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Calypso and Calypsonians in North America, 1934-1961

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Archive for the ‘Canada’ Category

Post-Caribana Miscellany

Posted by Michael Eldridge on July 30, 2016

As I start this, the Caribbean Carnival grand parade will be wining down Toronto’s Lake Shore Boulevard for a couple more hours yet, and the Caribana revels continue through tomorrow (Sunday, July 31), so the “post-” in this post’s title is decidedly premature. But I’ve been away for many weeks, seeing exotic sights and enjoying the company of old friends, and now I’ve returned home to stare down the end of summer and face the impending doom of a new academic year. So I’m having a hard time living in the moment.

But it’s a beautiful day in northern coastal California, and I’m furiously procrastinating the things I really ought to be doing. This seems as good a moment as any, then, to catch up on a bunch of random items I’ve been collecting. And actually, the first item is apropos: while I was on the road, Dave De Castro, The Bandit, Caribana’s first kaiso king, finally got a proper obituary—and a good one, at that—from George Haim in The Star.

Another culture-bearer passed while I was away—a true literary giant: Bajan-born Canadian writer Austin Clarke, whose early work imagined the lives of West Indian domestics (and other working-class immigrants) in 1950s Toronto with poignant humor, and whose 2002 novel The Polished Hoe justly won the Commonwealth Writers Prize. (His memoir Growing Up Stupid Under the Union Jack, a devastatingly hilarious indictment of colonial education, surely carries one of the all-time best titles in literature.) Clarke’s death was noted by The StarThe New York Times, and Pride, among others, while ArtsEtc (Barbados) reprinted a 1998 interview, “Sail On, Prince of Tides.”

Thankfully, many of the elders are still with us, and it’s good to see them going strong—and getting recognition. For instance:

With support from Torontonian Drew Gonsalves (and his band Kobo Town), five-time T&T calypso monarch Calypso Rose has just released a new album, Far From Home, that’s garnering plenty of attention. (See, e.g., this feature story in the London Guardian.)  Accompanied by Kobo Town, the Queen will close this year’s WOMEX World Music Expo in Santiago de Compostela, Spain, where she will also receive the WOMEX Award. Here’s Rose’s take on Lord Executor’s “They Say I Reign Too Long”:

And 90-year-old pianist Randy Weston, whose West Indian heritage was reflected in early recordings like “Fire Down There” (immortalized a year later as “St. Thomas” by his label-mate Sonny Rollins) and “Little Niles,” was just inducted into DownBeat magazine’s hall of fame. He’s the subject of the August issue’s cover story, and he’s getting ready to go out on tour. NPR’s Jazz Night In America caught him at the 2016 Panama Jazz Festival.


Other miscellany:

  • Old calypso, exhumed and restored: Lovey’s Band, “Oh, Mr. Brown” at Excavated Shellac
  • Old calypso, sampled and re-animated: Australian band The Avalanches build their new single, “Frankie Sinatra,” on Houdini’s “Bobby Sox Idol” (Thanks very much to an alert reader for this tip! But what is it with Houdini Down Under?—cf. C. W. Stoneking’s “Brave Son of America“)
  • Old calypso, mashed up: “Pimped-up Calypso: Case Studies” (I’ve been meaning for ages to give a shout-out to the excellent new blog by “Lord Investor,” who is on a mission to explain “to the world what’s so good about calypso.” In a distantly related vein, see Carrie Battan’s New Yorker piece about Mixpak Records, “Rhythm Revival“)


Posted in "Bandit" DeCastro, Calypso, Calypso Rose, Canada, Kobo Town, Randy Weston, Toronto | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Re-Post (Sort of): Hip Hooray for the Bulldog’s Daughter

Posted by Michael Eldridge on June 6, 2014

Mary Churchill keeping pace with father Winston at the Potsdam Conference, 1945. National Archives/Truman Library, via Wikipedia

I’ve said it before: sometimes it seems as if this is turning into the faintly-connected-to-calypso obit blog. But deaths of famous people tend to come in threes, so after Herb Jeffries and Maya Angelou, I was holding my breath. And then, this morning, in the Times: “Mary Soames, Daughter of Churchill and Chronicler of History, Dies at 91.”  (For a native perspective, see the London Guardian.)

Granted, Mary Churchill was no Princess Margaret. But on a tour of Auxiliary Territorial Service training camps, she did at least profess to enjoy calypso once. Let me recycle part of an earlier post, itself excerpted from my essay “Calypso’s Cosmopolitan Strategy” (the context: a discussion of Canadians’ determination to see West Indians as happy, loyal subjects of the Empire):

"Subaltern" Mary Churchill

Globe and Mail, 21 August 1943

But it was a front-page, above-the-fold photo in the Globe and Mail in the summer of 1943 that truly spotlighted West Indians’ devotion to their martial Mother Country. A teaser for a two-column story on the paper’s Women’s page, the picture illustrated a visit to Canada by servicewoman Mary Churchill (daughter of Winston), and featured a smiling, down-to-earth Churchill “[singing] calypso songs” amidst a group of dark-skinned Barbadian volunteers at the Auxiliary Territorial Services basic training camp in Kitchener, Ontario. The photo-op with the West Indians, who accounted for precisely forty-seven of the camp’s 1000 trainees, was framed as the centerpiece of the story, which climaxed with the “girls” (including “Subaltern” [!] Churchill) in an impromptu performance of one of their “native” songs, clear evidence of their childlike trust in the Great White Mother:

There was a moment of shyness on the part of [the] girls from the British West Indies…when Miss Churchill appeared on the scene. But when she sat on the grass, gathering them around her and chattering as naturally as if she knew each one, they were soon laughing hard and telling her all about themselves….

When Ptc. M. K. Evelyn from the Barbados sang a native calypso, Miss Churchill joined in the chorus heartily. “It’s simply marvelous!” she said, clapping her hands. “I wish we could have had a recording of it!”[1]

The Globe and Mail‘s focus wasn’t unique. A Canadian Press story (“Mary Churchill Helps CWACS With Singsong”) made it out as if the “[t]awny-haired, blue-eyed” Churchill might even have inspired the melodic outbreak through sheer force of personality: “Within 15 minutes of her arrival,” the story led off, the twenty-year-old Churchill had the “girls…from the West Indies at their ease and a calypso sing-song rolling.” The wire service even mentioned by name the calypsos on which she joined in: Lord Invader’s “Small Island” (“So, Small Island: go back where you really come from!”) and something called “One Sunday Morning.” The latter must have been Atilla the Hun’s grandiloquent “Graf Zeppelin,” which begins: “One Sunday morning, I chanced to hear / A rumbling and a tumbling in the atmosphere”—as if their illustrious visitor from that small island off the coast of Europe were being compared to a stately blimp descending from out of the blue. Maybe Ptc. Evelyn’s choices were innocent. (The CP specified that Elaine de Gannes of Trinidad also took part in the selection.) But if not, then those West Indian “girls” really did have something to laugh hard about.

[1] Tupper, Jan. “Keeping Pace With Father Easy, Says Mary Churchill.” Globe and Mail 21 August 1943: 10.

