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A Toast to Chalkdust

Keith Smith - Trinidad Express
Friday November 17th, 2006

Sweet serendipity. The country's newest radio station-the State-owned 91.1 -has me listening to a lot of, and as a consequence thinking a lot about, Chalkdust, and Wednesday I heard he had been made a fellow of the University of Trinidad and Tobago (UTT), which is a hell of a thing given UWI's unexplainable and enduring snub to the teacher/ calypsonian, the UTT honour, it seems to me, calculated to put the St Augustine campus in its place.

I have never been able to understand why Chalkdust has never been able to get a UWI job. Ah mean, it is not as if he doesn't have the necessary academic qualifications or as if UWI's hiring standards are so pristinely high, the university having appointed people to top positions explainable only be referring to the shifting if not shifty standard of kisses going by favours.

Still, whatever his academic profile, Chalkdust's place in calypso is assured. Certainly, I'd put him among the top five of the post-war generation, the others being Kitchener and Sparrow, of course, and I don't see how you could leave out Stalin and Rudder, with my friends reading this knowing I'd give anything to find a way to pull in Blueboy, the only thing being that, second though he may be (after Kitchener) in festival, which is to say "road march", calypsoes, my Point Fortin pal has neither the required range nor depth.

I suppose you could argue that Chalkie's "festival", which is to say "party", tunes are minimal (although some of his melodies make for great dancing in the old-fashioned sense of the word, holding on and gliding as opposed to the monkey antics that today's dance hall set has had to settle for, Derek Walcott's observation that each generation is entitled to its culture notwithstanding.

I suppose, too, that the public has something of an ambivalent attitude to Chalkdust most, if not all, recognising his ability as a "traditional" even as he manages to vex them with some of his searing observations, his "Calypso in Hospital", for example, being an acid attack on some of the new forms and the new calypso heroes seeming to threaten to toss the "traditionals" into the back shelves of calypso history.

Only "seeming" though, because as I listened to 91.1 playing "Chalkdust" after "Chalkdust" I found myself thinking how thoroughly "Chalkie" has embraced his art. Ah mean, you could fault "Calypso in Hospital" for a certain meanness of spirit but you'd have to concede that it scored some points even as it demonstrated the very calypso craft that "Chalkie" was admonishing most, if not all, of his young successors for lacking.

Many Trinidadians would know most of Chalkdust's great calypsoes -"To Hell with the Ministry", "Ah Fraid Karl", "Three Blind Mice", "Ah Put on Mih Guns Again", right down to this season's "Bandit Factory" (yes!, yes!) and it is my hope that stations like 94.7 and 91.1 will keep passing them on for the prickly pleasure of generation after generation, but I heard on the very programme that set me listening and thinking quite a few minorish gems I had never heard before. Chalkie is nothing if not humorous and I heard myself howling with laughter listening to him "sing on" promoters who had robbed him in the course of his career. I have to think that this is a new or rather recent calypso because I think I know a lot if not most of Chalkie's work and here was one which I had never heard before, my instant assessment being that if I had been one of the promoters singled out for savaging (and you could pick them out, if sometimes you had to read between the lines) I would either sue for an instant disclaimer or rush by registered cheque the money Chalkdust said I owed him.

As I congratulate Hollis Liverpool (that, teachers rightly tell their pupils, is the calypsonian's real name although I have a problem with that "real" here, "Chalkdust" being the same name he is known by everywhere in the real world) on his UTT honour. I salute him as one of the great calypsonians of all time and, at the same time, here invite myself to his delightful Diego Martin home, this Christmas, to toast with that particular ponche de creme he has patented, passed down, I suppose, either by his Baptist (oh, those sankeys!) father or Catholic mother and that invigorating pick-me-up "O, Be Joyful" drink to which he introduced me during my short-lived university days and which, if I really wanted to be rich, I should still make universal.

posted January 22, 2007


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