Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Poem 7 of 30 - April 2012 (pt 1 of a 2 pt story)

Two bottles of rum and the Roaring Lion

Coulda been a judge but I don’t like that at all

Doctor or a lawyer but the salary too small

Bishop, but again, that’s too big legal

So I became QRC principal

I became a doux-doux man, and so,

In my spare time I could sing my calypso…

The Roaring Lion – Papa Choonks

The first calypso I can remember hearing and, very shortly thereafter knowing by heart, was by a calypsonian who was already a legend in the calypso world. The Mighty Sparrow was at the time one of the few calypsonians whose appeal had moved beyond Trinidad and the rest of the English speaking West Indies. He had performed in England and the United States and countless times for many dignitaries. He was adept at both social commentary type calypsos, and party favorites; a pen that could cut both ways, Sparrow’s songs illuminated – even when singing about women of ill-repute – essential truths about colonial life. His wit and sarcasm were complicated by a ribald sense of humor and a daring sense of metaphor. The calypso, I chose to memorize in this case, could be argued to exhibit all these qualities. The chorus went:

Drunk and disorderly; always in custody

My friends and my family; all fed-up with me

Drunk and disorderly; every weekend I’m in the jail

Drunk and disorderly; nobody to stand my bail…

It was 1973. I was four years old.

My grandmother and mother were co-heads of household; my grandmother’s penchant for stern discipline, itself legend. In this Puritan household, there were many infractions one did not dream of committing, but somehow, I have no recollection of being censored in my loud repeated rendition of this popular song. Even my grandmother, must have understood the importance of the calypsonian as griot in our midst, even as she like many others of her generation and social station, pursued class mobility through formal education and rigorous religious indoctrination. Sparrow represented a particular generation, however, maybe the first one to benefit from the carnival arts’ having been raised to a level of national art and discourse. He and Lord Kitchener were the titans of the form, and following closely after them, poets like Chalkdust, Shorty, Merchant and a host of others were not only providing a new vanguard of the form, but pushing its envelope. In time we would come to know soca, as an entirely separate branch of the music, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

This group of musicians was standing on the shoulders of some old high priests of the form. These were the calypsonians who broke ground, who were champions; locally famous saga boys, whose sobriquets underscored their facility with both microphone and white-handled razor; The Growling Tiger, Attilah the Hun, The Mighty Terror, Lord Invader and of course, the Roaring Lion. These were among the earliest proponents of the form; men whose songs defined kaiso, and who, by the time I was born were no longer taking part in the competitions. They were respected and occasionally played on the radio, but their time was past. They were the subjects of great stories by our uncles and fathers of a time we could not conceive – champion stickfighters, panmen who would as soon put a cutlass on you as talk to you, masqueraders who perfected the dragon dance and the robber speech.

And so here I was 14 years after my first memorized number, picking up work at the Trinidad and Tobago annual singer-songwriter music festival. A week-long series of competitions for local songwriters in several genres, I was one of about 6 back-up singers, who had to learn several songs over the course of the week in support of these hopeful musicians. On the last night, the festival honored the Roaring Lion with a lifetime achievement award.

I have never seen the Roaring Lion anywhere not wearing a suit, a light colored one – usually off white, or beige; impeccably ironed and hat to match. I remember him as a tall, slander man who moved easily and even past 70 yrs old (which he already was then), improbably smooth with the ladies. When I say that calypso sang the consciousness of the nation; when I say that folks like The Lion were legend for what they taught us of ourselves, I mean to refer you back to the stories epigraph; to Lion’s assertion that judge, doctor, lawyer or bishop were all occupations beneath him – that instead he would be the principal of QRC, Queen’s Royal College, a boys’ high school in the capital city. This is significant for reasons other than we might imagine today in a world in which teachers are denigrated and education championed only for the eventual earning power it might give. Of the three major boys secondary schools in the city, QRC was the one traditionally seen as the black people’s school. A long tradition of academic rigor and respectful questioning prevailed, and the school produced many of the country’s most influential scholars, politicians, artists and athletes. The first Prime Minister, Eric Williams, Nobel Prize winner, Vidia Naipaul, historian and journalist, C.L.R. James – the list is endless. I had recently graduated from that school and am fortunate to not only have gone there but to have known even then the importance of the legacy of men like the Roaring Lion. And the Lion, knew the importance of a school like QRC.

Still, the Trinidadian ethos concerning its heroes is baffling. Maybe the country of 1.3 million is too spoiled with a relative over-abundance of world-class achievers. Academic champions, Olympic champions and 2 Miss Universes and 2 world boxing champs, have all come from the small nation and we get to rub shoulders on a daily basis with these heroes. We often ignore them. We take their achievements for granted. And it is with this as a backdrop, that on the last night of the festival, I’m leaving to go home; pulling out of a parking space and the Roaring Lion, regally suited, with a giant trophy in his hand, is trying to flag down folks to get a lift home. I cannot believe my eyes. Lion wants a lift and people are not stopping. I pull up next to the legend and ask him where he’d like to go. Before he gets into the car, he assures me that he only wants a drop downtown to the taxi stand, from where he’ll make his way home. My mother taught me well, so I’ll have none of it. I ask him where he lives, knowing full well that even if he said the other side of the island, that I’d be driving him home. He says, Mt Lambert.’It is completely out of my way, but I say Hop in. I’ll carry you home…

The Lion says “thank you young fella…” and as is my way, I speed off way too fast. Lion has other ideas though. Once we get off the street in front of the theatre and turn on to French street the conversation goes like this:

whas your name sonny?


you want a drink?

well I don’t have any money, Sir…

I didn’t ask you if you have money, boy. I ask you if you want a drink…

I say no more. I pull up next to Hereford’s, right opposite Trinidad and Tobago Television station. We drank here throughout my high school life and often I still go here, often to find my Uncle Mikey on a barstool there, whom I then have to drive home, often at the begging request of the bar owner.

(to be continued)

To schedule a reading or an appearance please contact Ofer Ziv at Blue Flower Arts at 845-677-8559 or email ofer@blueflowerarts.com.www.facebook.com/rogerbonairagardwww.twitter.com/rogerbonairwww.cypherbooks.com


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