Posted in Calypso, Canada, Mary Churchill | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Clear the Way for Caresser’s J’ouvert

Posted by Michael Eldridge on March 2, 2014

rockheads-caresser-cropLord Caresser isn’t known for his carnival tunes.  Sure, there’s “Carnival Is We Bacchanal” and “Clear the Way When the Bamboo Play,” and maybe even “Hold Your Hand, Madame Khan”—fine tunes, all of them, though as road marches go, they don’t have the legs of a “Matilda” or a “Mary Ann” or a “Don’t Stop the Carnival.”  And that’s okay: Caresser’s strong suit, after all, is the playboy boast.  (Besides, anybody who pens a classic like “Edward the VIII” has a secure spot in the kaiso pantheon.)  But when you’re looking for a leggo, you go to King Radio, not the King of Hearts.

Still, there’s one other carnival calypso buried in the trove of Caresser typescripts at Library and Archives Canada that’s worth a listen.  (Well, a look, technically; there’s no lead sheet, so we have to imagine the melody.)  And as it’s Carnival Weekend—even now, I’m struggling to watch Panorama finals in 15-second bursts over’s hammered servers—I thought I’d share it.

It exists in two versions, with two different choruses and two different titles—”Carnival at Maraval” and “Jour Ouvert Morning”—and there are no clues as to its date of composition, although an apparent allusion to pan implies postwar.  (Unlike many others in the collection, which came from George Robertson, Caresser’s producer at the CBC in the late 1940s, it’s not a topical number on a Canadian subject, so it doesn’t necessarily derive from Caresser’s time in Montreal.  It may not even be his own work, for all I know, and I’d be glad for anyone who can set me straight on that point.)  As the first title would suggest, the tune is about the singer’s visit to Maraval for carnival—Christmas Day or Boxing Day, respectively, not Shrovetide—where it turns out those creole bumpkins really know how to play mas!  The city-slicker’s enthusiastic impressions fall back on a number of hackneyed tropes: music that drives you mad, old ladies who exclaim in patois, colorful locals with eccentric names.  But they also include some genuinely striking evocations of the procession’s rustic charms:

The drums and the tin-pan
Beat back any modern string band
The greeter [sic] and the dust-bin
Ten times sweeter than a violin
The pieces of iron nearly made me groan
Making more notes than a saxaphone

Even the chauvinistic wink that rounds off the lyric (those Maraval girls…am I right?) is built around an original juxtaposition of refined and rude: “The City girls they are full of bliss/But the Country girls got the stupidness.”  

Anyway, as visions of bacchanalian oblivion go, this one is almost pastoral.  Makes me want to join that fête.  

Revelers: on J’ouvert morning, I’m sure you won’t need Caresser’s “Martiniquan woman” from Maraval to remind you that “wee, ebien wee, jourdwee say fete.”  But maybe you can find a melody for his chorus:

Mama mama
If you hear me die, don’t cry
Don’t cry, but let the anthem swing
Clear the way on Jour Ouvert Morning


Posted in Calypso, Carnival, Library & Archives, Lord Caresser, Uncategorized | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Reblogging: Torontoism

Posted by Michael Eldridge on February 16, 2014

CANEWA Dancers

Toronto Star, 5 November 1955

I’m long overdue in linking to a pair of impressively researched articles by Kevin Plummer that appeared way back before the holidays, over on the Torontoist blog.  Black History Month prompts me to acknowledge them at last.

These days Toronto draws smirks from its southern neighbors for the ongoing freakshow of its deeply troubled mayor.  What his yahoo antics belie, and what most Americans don’t know, is that Toronto has long prided itself—with at least some justification—on its tradition of multicultural cosmopolitanism.

Drawing on academic studies and contemporary newspapers, Plummer, um, plumbs the central role of calypso in the social life of Toronto’s small West Indian community during the 1950s and 60s.  By so thoroughly documenting calypso in nightclubs, house parties, social clubs, after-hours clubs, and fêtes, “Sounds of Home” (Part 1 | Part 2) complements the creative work of authors like Austin Clarke, Dionne Brand, and Lawrence Hill in evoking a formative period in Black Canadian life. 

Here’s Plummer on CANEWA’s first “Calypso Carnival” (see photo, left):

In 1955, the Canadian Negro Women’s Association (CNWA), formed a few years earlier with the goal of increasing the black community’s visibility, staged a more formal celebration of Caribbean music and culture called the Calypso Carnival. It was an overt attempt to foster a sense of common community between the club’s mostly middle-class and Canadian-born membership and the newly arrived domestic workers. An immediate success in its first year—organizers had to turn people away at the door—the Calypso Carnival was an annual event until 1964.

Each year a local community hall was transformed into a lively tropical atmosphere with decorations, a bazaar selling goods imported from the West Indies, and a buffet that included curried goat, mango chutney, fricassee chicken, codfish, ackee, sweet potato coconut pie, and other Caribbean foods. There was limbo dancing and entertainers could be local Torontonians, like Jamaican-born calypso singer Lord Power, or international, like the Duke of Iron.

Growing into one of the largest events in Toronto’s black community, the Calypso Carnival was attended by upwards of 4,000 people some years, earned a fair amount of media attention—a rarity at the time for the black population—and raised money for a scholarship fund.

Full disclosure: I first learned of Plummer’s articles when he linked to my 2009 piece on Lord Caresser in Montreal.  So as long as I’m back-handedly blowing my own horn (ouch!), I’ll just mention my posts on postwar West Indian immigrants, student calypsonians, and “Bandit” DeCastro, which also fill in one or two crannies in Plummer’s work.  And because I’ve never found any other excuse to use it, I’ll take this opportunity to post the following ad (from the Globe and Mail‘s August 13, 1958 edition) for a football match between Toronto and what was very briefly my home town, Hamilton.  Even in 1958, I don’t think you’d have seen that kind of half-time show in Texas…

Go Ti-Cats!

Posted in Calypso, Canada, Toronto, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Caresser Hails Saint Nick

Posted by Michael Eldridge on November 23, 2013

I was so busy futzing with Pinterest last Saturday that I completely missed Toronto’s famous Santa Claus Parade.  (Easy to do when you live in California.)  But I see I’m not too late for Montreal’s, which happens today, November 23d—and that’s just as well, since Montreal, not Toronto, is where Lord Caresser resided for almost three decades.

Caresser isn’t known for his road marches, but from the simple chorus below, which sounds an awful lot like “Jump in the Line,” I’d guess that this calypso was meant to be sung while parading, or at least to capture the parade’s cadences.  During his early years in the True North, the Roving Lad put into song many of his impressions of quaint Canadian customs, especially the hibernal ones.  (Cf. “Thanksgiving Day,” “Winter Shopping,” “Skiing,” “The Hockey League,” etc.)  At least he didn’t have to figure out what to say about “Zwarte Piet!”

Library and Archives Canada, George Robertson Fonds.

Lord Caresser, “Santa Clauz [sic] Parade,” ca. 1946. Library and Archives Canada: George Robertson Fonds, Container 24, File 12.

Posted in Calypso, Canada, Lord Caresser, Montreal | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

You say “Columbus Day,” Canada says “Thanksgiving”

Posted by Michael Eldridge on October 14, 2013

Claude McKay

That excellent web-aggregator of all things Caribbean, Repeating Islands, (re-)posted Claude McKay’s “America” today, presumably as a kind of sideways acknowledgement of Columbus Day.  Indigenous peoples of the western hemisphere have special reason to be dubious about the U.S. national holiday, but the Mighty Shadow wasn’t the first West Indian wordsmith to note that the voyage that inaugurated the European invasion of the Americas also led to the enslavement and scattering of Africans.  McKay’s ambivalent sonnet conveys both pride and chagrin about the dread history—and future—to which he belongs as a Jamaican émigré in New York:

Although she feeds me bread of bitterness,
And sinks into my throat her tiger’s tooth,
Stealing my breath of life, I will confess
I love this cultured hell that tests my youth!

