian politician/ I mean yuh went to big institution
And how come you cyar unite 7 million.”
Indeed, as Felix notes, “Stalin’s Caribbean Unity plea can be said to be the anthem of the moment because he captured the long-standing quest of the unfinished business of a Caribbean nation – a genuine and wider Caribbean Union.”
This notion that we, of the Caribbean, are inextricably linked as one is key in Stalin’s thinking as reflected in his words, “There exists a homeliness and togetherness throughout the Caribbean… away from the politicians [who] don’t know how powerful Caribbean Unity is.” Recent posturing by a few Caribbean governments with talk of a Caribbean Union highlights anew how far removed these ‘leaders’ and their top-down approach to (mis)governance are from the true aspirations of the Caribbean masses whose voices refuse to be silenced.
Hoagy Stevens, a New Jersey based social activist from St Lucia, reflects: “From the ghettos of Soweto to the Laventille Hills, Stalin’s music has been used to uplift the downtrodden…. I have seen him in performance endless times. Anytime you hear Black Stalin or David Rudder is in town, I’m sure to be there…. No matter how small, Stalin is always pushing for Caribbeanism and Caribbean integration. That’s my umbrella, my movement.” Foregrounding Stalin’s “Caribbean Man” more than 60 years ago, Eric Williams, in The Economic Future of The Caribbean, made the still unacknowledged point, “[C]hange there must be. And that change, it is equally clear, must be carefully planed and must involve a closer union of the separated Caribbean units.” How, then, can present-day leaders talk about a Caribbean Union without careful planning that solicits and values the input of the masses? If it’s clear to the Caribbean massive that togetherness arises from the bottom up, why are the ‘leaders’ so deaf to the people’s chants and aspirations? It’s as if today’s leaders never heard, or even read, Relator’s “Deaf Panmen” with its caustic refrain,
Some playing B-flat, some playing F
They can’t hear a thing because they deaf
But still they come out to jam
And the name of the band is Dr. Williams
Ah hope you understand the masquerade
Panmen with dark shades wearing hearing aid.
If leaders are now aphonic and incapable of voicing sense and simple truths, then The Black Man’s role as perceptual antenna is all the more central. His music may also be viewed as a lens though which we reflect on our own self-fashioning, self-transformation and social awakening as we divine the future in the present. Dr. Jessica Adams-Skinner, now an AIDS Research Scientist and Educator, reflects on her first transformative encounter with Stalin: “‘Caribbean Man’ is definitely one of my favourite pieces…. I was in high school in Trinidad in 1979 and prided myself on keeping abreast of the political scene in the Caribbean. When I first heard this song I was mesmerized by the lyrics and Stalin’s ability to deliver what at that time I was already hailing as a classic in its own right. I could be in a deep sleep but once that song came on the airwaves it was as if I was conditioned, almost zombie-like, to wake up and salute one of my heroes. To sleep through this song for me was total disrespect.”
Indeed, Stalin’s haunting lyrics have a way of waking people up while tugging at our collective conscience and pushing us to engage in action, even if merely dancing, as a precursor to social activism. His approach is, as one writer puts it, “more probing than telling, less annalistic than analytic” to which Stalin adds: “So, I think, not only for me, but for writers in general, as Sparalanag says, ‘It’s important that when you write, you try and write sense.’ I welcome the recognition and I hope that other writers could see the importance of trying to make a contribution to change the lives of people and the world in general.”
Joining the symposium of celebration Ulric Butcher, former T&T national youth soccer player (1974) and one who “dabbles in composing and singing calypso”, adds, “It’s a milestone achievement that enhances Stalin’s other awards…. It also provides motivation and inspiration for younger artists who are dedicated to making a difference like Dr. Sparrow, and Stalin who is now achieving this recognition… It’s not the first time that the University is granting such a degree to a calypsonian.” On that historic occasion Black Stalin was one of the first to proffer profuse praise on Dr. Slinger Francisco. Celebrating Sparrow and the calypso in an (October 1988 T&T Review) symposium, The Black Man said, “Kaiso come a long way and it’s going to go a long way. When I saw Sparrow being honored…and Stalin interjects … Sparrow[‘s] classic [line], ‘Calypsonians really ketch hell for a long time’ … and to see that today universities could watch kaiso and honour it. A kaiso Doctor! Give Praise and Thanks!”
Commenting on Spiceislandertalkshop.com, which approximates a public university where everyone is both student and professor, Bigdrummation reminds us that “It was Stalin who conferred on Brother Valentino the title of ‘People’s Calypsonian’ [and] it was Stalin who lavished tributes (in song)… on pannist Winston “Spree” Simon, and on chutney singer Sundar Popo.” Just as Stalin forges and values life-long friendships with the “Sufferers” for whom he speaks, so too he treasures and nurtures artistic relationships. Indeed, his classic “Sundar” was not only a paean to national unity but, more importantly, a tribute to the indomitable Sundar Popo. Writing Sundar into Kaiso lore and our cultural history Stalin sang:
“Since de days of Nani and Nana/
He is de man who really start chutney/
And clear de way for Rikki and Drupatee/
So now I going and do for you ah chutney jam.”
Little wonder then that on his passing, Hinduism Today (September/October 2000), reported that Stalin “delivered the eulogy at Sundar’s funeral, becoming the first black artist to speak at the funeral of a Hindu/Indian artist.” Capturing Stalin in full flight and revealing the essence of his humanity and a commitment to crossing borders and igniting social cohesion among “sufferers”, the paper continued, “[i]t was a touching ceremony to see a black calypsonian among the many orthodox Maha Sabha pundits who performed the religious rites for Sundar Popo.” Revealing the essence of friendship and documenting “the first time a calypso was sung at the funeral of a Hindu” the article noted that, “Stalin sang the 1995 song he and Sundar had sung together on the national calypso stage.”
The Black Man, like David Rudder, is committed to spreading the gospel of unity while documenting “The [Auto]biography of the Now.” Stalin, in paying tribute to famed bandleader Roy Cape, collaborated with him on the playful, “Leroy Roy” in which Stalin sings: “Since you is a kaisonian take the mike and let we extempo.” But, instead of taking the mike Cape takes his sax and obliges with a hauntingly magnetic extempo all the while The Black Man bigs up the legion of musicians who influenced Cape. “Leroy Roy”, then, is a tightly constructed and arranged ode that only The Black Man could conceive and execute, flawlessly. And there’s tension in the piece as the chorus encourages the mock duel instructing the ace sax man to “Blow Roy Cape, Blow” as he continues to provide sweet music for Stalin and us all, even as The Black Man continues with the tease. Stalin explains the collaboration, “I’m giving praise to my brethren concerning his musical talents, featuring him as an individual player, in the whole thing and not just a band accompanying a kaisonian.”
Similarly, highlighting the deep and real sense of camaraderie, support and love nurtured in the calypso Stalin reveals that, ”When the degree was announced, one of the very first calls I got was from Gypsy… but I wasn’t home and he sang two extempo verses… expressing how beautiful he felt about the recognition.” And when I asked Short Pants, another master of the extempo, for a reaction he offered:
It is fitting that we celebrate/ The Caribbean Man gets the Doctorate.
His Immortal Message still there to see/ The Black Man, Doh Get Nothing Easy –
But We Can Make It If We Try/ We can Bun Dem if, we hold we head high.
Feel to Party; Better Days Coming/ It’s the time to Play One for Black Stalin!
Stalin continues his reflections: “And calypso people and associations from all over the Caribbean and as far as Britain, even ordinary people called to congratulate me.” Stalin’s music, sometimes serving as a type of therapy, has touched people in many walks of live. Eddy Taylor, a retired hospital administrator who hails from San Fernando, reflects, “We began to recognize that intellectually, the Black Man had more to offer than purely the jump and wave party mentality.” He adds, “although the calypsonian was always the messenger, Stalin built on that tradition by fusing and channeling the bacchanal situation and the entertainment arena into a focus on social commentary and used our common, everyday language and behavior, to raise our level of psychological and political consciousness.” Key to Stalin’s reach and his mode of instruction, then, is an ability to cultivate the intellect of the downtrodden and the dispossessed by forcing us to revisit and re-engage deeply troubling and formerly suppressed issues.
King Swallow, multiple Antiguan Calypso Crown and Road March Title winner who will be honoured at the October 25 Annual Sunshine Awards(NY), testifies to The Black Man’s appeal and influence in the calypso community: “If you ask him about Rupert Philo he’ll tell you, ‘That’s my brother. I have a brother in Antigua.’ It’s always an encouraging feeling to go and watch him perform. Sometimes if I’m going on stage before him, he’d say, ‘I’m going to take you in.’ And,I make sure that I’m out of the dressing room to take him in when he’s on stage…. He’s always accepted in Antigua as one of the greatest performers…. He does it so well and so easy. You can even say he is flawless…. Over the years his work has had a strong influence on my work: In composing, the artistry, the presentation of the music, his stage personality in all these aspects Stalin is super.”
