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Carnival without Kitchener

Express - February 25, 2001
By Raffique Shah

THIS year’s Carnival has been dedicated to the Mighty Sparrow (Slinger Fransisco), who, as a colossus of calypso, deserves every accolade that he has been given. It was particularly pleasing to see the normally staid Caricom Secretariat honour Sparrow by granting him its highest award. “The Birdie” also holds an honorary doctorate from the University of the West Indies, another deserving award to someone who has probably had more influence on Caribbean people than most academics who carry the title.

Still, in the midst of Sparrow’s glory year, and without detracting from the bard’s stature or raining on his parade, I cannot help but think of Kitchener. True lovers of the art form had grown to expect so much from Kitch every year that we failed to note his advancing years or even entertain the thought that he might not be with us one day. Well, reality struck home last year, and on the eve of Carnival at that: Kitch succumbed to the ravages of an irreversible disease and before we knew it, he was dead. I mean, it was like yesterday he was crooning the sweet sounds of “Toco Band”, and today he was gone.

Before I dwell on what Kitch’s absence from the Carnival scene has meant for calypso and local music, I should write a few words about Pretender. When he was brought on stage at the Category Finals last Thursday night, “Preddie” looked....well, not so good. “Preddie” is not only the Grandmaster of Ex-Tempo, as he was so aptly described by Gypsy. He is the last of the “true true” bards–men and a few women–who came from an era in which calypsonians had to battle the colonial establishment merely to earn the right to sing their songs.

Pretender comes from the mould of bards who composed their lyrics, added the melodies they felt most suitable, and performed their songs on stage. There were no “fast foods” calypsonians in those days. One couldn’t “order” a song complete with lyrics, melody and musical arrangement, and simply sing it to gain fame and glory. The calypsonian was also chief cook and bottle-washer to his trade. That was Pretender (and a host of greats, all of them now deceased). And “Preddie”, like Kitch, was enduring, in the sense that even with his obviously deteriorating throat he could ex-tempo a few verses last Thursday night.

But back to Kitchener–or his absence from carnival for the first time. For those under 40, the tens of thousands who cut their Carnival teeth on “jump and wine” songs, Carnival minus Kitch probably means nothing. For me, for lovers of “real kaiso”, for those who appreciate musical gems that have become as scarce at Carnival as creative costumes, the death of Kitchener has denied us his annual fare of at least two melodious songs. Even in his final years he never failed to deliver, and although the seemingly unbreakable bond between him and what is now BP Renegades broke a few years before his death, he was able to extract sweet revenge on his rivals with “Toco Band” in 1999.

It is true, too, that Kitch lost his lien on “pan tunes” well before his demise, when more and more calypsonians turned to singing songs composed with pan in mind. With the likes of pannists-cum-composers Len “Boogsie” Sharpe, Ken Philmore, Goodwin Bowen and Andy Narrell (among others) in the fray, it was becoming more difficult for the Grandmaster to find his tunes played for Panorama. But that “Kitch touch” was missing this year, and I write this without detracting from some melodious pieces like “Rain Melody” by Preacher, “Pan on the Moon” by Scrunter, or the haunting “Stranger” by Shadow.

When I listen to Preacher deliver his song, I think: boy, if only Kitch were here to do this number! It’s not that Preacher does not have a good voice. It’s just that it’s a “Kitchener song” (which should be a feather in Preacher’s cap). Kernel Roberts tried hard to carry on his father’s legacy with “Ghost”, as did Scrunter, who comes closest to imitating the Grandmaster. But the genius of Kitch is missing from the Carnival, especially for those who enjoy the perfect blend of story line, melody and hook lines.

Kitch has gone, forever, and the best we can hope for is that some of the younger calypsonians see their future not in “fast foods, skimpy-lyrics” ditties, but in enduring melodies that would remain etched in the minds of generations.

Kitchener last won the Road March title in 1976 with “Flag Woman”. Can anyone, even those who weren’t born when that song rocked and swayed revellers, ever forget it? After that, except for some gems like Rose’s “Tempo”, Blue Boy’s “Soca Baptist” and Rudder’s “Bahia Girl”, most “party singers” turned to songs that were forgotten by Ash Wednesday. Rikki Jai, for example, after bursting onto the calypso/chutney scene a decade or so ago, quickly descended into the “jump and wine” arena, only to discover that it was littered with disposable songs that got him nowhere. He returned to a better blend of lyrics and melody this year, and presto!, he’s never had it so good.

Shadow’s victory at the Soca Monarch contest last night was the best thing to have happenedto “party calypsoes” since Rudder’s “Bahia Girl”. What was even better, he took the very “wave yuh rag, wave yuh flag” that has been so abused by assorted calypso-impersonators, added melody and rhyme, and beat them like “bobolees”.

The last questions that remain to be answered pertain to Panorama, the Calypso Monarch competition, and the Road March. Since the judges have the final say in the first two, and the bands and DJs control the latter, I shall not, like a fool, dare to tread where wise men fear to go. Suffice it to say I have great confidence in Chief Panorama Judge, Orville Wright, a product of Laventille who, when one listens to him expound on music, he makes it less pedantic for “two left ears” pan-fans like me. Shall I end by saying watch for surprises on both Saturday and Sunday nights? Enjoy the Carnival.

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