Meanwhile, north of the border, our Canadian cousins choose to give generic thanks rather than lionize the original Illegal Alien.  (Columbus’s “authority was a cocked hat,” sings Shadow, “and his passport was violence.”)  Although Canada has its own shameful history vis-à-vis First Nations people, at least its Thanksgiving holiday isn’t whitewashed in a mendacious myth of inter-ethnic amity.  A few years back, I quoted a snippet of Lord Caresser’s “Thanksgiving Day,” composed when he himself was a fresh immigrant to Canada.  Here it is in full.  Caresser’s congratulations to his hosts on their talent for epicurean excess are perhaps only slightly ironic:

Lord Caresser, "I Dream of Lena Horne" (1947). Library and Archives Canada: George Robertson Fonds, Container 24, File 12

Lord Caresser, “Thanksgiving Day” (1947). Library and Archives Canada: George Robertson Fonds, Container 24, File 12

Posted in Canada, Claude McKay, Columbus Day, Lord Caresser, Shadow, Thanksgiving | Tagged: , , , , | 1 Comment »

Kobo Town’s Western Swing

Posted by Michael Eldridge on July 30, 2013

Kobo Town, the Toronto band fronted by Drew Gonsalves, a Trini transplant with a penchant for classic calypso, has been on my radar for a few years now.  I first heard them on the CBC when I was living in Ontario, downloaded their debut album (legally!), checked their roots-reggae sound, and filed them away for future reference.

The drawer opened again a couple of months ago, when Afropop Worldwide producer Banning Eyre gave Kobo Town’s sophomore release, Jumbie in the Jukeboxa high-profile review on NPR’s All Things Considered.  It’s a great disc, heavier on kaiso but seasoned with ska, dancehall and other pan-Caribbean flavors.  Production values are high, thanks to Stonetree/Cumbancha founder Ivan Duran, who’s given worldbeat-minded crate-diggers lots to love over the last decade or so, having fostered the careers of Ska Cubano, Sergeant Garcia, the Sierra Leone Refugee All-Stars, and the late Andy Palacio & the Garifuna Collective.  The tunes can feel a bit “same-y” after a while, in part because so many of them are laid over a loping, midtempo kadans beat.  And there are one or two misses, sure.  But the hits—which include several re-minor tunes that recall the great “oratorical” calypsos of the early twentieth century—hit heavy.  Gonsalves has a relaxed, conversational delivery and a talent for the pithy turn of phrase.  (A slumming North American tourist comes to the Caribbean in search of “postcard poverty”; a Saddam-obsessed U.S. “Gone down in a hole to catch a mouse/While a rat livin’ large in the White House.”)

Imagine my delight when, vacationing in Portland, Oregon, I discovered that Kobo Town would be playing a small club on North Mississippi Avenue, a historically African-American street now choking on Portlandia clichés (artists, hipsters, twee boutiques, trendy restaurants; it’s crying out for a withering calypso).  Roughly fifty souls, including a few duffers in the balcony and some very enthusiastic Trinis on the dancefloor, turned out for a strong set.  Gonsalves has a lovely stage presence: humble, good-humored, genuine.  The rhythm section (Grenadian bassist Pat Giunta, Ottawan drummer Robert Milicevic) is solid as a panyard engine-room.  Wiry, barefoot multi-reedist Linsey Wellman is full of goofy spirit and improvisatory energy, while fellow Trini Cesco Emmanuel unassumingly trades lead and rhythm guitar duties with Gonsalves, who doubles on cuatro.  (Cuatro!  No horns in the road version of the band, though.)  There were originals, mostly from Jumbie in the Jukebox.  There were inventive covers of Tiger, Invader, Kitch, and Small Island Pride.  There was antiphonal audience-participation (we played the part of a bloodthirsty mob).  And there was an a cappella encore, down on the dancefloor: a medley of “Congo Bara” and other semi-tone chants that somehow morphed into a sing-along version of Sparrow’s “Jean and Dinah.”  Magic.

Although they’ve been playing bigger gigs back east and overseas—including a spot at this year’s Montreal Jazz Festival—this was Kobo Town’s first time on the west coast.  Touring is tough, I know, especially when you’re playing to small crowds in small rooms.  But I hope they come back (and play more cities next time!).

You can read a short interview with Gonsalves on the CBC Music blog and stream several tracks from Jumbie  courtesy of SonicBids.  There’s plenty Kobo out there on YouTube, but here’s the Jumbie EPK:


Kobo town aren’t the only ones out there doing new takes on old tunes.  Gonsalves’s age-mate and fellow expat, trumpeter and Michigan State University professor Etienne Charles, is winning big props for his new album, Creole Soul (samples on SoundCloud; profile on AAJ), while Van Dyke Parks incorporates his previously released cover of “Money Is King” into Songs Cycledhis first album of new material—never mind the backward-glancing title—in almost two decades.  Two degrees of separation: in their live show, Kobo Town also regularly covers Growling Tiger’s classic statement of outrage over what we euphemise these days as “income inequality,” while Charles’s grandfather played cuatro in Tiger’s band.  (Previous posts: Etienne Charles, Van Dyke Parks.)

Posted in Canada, Growling Tiger, Kobo Town, Van Dyke Parks | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Adding laurels to your country’s fame

Posted by Michael Eldridge on October 6, 2012

Charles Roach

Human rights lawyer and community beacon Charles Roach (Aaron Vincent Elkaim/The Canadian Press)

This week, Toronto’s West Indian community has been remembering the life and work of veteran civil rights activist Charles Roach, who died Tuesday at age 79.  By all accounts a lovely and elegant man—and a tenacious and eloquent campaigner for racial and social justice—the Trinidad native was also a driving force in the development of Caribana.  (I previously mentioned Roach in connection with his efforts to abolish Canada’s loyalty oath to the British monarch.)

Canadians also marked the passing on September 30th of figure-skating legend Barbara Ann Scott, a national icon in the late 1940s and early 50s.  In her peak year of 1948, “Canada’s Sweetheart” was a repeat national, European, and World champion; Olympic gold medalist in the ladies’ singles competition; and subject of a Time magazine cover story.

And of a calypso by Lord Caresser.  By March 1948, Caresser was near the end of a two-year tenure as the star of his own weekly radio show on the CBC.  (See “Caresser in Canada” and “Student Calypsonians in Canada.”)  He had probably composed his “Ode to Barbara Ann Scott” on the occasion of her triumphant return to her birthplace of Ottawa in 1947, when thousands came out to celebrate Scott’s championships and present her with the key to the city.  But of course it would have made perfect sense to dust off the “Ode” for a second round of parades and ceremonies after Scott’s Olympic triumph in 1948—which is precisely what Caresser did for his broadcast of March 3d, adapting a stanza as part of his “Weekly News” feature:

Ode to Barbara Ann Scott

Photo: Skate Canada.  Text: Lord Caresser, “An Ode to Barbara Ann Scott.” From Calypso! (1951 self-published promotional booklet).

(The audio excerpt from the March 3, 1948 broadcast of “The Lord Caresser Show” is in the public domain. Its copyright has expired because it was created under Crown copyright and first published more than 50 years ago.  The copyright to “An Ode to Barbara Ann Scott” is held by the heirs of Rufus Callender, and the work is reproduced by their kind permission.)