As such, the calypso fraternity from far and wide welcomed this honouring of Black Stalin as only the second calypsonian to be recognized by the university with an honorary doctorate! Interestingly, at the July 2008 International Conference of the Association for Cultural Studies held at Mona, Jamaica, David Rudder was hailed as one of Six Scholars of Caribbean Cultural Studies thereby underscoring what Brian Meeks, in Narratives of Resistance: Jamaica, Trinidad, The Caribbean, highlights as “the central importance of the popular arts in social analysis.” One wonders when consideration would be given to bestowing similar honours on a few more of our still unsung heroes such as Shadow, King Short Shirt, Boogsie Sharpe and Robbie Greenidge.
Dancing Without Regret (a personal connection)
“If you can’t prove what you writing/ Then don’t write what you writing.”- “Jail”
How has Stalin’s “emancipatory lyrics” channeled our sense of selfhood and independence? What about his hold, not only on the popular imagination but also, on the ‘vision thing?’ What accounts for the continued relevance and prescience of The Black Man’s work and its penchant for recapturing sensibilities while refashioning futures? Listen in as Ian Martin narrates the trajectory of Stalin’s pull: “I came [to the U.S.A.] in 1973…. And when I graduated I went back to Trinidad and got married [and] was fortunate to see carnival in 1978 and 1979…. When I returned here I got a real comfortable position with one of the largest property casualty insurance companies so carnival was out of the question for me during the `1980s and 1990s because the busy months for me are January through March…. However, late one Saturday night in 1991 I happened to turn on the radio and I heard Black Stalin’s “Ah Feel to Party” and immediately I said to myself, ‘Stalin is singing about me.’ I felt a personal connection with the song…. It was as if Stalin knew me and studied my situation and was singing directly to me.”
Martin interjects the opening lines of the song, ‘Stop all housework you doing/ Tonight we going and have some fun/ Ah just feeling to party/ The way we used to when we was young.’ Switching back to talk, he continues, “So I spoke with my wife and the following day we booked tickets to carnival. And that was my first carnival in about 12 years because all my efforts in the 1980s were about seeing about the family and maintaining the job…. Carnival didn’t cross my mind in the 1980s… until that night when I heard ‘Black Man Come out to Party!’”
This classic number resonates and provides a space in which bonds are renewed thus strengthening the foundation for family and community, even dancehall, cohesion. And how have we partied while being mindful of our social responsibility to keep family together. Les Slater, chairman of the Trinidad and Tobago Folks Art Institute (NY), observes: “I know of a few intellectuals who had a problem with ‘Black Man Come out to Party’ but I don’t have a problem with it…. Once on Trevor Wilkins Show (91.5 FM) we did a program on the best party music that has come down the pike. And, as for my list, I wound up with ‘Black Man Come Out to Party’ as the best party song ever! That is saying something for an artist whose focus is dealing with the more serious side of life…. He’s saying that after having done all the serious stuff through the years [husband and wife] have earned the right to go out and party!”
“Ah Feel to Party” has become such a personal anthem that it moves people in so many directions even to the point of referencing it in multiple ways. Zennie De Silva, a Trinidadian poet/educator, offers: “Long after the carnival season is over Stalin’s social/political songs linger on in our minds because we not only listened to the lyrics but we also danced to them and as we danced, we sang the words and they became part of us. For all this, however, his greatest song for me is still, ‘Tonight the Black Man Feeling to Party.’ When the opening bars of that song start up everyone feels to party. It is powerful in its music as well as its lyrics.”
Indeed, “Ah Feel to Party” is among a pantheon of songs from Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On”, Bob Marley’s “War”, Ella Andall’s “Black Woman” and Stalin’s own ”Bun Dem,” among others, which elicit instant dancing and singing in unison at the sound of first bar! Stalin, then, never has to instruct his audience to ‘get something and wave’. Spontaneous waving, dancing, celebration, and even taking a plane to witness and be rejuvenated by a Stalin performance, flow naturally from the power of his poignant lyrics and rootedness. His rejection of binary opposites or blending of the party feeling with conscious lyrics was dramatized by Louis Regis in his must-read Black Stalin: Kaisonian noting that Stalin’s early dancing days and time spent playing pan may have shaped his “notion of calypso as dance music… thus escaping the sermon or lecture mode into which other message calypsonians have fallen.”
Regis helps us see more clearly a Stalin who is grounded in, and integrates, the best of our even seemingly contradictory folk traditions by employing what Barry Chevannes, in Between and Betwixt, refers to as “[t]he power of ambiguity and paradox in Anansi.” This, then, is the great strength/paradox of the Black Man: a penchant for getting people to dance, and be fun-filled even when confronted by a bleak, even stark, reality all the while infusing his subversive lyrics that serve as a reality/sound check and counterpoint to the (un)controlled frenzy of the moment.
