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United in song remembering calypsonian who led strikers
Of course everyone will be celebrating Tubal Uriah Butler today for launching the modern labour movement, and maybe a few hats will be tipped to his deputy Adrian Cola Rienzi, who continued the struggle through legal avenues.
But it is about time Trinis give recognition to the calypsonian and pan pioneer who led the strikers, Rudolph Xavier, who was shot and sentenced for it while Butler was in hiding.
Born in 1911, Xavier, who passed away in the 1990s, was the second youngest of his seven siblings. They lived in Besson Street, Port-of-Spain. His mother was a vendor in the market.
When I met him years ago, he shared one of his most vivid memories of the nearby quarry from those days.
“I used to stand every morning by the gap to see the prisoners from the jail marching under turnkey protection, going to work,” he told me. “The men were wearing flourbag jail clothes, in their belt every one have an enamel or galvanize cup, and they carrying tools–shovel, pickaxe, crowbar, sledge hammer–marching from the Royal Gaol to the quarry.”
He couldn’t have suspected how close he’d come to joining them later in life. Opposite was a barrack yard where on Sundays, the little boy watched Grenadians holding their African drum dances.
As a teen Xavier moved with his mother to San Fernando, where history would touch him. As he did in Port-of-Spain, he assisted her vending in the market, but around 16, he developed greater ambitions. He borrowed an older brother’s khaki trousers and, claiming to be 21, he sought work in Pointe-a-Pierre.
He started rolling pitch oil drums in the bond for six cents an hour, nine hours a day. When that ended he got another job on a pipe-fitting section, and there it was that he began singing for his supper.
“There was no machines, no crane, no tractor, no forklift,” he explained. “Everything was man-handled. If they had a tank to build, men dragged the sheets there from the nearest spot where the trucks dropped them.”
They’d put the steel sheets to roll on four-inch pipes, and the men would be heaving as they responded to the call of a chantwell:
Call: Mary gone a-mountain
Response: High land dey
Call: She gone for yellow plantain
Response: High land dey
Call: Hooray, Miss Mary
Response: High land dey
Call: What you going to cook today?
There were long, slow chants to drag steel sheets with, shorter ones to lift rigs with, staccato spoken call-responses for threading pipes. Every one of the many different manual gang tasks was done in the African fashion to song, and the leader who set the rhythm of work was the chantwell.
The chantwell’s was an invaluable role which depended on the inspiring qualities of his singing and his sense of timing because it determined the pace and efficiency of the work. It was a job once done by a young Aldwyn Roberts on the railway in Arima.
“My job was to sing and to see if everything was going properly, or else I’d have to stop the gang,” said Xavier. “If you singing too fast the men might bawl, ‘Hold it, hold it,’ but when it going good the fellas get a zeal and they vex when the work stop. If we working near the road, people passing by would stop and join us, because we working with harmony and love.”
Back home with his friends Xavier also sang, this time to the rhythms of gin bottles and lengths of bamboo. Sometimes he’d sing with more orthodox instruments, such as a guitar or a cuatro, at a christening. And as was inevitable, he became the chantwell leading a tamboo bamboo band, Toll Gate bamboo band from Cipero Street.
That was where he limed, even though he was living on Coffee Street in the 1930s, and he quickly became known, because of his leadership qualities, as King Xavier.
Then it happened. On Saturday, June 19 Cpl Charlie King was burnt to death in Fyzabad while attempting to arrest Butler.
The next day, Sunday, Xavier was helping his mother in the market, where people were grumbling about the attempt to arrest Butler. On the Monday he went to work by Coffee Street when a large crowd marched up calling for King Xavier.
“Pointe-a-Pierre shut down and we going to shut down Usine Ste Madeleine,” they told him. Intimidated, his boss closed the workplace, and Xavier left with the protesters, leading them with his singing, unifying the determination of hundreds of men and women with his improvised call:
Xavier: We eh working at all, we want money
Response: Hooray, hurrah!
Xavier: Monday morning give we we money
Response: Hooray, hurrah!
The demonstrators closed down the market. They emptied Globe theatre, and then Empire theatre. They moved to the railway station and closed that too. Then they moved on to Usine. Then to the power station, stopping all work, swelling their numbers with released workers. With Xavier in front they decided to go to the telephone exchange.
When they arrived it was surrounded by armed soldiers. They crowd stopped. Someone from behind flung a brick at the soldiers and the white officer barked an order: “Raise your arms and shoot!”
The volunteers shot some rounds up in the sky. But the crowd still inched forward, men behind shouting: “Is blank shot they firing!”
Then the officer ordered, “Lower arms and fire!”
Xavier recalled, “From that I hear people bawling ‘O Gawd!’ ‘Jesus Christ!’
“And I see a fella fall.”
Fear gripped him and he froze, as if in a nightmare. “My foot cyar move at all. Then I just feel bam! on my hand. I hold it and lie down.”
Then he heard the officer bark an order “Cease fire!”
The bullet had passed right through his forearm, shattering both bones.
Xavier was taken to the hospital, where over the next days Dr Henry Pierre (who later was made Sir Henry), laboured by candlelight (they had shut off the power station) to patch up wounded strikers.
While handcuffed to the hospital bed Xavier was charged on nine counts of leading the rioters: one count for each street.
Eventually sentenced in absentia by a magistrate to three months’ hard labour, Xavier never made it to the prisoners’ quarry of his youth, though. Instead, he whiled his sentence away in the Colonial Hospital.
Once he was back on the streets Xavier continued his singing vocation, going so far as to take a turn in a calypso tent during the Second World War. He recalled, “I went to the tent in Port-of-Spain with a friend and I see Lion, all of them, but the more I drink rum the more I cyar build a head to go on that stage.”
Eventually they forced his hand: “Now ladies and gentlemen, your desire is at hand,” announced the MC: “The great King Xavier!”
He stepped up and began:
Mabel, I’m leaving home
I’m going to take a chance on the battle zone
I can’t remain in La Trinity
I mean for Hitler to reign king in Germany
Girl, I’m going to fly to America
Darling, I’m trying to make myself an aviator.
The crowd went wild, but Xavier never returned for a follow-up.
Instead, around 1942 he turned to the latest craze that was sweeping young people, steelband. He used to beat biscuit-drum boom in the tamboo bamboo band, but now he started collecting pans and was joined by youngsters like Emile “Zola” Williams. Xavier didn’t keep the pans by his Toll Gate bamboo yard, however, but at his bachelor apartment in Coffee Street: a place noticeable for its neatness and the long row of potted palms he’d laid out, so that people would refer to it as King Xavier’s Buckingham Palace.
So he called that first Coffee Street steelband, Buckingham Boys, which would knock a little pan during the war. It was the beginning of the end, however, for the human voice was about to be removed from the streets by the steelband, with its greater volume and melodic capacity.
“On VE (Victory in Europe) Day when we parading, I on the boom, coming up High Street I watch in a store and saw myself in the showcase,” Xavier told me. “I could see me with an old hat and this hot sun and how I sweating and looking miserable and nasty, and I say, ‘Come out of this thing.’”
He gave his biscuit drum to a masquerader and walked away for ever.
• Dr Kim Johnson is the Director of the Carnival Institute.