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The Road He Made To Walk
A Selection of Kitchener's Road Marches
He knew his gift. He respected it and all through his life gave credit to a "greater force" working upon him. "I don’t know where it comes from," he told me. "It must be from above."
This attributing of talent to external sources is not unusual in the genius, many have spoken of a visitation of some sort. Writing about Pablo Picasso, John Berger had noted, "To the prodigy himself his power also seems mysterious, because initially it comes to him without effort. It is not that he has to arrive somewhere; he is visited. Furthermore, at the beginning, he does things without understanding why or the reasoning behind them." Picasso, at the age of 82, had said, "Painting is stronger than I am. It makes me do what it wants."
Kitchener, at the age of 70, had said, "When I composed ‘Death is Compulsory ’ and ‘If Yuh Not Black Yuh White’ I know that I could not compose it. It had to be something put in me to compose it." Like Picasso, he acknowledged his subservience to the art, "As soon as you feel you’re bigger than the art, you crumble."
Surrendering himself with constant fealty to his muse, he was able to keep composing and singing until the rare and deadly blood cancer, multiple myeloma, squatted its soucouyant self down beside him and sucked his life away on the morning of February 11.
As we mourn his passing, we have to grope towards memory to stir ourselves into celebrating the fecundity that was his life; for we would not wish for him any reduction in his own celebration of it. He had kept himself soulfully attuned to the movements of his people, plucking melodies out of the very air they exhaled, and like the purifying forces of nature’s flora, handing them back as distilled musical forms.
"Composing is a very tricky thing, it goes both ways. Sometimes you get an inspiration of a melody while walking in the street, and that melody will bring to you the idea, then the idea will bring to you the lyrics. And sometimes you keep walking the street, and you get an idea, and that idea will bring the melody, and the melody will bring the lyrics. That's how it goes," he said.
If you knew Kitchener, you could imagine him strolling along and suddenly being led astray, riveted by sounds that to your mind might just be the general cacophony of a busy street, but out of which some solitary note has beckoned him. You would see it in the faraway look that appeared in his eyes, suspending his habitual blinking as his vision took shape. Then you would know that once again the muse has descended.
He was a musician above all else, a pioneer unafraid to explore new forms. "What inspires me in the singing is the music," he said. "When I hear the sound of the bass it gets me wild." But his music embraced his lyrics so naturally and warmly that it seems a violation to try to tear them asunder. He had learnt the art of storytelling from the likes of Executor, Growler and Destroyer, and he sang alongside Atilla, Lion, Spoiler, Killer, Melody and his great friend Pretender. He could tell a story with all the grace and fluency of a poet, which was another astonishing thing about him. In speech he stumbled along, stammering and groping, literally with his hands, for words to articulate his ideas; but in song there was nothing but smoothness in his delivery.
His story lines were simple and uncluttered, lyric resting gently upon bars of music, not a moment of discord. Something of this simplicity radiated in his demeanour, which bore an air of gentle innocence. Which is not to say that he was naïve or not given to bouts of salaciousness.
It was there in his early "Mount Olga," in "Sugar Bum Bum," "Dr Kitch," "My Pussin," in "Marjorie's Flirtation," with its sensual Latin rhythm, done when the wartime American soldiers were based in Trinidad. "It was a very sexy time," he said.
But he could write on any subject with equal facility, which is probably what had prompted Keith Smith to name him Grandmaster so many years ago. The term comes from chess, where grandmasters have been known to play up to 55 simultaneous games, blindfolded, and win.
"Here is a man who has been singing calypsoes since the forties, showing that he can dominate in the nineties; where else in the world?" Sparrow had asked. It is because he has covered an enormous range, musically and lyrically.
Kitch's Lyrics For Pan
He was the first to write a calypso about steelpan he said in a radio interview, naming it as "Beat of the Steelband" just after the War in 1946: "Port of Spain was catching afire/ when the steelband was crossing the Dry River/Zigilee, leader of the ping-pong/ Had people jumping wild in the town."
Over the years his music was recognised not only as superbly suited to the steelband, but he continued to write songs not just for the pan, but about the instrument, ending with his final celebratory piece, "Pan Birthday." He created that genre of music, and that is why Jit Samaroo, Renegades steel orchestra and BP Amoco can claim a special relationship with him. Together, they have constructed a special theatre of excitement about Panorama competitions.
He has explored more musical fusions that any other calypsonian—the big band jitterbug sound of "12-Bar-Joan," the soca he put into "Sugar Bum Bum," the breakdance year (he confessed after that season "if I try that again, ah go break meh waist" but then he was 70), jazz, latin beats, you name it, Kitchener has offered it.
He also immortalised in song many of the heroes and events of his time with a generosity of spirit not known to run rampant among often insecure artists: In "Steelband Music," he pays tribute to several of the pan pioneers; in "Professor Kitch," it is to the calypsonians; "Kitch’s Cricket Calypso," Victory Test Match" and "Cricket Champions" saluted the now marooned caps of the West Indies team; and he did several other calypsoes in this salutary style.
Two aspects of Kitchener seem to offer an insight into Sparrow’s musing on his longevity. One is what Professor Gordon Rohlehr described as "the ability to innovate in his music, to keep his music fresh, to be always expanding, always great at melody."
The other was discerned by Derek Walcott, who once wrote that, "His simplicity is masterly…His greatest songs have always had a kind of sadness, a real innocence, or a delightful originality."
He used to say that one of the reasons he was able to keep doing new things with his music was because he didn’t listen to any of his previous work. It was well known that he did not keep recordings of his music, fearing to have his future compositions contaminated by the past.