Posted in Barbara Ann Scott, Canada, Charles Roach, Lord Caresser | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Hip Hooray for de Gracious Queen

Posted by Michael Eldridge on June 5, 2012

Tibor Kalman, "Colors 4 (Race)"

Tibor Kalman, Black Queen Elizabeth. From Colors 4 (Race), 1993. ©M&Co.

Charles Roach

Charles Roach (photo: Colin O’Connor for the National Post)

With all the hoopla this week surrounding Elizabeth II’s diamond jubilee, it’s worth remembering that there are plenty of folks throughout her dominions who aren’t celebrating (or who, like Jamaica Kincaid’s Lucy, just aren’t happy being someone else’s “minion”).  In the Dominion of Canada, for example, veteran civil rights activist Charles Roach has long sought to alter that country’s Citizenship Oath, which requires new citizens to swear allegiance to the British monarch (who is technically the Canadian head of state).  Because of his refusal to take such a pledge, the Trini-born Roach, who has lived in Canada since 1955, remains a permanent resident rather than a citizen.  Although his legal challenges to the oath were rejected by a federal appeals court in 1994 and by the Ontario Superior Court in 2007, Roach, a member of the bar since 1963, is now once again arguing its constitutionality before the provincial court.

A story about this latest round in his fight (which he’s effectively conducting from his sickbed, battling cancer and stroke at the same time) appeared last Wednesday in the right-wing National Post—and immediately drew a handful of hair-raising comments from unreconstructed Monarchists and United Empire Loyalists suggesting that if they don’t like it in Canada, Roach and the rest of “these immigrants” ought to go back to the “hell holes” they came from.

In spite of its much-vaunted multiculturalism, Canada has a history of such bigotry, state-sponsored as well as petulant and personal (see “Domesticating the West Indies in Canada,” Part 1 and Part 2).  If immigrants insist on coming, some Canadians have felt, then it would be much more tolerable if they would just shut up and wave their flag (Union Jack, not Maple Leaf).

That sentiment, as I discovered when I was researching the history of Lord Caresser (Rufus Callender) in Canada (see “Caresser in Canada,” “My Visit to Ottawa,” and “Canada So Cold“), extended to calypsonians, too.  Here’s a relevant excerpt from my essay “Calypso’s Cosmopolitan Strategy“:

Hip Hooray for Liz

Toronto Daily Star, 28 November 1953

…To begin with, Canadians had long delighted in noting what they regarded as West Indians’ touching loyalty to the British monarchy, especially as expressed in calypso.  A newsreel in the collection of Canada’s National Library shows Prince Edward being saluted by “calypso dancers” on his 1925 tour of the Caribbean.  In 1939, a Canadian Press newswire story in the Toronto Star remarked that six months on, the calypsonians then in residence at “Manhattan’s smartest night clubs” were still “singing sprightly ballads to rhumba-like rhythms about the [recent North American] visit of the King and Queen,” and it approvingly cited a sample stanza: “The charming, gracious, and smiling Queen, / Is the prettiest woman I have ever seen. / She was dress in an outfit of blue, / And wave to the crowd as the car drove through.”  (A similar notice in late 1953 marking Elizabeth’s first visit to the Caribbean jovially quoted from the calypso that greeted her arrival in Jamaica, “Hip Hooray for de Gracious Queen.”)

These dispatches were nothing, however, compared to the flood of coverage that accompanied Princess Margaret on her month-long circuit of the Caribbean in 1955—the “Calypso Tour,” as it came to be known throughout the English-speaking world.  All of Canada’s major newspapers featured front-page stories replete with lavish photo spreads and maps of Margaret’s itinerary, beginning in the run-up to her arrival and continuing well past her return.  “Trinidad’s Steel Bands Prepare for Princess,” shouted a headline in the Globe and Mail on January 31:  “Each band hopes to win approval and be chosen to play for the Princess.”  Indeed, claimed the Toronto Star, the “happy natives” of Trinidad, particularly its “colorfully garbed native dancers,” had been anxiously preparing for her visit for months.  Meanwhile, the Globe divulged, “Calypso writers have already produced a torrent of words extolling the virtues of the Royal visitor,” and one, the Mighty Panther (Vernon Roberts), had been chosen to “put his message across personally at a carnival in the grounds of Government House.”  (The paper reproduced the entire text of Panther’s laudatory lyrics in the next day’s edition.)

Calypso’s wartime displays of loyalty to Crown and Empire came in for special treatment.  A plummy profile of Caresser in the entertainment weekly Applause tried to establish his patriotic bona fides with the spurious claim that he had served in the army, entertaining the troops—British, American, or West Indian, it wasn’t clear.  “Many a soldier who blithely ignored the printed V.D. notices was sent scurrying to the medico by Caresser’s warbled warnings,” it grinned, “and the progress of the war was duly noted [by Caresser] in numbers such as ‘Hitler and the Rich Ukraine,’ [and] ‘Watch Out, Japan.’”[1]

"Subaltern" Mary Churchill

Globe and Mail, 21 August 1943

But it was a front-page, above-the-fold photo in the Globe and Mail in the summer of 1943 that truly spotlighted West Indians’ devotion to their martial Mother Country.  A teaser for a two-column story on the paper’s Women’s page, the picture illustrated a visit to Canada by servicewoman Mary Churchill (daughter of Winston), and featured a smiling, down-to-earth Churchill “[singing] calypso songs” amidst a group of dark-skinned Barbadian volunteers at the Auxiliary Territorial Services basic training camp in Kitchener, Ontario.  The photo-op with the West Indians, who accounted for precisely forty-seven of the camp’s 1000 trainees, was framed as the centerpiece of the story, which climaxed with the “girls” (including “Subaltern” [!] Churchill) in an impromptu performance of one of their “native” songs, clear evidence of their childlike trust in the Great White Mother:

There was a moment of shyness on the part of [the] girls from the British West Indies…when Miss Churchill appeared on the scene.  But when she sat on the grass, gathering them around her and chattering as naturally as if she knew each one, they were soon laughing hard and telling her all about themselves….

When Ptc. M. K. Evelyn from the Barbados sang a native calypso, Miss Churchill joined in the chorus heartily.  “It’s simply marvelous!” she said, clapping her hands.  “I wish we could have had a recording of it!”[2]

[1] Hughes, Betty. “We Meet the Lord….” “Chez Montreal” column.  Applause February 1947: 18.
[2] Tupper, Jan. “Keeping Pace With Father Easy, Says Mary Churchill.” Globe and Mail 21 August 1943: 10.  The story’s bad faith is compounded by the wartime files of the Immigration Branch at Library and Archives Canada, which are filled with hundreds of rejected applications by West Indian men who wished to come to Canada and train with the armed services.  “[T]he Royal Canadian Air Force hesitates to encourage [Applicant X] to make the long and expensive trip from Port of Spain, Trinidad, in view of the possibility that he may either fail to qualify for enlistment or that his enlistment cannot be effected as a result of the requirements being filled,” went a typically mealy-mouthed reply to a query on an aspiring serviceman’s behalf.  “If [X] should decide to come to Canada [to a Recruiting Centre], the journey must be made at his own expense with no assurance that he will be accepted into the Royal Canadian Air Force…” (RG 76, File 471, Item 721432).

