Trinidad and Tobago


Sando Celebrates With Black Stalin
…popular bard turns 60 today

September 24, 2001

THE San Fernando Corporation will this morning formally kick off the celebration of Black Stalin’s 60th birthday, with a function at City Hall.

Deputy Mayor Torrance Mohammed, himself an artiste of stature, will present Stalin with a plaque commissioned by fellow calypsonian Brother J and executed by the Constructive Termites, a duo of sculptors famous for their work in wood. Keeping the entire event south-south, Master Baker has donated a large birthday cake and San City Steel Orchestra will provide music.

Born on Coffee Street, the heart of San Fernando, Stalin still resides there, but is among the more predictable members Port of Spain’s Mas Camp Pub audience on any Wednesday night or, for that matter, wherever colleagues of substance are singing.

"A lot of people have no idea how much I like calypso," he recently told me. "The singing is just one part, but I like the calypso environment, then, the whole mood of an audience when a fella put down a nice one."

Apart from a short stint as a tally clerk on the Pointe-a-Pierre waterfront and a brief adventure as a limbo dancer, calypso is all Stalin ever did since leaving primary school. He also played pan in his youth and still takes an occasional jam on the piano, but life for Black Stalin has been calypso.

His debut came in 1959 at St Madeline’s Good Shepherd Hall, but it was not until 1962 he joined a calypso tent (The Southern Brigade), although his work had previously come to the attention of the art-form’s senior players. Indeed, it was Warlord Blakie, that year’s road march monarch, who dubbed him The Black Stalin.

In 1967 he was cast at Kitchener’s Calypso Revue and graduated to national significance by earning a place in the annual calypso competition final, pitting him against stalwarts like Lord Melody, Cypher, Young Killer and Composer for the $1,000 prize. Two years later, he made the grade and convincingly, singing "Caribbean Man" and "Play One", the latter a tribute to pan pioneer Winston "Spree" Simon.

The Spree tribute and several of that ilk that were to follow, constructed a relationship between Stalin and pan that is hardly duplicated, although several of his peers set out to create music especially for the national musical instrument.

Songs like "Mr Panmaker" retain a special respect among pannists, while "Sundar", a tribute to the chutney superstar was a bold step, one that may still be much too steep for those yet to achieve Stalin's independence of thought.

And up to last Carnival, the song "Culture", a most a musical sneer at the lack of reference to indigenous arts in the 2000/2001 national budget, makes the kind of point that endears Stalin to a cross section of arts aficionados not limited to his preferred area. Who among us has not joined in the refrain: "If ah did know, ah woulda hold on to mih steelband and calypso"?

His 1979 win, the first of five such triumphs at national level, therefore should be seen not just as a trophy on the shelf. What it marked was the arrival at the top rung of a very different kind of calypsonian.

It was no cakewalk. In fact, his victories have always come in spectacular fashion, their value heightened by the fact that he simply never won from a poor field. In 1979 he was up against Explainer’s "Kicksing in Parliament" and "Dread", the combination everyone swore would take the title. Also on that stage were Crazy, Short Pants, Relator, Singing Francine, Bro Valentino and Poser, who went on to win the road march title.

In 1985, singing "Wait, Dorothy" and "Ism Schism" he beat Merchant’s "Pan in Danger" and "Caribbean Connection" and two years later, rendered "Mr Panmaker" and "Bu’n Dem" to pip David Rudder’s seminal work "Calypso Music." In 1991 there was "Look on the Bright Side" and a song that has retained its value at fetes to this day, "Feeling to Party". His last lien to date came in 1995 for "In Time" and the catchy "Sundar".

Stalin has since gone on to win the global title, crowned Calypso King of Kings in 1999 for his rendition of "Black Man Feeling to Party", one of calypso’s most ingenious love songs and "Wine, Boy" (aka "Wine, Dhanraj, Wine") a laugh-a-minute piece of political picong. In 1985, at the inaugural edition of that contest, he had placed second to the agreed Calypso King of the World, The Mighty Sparrow.

No less an attraction when in the role of calypso tent MC (apart from singing, he functioned in this capacity for ten years at Kitchener’s Revue), Stalin has made the rounds, bringing decades of experience to the task of charting audience response.

Along with Brother Valentino and Superior, he also opened Iere Kaiso Movement in 1982 at the Communications Workers Union (CWU) Hall, a mere stone’s throw from his former stable at William Munroe’s Kingdom of the Wizards (later known as Spektakula Forum).

As a career option, Stalin abrogated unto himself the burden of representing the views of the oppressed. His social and political commentaries never settle for banal reportage, but provide insights as to how repair can be effected, or at least suggest ways to help arrest slippage.

His disarming smile and gentle manner mask a razor-sharp wit, one that has conspired with a bag of memorable and highly interactive songs, to help him win fans the world over.

He is equally comfortable onstage among the home crowd as he is in Helsinki, New Orleans, London, Toronto, Denmark or the US Virgin Islands where, three years ago, he became the first non-American to be selected as the headline act at that country’s annual university celebration. Last month he headlined a calypso tent in Brooklyn, the first to be opened in 15 years, during New York’s Labour Day Carnival celebrations.

Known as a family man, Stalin shunts much of his praises to wife Patsy and their children Shaka, 25, Keina 24 and Abiola 21. "It is they, particularly The First Lady, who really look after me and my business. No move I make is without their intervention and approval," he said.

Today he plans to spend some extra time with the family. "In these times, when you get to this age and the whole family thing is still solid and together, it is not just your birthday you looking at, but a celebration of the larger unit," he said.

Just when he will find that time is anyone’s guess. "Nearly everyone that called was to invite him to their home or to some kind of birthday function," Patsy said yesterday. "I just plan to go with the flow and let him enjoy his day."

A concert in his honour, organised by San City Steel Orchestra is scheduled for October 19 at the Naparima Bowl in San Fernando.

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