He didn’t do concerts like those who have accumulated a substantial repertoire can do periodically. He would say that he can’t remember a lot of the old music. Maybe this is why he had to keep composing till the end. He couldn’t or didn’t want to cruise into his twilight on a luxury liner that subdued the motion of the sea. He preferred to ride the rough waves of constant creation.
Now that he is gone, and the genius is no more among us, we have to be careful that we do not treat his music with the cavalier confidence he had. He knew his muse would not abandon him, and she did not. We do not even have visitation rights from her.
I was told that some years ago, Guardian Life, under Sydney Phillips, undertook a project of collecting his work in the hope of creating a Kitchener archive. I do not know what has happened to this collection, but hopefully, it has not been lost and its curators will see the importance of that material, and make it available to the public in some form.
When we say that a man is dead but not gone, we are referring to the way our memory keeps him alive. Kitchener may no longer be with us in the flesh, but he can be with us forever; if we understand that it is up to us to nurture and perpetuate the legacy he so generously left behind.
Trinidad Express February 2000
By VANEISA BAKSH
TO Tell you how times change, who would imagine it was whistling that was Kitchener's first musical inspiration? In those days the young Aldwyn Roberts listened to the tuneful warbling of his father and his brother, who were accomplished whistlers at a time when it was as much a recognised form of musical rendition as singing. His father was a "dancero," starring in ball rooms and dance halls, his mother composed while she attended to household chores; and little Kitchener was soon strumming the upright bass.
His life began harmoniously with a soundtrack of music, a gift that was received and welled up by the genius within him until it overflowed and cascaded upon us, drenching us with a lifetime of sweetness.
Who among us does not have a Kitchener story to tell? Whose life has not been stirred by some moment connected with the sound of one of his melodies? Yes, his lyrics too; but it is the music of his mind that mesmerises us. Kitchener said that his singing is inspired by the music first, particularly the sound of the bass. "When I hear the sound of the bass it gets me wild," he told me eight years ago.
That he is foremost a musician can be seen in his continual explorations of new rhythms and the jazzy improvisations. Think "Marjorie's Flirtation," with its sensual Latin rhythm, done when the wartime American soldiers were based in Trinidad. "It was a very sexy time," he said. Think "12-Bar Joan." Think "Pan in A Minor," "Sugar Bum Bum," "Bees Melody."
Think about how he thinks. "Composing is a very tricky thing, it goes both ways," he said as he drifted into one of his delightfully labyrinthine explanations of how the music descended upon him.
"Sometimes you get an inspiration of a melody while walking in the street, and that melody will bring to you the idea, then the idea will bring to you the lyrics. And sometimes you keep walking the street, and you get an idea, and that idea will bring the melody, and the melody will bring the lyrics. That's how it goes."
It seems wondrously simple, but that must be the way the mind of the genius works. Derek Walcott, who ought to know, has written that "his simplicity is masterly. His greatest songs have always had a kind of sadness, a real innocence, or a delightful originality." Who else but Kitchener could have taken the sound of a television news reporter's soporific voice and transformed it into the buzzing of bees in the "Bees Melody"?
Kitchener has often said that he didn't know where the music and the lyrics came from, attributing it to some unknown force. Genius has often refused to claim itself, surrendering to the possibility of a gift from above. Kitchener, though he is never an arrogant, pappy-showing kind of man, is well aware of this gift. He acknowledges it as perhaps the only plausible explanation for his abundant stream of creativity. He remains humble to the form that is the forum for it, insisting that, "As soon as you feel you're bigger than the art, you crumble."
He hasn't crumbled once, has he? Not once in the fifty-six years since he first appeared singing "Green Fig" as the Arima champion; not once in all those years has he missed a beat. Through the wonderful rivalry with Sparrow, both men inspiring a people to fierce debates about the superiority of one over the other; and even in the midst of it, neither side able to score real points by sullying the good name of the other.
To the end of their century, both men shadowed the calypso world with their colossal statures; the curtain falling with the debate still raging. Their magnitude had so enveloped their people that although they were no longer rivals in the tents, the battle was being taken up, needlessly, even if fervently by their faithful.
It is the mark of the man that his illness has stopped the country in the middle of its constitutional angst. Everywhere, everyone is paying their own form of tribute to this son. His own son, Kernel, paying perhaps the finest tribute possible in his own stand-in performance at the opening night of the Revue Tent.
Kernel may not have chosen to be a calypsonian, but he has obviously studied his father closely, and so remarkably like his father did he seem in voice, manner and dress, that the crowd might be forgiven for thinking that the torch had been passed and the light would continue.
Yet, as the news unfolded, the reality hit home. The genius of Kitchener resides within him, and through Kernel we were granted but a touching and fleeting glimpse of the colossus who walks with us.
Even as we appreciated it, it made it more evident that a luminous force of our time is possibly fading. A blessed visitation was coming to an end. Who are we going to turn to now? That was Keith Smith's question, as he pondered the possibilities. And then the gentle glow that had illuminated us for so long that we had come to expect it to be an eternal flame assumed its mortal light and it seemed to me that here again, was another closing of a remarkable period in our lives.
For without wanting to sound like there is nothing to be optimistic about in the music that lies ahead, the truth is just as it might seem strange now to think that whistling was once celebrated as a musical art form and there were practitioners aplenty; so too, I fear that the calypso that was brought to us by Kitchener will one day be nothing but a faded memory.
Trinidad Express February 2000
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