  • See also Gordon Rohlehr on “Calypso and the Ideology of Empire” (pp. 182-6) and “World War II and Its Aftermath” (esp. pp. 316-355) in Calypso & Society in Pre-Independence Trinidad, as well as Ray Funk’s discussion of “reverential” royal-themed calypsos in his “In the Battle for Emergent Independence” in Anthurium 3.2 (2005).
  • Listen to Young Tiger’s “I Was There (at the Coronation)” and Beginner’s “Queen Elizabeth Calypso.”
  • An interview with Charles Roach aired on the the June 4th edition of the CBC’s Connect with Mark Kelley.  (Move the slider to 47:09.)

Posted in Canada, Charles Roach, Citizenship Oath, Immigration Policy, Library & Archives, Lord Caresser, Mary Churchill, Queen Elizabeth II, Racism | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

I’m ready for my (YouTube) close-up, Mr. De Castro

Posted by Michael Eldridge on February 25, 2011

1969 Canadian Calypso King Dave “Bandit” De Castro’s YouTube debut earlier this week (see below) inspired me to dig out the telephone interview I had with him back in December 2009, when I was living in Ontario.

There may not be much here that isn’t already in De Castro’s memoir, Stories, self-published earlier in 2009 from his home in Florida.  But “Bandit” is a delightful storyteller and a gregarious interviewee, and his recollections of the early history of calypso in Canada in the 1950s and 60s, in particular, deserve a wider audience.  And so here is more or less the entire interview, a brief excerpt of which appeared in a previous post:

Let me get you to start at the beginning, at least in terms of Canada.  Remind me—I think you told me this once before—when did you come to Canada?

I came to Canada in 1955, April of 1955.

And did you land in Montreal, or somewhere else?

Yes, we landed in Montreal.  We came to New York first, and then came to Montreal.

What brought you here, exactly?

A friend of mine told me that there was a lot of exciting things going on in Canada, and I was very restless in Trinidad, and he wanted a buddy to go with him, and I said “Okay, you make the arrangements, and I’ll go.”

So did you come on a tourist visa, or…?

No, no, no: we applied—in those days it was very easy [for white residents of the Commonwealth] to get citizenship in Canada.  We applied for citizenship, and it came back within six months, and because I worked for a shipping company in Trinidad, we were able to book a passage on the S.S. Argentina to New York, and then from New York we took a Greyhound to Montreal.  In those days, we had no problems coming to Canada at all.

Were you a musician in Trinidad?

No, I was not.  I graduated from Mount St. Benedict, one of the colleges in Trinidad, it was a boarding school, and then after that…well my father, my stepfather, as a matter of fact, was a cricketer for the West Indies, and I saw a lot of pictures of him playing in England and Australia and that kind of stuff.  So I always had a little bit of a bug to travel, growing up.  I figured, “I want to see these places.”  So when the first opportunity came along, I sold my motorbike, gave up my job, and away we went.

So how did you get started playing and singing?

Well, how the band started, actually, is:  because we were a little lonely, of course—I was one of the first guys in the old days to go to Canada; they didn’t have too many other West Indians then—so eventually, some other West Indians moved into the area and we found out that they were living [there] and that some of the boys were going to the University of Montreal [and McGill].  So we started to make [music] with West Indian guys—there was a little place on Milton Street, a guy had a little apartment, and we would meet there and have a few drinks and play music and beat bottle and spoon and, you know, just fool around.  And then a guy from Trinidad, a guy called Ken Duval came up—these guys just kept arriving and they ended up at my door for some reason, they would say “Go see Dave, go see Dave,” I don’t know why, I never knew that—so Ken comes and I say, “What are you doing here?” and he says, “Well, I’m from Trinidad,” and I say “What’s that got to do with me?”  “They send me to see you!”

It sounds like The Lonely Londoners!

King Caribe at the El Morocco

Montreal Gazette, 19 December 1956

Right, yes, I read that book!  Exact same situation.  And this guy Ken Duval, he could play the cuatro.  So he started playing the cuatro and we started beating bottles and spoons and that kind of stuff, and then a guy, his brother-in-law, could play a little bit of guitar, a guy called Alan de Montbrun.  So he joined up, too, and before you know it, there was another guy called Eddy Edgehill, he could play a little bit of a conga drum, and I was very good at the maracas and the congo and the bottle and spoon, and that kind of stuff, and so we started this little band.  Calypso was unknown at that time, really, but it was something different.  And then we added to it a little steelband section, with one steel pan, a little four-note bass drum and a thirteen-note guitar pan…when I talk about a four-note bass drum, you have to realize now that a bass section in Trinidad right now is about fifteen different drums with about 32 notes.  So it’s a whole different ballgame.  And we were doing all this thing and a guy saw us and he said, “this guy have an agent, a friend of mine, and maybe he might be interested in you guys,” and we said “right,” and he came, and he saw potential, and he said, “You guys—yeah, I can make some money with you guys.  I can dress you up, put you in shirts, frilly shirts to look like Desi Arnaz—I can make some money with you guys.”  And he did!  The first place he booked us into was the El Morocco, which was one of the top nightclubs in Montreal at that time.  We got into a little room upstairs; they had a little cocktail lounge, and we stayed there for months!

Had the calypso craze in the US already started by that time?  Was that where he saw the potential?

No, it was just before that craze, and of course the craze really became big when Belafonte came out. A lot of people don’t like Belafonte—Trinidadians, I should say—do not like to give a lot of credit to Belafonte.  But you have to give a lot of credit to Belafonte because he is the one who really brought it the forefront when he made his first album with “Day-O” and “Jamaica Farewell” and that kind of thing.

He raised the profile.

He raised the bar real high.  What became a sort of a downplay from Belafonte, which a lot of people didn’t like and I still up to today don’t like it:  because he realized—and truthfully so—that he was not in truth a calypso singer; he said he was a folk singer…you see, a lot of people still don’t understand, to be a calypso singer, it doesn’t mean that you sing calypso.   It means that you write your own songs and you sing your songs.  Anybody can sing a song, you know, Dean Martin can sing anybody’s song, and so can anybody else sing anybody else song.

Or Robert Mitchum

Right!  He made Island in the Sun down in Trinidad & Tobago.  He got a good cut-arse, in case you don’t know, in a bar in the islands.  He thought he was so tough, and he decided to fool around with a guy, and the guy beat the hell out of him!

Probably wasn’t the first time Robert Mitchum got beat up…

Right, yes—he was a rough-and-tumble kind of guy!  And in those days what happened is, our band, because…the guy at the agency was called Eldon, Eldon Associates, it was a Jewish agency, and he was very good.  And he realized that the steeldrum was an unknown factor, so he called it “The Steel Bandits.”

So that was his idea for the name?

Yes.  He said, no, this calypso is not good enough, put it as The Steel Bandits.  And the singer, this boy Duval, he gave him a stage name also: he gave him the name of “King Caribe.”  Because in those days, every calypsonian had a name, like Lord Caresser, the Mighty Terror, the Duke of Iron, and Barracuda, and so on and so on.  So he gave him a name too.  So Ken became King Caribe, and the band became the Steel Bandits.

And when did you become “The Bandit”?

King Caribe "Calypso"

L-R: Dave de Castro, Allan de Montbrun, Ken Duval, Eddy Edgehill

Well, here’s what happened—this is a funny story.  Ken’s father was a councilman, he was in the legislative council, the government, and when he first found out that his son was playing calypso in Canada…don’t forget: in the islands, it was not [accepted] that white fellows, or fellows of any class should be playing calypso in steelbands…the stigma was a terrible stigma, both for calypso and steeldrums guys.  That is why a lot of the white guys that played steelband music were ostracized from their family completely.  And a lot of them still made it—fellows like Sello Gomes and Oscar Fusca and a lot of them—you were considered low class.  A steelband man and a calypsonian, they were figured, these were the dregs of the society.  These were the guys that went out having fun, drinking, running women, doing all of the terrible things that one should not do.

