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Calypso in London

Published: 
Tuesday, April 24, 2018
Alexander the Great is reputed to be the only “professional” calypsonian in Britain.

Lord Beginner and Lord Kitchener caught the HMT Empire Windrush to London almost 70 years ago in June 1948 with Kitch making a name with his newsreel appearance on arrival, singing London is the Place for Me.

He went on to do an amazing series of calypsoes on the harsh conditions West Indian immigrants faced in London, a tale as potent as Sam Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners. Meanwhile, all of the UK learned of calypso from Beginner’s Cricket, Lovely Cricket in 1951. Other calypsonians followed—Roaring Lion and Mighty Terror among them. But by the early sixties, all four had returned to Trinidad following Independence in 1962. Calypso in Britain seemed almost to go underground.

A recent short book has for the first time offered a history of the only major calypso tent operating in Britain since the Windrush. Calypso in London: 25 Years of the London Calypso Tent by Stephen Spark offers an informative account of the struggles of the art form in London in the past half century. There is an excellent short introduction by John Cowley on the early history of calypso in England. Stephen Spark offers a short but informed report on the struggles of the London tent over the years and a series of brief portraits of all the major participants in the tent.

Most of these calypsonians recorded little if at all and therefore their work remains almost unknown and only a few have ever performed in Trinidad. Lord Cloak, Brown Boy’s brother, was the winner of the annual competition for many years but has only recorded one album and that only in 2016.

De Admiral Jeffrey Hinds, who works as a magistrate in Reading, has also organised a tent in Reading for several years. Sheldon Skeete, who works for the RAF, has been a four time repeat winner in the tent and has been in Trinidad to perform on several occasions.

In more recent years the London Tent has seen a strong lineup of great female calypsonians like Brown Sugar, Cleopatra, Giselle, Helena B, Nikisha and Wen D. They have been offering a soca night the last few seasons and Santiago (James Walker) has been consistently outstanding. (His younger brother Luke Walker has been a front liner for Shell Invaders for years, also repeatedly winning trophies in the pan category of the biennial T&T Music Festival.)

It was the Association of British Calypsonians run by the late Mighty Tiger (Ashton Moore) who ran the organisation and kept the faith despite struggling times as the financial support from the Arts Council continued to decline.

During the heyday of the 1990s at Yaa Assantewaa, the tent was packed with many London based artists and visiting stars from Trinidad. The tent shifted with the creation of the umbrella organisation Carnival Village to the current venue at the Tabernacle in Notting Hill.

Moore worked hard to try to instill new energy into the tent bringing over the Trinidad junior calypso monarch for many years starting with Kerwin Du Bois and Kizzie Ruiz among others. Later he worked out an exchange scheme with the Canadian calypso association to have a trade of monarchs for their tents.

The tent continues to persevere now under the revamped organisation Association of Calypsonians UK but recently has only been open for four weekends before the start of Notting Hill Carnival at the end of August. The book does not go into the details of the calypsos themselves or offer any lyrics, being only 80 pages in length. Nor does it look at the complexity of the careers of someone like Alexander D Great who may be the UK’s only professional calypsonian.

The last few decades he has been doing many concerts, school and college workshops all over the country, recording a weekly calypso for the BBC over a period of 12 years, a new calypso each week on the latest news, and getting commissions to write calypsos on important personages in the civil rights struggles. He often comes to Trinidad for Carnival and performs at NALIS and other locations.

It does not cover two major London calypsonians from Trinidad who were not part of the London tent scene Tobago Crusoe and D’Alberto. Both have been based in London for decades doing various appearances. The two of them and Alexander have put on a series of popular shows together, some specializing in cricket calypso. Tobago Crusoe was recently featured on the children’s film Paddington where he performed “London is the Place for Me” and other Kitchener classics. He is also featured singing again in Paddington 2, released in 2017.

Besides the ABC tent, a major new force in the London scene is Michael La Rose’s Kaiso Lime, a loose monthly calypso/soca gathering with live musicians running from May to November downstairs at the Tabernacle. To get copies of the book and be informed on the London tent schedule, drop an email to [email protected]

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