Saturday, February 17, 2018

Upgrade awards to Kitch, George Bailey

Theodore Lewis logo21

Mark Fraser

 The Mighty Sparrow is about to join Vidia Naipaul, Brian Lara, Hasely Crawford and Janelle Commissiong-Chow as a gifted and creative luminary whose artistic expression the country is saying has made us richer. The award is the highest we can offer—the Order of Trinidad and Tobago.  He will also be joining Eric Williams, our most illustrious recipient.  This is a thoroughly deserved award, going to one who already held the unofficial title of Calypso King of the World. We are finding out that Sparrow might be immortal. He wants to be present at his eulogy. Yet again he has cheated basil, and frustrated Melody.  His formidable contribution is currently the object of acclaim in a series of lectures that call attention to his record. 

Having said that the imminent Sparrow award is easy to see, I regret that I have to bring up the matter of Kitchener here, to say that there is now a case for posthumous review of the Chaconia (Silver) that was offered to him, but which he refused to accept on the ground that the level of the award was not in accord with what his fans thought he deserved. Kitchener was correct in this assessment.  Fighting for the art form on principle. It was Sparrow who made a similar statement for his peers when he refused to sing at the Dimanche Gras early in his career on the ground that the carnival queen was getting a more lucrative prize than the calypso king.  According to the birdie then: “What really cause the upset, is the prize the queen does get; She does nothing for carnival, she only pretty and that is all.” 

 In my opinion, in terms of contribution to the art form itself, and to the aesthetic delight of citizens over a period of decades, Kitchener is on creative par with Sparrow. His body of work and range are comparable to that of Sparrow’s. This is not a contest between the men. It’s an argument for “both ah dem”. The Birdie himself will I think agree that Kitchy belongs in the same tent, as it were, with him.

There is testimony that it was he, not Lord Beginner (who later recorded the song) who penned the ironic lyrics “Cricket, Lovely cricket” in celebration of that West Indian victory.

When Kitchener came back home in 1963 he wasted no time. That year he won the road march with “The Road”. Bunji Garlin with his big truck, and Machel,  the Minister of Road, must understand that the road make to walk.  Kitchener said so in 1963, 50 years before them.  This was also the year of the first Panorama. Sparrow tunes were played by bands placing first and second.  “The Road”, played by Despers, significantly, was third. Kitch had hit the road running. He had found his niche, and it was the connection with pan.  The panmen could not get enough of him. He proceeded to win the road marches of 1963, 1964, 1965, 1967, 1968, 1970, 1971, 1973, 1975 and 1979. Until the steelbands (and brass bands) were pushed off the road by big trucks. 

He proceeded also to dominate the greens, and the stage on Panorama night. When it was not Despers (“Margie”, “Pan in Harmony”, “Crawford”), it was Pan Am North Stars (“Mama Dis is Mas”); or Solo Harmonites (“Play Mas”, “The Wrecker”, “St Thomas Girl”, “Jericho), Guinness Cavaliers (“Sixty-Seven”), Renegades and Jit (“Pan Explosion”, “Sweet Pan”, “Pan Night and Day”, “Iron Man”, “Mystery Band”, “Four Lara Four”, “Guitar Pan”);  Hatters (“Tribute to Spree”), or Trinidad All Stars (“Rainorama”). 

Indeed, bands playing Kitchener compositions have won the panorama 15 times, placed second 13 times and third five times. In 1999, at the age of 78, one year before his death, he showed he was still relevant and a force, leaving us with “Toco Band” by Nutones,  the third placed tune in the Panorama.  This man has to get our highest award.

Then there is an award to Peter Minshall. It is probably deserved.  I am neither for nor against it. His designs were chosen for one of the Olympic ceremonies, where we saw the trademark bat motif. So there is an international credential. I saw his band The River.  Borrowing from Phagwa, revellers were throwing liquid on each other. People were wearing plain black and white cloth. It was interesting. I also saw Danse Macabre.  Each year there was talk by Minshall of the band having to get to the Savannah at a particular time of evening to catch particular kinds of solar rays and so on. I never got that. 

As a boy I saw George Bailey’s Relics of Egypt  and Ye Saga of Merry England” on the streets of Port of Spain, in just pure daylight, 12 o’clock. And I have a lasting memory of some of the most spectacular costumes—colourful, authentic, resplendent. This was mas mama. Mas of class. Pure genius. Bailey himself was never in the spotlight, talking about the mas in lofty ways. You could see the mas. It did not have to be explained.  There was never from him the grand verbal narrative. Men like George Bailey, Harold Saldenah, irvin McWiliams and Ken Morris never had to explain their mas. You just had to get a good spot by Memorial Park and watch. It was all there to be seen.

George Bailey died in 1970 of a heart attack on a BWIA plane at the age of 35. The records show that he had won the Band of the Year title six times (1957, 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962 and 1963). His 1957 band, Back to Africa, preceded the Black Power movement by more than a decade. He was 21 years old when he brought this band. He also won the People’s Choice Award ten times (1957, 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1966, 1967, 1968, 1969 and 1970). 

Bailey got the Humming Bird (Silver) medal in 1969. This is the issue here. This has to be upgraded.

He is in my view, and I suspect the view of those who saw his bands pass by on the streets of Port of Spain on Carnival days during the 1950s and 1960s, deserving of our very highest honour now.  No disrespect intended to others, but George Bailey stood massively above his peers of his era and after. He bestrode his contemporaries in an era when mas was mas.  A hero by any measure, and quietly so. 

In his inspired “Memories” Sparrow reminded us about Bailey, as follows: 

George Bailey I’ll always remember

Jumping when a steelband pass, 

playing mas

Sugary, peppery George was never ever one for class

George Bailey wherever you are 


Just for you I came out with real fire this year

The operative lyric here is that which speaks of Bailey’s unassuming manner. “Never one for class.” He let his bands and the people, do the talking. 

There should be posthumous recognition of him along with Kitchener. And the category should be the Order of Trinidad and Tobago.

• Theodore Lewis is emeritus 

professor, University of Minnesota