Lord Kitchener, 77, Calypso Songwriter
By Jon Pareles, NY Times
Lord Kitchener, whose sly wit and graceful melodies made him one of Trinidad's most beloved calypso songwriters, died on Friday at a hospital in Port of Spain, Trinidad. He was 77 and lived in Diego Martin, just outside Port of Spain.
The cause was a severe infection brought on by a blood disorder, said his manager, Isaac McLeod.
Lord Kitchener, whose real name was Aldwyn Roberts, wrote party tunes and pointed political statements, risqué songs and reminders of heritage and history, singing in a voice that always seemed to convey a dapper wink. His songs were esteemed for their tunes as well as for their humor. He linked calypso to Afro-Cuban rhythms and jazz, and his tunes were regularly arranged for steel bands, winning competitions as instrumentals.
He carried calypso abroad, spreading its influence to Jamaica and Ghana and establishing himself as a recording star in Britain. At Trinidad's annual carnival contests his songs won the Road March award (for the song played and sung most often by parading carnival groups) 10 times and won the Panorama steel-drum orchestra competition 18 times, more than any other songwriter. He had hits for five decades.
Aldwyn Roberts was born in Arima, Trinidad. His father, a blacksmith, taught him the rudiments of guitar and calypso, then called kaiso, which had taken hold in Trinidad in the 1920's. When Aldwyn was 14 the death of his parents forced him to drop out of school. His first paying job was to entertain the employees of the water company as they laid pipes.
Mr. Roberts had his first local hit, "Shops Close Too Early," in 1938, and he was named calypso king of Arima in the local carnival competition from 1938 to 1942, before he moved to Port of Spain. There he joined a group called the Roving Brigade, which performed in movie houses around the city. He was hired by the promoter for the Victory Tent, a calypso performance club, where he made $1 a night working alongside top calypsonians including Growling Tiger, Roaring Lion and Attila the Hun.
His first major hit, in 1944, was "Green Fig," a husband's complaint that his cheating wife would not even cook him a good meal. Growling Tiger renamed him Lord Kitchener, after the English field marshal and war secretary. He became a steady hit maker, entertaining American troops as well as Trinidadians; he performed "Green Fig" for President Harry S. Truman when he visited Trinidad in 1945. In 1947 he opened his own calypso tent to feature what he called the Young Brigade, dedicated to peppier, horn-driven, Latin-tinged calypso songs that played down politics in favor of teasing double-entendres.
But after winning the carnival competition in 1947, Lord Kitchener left Trinidad. He performed in Aruba and stayed for six months in Jamaica, then moved to London, where he was a sensation. He sometimes worked at three clubs in a night. Lord Kitchener recorded for the Parlophone and Melodisc labels, and he sang for Princess Margaret at the Chesterfield Club. Some of his songs, like "White and Black" and "Africa My Home," protested the racism he met in Britain; others were more playful.
He moved to Manchester in the north of England, and opened his own club. He toured the United States in the mid-1950's, and even as an expatriate he continued to have hits in Trinidad. When he toured in Africa his music was embraced in Ghana, where calypso became an influence on high-life music.
After 16 years abroad Lord Kitchener returned to Trinidad in 1963 and won the Road March competition three years running, as well as in 1967 and 1968; he won five more Road Marches from 1970 to 1976. As instrumentals his tunes won the Panorama contest in 1964 and every year from 1967 to 1977, with three more Panorama winners in both the 1980's and the 1990's.
"His songs were structured for the steel band," said Ralston Charles, the owner of Charlie's Records, who produced Lord Kitchener's 1978 hit "Sugar Bum Bum," one of the first international hits in the modernized calypso style called soca. "That's where he gathered all his fame."
He started the Calypso Revue tent in 1964, and with it he became a mentor to leading calypsonians of the younger generations. When soca sped up calypso and cut back on its lyrics, Lord Kitchener embraced it as a legacy of what his Young Brigade had done decades earlier. He was inducted into calypso's Sunshine Awards Hall of Fame in 1989.
Wearing his trademark suit, tie and fedora, he performed regularly into the 1990's, including annual appearances at the Mother's Day and Father's Day all-star calypso shows in New York City. "I've tried to make calypso more intelligent and make soca more danceable," he said in an interview with Billboard magazine.
In 1993 a petition drive urged the government of Trinidad and Tobago to award Lord Kitchener its highest civilian honor, the Trinity Cross. When the government chose instead to present him with a lesser award, he turned it down.
He is survived by two sons and two daughters. One, Kernel Roberts, is a singer who continues to perform Lord Kitchener's songs at the Calypso Revue, his club in Port of Spain.
The Trinidad government offered to give Lord Kitchener an official funeral. But his family rejected the ceremony, The Trinidad Express reported on Saturday. "Kitch is a man of the people, and the ordinary man must have the opportunity, if he doesn't have a suit, to come to the funeral," Rose Janniere, a friend of the family, told the newspaper.