Indeed David Rudder’s “High Mas” challenged us to further ponder the tension between the sacred and the profane while Naipaul, like the calypsonian, realizes that laughter cuts both ways. His own attempt to battle with misperceptions of his work led him to wonder, in words that come close to shedding light on one of the paradoxes at the heart of “Bun Dem” and other great pieces of double-edges works in social realism: How can one laugh/dance to so much evil? Hear Naipaul express it somewhat differently. In commenting on a reading of In A Free State he said, “I had [the audience] rolling in the aisle …though later on they were a little shocked to discover they were laughing at something people shouldn’t really be laughing at. It was too late for them to regret their laughter.” Laughter, as we know it, and dancing often serve as masks in our tradition. It’s a tribute, then, to Stalin’s unapologetic sense of self and unblemished embrace of our struggle that allows him to have us dance and even laugh without any regret.
In ‘Bun Dem”, Stalin also settles the score, on the spiritual and humanistic level, with respect to how we should relate to those found guilty, in the people’s tribunal, of crimes against good sense and world civilization. Looking squarely into the past in a 1988 interview in order to influence the future in the present he says, “In ‘Bun Dem’ all are stripped of their titles… So I didn’t say Queen Victoria or Queen Mary… she became that woman Mary. This was done to express outrage against all perpetrators of injustice against Africans.”
Moreover, by employing eternal flames he recasts the evil that flowed from the darkness of the colonial mindset. Stalin, like Earl Lovelace, contests the cant that anything bright could have flowed from minds so evil that unleashed such pain. More than that, those “vampires” turned light into darkness only to then wallow in the lie of civilizing the ‘dark continent.’ Stalin is uncompromising in his quest to use his acute (in)sight, further brightened by the ‘Burning Flames’, to help us “overstand” the past and more importantly brace ourselves to be the future we seek as he compels us to become subjects of our cognition and masters of our destines. This is a mode of resistance that’s embraced by other noble warriors.
On a Charlie Rose show (July 2008) commemorating Nelson Mandela’s Long Road to Freedom and his ninetieth birthday, one of the interviewees related an exchange between Queen Elizabeth and Nelson Mandela. According to Rose’s guest the Queen called Nelson Mandela on his birthday and when the phone was given to him, the queen said, “Happy birthday Nelson,” to which the former South African president and moral conscience of our world responded, “Thank you Elizabeth.” According to the guest, Mandela’s staff scurried to remind him of the protocol with respect to, as the Mighty Duke would say, “putting a title to she name”! Mandela, like The Black Man, is “overs that” long time!
‘The Problem of Voice & Language
“Every Constituency is my constituency.” Black Stalin
What is it about this man Stalin that allows his voice, message and music to travel so far into the world and our consciousness? Why has Stalin’s voice and message been able to reach so many in the world community? If Dr. Leroy Calliste, our warrior intellectual, forces us to critically engage the past and the future he also pushes us to extend and appreciate a new range of musical possibilities.
How can his voice draw so many into its range in spite of Keith Smith and Kim Johnson noting, correctly, that his voice is “raspy [and] incapable of great heights or lows, maybe incapable of even scanning an octave.” How, then, was Stalin able to transform a potential liability into strength? Underscoring the problem of voice/diction in a stellar performance (at The Trinidad Hilton in the 1980s) the indomitable Lord Relator recreates the traditional tent setting to memorialize our penchant for appreciating calypsonians of various persuasions in spite- rather because of (an absence of sweet) voice and even presentation skills.
Relator reminded the audience that “the beauty with Lord Fluke [is that] you hear every word that he is saying but, poor fella, never would sing in time.” And this may even have enhanced his popularity in many areas even beyond Belmont where he was the Unofficial Road March King. Relator contrasts Fluke with “[The Mighty Jackson] who sings in time but you don’t hear one word that he says.” And striking up a comical pose and making unintelligible sounds, Relator scats much to the amusement of the enraptured audience. Although both acts may have had what some refer to as “major flaws” by conventional musical standards, yet to calypso and its demanding audiences, that didn’t minimize their popularity. Tellingly, Smith and Johnson conclude, “If [Stalin] can hold down a melody, good; his lyrics carry a rhythm that is naturally close to the spoken word as it is heard in the streets” making Stalin a folk poet par excellence, and, not just for his lyrics.
