Mighty Monikers: How Calypsonians Got Their Names

Duke of Alias, Lord Sobriquet, Mighty Moniker—some meta-jokey pseudonyms are still up for grabs if you want to embark on a calypso career. But the truly cool ones have all been taken. Or have they? In this post I will try to give you an overview—a highly subjective one, greatly lacking in hard data—of how calypsonians got their names and which names they got. I acknowledge that the most apparent weakness of the article is that it doesn’t present much evidence of why a certain singer got this or that name (which, admittedly, lends a somewhat deceptive quality to the subtitle). Anybody with some insight into the cases below is hereby invited to share their knowledge.


Looking through my lists of recorded calypso artists a while ago, I got the impression that the most imposing and imaginative monikers had been claimed by the mid-1970s. This gloomy “fact” even seemed to parallel the downfall of calypso and soca’s takeover of Trinidad’s musical culture which began around the same time. I was prompted to do a little research. Checking old calypso competition rosters, I discovered many names of singers who never got to record and who presumably didn’t stay on the scene very long. There were surprises galore. I began to realize that a calypsonian can go by practically any name—there will always be a funnier or grander one around the corner.

But first, let’s roll back a bit.

Some mouthpiece!

Self-aggrandizement—claiming to be faster, wittier and more eloquent than the rest—was always an integral part of a calypsonian’s ambition. The giants of yore sported striking names to invoke fear in their competitors, which was partly a legacy from the tumultuous days when calypsonians (in their earlier incarnations as chantwells) were the mouthpieces for the masquerade bands of the Carnival celebrations. These bands were fierce rivals to one another and clashes sometimes involved bloodshed. In later times calypsonians, while rap-battling each other onstage, were more often than not good friends offstage. You competed, you won a title, you lost it, you composed some new songs and went at it again. It was fair play, however boisterous.

AtillaHunCrop

Raymond Quevedo started his calypso career in the early 1910s, calling himself Atilla the Hun. He went on to become a highly regarded singer and wordsmith, part of the “honourable eleven” short list of calypsonians (a list that he, incidentally, compiled himself). He went into politics in the 1940s and was elected to the City Council of Port of Spain in 1946 while still performing as a calypsonian. Let’s hear him singing of his prowess back in 1937:


 

Detail of the front of Decca Album No. 256.

During calypso’s first golden era—roughly the 1930s and 40s—the outside world of war and political conflict inspired sobriquets like Dictator, Executor, Terror, Spitfire, Invader and Destroyer. Some singers more specifically adopted—or were often given—aliases of historical or contemporary military and political figures. Besides Atilla the Hun, we find King Pharoah, Oliver Cromwell, Prince Bismarck, Sir Lancelot, Lord Kitchener, and, some years later,

Chiang Kai-Chek

Valentine Winston, also known as General Pin Ping.

Chiang Kai-shek (one of the few calypsonians who was of Chinese ancestry) and Black Stalin. From the animal kingdom, fearsome names like Tiger, Panther, Viper and Gorilla were borrowed. A certain Raphael Arlus Kairiyama de Leon (sometimes Hubert Raphael Charles de Leon), was given his stage name by a retired calypsonian called Poetical Harris, who “on hearing the power of de Leon’s singing, jumped up, threw his hat in the air and shouted ‘He roars like a lion!'”

The closest equivalent in today’s music scene would perhaps be the flamboyant names that heavy metal bands continue to favour—I’m always amazed how they keep churning out all these variations on diseases, disasters and Satanic evilness. More conceptually related to the calypsonians are of course the battling MCs and DJs of hiphop who have employed spectacular, royal and boastful pseudonyms from the very dawn of the genre. Rewinding further back into the golden eras of jazz and blues, we can consider names like King Solomon Hill, Lead Belly, Doctor Clayton, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Willie “The Lion” Smith, Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Nat King Cole. In the case of black music the phenomenon of honorific titles actually dates back to early days of New Orleans jazz, while also relating to the later hiphop concept of “making something out of nothing”. Whether you were granted or whether you claimed a strong nickname or a noble title, it equalled empowerment as well as an increased commercial potential (imagined or actual). In a way, it represented a transcendence of your given circumstances, enabling you to say, in effect: I am a slave no more; I am a king.

