Toronto pays tribute to a calypso legend

By RON FANFAIR

The late The Mighty Duke (Kelvin Pope) was a Pan Africanist whose African-themed songs elevated him into a rare space that no other calypsonian has occupied, says cultural historian, Caldwell Taylor.

Taylor paid tribute to Duke at the Toronto Public Library’s Yorkwood branch recently.

Duke, the only performer to win four consecutive Trinidad & Tobago Calypso Monarch titles in the competition’s 80-year history, succumbed to a bone marrow disorder last January. He was 79.

Taylor identified one of his favourite calypsoes as Duke’s Days to Remember which encapsulated the fierce mood of Trinidadians and Tobagonians as they marched with the late Prime Minister, Dr. Eric Williams, on a rainy Friday – April 22, 1960 – demanding the return of the United States naval base at Chaguaramas to Trinidadian sovereignty.

“That song is a living document of the most radical moment in Dr. Williams’ political history,” said Taylor. “You will see (Duke’s) Pan Africanism in that and other songs such as Black is Beautiful. Of all the calypsonians that have taken on African themes, Duke is by far the highest authority in calypso when it comes to singing themes related to Africa.”

Taylor said Duke also stood out for his sartorial elegance and his unique achievement as the only calypsonian to win four straight Monarch crowns from 1968 to 1971. Duke felt he was unjustly denied a fifth consecutive award when The Mighty Sparrow captured the title with Drunk and Disorderly and Rope which Duke described as “the two worst Monarch songs ever.”

Born in Point Fortin to Vincentian parents, Duke sang in church choirs, taught for a few years and worked in the lucrative oil sector before becoming a full-time entertainer.

“When he left the job in the oil industry to sing calypso, a lot of his family and friends could not understand what he was doing,” said Duke’s longtime friend and ex-business manager, Colin Benjamin, chair of the Caribana scholarship committee. “We attended the same school, we worked in the oil field, we were both school teachers and then he went into calypso and the rest is history.”

Benjamin said Duke was one of the great dancers of his generation and he frowned on calypsonians who did not use sobriquets.

“He just could not understand how you could sing a calypso using your real name,” Benjamin said.

Duke launched his entertainment career in 1958 at a South Trinidad calypso tent before moving to the South Brigade tent in San Fernando in the early 1960s. He later joined the Original Youth Brigade tent in Port-of-Spain where he performed from 1964 to 1967.

He won the South Trinidad Calypso title three straight years from 1958 to 1960 and reached the national calypso finals in 1972, 1976, 1982 and 1986. He was also among a group of 36 performers selected to take part in a calypso competition to mark T & T’s independence on August 31, 1962.

Toronto-based calypso researcher, George Maharaj, who organized the tribute, said Duke ranked among the world’s top 10 calypsonians.

“He made an enormous contribution to the art form,” Maharaj said.

Duke paid regular visits to Toronto, his last being in September 2005 when he was recognized by the T & T community here for his outstanding cultural contributions.

“You are an icon,” Consul General Michael Lashley told the calypsonian at a reception at the Consulate in Willowdale. “I am looking forward to the day when people like you will have public buildings, schools, community centres and streets bearing your name.”

Duke, who won the 1987 Road March title with his hit, Thunder, was honoured with many awards, including the T & T Hummingbird Medal in 1970 and the Smithsonian Institute’s cultural award a decade later.

Even though he was sick, Duke was making plans to take part in this year’s T&T carnival and was penning a song, Calypso is a Dying Art, at the time of his death.

As part of the Toronto celebration of Duke’s life, local calypsonians performed some of his songs.

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