Related to the problem of voice is that of understanding the calypsonian’s language. Hear Stalin addressed this issue, in (Small Axe, March 2001), “It’s important to see us through our language…. When I say our language I mean our Resistance English that we use all the time… The… world had to learn what ‘Ire’ means. [Our] music is for the world but, again, through our eyes.” To which Joan Gordon, a Jamaican cultural activist out of Rochester, N.Y, says, “Stalin’s music transcends his Trinidadian roots…. All progressive people can relate to his music for it brings positive feelings and impacts us in profound ways. Stalin is blessed with deep insight which you can’t learn in a classroom and this contributes to his natural humanity…. Really, it was only after Bob Marley wasn’t with us that people appreciated his real genius…. It’s best to appreciate and honour our heroes now when they are with us.”
That the calypso may well be giving new life to Jamaican and Caribbean icon, Louise Bennet’s vision of “Colonization in Reverse” can be read into the dramatic and increasing interest in the calypso and the steelpan throughout the world. Rita Keresztesi author of a forthcoming study, “Carnival and Calypso, or the Business of Resistance in the Texts of V. S. Naipaul, Earl Lovelace, and David Rudder” says, “As someone from the other side of that bizarrely named…’Iron Curtain’ I have always been intrigued by “Black Stalin.’ His name captures my Hungarian imagination.”
Regis, in his masterful biography Black Stalin: Kaisonian, notes that though Stalin’s name may have held him back in competitions, he has always taken “unpopular decisions in stride and never gone public with invective against administrators, judges and fellow competitors.” Even when a newspaper columnist had the gall to write, as quoted in Kaisonian, “Perhaps [Stalin] should consider changing his name. What will the tourists feel on hearing that the Calypso King of this country is none other tha[n] the dreaded figure Stalin?”, the Black Man remained quiet. Little wonder, then, that Black Stalin never viewed such unnamed newspaper columnists—“silly reporters”—and other purveyors of gloom and doom as having not even, to use Lloyd Best’s term, “mosquito value.”
Exalting the Pan
“[P]an is opening up internationally and we can’t stop that,
what we have to do is come up with new ideas to stay ahead.” Dr. Jit Samaroo
“Steelbands need more respect on carnival day/
Steelbands need more respect coming from the DJ.
You have your big box of twenty thousand watts of power/
When the steelband pass we cyar hear the bass nor tenor…
So for this festival hear what I want you to do
Turn down your box, look the steelband coming…
We want to hear what the steelband playing.”
Black Stalin, “More Respect,” 2009
Stalin is always ready to celebrate the “hard wuk” that spawns achievements as he did with “Dr. Jit” in which he sang: “It was a long hard fight for the panman…/ So when word came out that day from UWI/ Jit Samaroo would receive a degree/ It brought great joy to pan people everywhere.” Here, The Black Man celebrates the famed pan arranger/composer—and nine time panorama winner with Renegades!—on the receipt of an honorary degree from UWI in 2003. This aspect of his work and appeal is not lost on the legion of fans, who respect The Black Man, not just for his music but, for his enhanced humanity and humility. A disposition that’s fused with an urgency to use the vehicle of the calypso to elevate the status of many of our unsung heroes and other voices form the margins even as he excavates and memorializes pan’s journey, “From playing a pan in Miramar Club to a degree.”
Stalin’s haunting lyrics tugs at, and serves as our collective conscience and is recognized and appreciated throughout the Caribbean and beyond. It’s interesting to note how many fans and critics alike instantly retrieve a particular song or catch phrase when looking at Stalin’s transcendental outpouring. St. Lucian Hoagy Stevens reflects: “Even in ‘Hey, Hey, Mr. Panmaker’ we have seen Stalin warning governments to safeguard we art-form.” To be sure, Stalin is very conscious of his mission of celebrating and protecting the interests of both the instrument and player. He explains, “I try to deal with the pan and the man. Like in ‘Mr. Pan Maker’ where we dealing more with the pan: its development and the need to nurture, safeguard, and refine it; and a song like ‘Pan Gone’ where I more deal with the man.” And he interjects a stanza, “Steelband now in society/But when they say society/Brother try and understand/That really goes for the pan/They don’t mean the man.”
Apart from Kitchener, the Grand Master, few calypsonians have celebrated and defended the pan—our patrimony—as tirelessly as Stalin. This inextricable link between artist and pan prompted Les Slater to observe: “Stalin is always exalting the pan; never seeing it in a light manner. The fact that Stalin could ask in ‘Mr. Panmaker’ how many grams of steel to make a pan lets you see the seriousness that he attaches to the pan.”
Indeed, throughout Stalin’s illustrious career, which may well have started in the pan yard, the pan has always been dear to him for as he says, “from small there was always a tenor pan in the house.” Featuring his early connection to the pan, Regis, in his definitive biography on Stalin, notes that Dennis, Stalin’s older brother, of the southern based Free French Steelband, and in whose care the young Leroy was entrusted, carried him to the pan yard from early prompting the mature Black Stalin to reflect, poignantly, that “his first crib was a tenor pan”! And it is this deep affinity with the pan flowing with his social concern which is at the heart of The Black Man’s life work and art.