Mas Yankee minstrels

Here’s a difference, though: A calypsonian, being fostered by the Carnival tradition of masquerading and putting on roles for a limited period of time, were essentially adopting a persona, manifested in his or her stage name. There was of course no clear-cut division between the persona and the the person: the one spilled over into the other. Still, if he had a sobriquet, he had a mask. On stage, that mask allowed the calypsonian to speak freely, mockingly and

Duke of Iron with his four-stringed cuatro.

Duke of Iron with his four-stringed cuatro.

smuttily, taking stands and changing stands. The “Duke” part of Duke Ellington’s name was never a persona in that sense: Edward Kennedy Ellington was Duke Ellington, while Cecil Anderson turned into Duke of Iron and back again as he stepped on and off stage.

Speaking of Ellington, I come to think of a snippet from the lyrics of McLean’s Calypso Kings’ great “Jump Jump Jump (to West Indian Calypso)” from 1953. The singer curiously refers to Ellington as “The Duke Ellington”. I don’t think the definite article was ever used like this by Ellington himself or anybody referring to him in the States. I interpret it as a slight, and kinda cute, misapprehension on the part of the calypsonian: I imagine him assuming that Ellington was acting as “The Duke”.


 
Sparrow-1958Now what about the Calypso King himself, Sparrow—first known even as Little Sparrow or, simply, Birdie? Who was he trying to scare? Lord Worm? According to legend, a senior calypsonian endowed him with his nom de plume after one of the young contender’s first stage appearances. The name stuck to him like glue, even more so as he first tried to shake it off, proposing alternatives like Depth Charge and Torpedo. The identity of the older calypsonian seems to have been lost in time (it might have been Lord Blakie), as have the exact reasons for the choice of name. But it is well-known that Sparrow started out with a youthful, bird-like energy, jumping around the stage as he sang—which at least partly was a strategy for concealing his nervousness. His style contrasted starkly with the old-school calypsonians’ more static acts (“flatfooted”, Sparrow called them in an interview).

A new, musically more eclectic era was definitely beginning with Sparrow’s entry on the calypso scene, and so in hindsight his odd, anti-hero type of name seems like a perfect match. It also, intently or not, makes reference to Sparrow’s—by calypso standards—exceptionally melodious voice. In 1956, Little Sparrow became the even more incongruously sounding Mighty Sparrow, after having been dubbed the new Calypso King with his hallmark composition Jean and Dinah.

Sparrow, by the way, was christened Slinger Francisco. To me, that’s a name to fit the coolest character in any film noir movie.

Edward Broomes – Lord Coffee.

Edward Broomes – a coffee connoisseur?

Was this, to the outsider, “impotent” sobriquet a trendsetter for the times to come? Obviously, military themed titles and names of ferocious predators were on the decline in the 1950s. Among Sparrow’s own generation we find calypsonians like Mighty Robin, Mighty Beaver and Lord Canary (of then-British Guyana), who I suspect all got/chose their “lesser animal” names in the wake of Sparrow’s success. Speaking of Guyanese calypsonians, I should mention the wonderful Lord Coffee (Edward Eustace Broomes), debuting some years earlier. I presume he really liked his black cups.

Young Killer in the early 1960s.

The smile of a young killer.

There was also a trend (which I believe started in the late 1940s) of recycling names by putting “Young” before the intended choice. One example is Emmanuel Jardine, who became Young Killer some time after the demise in 1952 of his senior, the Mighty Killer. Over in England, George Browne sang under the name of Young Tiger (paying homage to Neville Marcano, the Growling Tiger) in the company of Trinidad expats like Lord Kitchener. Calypsonian Leonard Joseph also journeyed to “the motherland” and presented himself as Young Kitchener. Incidentally, it was Tiger senior who had given Lord Kitchener his stage name in the early 1940s.

