Strumming his guitar at 13 Picton Street, Laventille, veteran calypsonian Clifton Ryan (Mighty Bomber) paused to share his sentiments on being honoured by the University of Trinidad and Tobago (UTT). Occasion was the re-enactment of the 1962 Independence Calypso Contest at National Academy for the Performing Arts (Napa), Keate Street, Port-of-Spain, on September 16. The illustrious Lord Brynner (Kade Simon) had won. Ryan, 84, and fellow bard Slinger Francisco (Sparrow), 80, were presented with awards of appreciation. The duo has the distinction of being the only two surviving competitors from the inaugural contest. Ryan is the eldest surviving calypsonian in T&T. The late veteran Sonny Francois (Power) was billed to appear on the show but he died on August 9. He sang Hurrah For Independence. Last Sunday, UTT chairman/veteran calypsonian Prof Hollis Liverpool sang Francois’ classic. Interviewed on Wednesday, Ryan said it was bittersweet. “The show showcased the 1962 competition. I enjoyed it immensely. I was pleased to get the UTT award. They honoured Sparrow and I.” In 1962, Ryan had placed fourth with Independence. He also had the distinction of winning the 1957 Radio Trinidad Competition with a song dedicated to its 10th anniversary.
In 1964 he created history when he defeated Sparrow with the eponymous Bomber’s Dream and James and Joan. After 50 years, Ryan’s still hurting.He felt Independence results were skewed against him since he was born in St Georges, Grenada. Reliving the moment, Ryan said, “In 1962, the show was held at City Hall. It was packed to capacity. When the results were announced, Brynner had to run and jump into a car. The people wanted Bomber. I was the People’s Choice. It was felt I was not a citizen of T&T. I came here on June 15, 1956. “I felt hurt. Since then, I don’t like to sing Independence. My wife (Jean) and I got about 220 letters from Grenada, St Kitts, Anguilla and Nevis. People kept saying I should have won.” To compound it, Ryan had a T&T passport. His father Anglican sexton Fitzroy Ryan was from Serraneau Road, Belmont. He was instrumental in getting the passport. His mother Agatha Joseph was a Grenadian. “I still have my passport. I carried it to him (co-ordinator Andrew Carr) the next day. He told me about it (being Grenadian prejudiced his placing).”
Former monarch King Luta got lusty applause when he sang Ryan’s Independence last Sunday. Ryan is fiercely territorial with his song. “I heard him singing the song. It did bring back fond memories. But he made some mistakes. He forgot some of the lyrics. He fumed when they announced Bomber had placed sixth, that too was wrong. “In the original lineup, it was Brynner, Sparrow, Nap and Mighty Bomber.” Quizzed about 1962 competitors, he said, “Power sang. He did not place. I knew Nap Hepburn. Versatile sang Hepburn’s This Is My Flag. Crazy sang Chiang Kai Shek’s Independence. I didn’t know Chang Kai Shek. But Crazy calls me all the time. I knew him when he was living at Erica Street in Laventille. They moved to St Augustine. “I knew Striker (Percival Oblington). Striker had a lovely voice. Mighty Diamond sang his song We Could Make It.” Ryan misses his friend the late veteran calypsonian Power (Sonny Francois). There was a tinge of sadness he was not present. He said, “Power was my good friend.” About three days before Power died, Ryan talked to him for about and hour. He also names first prime minister, Dr Eric Williams and Grenada’s first prime minister Eric Gairy as cherished friends. “Eric was my good friend. I used to go home by him. In 1976 he gave me a plot of land for my contribution to calypso.” Recounting how he met Gairy, he said, “I was 12. He had a meeting at Market Square. Grenada Labour Party was his party. Miss Bobots introduced me to him. He asked me if I would write a calypso about his party. The next day I carried a song to him. He liked it.”
Bomber hits Trinidad
Ryan, 21, worked at a soft drink factory. Carnival co-ordinator Pansy Roley discovered him. “She said, ‘I heard you are a singing sensation. You should be in competition.’ They put me on a table to sing. I sang Fowl Thief. They said, ‘You are a bomb.’ “At 12, I took a razor blade and a piece of cardboard and cut out B-O-M-B-E-R. They were big bold letters. I put it on my jersey. Bomber was born. I continued entering competitions home. I won about seven times. People loved me. In 1956 I sang Juvenile Delinquency.” Asked about his sojourn here, he said, “A girl.” Her name was Jean. They married. She bore him eight children—Sharon, Sherryl, Reagan, Junior, Sherma, Donbar (late), Robert and Sherwin. Initially he stayed at the home of Small Island Pride (Theophelus Woods) at 69 Prince Street, Port-of-Spain. In 1957, he entered Radio Trinidad 10th anniversary competition. “I won $200. In those days, that was a lot of money. Pride said I had to give him $100. I went to Hilton Rhyner and he told me to bring the money and he took it and bought cloth. He made a blue suit.” Then Pride’s landlord informed Ryan his friend had passed on in a hotel in Suriname. He said, “In those days they had cigarettes called Players. It used to be in a tall pan. Pride put a handle on it and drank his tea from it.”
Faced with the possibility of eviction, Ryan found a job mixing drinks at South Quay’s hotel Bolivar. “Rent was $3 a month. I slept in a hammock. Worrel (who got him hotel job) told me to get some furniture at RA Moze (back then after Stephen Low).” He credits Pride for introducing him to Melody. One day Fitzroy Alexander (Lord Melody) had a drink. He invited him to sing at the Old Ice House Factory (obliquely opposite to defunct Hotel de Paris), on Abercromby Street. The rest is history. Ryan’s repertoire includes Land Of Spice and the 1958 hit Gloria. He could not forget paltry wages. “When I won in 1964, I got $1,000. That was a princely sum. In those days women were not involved. They used to sing. But they were not so upfront. Now it gone up to $2 million.” In 1981, he said he had officially retired from calypso. He got baptised and worships at Picton Centre. He returned to Lord Kitchener’s Revue for financial reasons. But since 2006, Ryan said, “I am retired completely. I belong to Jesus.” Commenting on crime, Ryan, the former president of the Northwest Laventille Cultural Group, said, “People cannot stop crime. Only God...Men are trying to see how many notches they can get on the gun. I don’t think it’s getting better. Laventille is still a nice place.”