Dawad Phillip, poet/journalist and founder of the San Fernando Jazz Festival, recalls, “Of course, Stalin’s first success in terms of music for pan was, as early as 1967, with ‘Beat My Tune’,” with which according to Stalin, he “went to the [Calypso] finals.”
Referring to that time when Sparrow and Kitchener ruled the road, Stalin adds, “I got beautiful feedback on ‘Beat My Tune’ as a couple of steelbands played it on the road carnival day… I remember Solo [Harmonites] doing it and it was on a recording with a steelband coming out of Telco Recording.” His appeal to the pan is taking off. Stalin reports that, “Today Jah Roots [a steelband] out of Point Fortin seem to take to Black Stalin’s music…. This year they played ‘We Can Make it if We Try’, ‘Black Man Feel to Party’, ‘Come With It’…. Roots play a lot of Black Stalin music and I sang with so many steelbands accompanying me, Skiffle Bunch, Despers, Silver Stars, and Exodus.”
In discussing the appeal of Stalin’s music to the pan, Phillip adds, “It happens sometimes that because of an artist’s lyrical strength people always listened to Stalin as opposed to cultivating an appreciation for his melodic contribution and its receptivity by pan…. But now, more and more, the pan community is listening to Stalin’s melody and finding a lot of great tunes to explore on the pan.” Embracing and extending Slater’s notion, Phillip adds, “Stalin both exalts the pan and provides beautiful music for the pan to play… but in the past people focused more on the message in the music, as opposed to the music in the message.”
Although “Beat My Tune,” like Shadow’s “The Threat” —early threats indeed to the then two-man domination of Pan’s Panorama Repertoire—can be viewed as an appeal to the pan, Stalin argues: “I never went the way of writing a particular song for the pan to play or as some people say a pan song. I don’t see that in the music. I don’t think there is anything that one can call a pan song… I view the pan as any other instrument in that it can play any music that you give it play so I never really… concentrate on doing music especially to attract steelband arrangers.” The discography of pan bears out Stalin’s point, for from European classic and Samba to Jazz and Reggae pan has made its mark. Stalin breaks out singing his 1994 Classic, “Me ain’t no one tune pan man/ any tune I could play beat me brudder, bring on you music sheet/ Whether it’s jazz or classic, name the music I could play it/ I could ramajay, any music I could play…. it’s time you start seeing me as a musician”. And he rests his case.
Further buttressing The Black Man’s point Phillip adds, “Sometimes those who make the choices for the steel bands kinda deal with a narrow palette. They look to the usual people. If you look back at the melodies of Stalin’s music, it has all the possibilities for pan… it’s just that somehow he hasn’t been a consistent choice and it’s not Stalin’s fault…. Steelband arrangers hear what they want to hear…. You can’t tell me that if I’m coming down the road with my band playing ‘Black Man Feeling to Party’ I cyant mash up de place!” Underscoring this view Phillip notes, “At this year’s Laventille Steelband Festival, the band that stole the show was Renegades… Everybody was playing Kitchener and all kinds of popular and tested songs but Renegades came through playing Nelson’s ‘All Ah We Is One Family’ and they mash up the place. What they did was energize a song that arrangers rarely looked at before. And it’s the same thing that’s happening with Stalin’s music…arrangers discovering tunes that they never looked at before.”
Flowing from the increasing pan activities throughout the year there has been a broadening of the repertoire of the steelband, especially since many of these events stipulate the genre of music to be played. Phillip reports that at a September 2008 Marabella Pan Festival part of the arrangement required steelbands to play chutney, and a parang. Indeed, these stipulations allow for a broader range of choice thus allowing bands and arrangers to explore previously unexplored music.
It now appears as if society is finally catching up with Stalin in that more and more, we are moving beyond our self-imposed limitations as “part time lovers” of “we culture.” Speaking to this repositioning of the culture of pan in the national psyche Philip concludes, “Of all the songs Phase Two decided to play at this year’s Laventille Festival was a 1957 Melody tune, ‘Jonah and the Bake’, which is an impossible piece of music to play for a band on the move… and you have to imagine how they have to stop and play ‘Jonah…yes pah, you take a bake her, no pah, you tale a bake par.. one gone.’ However, in spite of the challenge, it was a real intricate and beautiful performance,” that dramatizes anew that no tune is beyond the range or scope of the creativity that fires the inspiration for each performance. Indeed, Denzyl Botus, the renowned arranger of Despers USA argues that “We always like to take a challenge, a song [like Rudder’s ‘Monsterrat’] that everybody figures is hard, and make music out of it” (Everybody’s Nov/Dec 2001).