Even in the fifties they still had that reputation?

Oh yes.  So when this councilman found out that his son, his lovely son, was in Canada playing calypso music, he told him, “You get home right away!  Get outta there, you come home now!”  So Ken came and said, “Listen, Daddy wants me home.”  So I said, “You’re a big man!”  And he said, “Yeah, but I can’t tell Daddy no.”

And so you took over?

Yeah, so he left!  He had to go, he says, “Daddy says, Come home now,” he says, “what am I gonna do?”  I says, “Tell Daddy forget it!”  And he says, “No, I gotta go.”  Well, he left!

You’re two thousand miles away!

This is what I mean!  And you know, up to this day he regrets it, would you believe that?  I still see him every time I go to Trinidad, and he says to me, the best year he ever had in his entire life was that year he did that.  It was a lot of fun.

So he’s around, too—he’s back in Trinidad?

Yeah, he’s still alive and well in Trinidad.  And then when he left, his brother-in-law, who’s married to his sister, says if he’s leaving, you have to leave the band, too.  So in a week’s time, I was able—we had a contract, we were at work, so I kept the contract going.  And then the brother-in-law comes to me, and he says, hey Dave, my wife says I gotta leave, too.  I say, “What the hell is wrong with you guys?!  Your father tells you you gotta leave, now your wife tells you you gotta leave, is that’s what’s going on here?”  So he leaves.  Then I replaced him with a guitarist, and the same boy Eddy that used to hang around with us, he then came into the band with us.  So we formed a different size band: we called it the Calypso Bandits, later the Fabulous Calypso Bandits, and it stayed that way for many years.

And what year was that?

That was…King Caribe and the Steel Bandits went from about the beginning of 55 to about the end of 56, somewhere around there.  57 is when I really came into the picture.  I mean I was there all the time, but…

And the really good times lasted through 57 or so?

No, no, it lasted for a long time.  We played all over Canada and the United States for many years.  It lasted till…68.   Then, with Caresser—the reason that I met these guys afterward is because that same cocktail lounge at the El Morocco became very, very popular.  And they kept bringing different artists.  They brought Caresser in at that time, that’s the first time I’d met Caresser.  They also brought Lloyd Thomas, the Mighty Lloyd Thomas.  I don’t know if you know anything about him?—but at that time there was a woman called Christine Jorgensen, she was the first man to become a woman.

Thomas wrote that calypso? [I imagined De Castro was alluding to “Is She Is, Or Is She Ain’t?,” penned by Louis Walcott, later Farrakhan. But he was actually referring to another tune inspired by the Jorgensen case, “Sex Changin’,” recorded by Thomas and claimed both by him and by Lord Christo.]

Lloyd Thomas at the Venus de Milo

Montreal Gazette 2 January 1957

Well, I’ll tell you a story:  [Jorgensen] was performing, you see, at the El Morocco—in the downstairs lounge was a big nightclub, and in the upstairs was the cocktail lounge.  So downstairs they would have these different artists, they would have Jackie Gleason, Frankie Lee, and all these big boys.  And Christine Jorgensen was there—they brought her in, she was a novelty act; she just sort of came and did a little bit of a strip, then walked around, and that kind of stuff.  And she came up one night into the cocktail lounge.  And unknowingly, well not unknowingly or knowingly, Lloyd Thomas did not realize that it was a sensitive situation, so he sang that song.  And they nearly fired him for it.  He says, “Well, I didn’t know; what the hell do I know?—it’s just a song.”  That was terrible!  [laughs]…[Anyway,] I remember when Lloyd used to sing that.  On my days off I would go up into the cocktail lounge; we would hang out a lot there.  Then too, of course, at that time, that’s when they had the “clash”—the steelband clash like I told you about, between Rudy [King and us] at the Apollo Theater.

That was a great story! [In one of his “Steel Band Clashes,” promoter Art D’Lugoff pitted Rudy King’s 18-piece orchestra against the white “Bandits”–at Harlem’s Apollo. When King’s bandsmen laid eyes on their pale, skinny opponents backstage, they roared with derisive laughter.  But the joke was on them: according to De Castro, King’s band died, while the Bandits killed.]

And the first TV show that ever came out of New York was with this Johnny Barracuda [who also took part in the Apollo show], the Duke of Iron, and us.  I think that was the very first TV calypso show from out of Trinidad—out of New York.  [The program was ABC-TV’s “All About Music,” which aired on April 7, 1957.  Not the first appearance of calypso or steelband on American national television, but a significant broadcast, just the same.  The Steel Bandits also appeared on the CBC’s “Music Hall” in April 1957.]

You were mainly playing in Montreal, through.

No, also in Quebec.  You see, I had different agents.  In other words, I got a lot of agents.  I had a guy and then sort of drifted away and as I started to go around I didn’t want to give him exclusive and I found out I could get many other agents.  I had a lot of agents: I had some in Montreal, some in Quebec City, down in the Caribbean, all over the place, up in Noranda, Rouyn, all these little towns: La Gap, Labelle, all these little places outside of Montreal, all the way up into the mountains, all over.  So we worked constantly, but we were constantly moving.  Then I had agents in the States that would book me into Boston and New York, we played the small hall in Carnegie Hall, and different places.  So I would get a lot of jobs, and then I was fortunate enough to get the Venus de Milo, which then became a home base.  So we played the Venus about three, four months a year, and then travelled for the other months, and then come back to the Venus.

All the way through the 60s?

Yes, all through the 60s.

In the US, were you playing the East Coast, mainly, or did you go down to Miami…?

Most of the time we ended up in Miami, and in the Florida area: Sarasota, Miami, Coco Beach, down south.  And then we used to go to Boston, and into Falmouth…and on my CD [“‘The Calypso Bandit’ Sings Again” (2001)], there’s a write-up by a guy called Kenn Shah, I don’t know if you ever heard his name.  Kenn Shah was very big in the development of the Caribana in Toronto, and he did a write-up for me (he was a friend of mine, I knew him very well), and on the inside of the cover explains that whole story that I’m telling you, where I came from and the different places we played and all that.

So you didn’t get out to Chicago or Los Angeles, say…

No, the furthest place we went was into Columbus, Ohio and into Lorraine.  I remember in Columbus, Ohio, the Columbus Plaza Hotel advertised us as the “boys making music on garbage cans.”

That was the hook!

That was the hook, yeah.

Well, what did you guys think about what you were doing:  were you just having fun and making a living, or were you filling a demand, or educating people about Trinidadian music, or…?

No, to be quite honest with you: we just felt that we were having a good time and we were promoting—because of the love for the culture that we all had—that we were promoting our culture, and we were having a good time with it, and having fun really.  We never did get more serious at making a living and travelling…and in those days the money wasn’t big.  So by the time you travelled and you paid your expenses and all—and we all had families, had to send money back home to our families and that kind of thing—we never made any money.  As a matter of fact, even in my songwriting, I never made any money with my songwriting, although the Merry Men used a lot of my songs, Byron Lee used my songs. […] One of the things that people know me for is the love of the culture that I have, and I’m still the same way.  I mean, I am basically known as a calypso artist.  I play calypso music every day of life, I mean I don’t miss a day.  I listen to it in my car…one guy told me recently, he says, “You know your problem, Bandit? You’re very prejudiced.”  I say, “What do you mean by that?”  He say, “You’re prejudiced about your music,” he said, “that’s all you listen to.  Why don’t you listen to something else?”  [laughs]

And do you listen to a lot of current stuff, too?

