At 74-years-old Tobago Crusoe remains an unheralded hero of calypso music.
Born Ortneil Bacchus in Culloden, Tobago, Crusoe is an adored cultural figure in East London, England. There the affable bard has spent the past 30 years introducing young British students to calypso music.
He has performed the calypsoes of the Mighty Sparrow (Slinger Francisco), Lord Kitchener (Aldwyn Roberts), Spoiler (Theophilus Philip) and other legendary calypsonians alongside his original compositions across the UK, France, Germany and Spain.
Crusoe’s talent is also well documented back home in Trinidad and Tobago. The gifted lyricist won the coveted National Calypso Monarch title in 1983 with “South Africa” and “Don’t Cry Now”. And, although he kept his promise to never compete after that win, he remained active in the tent circuit before migrating to England in 1991.
“I reached the Savannah six times prior to winning, but honestly I never liked competition,” Tobago Crusoe said through a wide smile when he invited Kitcharee to sit under a mango tree at his Arima home on Thursday.
“The ultimate aim of every calypsonian is to become Monarch. I always told myself if I ever won I would be done. And I’ve never been back,” he continued with an emphatic nod.
“I wasn’t sure I was gonna win anything. That night after singing I left the Savannah immediately. I was in my bed when I got the results,” he laughed.
Back home for the second successive year to perform at the Back2Basics calypso tent he graciously spent his morning reminiscing on more than a half century of music.
Crusoe received a rousing encore from the tent’s sold out audience on opening night with his hilarious calypso “Bringing in Money”. The laugh-out-loud song explores the recent story of a Chaguanas pastor taking over $28 million in old hundred dollar bill to the Central Bank to change to the new polymer notes.
“A leopard cyah lose its stripe yuh know,” he said coyly when asked about his rousing reception at the tent.
“If yuh have something good and yuh represent yuhself they will respond. The tent is de tent and the type of kaiso I used to sing is what I giving them again and people who knew about Tobago Crusoe know the standard of music and I guess I haven’t disappointed them,” he continued more seriously.
The Amusing Crusoe Kid
Crusoe got his start in music after winning a village council calypso competition in his home town when he was just a teenager.
Back then he called himself Lord Amuser. He later changed his name Crusoe Kid, an ode to his love for comic superheroes, after discovering there was already a bard named Amuser (Carlton Thompson) in Trinidad.
Yet another name change became necessary when he found out his countrywoman Calypso Rose already adopted the Crusoe Kid sobriquet. The name Tobago Crusoe was literally hand delivered to him one night at Sparrow’s Young Brigade calypso tent.
“A Syrian merchant from Henry Street came to Sparrow’s tent with two suits, one marked Trinidad Bill and one marked Tobago Crusoe because we were the two emcees in the tent. I thought that was a more appropriate grown-up name,” he joked.
London is the place for me
Crusoe said a chance encounter with his childhood sweetheart while performing in London tied him to the famous city. Not only did he go on to build a family life in the city, he also generated a renewed interest in calypso music and in so doing developed a sizeable following.
“A fella called Dougie, he had a hotel just past San Fernando called Dougies Hideaway, invited me to sing at his club in London. When I got there I was reunited with my longtime sweetheart Ethlyn and I stayed.
“While there I met Alex Pascall from Grenada. He used to run the Notting Hill Carnival. He used to go around to schools doing workshops and he saw me at a show and say he could use me. I realised this was virgin territory. I started doing workshops in schools and over the years I built up a reputation and I found myself going around the UK and Europe spreading the culture,” he recalled.
Calypso on the big screen
That groundwork landed him a big screen appearance on the popular Paddington movies. Tobago Crusoe and his Tobago d’Lime band appear in both Paddington 1 (2014) and the sequel Paddington 2 (2017).
He is set to appear in a third film about Jennifer Hosten the Grenadian trailblazer who became the first black Miss World in 1970. The film is set for worldwide release next month.
“They were looking for a calypso singer to do a part in a movie. They were going to come to Trinidad, but a Trinidadian guitar man who was in a session in a studio heard dem talking and he said well yuh doh have to go anywhere, one of the best is here,” Crusoe related as to how he got the Paddington role.
“Now we are also in the Jennifer Hosten biopic. When she came home they gave her a party and we will be the band at the party singing Sparrow’s ‘Three Cheers for you Jennifer’,” he revealed.
Crusoe expressed his amazement at the evolution of calypso and soca music. He called on older heads within the genre to not be resistant to the changes and to allow the young creatives ample space to express their talents.
“The art form has moved in a different direction. I have no hang ups in what dem young people are doing now. This is their time and this is their way of doing it, fine,” he said.
He said, however, reports of calypso music losing potency and calypso tents being a dying institution are hugely exaggerated.
“I’m hearing good kaiso. As good as back then (in the 70s). Now there wasn’t any soca back then and when yuh turn on yuh radio those were the songs you were going to hear. Because of the proliferation of soca on radio it would seem as though calypso is dead, but it not dead they just put it on de back burner. As long as the calypso tents continue to exist the traditional kaiso will carry on,” he concluded with a toothy grin.