Just as Stalin is committed to exalting the pan he is equally committed to bearing the burden of documenting pan’s journey thereby serving as our collective memory. Challenging the pan fraternity to tell more of their stories Stalin implores, “Robbie Greenidge, Rudy ‘Two Left” Smith, Othello Molineaux and other pannists to relate their stories in any form; lectures or write about it and let the children read about it” For as he asserts, “Young musicians need to understand that journey… to help them appreciate how pannists were able to take their pans from the hills in Laventille or from St. James and reach on a stage with Jimmy Buffet and Liberace… Ah mean, that’s a long trip. If we panmen playing with these musical legends, then they are not just panmen but renowned musicians!”
Fortunately, Stalin’s call for serious documentation of the road traveled by the pan fraternity is being realized. There is now developing a treasure trove of publications to introduce, engage and stimulate young musicians around and behind the many bridges of suffering from which the pan rose. Or, as David Rudder puts it so aptly, “Out of a muddy pond ten thousand flowers bloom.” Both Kim Johnson’s “If Yuh Iron Good You Is King: Pan Pioneers of Trinidad and Tobago” and Myrna Nurse’s “Unheard Voices: The Rise of Steelband and Calypso in the Caribbean and North America” serve as the window through which young pannists can be introduced to pan’s glorious and multifaceted history and in the words of those who, according to Stalin, made “the long journey.”
University Without Walls….
“I made my debut in the late 1950s…. So I started when we was marching
down to Chaguaramus to tell the Yankees go home.” Black Stalin, July 2008
Little wonder that the work of the calypsonians, including Stalin’s, is commanding attention and scrutiny in the public square and on numerous university campuses. Employing the guile and resistance spirit that’s embedded in the spirit of Calypso, Keresztesi, neither tourist nor “Stranger” writes: “When I proposed a course on Carnival Literature at The University of Oklahoma… I felt the need to somehow justify to my colleagues that it was a creditable subject. Because the name of Mikhail Bakhtin carried the value of being ‘difficult’ and could be identified as ‘theory,’ I put his text on carnival at the top of my reading list that also contained Hollis (Chalkdust) Liverpool’s Rituals of Power & Rebellion and music CDs by Black Stalin, the Mighty Sparrow, and David Rudder, among others.”
Keresztesi reports that, “The course was accepted, I think, because Bakhtin carried the weight for the artists not immediately recognizable for a reading list at a traditional English department.” This has to be in the best tradition of the calypso, one which Gordon Rohlehr, the pre-eminent figure in research on the calypso, refers to as employing “a certain twist of mind” to transcend limitations and (re)fashion futures/possibilities. That the professori is a good student of the calypso is evident in her next activist stance: “Next time I teach the course, I should be able to start my reading list with the likes of Black Stalin a. k. a. Dr. Calliste, Dr. Hollis Liverpool, David Rudder, Earl Lovelace, and the list goes on.”
It now appears that the university is finally catching up with Stalin’s intuition and indigenous knowledge. From which fount springs Stalin’s interests and insights? Rawle Gibbons, an educator and playwright, uncovers and reveals the multiple layers of explanation and influences that engulf Stalin thereby providing clarity and a critical yet creative edge to Stalin’s work: “Some years ago, when I asked Stalin what influenced his perspective, he told me he was schooled in the ‘university without walls’. By that he was referring to the classes and sessions he had as a boy growing up in San Fernando with griots like George Jeremiah, Clemmy George, Roy White and others. These were all African-conscious, Garveyite, Butlerite individuals. Clemmy George, a griot and chronic collector of newspaper clippings, also wrote an operetta on the 1937 riots ‘Winds of Change’. Jeremiah was a primary school teacher whose real passion was African history. His classes learnt African songs and dances and like Bango in Earl Lovelace’s SALT, celebrated Emancipation Day with his own parade since the 1940s. The African influence was at home as well, as his mother belonged to the Orisha faith.”
No doubt, Stalin was well schooled and continues to be appreciative of his informal education. This is evident in his paying homage to the spirit of the times and its impact and continued salience on his social consciousness, even into his mature life. In an interview (T&T Review, October 1988) Stalin, explained, “I do a lot of homework. In the late 196os serious work was gong on. There was a lot of readings happening in the back of the house—running of books,” capturing, as only he can, the minefields that fire his imagination and ire.
