Under a barely-light night sky, a star was born on stage, while a calypsonian’s legacy was re-ignited. Trinidadian-born, UK-based writer Anthony Joseph delivered a stellar performance as part of the book launch of his sophomore novel ‘Kitch’ on April 27, 2018. The Big Black Box, a long-time host for the arts was the venue for a roster of imminent and emergent writers. But it was Anthony Joseph who stole the show.
Endorsed by the NGC Bocas Lit Fest, Joseph’s novel did more than focus the spotlight on his unique artistic voice, it also re-directed attention to the larger-than-life figure who embodied the lived experience of an entire generation, and whose personality invigorated a nation. I’m referring to the grandmaster – the calypsonian – Aldwyn Roberts, better known as Lord Kitchener, whose music captured the hearts and imaginations of the Caribbean.
Joseph’s text is a masterclass. Never before has a Trinidadian novel made a single artist the sole focus of its literary illustration. So how appropriate is it that Lord Kitchener is the first to have such an honour. Born in 1922, Kitchener’s musical consciousness has been unavoidably informed by the colonial experience. He lived through colonialism, post-colonialism, post-war independence, and was on the cusp of early Trinidadian modernism. Kitchener personified the rise and development of the Trinidad and Tobago nation-state. Arima, Belmont, Port-of-Spain and Diego Martin are a few of the places captured in the novel that, together with uniquely Trinidadian expressions such as ‘it have a zwill in the madbull tail’, ‘jagabat’, and ‘vaps’, reinforce the voice and setting that Kitch is able to accurately portray.
This artist, who defined a generation with his musical magnificence, was given fresh life on a night that celebrated music as much as the written word. Kitch was a fitting headliner that did not disappoint. And what about the timing of Joseph’s book launch given the recent controversial statements made about the Windrush generation? Joseph was prophet-like in describing the uncertainties and insecurities faced by the Windrush batch of migrants: “And when you land in the mother country, who you is to the English? You don’t know if you coming or going, you papers say England but you born in Trinidad, and you not of the place you reaching yet – and when you reach you is a immigrant’.
Lord Kitchener himself, in 1948 left Trinidad aboard the MV Empire Windrush to the UK. On the night, Joseph paid special tribute to Kitchener’s role as part of the Windrush generation. Describing the moment the ship docks in England, an extract reads: “But he stands here now, on the wooden jetty, upright in England, the land he had imagined for so long.” A few lines later, ‘Kitch’ delivers one of his most famous pieces, upon request by the reporter, which Joseph captures down to even the calypsonians mannerisms:
‘Now, may I ask you your name?’
‘Lord Kitchener. Now I’m told that you are really the king of calypso singers, is that right?’
‘Yes, that’s true’
‘Well, now can you sing for us?’
London is the place for me
(mimics the upright, wood bass)
London, this lovely city
(the right shoulder rises, the beat turns down)
You can go to France or America
India Asia or Australia
But you must come back to London city.
Accompanied by live music and vocals wielding the lyrics of Kitchener’s classic, ‘London is the place for me’, Joseph was met with thunderous applause and exclamations of high praise.
The author’s extensive craft as a poet brings a unique rhythm and style that makes the reverence of Lord Kitchener’s characterization in the novel leap off the page. This is not your typical work of fiction or biography. In fact, the subtitle of the novel – a fictional biography – sets readers up for a promising journey into the life of Lord Kitchener that is enhanced with Joseph’s poetic prose. Interwoven in the text are lyrical interludes which evoke the nostalgia and musical genius associated with the almost mythological persona of Kitchener.
Part of Joseph’s creative brilliance is that most of what readers learn of ‘Kitch’ is filtered from the community of people around him. In this way the myth-making of ‘Kitch’ is sustained. In fact, the calypsonian does very little speaking in the novel, which paradoxically increases his presence and impacts further because different people all have their say on what ‘Kitch’ meant to them. Joseph is able to capture the calypsonian as truly a man of the people, and created by the people.
The novel’s chapters are divided into three broad sections that trace the development of the legendary calypsonian; ‘Bean’, ‘Lord Kitchener’ and ‘The Grandmaster’. Each subchapter is a personal account of the impact ‘Kitch’ has had on the people describing him.
The calypsonian’s influence through music is summed up in the section titled ‘Centipede, June 1948: “Fellas does feel sweet when Kitchener open he throat to sing. Long as he singing, we feel safe; we eh go dead.”‘The Road’ describes him further: “But Kitch, like he put something else in that song.
What it is? I don’t know much about Africa, but if you listen you could hear like people beating big African drum with bone in there.”
As a child of the 90’s I could not understand how significant the life and career of Lord Kitchener was to Trinidad in particular, and the Caribbean in general, but Anthony Joseph’s performance that night was something special. The entire audience, young and old, was captivated by the gravity of Joseph’s literary project. I myself was so overwhelmed with pore-raising, lump-in-throat, emotions following the performance that I was compelled, instinctively, to give Joseph a standing ovation (as did other members of the audience). For a brief moment (too brief when I think about it now) Lord Kitchener was re-incarnated on stage and I was able to share in the legendary individual who will forever be immortalised by Kitch.
Anthony Joseph has hit a gold mine as it concerns in-depth biographical explorations of Caribbean icons through fiction. It is my hope that similar writings will be undertaken to shine light on other artists who shared the generation with our very own ‘Kitch’.