No, I don’t.  I like a lot of Spanish stuff, though. I speak some Spanish, although it’s very hard to understand when they sing…but I like a lot of Spanish music. Unfortunately, the calypsonian is a dying breed, for the simple reason that now soca is in, and soca is high energy, and the young people like it.  So the calypso is basically dying.  In other words, a lot of the young generation don’t know anything about it and don’t care, anyhow.  Even the Trinidadians, too, they seem to have gone on to the reggae—they like the reggae stuff.  So basically, it’s a dying breed: we know it, fellas my age know it.  And some of them are still around, but they’re dying off.  The younger ones are more like…the big boy now is Machel Montano, and he is good, but he is strictly high-energy soca, that’s all he puts out, and that’s what the young generation wants.

Maybe it’ll come around again.

[Laughs] By that time I’ll be dead and gone, so it doesn’t matter!  [Laughs]

So what did you think of the calypso craze when you were in the middle of it?  Did you have any problems with how you were being “packaged”?

We loved it, we followed what came up from the islands, and because we travelled so much, to us it was basically party time every night.  When I think back on it, I tell my wife, “As soon as you die, Honey, I’m going back into to it again, I don’t care!”  [Laughs]  My first wife, after 15 years, couldn’t take it any more, of course, cause I was in the music business and running all over the place.  She couldn’t take it any more, and that finished that.  And I got married a second time, and in the second time, luckily, the band had just broken up about a year [before], I was working, I was a marketing manager in a company, I was doing well, and my second wife told me, “You’re not getting back in this.”  [Laughs]

You moved down to Toronto in the 60s?

Yeah, it was 68.

And that’s when you got the job in marketing.

Yes, I started to become “respectable.”  And luckily, a friend of mine who played with me from time to time had a company, a big company, and he was able to hire me.  And that’s how I ended up in Toronto.  And then the Caribana was in the early years.  And they decided to put on, in the first time in the Caribana movement, the calypso competition.  So then I entered the calypso competition, and then I won the Calypso King that year, that was 69.  So I won it in 69, then they didn’t have it again after that at all—those competitions, they didn’t have them again until somewhere back in the 80s, it became popular again, and a guy called “Smokey” came on it in the 80s, so there was quite a controversy of Who was the first calypso king of Canada—was it the guy that won in the 80s, or was it the guy that won in 69?  And of course, obviously, 69 comes before 80, so… [Laughs]  Of course, Smokey was most upset, because…they didn’t know about it!  They didn’t even know that in the old days they had…there’s a lot of that old history of when Caribana started at first that nobody has written about, that’s coming out now piece by piece by piece.

CANEWA's Calypso Carnival

Toronto Star 5 November 1955

The novelist Lawrence Hill wrote a historical booklet for the Canadian Negro Women’s Association (CANEWA), which was active back in the 50s.  And they started what they called a “Calypso Carnival” in Toronto in 55 or 56, and held it annually for several years—it was basically just a big dance, they would rent a hall and all the West Indians in Toronto would get together and have a party.  And that, he says, morphed into Caribana:  it disappeared for a couple of years in the early 60s and then some of the same people who had been involved with this Calypso Carnival came back and kind of laid the foundation for Caribana.

Well I hate to tell you: nobody knows that story, cause I’ve never heard that story before.  I’m around these kind of conversations…[and] this the first time I’ve heard about that.  Because when anybody talks about Caribana, they talk about Caribana starting in 1967.

This other thing started in 55 or 56 and it went through, I want to say, 63 or 64.  [Hill dates it to 1956, though the ad at right suggests that the same “carnival,” sponsored by CANEWA, goes back to at least 1955.]

That’s interesting:  nobody knows that…Lennox Borrell is a[nother] guy that goes way back also into the days of Montreal with me.  Because he had a little band at that time also, and he ended up as a university professor in one of the big universities in Toronto, and … he is still so involved in the Caribana movement that he has been a judge for the competition for the last, oh, how many years, I don’t know.  So he’s been very entrenched with it also, from in the early days.

And he started in Montreal too?

He started in Montreal, too, yes.  He had a little steelband there, and he travelled, too, cause the way to get some money was to get a move on with different agents.  He didn’t travel half as much as us—he had a band, it was a bigger band, and it was basically a steel band.

So how much did you mix with the other West Indians in Montreal?

Well, the reason we mixed a lot with them is because they knew we were the only band in town, so they came to us, rather than we going to them.  Because especially the Venus de Milo—the beauty in those days is that these clubs were cocktail lounges, where you sat down and you listened to the entertainment; there was no dancing and monkey business like you have today.  You sat—it was a show: you went there, you had a drink, you sat down, you listened to the show, you left, you came back, whatever the story is.  That atmosphere was always there.  That lasted for many years.  Of course, then the Go-Go dancers came in, and then that was it, brother.  That basically killed us.  Everybody was flocking to see these little girls shake-up and their breasts movement and all that.

I’m sure that sort of entertainment has its charms, too!

[Laughs]  Yes, I’m sure it does!  But because it was such a novelty in those days, seeing a woman’s breast exposed in a club was a novelty, in those days that wasn’t commonplace at all, when this came along every little girl got involved in this thing, it was an easy way for them to make money.  Because even the bands started to put them into the bands and all that kind of stuff.  So there was a lot of things going on at that time, and of course the novelty of the calypso started to fade, because the folk singing now became a big thing—Peter, Paul, and Mary and all these folks.  There was a guy called Marvin Burke [who] became very popular singing folk songs.  And he took over our home base, really:  so it used to be, he would get into the club for a couple of months, then we would get it back for a couple of months, and it would shift back and forth.  Cause you always need a home base where you can stay at least for a couple of months, and then move on again.

So after calypso it was folk music and then it was rock and roll.

Yes, and then the rock and roll came in.  And I’m sorry to see the rock and roll go because at least rock and roll had some dancing to it: there was camaderie, and you could get in front of a girl and move around.  But like they say, life changes and that’s it. […] Then, too, they had of course, the University of Montreal, a lot of West Indians, especially Trinidadians went there too.  And that’s where Stokely Carmichael came out from, if you remember that…

I know that the students there–and at McGill and Sir George Williams–formed an association, and they used to have a carnival, too.

They would put on a big dance.  As a matter of fact, we played for some of their dances, because it was strictly calypso music, so everybody could dance to it.  Every year they had that, until the last year, when we played, a big fight broke out, and they said they don’t want us again.  [Laughs]

Like it was your fault!

[Laughs]  Some white fellows came from Verdun and started some trouble and before you know it, they ended up fighting with our band, and we were in the fight so they figured it was our fault, and they said we don’t ever want to see you again—go back, get out.  That might have been 58?  Somewhere around 58, 59 maybe, I really can’t remember.

How well did you get to know any of the other West Indian entertainers who were based in or came through Montreal?  Did you get to know Caresser at all, or Lloyd Thomas?