As a public intellectual, Stalin employs the vehicle of the calypso to engender thought and action among pupils and professor alike and this is perhaps best gleaned in Martin Felix’s reflections on his 1980s encounter with The Black Man. Understanding intuitively that, at his best, Stalin is a professor emeritus extending the boundaries of knowledge in the ‘university with walls’, Felix commented on a Stalin performance thus: “Stalin, in his trademark centripetal encirclement on stage at Queens Park [Grenada] that night, dressed in all white dashiki with red, green and gold trimming, made me realize that the true intellectuals can be found in the most ordinary packaging [and] that kind of pedagogue is more accessible and more effective because it does not look like teaching.”
Thus Stalin, by valuing and giving voice to his people’s lived realities, understands and employs critical pedagogy much more effectively than our presumed ‘aristocrats of knowledge’ who rely almost exclusively on the fuzzy experts from North American and European universities who are long on jargon and fuzzy modules but short on substance and critical, problem-posing engagements. Is there any mystery why the music of the oppressed—rap, reggae, calypso, and so on—provides us with the most critical element—a bridge—to energize and enliven public education all the while inciting the youth to chant down Babylon as they refashion futures, ours and theirs?
Felix, a grassroots philosopher himself, adds: “Stalin provided me with a great ‘mini-lesson’ and sent me to do further research as extended class work. The task that Stalin provided me at that concert in Grenada, has preoccupied me with an excellent framework for continuing research as well as a model of best teaching practice… I very often revisit Professor Stalin via his recorded ‘mini-/major-lessons’ whenever I need to be reminded of this, our most pressing but illusive task – ‘Caribbean Unity’.”
If Stalin, by continuously excavating and revisiting vexing issues in our social/cultural history provides us with new ways of re-interpreting reality, so too his method has been embraced by those who follow and try to understand and promote his vision. Gibbons sees Stalin’s music as coming “out of a love-place: love for the art, the race, his family, the people and culture of Trinidad and Tobago.” Getting to the underbelly of Stalin’s work Gibbons posits that “Stalin’s music is positive and constructive precisely because he balances artistic integrity and artistic success, offering perspectives that are fair and fearless.” This warrior spirit flowing from a love for his contemporaries and the ancestors is no better place captured than in “More Come”, and his calling on the spirit of the slave revolts to compel us to be “iron thorns” in our struggle to expunge the hold that the oppressors still have on too many minds and, more importantly, to becomes resisters to modern day vampires and all those who push “unfreedom.”
Black Wizard, another celebrated social commentator and three-time Grenadian Calypso Monarch, reflects on the educative role of the calypso and its borderless communities: “I’m a student of Black Stalin, in the sense that I followed his music and learned from him just as I followed the Mighty Sparrow and learned from him…. Stalin has tremendous influence on my type of singing… He’s always singing on… the political, social and cultural issues… Although people appear to go for the more party type music they still have deep respect for Stalin who does deep serious social commentary.” And as if to remind us never to overlook the sometimes hidden registers of the calypso, Wizard reminds us that “Stalin is a deep thinker. Society can’t do without deep thinkers.”
That Stalin is a master of engaging his many audiences in the truly public and open university is further gleaned from Jocelyne Guilbault, author of Governing Sound: the Cultural Politics of Trinidad’s Carnival Musics, who notes: “[W]hen I first heard and saw Black Stalin perform, I was struck by the wits and wisdom of his lyrics and his mesmerizing presence on stage. My interviews with other artists, arrangers, musicians, and calypso aficionados further amplified my own reactions to Stalin’s exceptional stature in the calypso scene.” What is it then about Stalin and his work that incites so many at a moments notice to honour and experience his work as a vicarious thrill?
Though Stalin is known for his great expositions on all aspects of social reality/history, past and present, he must also be viewed not only as a deep thinker but, more importantly, as one of our best conversationalists/listeners and advocates. How else could he, year after year, divine, capture, refashion and express the issues that animate and preoccupy people in their homes and in the public square? And it is in this sense that panologist Khalick Hewitt is on point by replaying Kitchener’s timely and prescient comment on The Black Man as captured in “One Hand Don’t Clap”: “Stalin reminds me of a lawyer, pleading with the judge to win a case.” And though he has won the nod of the Calypso judges five times, he is a perennial winner in the People’s Court!
Yet, in spite of all that has been said, perhaps Wendell Bonnette, an Original Coffee Boy from San Fernando, Stalin’s hometown, may have captured Stalin best:
“I am proud to see him achieve this honour. Stalin’s music come like your children: You can’t love one more than the other… He’s about keeping the culture flowing. Stalin is no ‘part time lover’ as far as the culture is concerned. He’s all Hard Wuk!”
Nuff Respect Black Man, and Give Praise and Thanks!