As I extend the customary New Year’s greetings to all my readers and the wider local, regional and international community, I must confess that it is tinged with profound sadness at the passing of the huge cultural icon, calypso name ‘The Black Stalin’, who has earned himself the sobriquet, ‘The Black Man’. Coming on the heels of a similar loss, in the person of female calypso pioneer Singing Francine, it represents another major loss for the Caribbean cultural community which has already experienced a number of similar losses this year.
While both of these outstanding personalities plied their “trade” mostly from the home base of Trinidad and Tobago, their physical departure represents a significant loss to the entire Caribbean regional cultural community both within the region as well as internationally.
While Francine was Barbadian born, she overcame the traditional insularity to achieve fame in Trinidad and Tobago and, along with the legendary Calypso Rose, rose above the discrimination against women especially in fields like the calypso arena, to become a shining star and an inspiration to many women in calypso and entertainment generally.
As for ‘The Black Man’, what a legacy he has left us! He came to prominence in the late sixties and early seventies, an era which became known as the “Black Power” era, marked by the rise of black consciousness in the Caribbean. The strangely named ‘Black Stalin’ was one of the standard bearers in calypso, along with another veteran, though lesser known, ‘Valentino’.
It was no surprise when he announced his formidable presence in the calypso field with his “Tribute to Martin Luther King” in the Calypso Monarch competition in 1969 and there are still some, me included, who believe that he should have won his first Monarch title that year. There were other years as well when his placing could be questioned, yet he still managed five Monarch titles among his numerous accomplishments in the calypso field.
But his contribution to calypso and culture went far beyond competition. He was the standard bearer of a whole generation of progressive artistes demonstrating that calypso went far beyond the traditional carnival “wine and grind”.
His epic “Wait Dorothy, Wait” best exemplified that approach to using the calypso art form to promote just social causes, especially the advancement of black people.
His continued emphasis on this cause, not in any drab way, but using all the rich expressions of the calypso art form, not only earned himself the simple but yet fundamental title of ‘The Black Man’ but also many other awards as well.
These culminated in the government of Trinidad and Tobago awarding him the Hummingbird Medal (silver) in 1987 and his crowning achievement of an Honorary Doctorate from the University of the West Indies in 2008, to be recognized as Dr Leroy Calliste.
His calypsoes were rooted in the struggles and aspirations of the Caribbean people, their rhythms and music. He never forgot the role of women, the family, the community and the region in his songs.
Who can forget his classic of that memorable year 1979, when he lambasted the failure of Caribbean leadership, political and otherwise to promote and forge regional unity with his “Caribbean Man”? In it he contrasted the phenomenal growth of the Rastafarian movement with the failure of the leadership in spite of Caricom and other grand regional initiatives to achieve such a vision among the Caribbean people. And there was also the classic “Stay away from the Isms”, not only warning us not to be sucked in to the global East versus West battle, but pointing out that the world only respects those who possess nuclear weapons.
All around the Caribbean, in differing musical forms, progressive artistes, led by Dr Calliste, did not back away from promoting “the message” in their songs. Among them our own Black Messenger, now deceased, Reality and Lord Have Mercy among many others. Calypso was to be known, not just for its fun and dance, but a legitimate cultural, and political expression of the Caribbean people. We have suffered the loss of a significant presence, undoubtedly our biggest in the cultural field in 2022.
Yet his shining example will live on and continue to inspire generations to come, We salute Dr Leroy Calliste, ‘The Black Man’ par excellence!
Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.