No, I just met up with Caresser because he played at the same place.  No, at that time, a lot of entertainers weren’t really passing through Montreal.  There were very few musicians in Montreal; a lot of little bands like mine started coming up.  There was another guy called Ralph Egard, he started a little band, too.  The only other guy I met in those days that passed through Montreal was Nello, Lord Nelson.  And then, too, a lot of times I was out of town even if they did pass through.  But there was not a big influx of calypso singers here; they did that mostly in England, I understand—they got Kitchener and different people; there was quite a movement—but in Montreal they didn’t have too much of that.  And of course at that time, too, there was a big Haitian influence.  Because in Haiti they speak French and the French people like that, so a lot of Haitian bands came up and were playing a lot of Haitian music.  They like the beat of the Haitian music, the French people.  And eventually, that is why there are a lot of Haitians in Montreal, because the government, when they changed the law of the land to French, Haiti was allowed to send their people there because they speak French.  So they would take preference over the Haitian rather than the Jamaican or the Trinidadian or anybody else.

So Thomas and Creator and those guys—you didn’t really know them much.

No, I met with them.  But I never hung around them, because they didn’t stay long: they came, they gave a gig or two, and they went.  Lloyd Thomas, he worked out of New York.  Same thing with Barracuda, he was in New York, too.  Duke of Iron, too.  These boys all were coming out of New York. […] Later on, when Caribana started in 67—67, 68, 69—after about 69, they realized that the Caribana could do very well by importing the acts out of…putting on big shows and bringing them from Trinidad.  And up till today, that is still very prominent…Now of course, every year, they all come up.  Whether it’s Roy Cape, Melody, Sparrow, Baron, a lot of—David Rudder lives there.

Not long after I got here I was in a barber shop, and another guy waiting for a cut turned out to be a retired immigration official from Niagara Falls.  And he was regaling me with stories about how on the Amtrak train, entire trainloads full of West Indians from New York would come up for Caribana: they would take over the train, he said, and it was just one big party.

Don’t forget, the Caribana has been going for about 44, 45 years.  It’s been a long time.  I suppose they’ve had their troubles…but one of the unfortunate things that happens with these things is you always hear about the misappropriation of moneys, they imply that money has been stolen…but what they don’t tell you is the misappropriation of moneys is a very, very small percentage of how much it costs to put this damn thing on.  And a lot of the cost is borne by the volunteers who don’t get paid, so they get a drink of beer here and there, but all his labor is free, all the workers for the bands—all that’s free money.

I can’t imagine anyone’s getting rich putting on carnival.

[Laughs]  Yeah, and this is one of the fallacies—that is why these organizations are falling apart, both in Florida, in Orlando and all over the place, they’re dying, because they always think there’s money: they start it up, and then somebody else jumps in and thinks there’s money and before you know it it’s broke up into three parts, and the one part can’t [inaudible]…so even carnivals in the different cities across the United States, the government is getting tired of it, they’re not helping promote it, because they don’t see it as a viable entity for their constituents or their people to partake of it, and they put them in some backroads and the thing becomes a mess.

The carnival I’m most familiar with is Brooklyn, and I know to this day the New York politicians will come out and march at the head of the parade for a few blocks, just to get their picture in the paper, but the city isn’t giving those guys any money—it’s mainly segregated onto Eastern Parkway; they’re allowed to have their day and that’s about it.

The whole idea is Get On and Get Out.  Even in Toronto: Toronto is very fortunate—the government has helped them out but it has taken years for the government to get involved.  And when the government gives them the thing…it’s a pittance.  It’s only now that they’re really starting to realize how much this thing makes and how much it costs and therefore give them a little more.  But the money does not flow like water like people [inaudible].  But the average person in the street, who’s not involved in it, thinks “Well the government gave them $100,000.”  Yeah, it gave $100,000 and it cost $300,000 to put it on.

Were you sort of a novelty because of your light skin?

Yes, definitely.  Definitely.  That was a big [advantage] too.  We were able to get into a lot of doors that other people couldn’t get into.  Doors opened up very easily for us.

So when people heard “Trinidad” they were expecting to see black guys.

They were expecting to see black people, and they were shocked.  They would say, “Are you sure you’re from Trinidad?”  But they liked the music, and for the club owner, in the bigger clubs, he felt more comfortable with us, obviously.  And most of the clubs we played in, we played to white people, we didn’t play to West Indians.  Cause there was no money playing to the West Indians.

Even the clubs in the other end of town: I’ve seen pictures of Caresser playing at Rockhead’s Paradise in the late 40s and early 50s and all of the people there in the cocktail bar are white folks.

Well, this is it.  Now, you have to know the story about Rockhead’s:  we played at Rockhead’s many times, too.  Rockhead was a black Jamaican man who opened up this club.  But he brought in all his acts out of New York, he wanted high-class entertainers:  Benny King, B.B. King…groups out of Chicago and New York and that kind of stuff.  And then he had a little cocktail lounge downstairs, and in the cocktail lounge we would play or Caresser would play.  And you would find out that one of Rockhead’s things is, he really enjoys the white people to come to his club, because as you walked through the door, he would hand every lady a rose, every night he would stand there, and he would hand them a rose.  So he created a clientele of…even some of the blacks that came were of a higher class. Because the drinks were more expensive, it was not a cheap club by any means, so you had to have some money to go see those shows.

So he was running a high-class joint.

He was running a high-class joint, yes.  And then he had the little cocktail lounge downstairs which could take anything you want.  You could pick up whatever money you could pick up downstairs.  But [even the cocktail lounge] was not cheap.  And then he had another place called the 99 around the corner from him that was predominantly a little black place where there was cheap liquor.

He covered all the bases.

Yeah.  Well, he didn’t own the 99, actually; the 99 was owned by somebody else that competed against him.  It was a little dive, and his was a high-class club.  I mean, you would walk into Rockhead’s Paradise, and he had a bouncer there, and he would tolerate absolutely no nonsense in that club, especially if you interfered with his white clientele, let me tell you.

Apparently Rockhead feuded with the city fathers, though.

Yes.  He had problems with them because they knew that there was a percentage of prostitution going on from there.  And there were batty men there, too—it was a big club.

From everything I read about Montreal in the 30s and 40s and early 50s—that just seems like it’s par for the course.

[Laughs]  Yes—that’s why it was great!  I mean, I would go and see…B.B. King at 4 o’clock in the morning.  It was wide open.

No other city in Canada like that.

No, no—the others closed up tight.  The only other city I saw that could match that was two cities, Noranda and in Rouyn.  Those places—they closed the doors at 5 o’clock in the morning and people were still coming in drinking.  Unbelievable.  And the places packed.  Small towns, but they were mining towns, okay?  That was a different animal up there.  And up in Sept-Iles and these places, the law didn’t bother these places, they let them go till 2, 3; and once they closed the doors—the whole idea was, close the doors, but then you let your friends in, or whatever they want to do inside.

I’ve got a feeling you’ve got endless stories, if I could keep you on the line forever…

Well, I’ll send you my book and you can read a couple of them in the book.  You’ll read stories about fights and that kind of stuff, there’s a lot of those.

It’s great talking to you—you’re very kind to take so much time.

I always have the time.  The way I live my life, I don’t live like other people: I eat when I’m hungry, I sleep when I’m sleepy, time means absolutely nothing to me because it doesn’t control me, I control it.  So I’m very, very fortunate.  I’m not regimented: my wife eats at 6:00, I eat at 9:00.  I’m very contented.

Dave De Castro “The Calypso Bandit” still writes songs and emcees for calypso shows in Florida.  You can hear his latest compositions at Tunecore ( or on MySpace.

Posted in "Bandit" DeCastro, Canada, Montreal, Rockhead's Paradise | Tagged: , , , | 7 Comments »

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