Kitch ...the man and his Music
Trinidad Guardian February 13, 2000

ALDWYN Roberts, Lord Kitchener, the Grandmaster, worked in a sphere of artistic activity which requires its practitioners to do well every year. As a singer of Carnival songs he was obliged, as are all Carnival people, to produce something new, different and better each year. The ritual is both absurd and preposterous. Art ought not to be compelled to appear on demand. But that is the nature of the phenomenon.

What it means, therefore, is that today's hit guarantees you fame and, possibly, praise only for one year. Next year, you have to start all over again and all of us have witnessed the boos, the toilet paper even, and all the rest when favourites fail to please. It is therefore unfortunate that nobody deals with the work of the Carnival artist in a continuum.

Nobody takes the long view of it. And if for no other reason, the fact that Kitchener is a Carnival artist obliges us to evaluate his work so that its quality, over time, is fixed and recognised in such a way that it can never again be denied. In any other genre, the masterpiece demands and receives a longer life! So that since Carnival is the way it is, we must make the appropriate arrangements to honour the singer, given the vulnerability of the song we must honour the artist, given the fragility of the artefact.

What then, is the ground upon which Kitchener's fame is based? It is based on the fact that he "found out musical tunes and recited verses in writing''. To me, these words "found out musical tunes'' have always been beguiling.

The only magic better than finding out one's own tune is hearing somebody else's for the first time. Like the first time that I heard "Symphony in G''! Or the first time that I heard Kitchener's tribute to Spree Simon. Few tunes have, to my ears, been more moving than "Spree''. And it was moving because it was, and is, so very musical. Many tunes are, I would venture to say, not musical at all. But this is not true of the long, long list of tunes of the Lord Kitchener...the Grandmaster. Ask any steelband arranger and he will tell you about Kitchener's music!

Today's calypso is often a product of many collaborators. There is the one who makes the lyrics. There is the arranger. There is the singer. There is the band. There is the chorus. But Kitchener is, I believe as complete and independent a calypsonian as one can be. His tunes are his and so are his lyrics. He does indeed recite verses in writing and they are the products of his own imagination. They have in turn been topical, witty, profound and, what is more I've never heard a Kitchener song in which the words and music did not suit each other.

In German lieder, a great store is set by this relationship between text and music and some of the world's greatest and most celebrated songs have come from this pre-occupation. But we are lucky. We don't have to go as far as Schubert, Schumann or Brahms. I'd say that, for example, the "Bee's Melody'' would illustrate the principle very well, not to mention that whole host of songs like the classic "Rainorama'' or "Flagwoman''.

What then, do we know of the totality of Kitchener's story? We know from Gordon Rohlehr that between 1938 and 1941 he had been the chantwell in the Sheriff Band and the Arima Calypso King. We find him singing in a sort of roving brigade having left Arima in 1942. In 1944, he goes to the Victory Tent on Edward Street and made an early name there for himself singing "Green Fig''.

Notoriety was to attach itself to him the next year when the police banned his song "Yankee Sufferers'' which he sang in the House of Lords Tent, also located on Edward Street. In 1946, Kitchener began a second stint at the Victory Tent where he sang "Lai Fung Lee'' (Chinee never had a VJ Day) and "Tie Tong Mopsy''. But by the very next year he and Killer started a tent at 100 St Vincent Street whose singers were collectively known as the Young Brigade. According to Atilla, the Young Brigade would parade the streets every night after their show, singing "Everyone knows or have been told That the Young bound to capture the old So tell them we are not afraid We're going to mash up the Old Brigade''.

In 1947 Kitchener left Trinidad, going to Curacao, Aruba, Jamaica and eventually landing in England where he was to stay for 15 years. During that time he continued to sing, which meant that by 1962 he had been a calypsonian for two decades. More than 30 years have since passed which would mean that Kitchener has been faithful to his craft for half a century or more and this, if nothing else is how we know that he is the Grandmaster!

In the early period, Kitchener was in the vanguard of those who were to shape the content and determine the form of the modern calypso. To be sure, the songs had long been sung in English rather than in patois, but the Young Brigade more consciously set aside the didactic purposes of traditional calypso for forms which gave them greater freedom-not only of most critically of tempo.

In a sense, the Young Brigade were infusing their songs with the sense of "leggo'', long associated with the road march. These songs, as we all know, provide the energy which sustains the masqueraders. And as early as 1946, people were singing Kitchener's "Lai Fung Lee'' through the Carnival streets.

And while the pre-steelband masquerade required the vocal participation of the revellers in the songs, the steelbands did not. Nevertheless, Kitchener continued to have an uncanny sense of the requirements of the street, establishing his pre-eminence in that field with "The Road'' in 1963, "Mama this is Mas'' in 1964 and the highly evocative "My Pussin'' in 1965.

It is not my intention to try to present a comprehensive list of Kitchener's roadmarches (See page 21). But I feel bound to indicate not only the fact of Kitchener's consistency over so long a period of time but also to give some indication of the range of his textual concern as well as the completeness of his understanding of Carnival music as the masquerader has and continues to require it.

In recognising him as the road march king, we are also bound to recognise him as the chief servant of the floor member, the foot soldier, the mas of ordinary folk without whose participation, there would be no Carnival at all. A period of great interest is the 15 years Kitchener spent in Britain. As he sang, "I am over here, happy in the mother-country'', he was both recording and, in fact, defining the nature of the life of West Indian immigrants in London with all of the power of Selvon's Lonely Londoners. It is from Kitchener that we have incontrovertible proof of their no stalgia for home and of the lengths to which they would go t o re-create the Caribbean in those chilly northern cities to which they had journeyed in search of a better material life.

Kitchener's songs of the period indicate that some unusual cultural stances would be maintained. He sent his London song home and kept alive the principle of two-way communication. So that today, the Notting Hill Panorama is no more than a London repeat of the Trinidadian music of any given year.

It is to Kitchener more than to any other living calypsonian that we turn if we want to know what calypso is and has been over the formative decades of its existence. Thematically and also in the context of musical intent, he has been defining it and presiding over its rites of passage from the Chantwell to soca and all the way to the dance hall party of the moment.

Through song, he has also been recording and defining the society and the times, whether he has been resident here or abroad. In this regard, he has done no more than any other artist except, of course, that the Grandmaster has done it with exceptional force, skill and above all, consistency.

-Edited version of address delivered by Pat Bishop on January 27, 1993 at a National Commercial Bank appreciation function for Lord Kitchener






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