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.
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.
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: