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RIP Seadley Joseph: Cool as a penguin
Carnival has become a celebratory sendoff for at least one calypsonian every year. It is as though the muses somewhere have decided that calypsonians who have brought so much happiness to an entire country deserve a joyful celebration when they pass on. I have a very special place in my heart as well as my memory for our latest calypso loss: Seadley Joseph, the 1984 calypso monarch, Penguin.
Penguin defined my first Carnival in Trinidad, and he set a very high standard in my mind for calypso music. In 1984 I was living in Caroni, and I couldn’t wait for those Saturday-morning calypso radio programmes. Of course I couldn’t yet relate to Penguin’s 1984 hit Living in Jail. In those days, I didn’t know anyone in Caroni or Warrenville (where I also sometimes lived) who had burglar-proofing on their homes. In those days, I just thought Living in Jail was a clever calypso.
I was in the Queen’s Park Savannah when Penguin claimed his crown as the National Calypso Monarch. His singing resembled a penguin’s walk, but his lyrics were so powerful that it didn’t matter. On that night, Johnny King’s Nature’s Plan seemed to be a sentimental favourite for some calypso connoisseurs, and the crown came down to the second song, Foul Play for Johnny King and Sorf Man for Penguin. There was no way to beat Sorf Man.
Penguin had a one-two knockout punch in a time when there was supposed to be a magic formula for Dimanche Gras night: a serious political or social commentary and a lighter, danceable song. Penguin had both, and the ripping satire that permeated his selections proved unbeatable. From that night on, I looked forward to Penguin’s calypsoes every year.
Needless to say, I was disappointed when Penguin became president of the Trinbago Unified Calypso Organisation (TUCO). He became a fine leader, and I admired him for taking a job most people wouldn’t have touched with a ten-foot pole.
I can’t fathom what it must have been like trying to manage a set of unmanageable calypsonians, but Penguin always seemed to have the patience of Job for that thankless job defined by bitterness and bacchanal. He was a peacemaker, always promoting calypso in a dignified and honourable way.
Once, I remember asking him why he had given up singing. He watched me with a look of utter dismay and said, “It wouldn’t be appropriate now that I am head of TUCO. It would be a conflict of interest.” This, I thought, was quite decent in a land where such decency is not always the protocol. Who would possibly complain, I wondered, if Penguin decided to sing for Carnival? Subsequent TUCO heads sang during Carnival without any guilty conscience or anyone blinking an eye.
But Penguin was a decent, quiet, conscientious man who was as cool as a cucumber, or maybe I should say cool as a penguin. For those who don’t know, Seadley Joseph earned his sobriquet, Penguin, because he read so many novels published by Penguin Books.
He once worked as a schoolteacher, and he came from the old school, so to speak, when it came to writing calypsoes. In his book, calypsoes must have riveting rhythms, memorable melodies and above all, solid lyrics that told Trinidad tales using all the elements of literature a creative English teacher would require.
I can honestly say that over the past 29 years, there has never been a day when Penguin’s music did not cross my mind. I would catch myself humming one of his songs, including A Deputy Essential or What Sweet in Goat Mouth. The fact that Penguin wrote calypsoes with unforgettable melodies and lyrics is a major feat in itself. They were rooted in tradition yet felt modern.
What is even more remarkable is how he was able to craft timeless calypsoes. Penguin’s musical messages are as relevant today as they were almost three decades ago. That is a special gift. As I wrote years ago, “Looking back on Living in Jail and Sorf Man, I would say Penguin was a prophet or at least a genius. We’re still living in jail. The criminals are outside and we live behind bars. And in this age of hip hop, you certainly could say women still don’t like sorf men.”
Nothing has changed. Penguin’s calypsoes always had the extraordinary ability to make important points in a light-hearted manner without diminishing the seriousness of the subject. Few calypsonians can pull that off. Penguin never forgot calypso’s mission to educate and entertain the masses while reminding us all that teaching, and indeed learning, does not have to be a dry, boring irrelevant exercise. His lyrics should be studied in our schools as brilliant satire and powerful poetry.
There is no doubt that Penguin left an invaluable mark on T&T calypso. There was no other calypsonian like him. Rest in peace, Penguin, and rest assured you will always be an important part of calypso history.
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