My last article on “Respect for PhDs” caused many eyebrows to be raised: some people wanted to find out if persons without PhDs should not be respected; others asked if we shouldn’t show respect for the Opposition members in Parliament as well. My response to all such vain questions is that at age 11 at primary school with Mr Lionel P Mitchell in Tobago, we had to write in our Government copy books for penmanship the following lines: “Have respect for every man because he is a man.” I rest my case.
Well, the need to show respect for every man and woman was, however, again awakened in me when Antiguan Sir Rupert Philo (Swallow), a man in every sense of the word, went to heaven last Friday, for I recalled him telling me in the mid-1980s that it was a joy for him to sing to the Trinidad audience, since singing in Trinidad meant that he was mixing with the top calypsonians, and, “Charkee bwoy, the Trini people does show me respect.” In terms of respect, he explained, that when his name was announced by Tommy Joseph at Spektakula Forum, the crowd roared with delight; when he went to book his room at Chaguaramas Flats where he normally stayed annually, the authorities there knowing that he came to Trinidad every year, already booked it for him without any down payment made; when he walked the streets of Port of Spain, all hailed his name aloud; when he checked in to BWIA without having the correct ticket and booking, his seat on the aircraft was already assured; and when he sought to go to a concert of any kind in T&T, no one dared to ask him for an entrance fee. The voice at the concert door was always: “Swallow, you are free to enter.” In addition, Sunshine Awards gave him the prize for the “Best Engineered Recording” and “Best Calypso Arrangement” in 1989 (Fire in the Back Seat), and had placed him in the “Sunshine Awards Hall of Fame” in year 2008. For all the aforementioned reasons that sparked of respect, Swallow loved to sing in T&T and did so up to a few years ago when he appeared nightly at the Calypso Revue with top artistes such as Sugar Aloes, Pink Panther, Cro Cro and Sprangalang, to name a few. I recall one year when Swallow was here, while we were travelling to Skinner Park, he fell ill. When I saw blood coming from his nose, I turned my car and headed straight for the hospital. The nurses at the Emergency ward began to interview him, as it were, for on hearing his accent, they were asking him if he was a Trinidadian, since the medical service was for Trinis. I immediately jumped in: “Folks, are you all mad? That is Swallow,” I bellowed! Hearing the magic name Swallow, they immediately changed their attitude and wheeled him inside where he obtained, in the hour that followed, the best that a Trini hospital could offer. Truly, Swallow was held in high esteem by Trinidadians, especially after he sang “Trinidad, the Caribbean Godfather.” In addition, one of Gypsy’s absolute gems in calypso is the one entitled “Respect the Calypsonian”.
In terms of respect, however, the history of calypso shows that there have been multiple occasions, too numerous to mention, when calypsonians in Trinidad were shown total disrespect. For example, in 1955 one sunny Friday evening, five calypsonians were entertaining tourists on Wrightson Road, then a haven for tourists, when suddenly, the police darted into the calypso crowd and arrested three of them. The litigants spent two days in prison and were charged five dollars for their crime on the following Monday. Years later, one of them told me that he could not travel to New York because of that “criminal” stamp placed on his passport and the fact that the bad mark from the court stained his character for the rest of his life. Headteacher LP Mitchell used to make us write also: “When character is lost, all is lost.”
Another example of the disrespect occurred in the 1960s when calypsonians used to entertain guests at tables in restaurants all over Port of Spain. A few restaurant owners felt that the singers were a nuisance. Indeed, a restaurant at the corner of Frederick and Park streets had at its entrance a large sign which read: “No calypsonians and dogs allowed.” I can give you readers several more examples of disrespect shown to calypsonians but the above, I believe, should satisfy the point.
On the other hand, the government of Antigua displayed total respect for Swallow and continues up to this day to do so to all calypsonians.
It is, in my opinion, true to state that no government in T&T, colonial or post-colonial, has ever treated any local calypsonian in the esteemed manner, as was done by the government of Antigua to Sir Rupert Philo (Swallow).
My heart is overjoyed, then, when our Caribbean universities see it fit not only to honour PhDs but to state that artistes like King Sparrow, Lord Kitchener, Roy Cape, Pelham Goddard, Merle Albino DeCoteau, Winsford Devine, Eintou Springer, Derek Walcott, Earl Lovelace, Black Stalin, Bro Superior, Mighty Shadow, David Rudder, Mighty Gabby and Red Plastic Bag in Barbados deserve to be named to the table of doctorates, because of their noble contributions to their nations in particular, and to humanity in general. Their lives explain the meaning of the title, man. Indeed, we can say with Shakespeare: Swallow’s “life was gentle and the elements so well mixed in him, that nature could stand up and say to all the world: this was a man,” polished, artful, refined, civilised.
• Hollis Liverpool is a veteran calypsonian and Honorary Distinguished Fellow of the UTT