Mighty Dougla getting crowned in 1961. Photo couretsy of Shawn Randoo.

Mighty Dougla (Clatis Ali) being crowned in 1961.

By the end of the 1950s the moniker field had begun to diversify. Some singers now advertised themselves by their real names, like Peter Pitts, Vivian Comma and Nap Hepburn (after having abandoned his Melody Prince sobriquet). In the sixties we start to find more “prefix + plain name” syntaxed aliases like Lord Lester, Lord Baker, Calypso Rose and Singing Francine. Bill Trotman dropped King Flying Fish, using his own name for some years until deciding on Trinidad Bill. Some calypsonians carried self-referring names like Mighty Dougla, who was of Indian and African ancestry (i.e. “a dougla” in Trini-Creole) and Chalkdust, a school teacher in civic life. Others employed rather humble stage names like Relator, Composer, Companero and Funny.

We find more in terms of self-ridicule and playfulness in aliases like Mighty Greedy, King Obstinate, Short Pants, Poser, Crazy, Psycho and Tallish (who, fittingly or not, recorded for Lord Shorty’s label). In the 1970s the lid came completely off. Among the lesser-known calypsonians you have Grenada’s Flying Turkey, Panama’s Lord Hamburger and St. Thomas’ Lord Sausage (who once was on the verge of having a major funk hit in the States), while Trinidad got Axe Back, Sad Sack, Cut Cake, Penguin, and—believe me or not: Lord Baking Powder. I’m really curious about the story behind his name. Sadly, I can’t find any info on him, apart from him having sung “Mr. Fox” in 1971’s Calypso Revue.

RPBIf I’m to mention just one soca artist, it has got to be Barbados’ Stedson Wiltshire, a.k.a. Red Plastic Bag (or just “Bag” to his aficionados). According to Caribbean Beat this is how he got his name: “One day he went to the beach and returned home sunburnt from head to toe. His nephew looked him over and precociously asked, ‘How you look like a red plastic bag so?'”

radio2When namedropping awesome sobriquets, a special mention must go to King Radio (Norman Span), debuting in the early 1930s. Radio was the man who put swing into calypso (some of his songs are in fact very Lindy hop-able—I know from experience). Here he is bragging about how he “made his name” by dancing the Shim Sham, a well-known tap dance and swing dance routine.


 
Since I first got involved with calypso music—some 80 years after King Radio was dubbed—I soon got used to detecting the involuntary smiles on my buddies’ faces when I mentioned King Radio’s name in my frequent rants about the greatness of old calypso. I don’t know how a moniker like his was perceived by his contemporaries, but my guess is that it was not in an outright comical way. How did Radio get his name? Did a veteran say, after young Norman’s first performance, “Boy, you’ll be the king of the radio waves, from here on you will be known as King Radio”? Maybe his alias was intended to speak to his versatility and up-to-date-ness with American popular music?

I’ll sign off with the mentioning of two of my most recent discoveries. First, King Radio has an unofficial successor in one Octave Michaud, who in the 1970s emerged as Mighty Television. I haven’t found a Lord Internet as of yet, but something better up: In a Calypso King Competition roster from 1973, I stumbled on what might as well be the greatest moniker of all. Brace yourself, here it comes: Lord Have Mercy. (I was about to write “It won’t get any better than that”, but I have been wrong before.) LHM’s real name is Michael Ollivierren. He became St. Vincent’s Calypso Monarch in 1980. His style reminds me of Lord Nelson’s and he is not only a calypsonian, but a highly succesful track and field coach as well. And he is still up and running. Listen to his 2013 calypso “No Entry”, while watching the somewhat over-didactic video:

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