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A Tribute to Kitchener *LINK*
Posted By: When Steel Talks
Date: Thursday, 21 April 2005, at 9:22 p.m.
New York: Today, April 18, 2005 is the Grand Master’s birthday. It is a celebration of ‘Pan Birthday’ which is the last calypso Kitchener composed for the steelpan. From the beginning, Kitchener had a symbiotic relationship with the steelpan instrument. He was the first to compose music specifically for the instrument. Every year, from 1963 with ‘The Road’ he traveled through the Big Yard (Queen’s Park Savannah) until 1997 with ‘Guitar Pan’ as steelbands played his tunes for the Panorama competition. I heard him explain in an interview that his love for the instrument developed when he resided at La Cou Harpe next to Bar 20 steelband in the days of their infamous fights. No, he did not play the steelpan but played the conventional bass while he resided in London during the 40s and early 60s. Kitch left Trinbago in the early 1940s and journeyed first to Jamaica where he spent a few years but it was enough for Jamaicans to fall in love with him and to this day he is known throughout Jamaica as the greatest calypsonian. When Kitch left for London, Africa was demanding their Independence from the colonial powers. When Ghana received their Independence in 1956 the new Prime Minister Kwame Nkrumah invited Kitchener to come to Ghana and sing for the new Prime Minister and his new nation. He sang a calypso on Ghana’s Independence that demonstrated his silent Pan Africanism. Although he was not open about it like Stalin, Valentino or Chalkdust (three top calypsonians) he was a strong believer in the Blackman’s freedom. Again, in the 1970s he sang ‘Freedom’ asking where was ‘our’ freedom. In 1970, the Black Power revolt resulted in the late Prime Minister Dr. Eric Williams, calling a curfew and then a State of Emergency.
Kitchener was a simple man. He was not charismatic as Sparrow or Duke (two other top calypsonians) but what he lacked in charisma he gained in lyrical superiority. Kitch was a master lyricist. He was a Griot (African storyteller) and displayed that inert quality in his many classic calypsos like: ‘Old Lady Walk a Mile’ ‘Mango Tree’ ‘The Road’ ‘Mama this is Mas’ ‘A New Born Nation’ ‘Mas in Germany’ ‘Belmont Young Gals’ ‘Pan Night & Day’ ‘Trini & Bajan’ ‘Slippery Anne’ ‘When a Man is poor’ ‘Pan in Harmony’ ‘Toco Band’ and the many beautiful gems that will remain in the halls of classic calypso for ever. During the 1960s after he returned to Trinbago, after spending over 20 years in London he was not welcomed by those who loved and adored Sparrow. The irony of the matter is that it was Sparrow who traveled to London to encourage Kitch to come to Trinbago. Sparrow believed that the two of them could capture the calypso market and start a new calypso rivalry after the demise of the Sparrow/Melody rivalry. It was not to be. Kitch did return but the calypso gate keepers at the time passed the word to would be proprietors that they should not rent space to Kitch to open a calypso tent. So, Kitch was forced to open his tent at the Strand cinema (thanks to Samaroo, the owner who loved Kitch from the start). And, it was at that tent that one of calypso’s classic ‘Portrait of Trinidad’ sung by Sniper was first heard. It went on to win the calypso competition and is one of most beloved calypsos in the land of calypso. Some even call it the second anthem of Trinbago. Maybe, when we have Constitution reform they should change the anthem and adapt the true Trinbagonian anthem ‘Portrait of Trinidad’, written by Penman, (not calypsonian Sniper), a Trinbagonian that tells the real story of our homeland.
Many people may not know this, but Kitchener had a bad stammering problem The Bard could not even speak a long sentence without stuttering. But, when he got on stage, all stammering and stuttering disappeared. He was a master communicator when he sang. He did not have too much showmanship like Sparrow or Nelson but he told his story. I believe that Kitchener was the best calypsonian to capture the nuances of the working classes. Listen to his calypso ‘Neighbor what Mas you go play’. In that calypso Kitchener tells about his neighbor who, although not speaking to him, nevertheless, he still wants to find out what Mas she will be playing for the carnival. She tells him ‘left your hoof and walk out meh yard’. For those who remember the residents of the barrack yards during the colonial period you know what that means. Kitch had a way with words that not too many calypsonians were able to express. Words like ‘dingolay’ ‘ramajay’ ‘zangee’ and ‘ayeyaeyaeahyae’ became hall mark in his calypsos. When he said in the calypso ‘The Road’ that all the steelbands got his message and he was not making any distinction between them whether it was Invaders Desperadoes, All Stars or Fascinators he sings and explains: “I make no distinction in making my assertion, they all get the same wire including Crossroads and Crossfire,” he makes the important distinction between those two steelbands whose names are very close. Kitch discovered before everyone else that a ‘Flag Woman’ was essential in a steelband on carnival day. In another calypso ‘Licks in ‘66’ he says “I just turn meh back, everything gone slack“ to explain that his absence gave the badjohns an opportunity to act up during 1966 carnival. But, he returned in 1966 to give them ‘Licks in ‘66’. His calypso ‘Flag Woman’ opens by stating “You have no band unless you have a flag woman.” A fitting tribute to the rock of the steelband on carnival day is the tune ‘Flag Woman.’ The role of the flag woman and her importance is told throughout the calypso. Schools throughout Trinbago should teach the calypsos of Kitchener.
The lasting legacy of Kitchener is his love for the steelpan and steelband. He wrote the best descriptions of the two. In his calypso ‘Guitar Pan’ he says that people want him to sing on the ‘Guitar Pan’ since he has sung on the other instruments so he did not want to leave that instrument out. He goes on to explain its importance in the steelband. It was marvelously done indeed. He dealt with all the aspects of carnival, namely, the Mas, the Panist, the Flag Woman, the instruments and the steelband.
Every genre has its signals when it is over. Sometimes it is an incident or the death of its master. Each new generation has to seek their voice to give meaning to the art form. Kitchener was the voice of a generation who tried to give meaning to their lives both under colonialism and post-Independence. Today we have a generation who are struggling to find their voice. I hope that in that struggle they take a look at Kitchener for some guidance because while each generation seeks its own voice they still need a Griot to tell their story.
A Tribute to Kitchener
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