February 11 marks 15 years since the death of Aldwyn Roberts (the Lord Kitchener)–one of the great West Indian musicians of all time who died at age 77 on the eve of Trinidad Carnival 2000.
Perhaps in anticipation of expected observances, UK-based Trinidadian poet and broadcaster, Anthony Joseph, in a half-hour BBC4 programme produced by Allegra McIlroy, has presented some well-known and sometimes debated perspectives on the late calypsonian's 15-year musical sojourn in Britain.
For the assignment, Joseph sought the inputs of people such as the bard's former wife, Elsie (Marjorie) Lines; legendary Trinidadian jazz pianist and pan player, Russ Henderson; music journalist, Kevin Le Gendre; calypsonian David Rudder; Leonard Joseph, a prot�g� who carried the performing name of Young Kitchener, and British writer/photographer Val Wilmer.
The producer also dug into the music archives for a selection of Kitchener's songs reflecting the musician's expansive reflections on everything from love and passion to his flirtation with Pan-Africanism to his love/hate relationship with Britain, his return to Trinidad in 1963 to provide Sparrow with worthwhile musical competition and his lasting, intimate relationship with the steelpan.
The radio documentary poses several somewhat disputed questions about Kitchener's feelings about his home for 15 years. For example, was the young performer entirely na�ve about the realities of life in Britain when he confidently sauntered off the HMT Empire Windrush liner at the Port of Tilbury in Essex in June of 1948?
Or was it, as David Rudder contends, all "a mamaguy" when Kitch spontaneously launched, for the benefit of an enquiring newsreel reporter, into his now famous extempore verse which extolled the greatness of post-war Britain?
"London is the place for me, London, this lovely city," sang an immaculately dressed 26-year-old, introduced by fellow passengers as their "spokesman" and by the reporter as Jamaican perhaps because Kitch had boarded the ship in Jamaica and most of its passengers were from the island.
"You can go to France or America, India, Asia or Australia but you must come back to London city," the song goes.
Longstanding friend, Leonard Joseph who knew Kitch from his days in Trinidad, later adopted the name Young Kitchener when he started making the rounds of London music clubs and halls in the early 1950s. He says in the documentary his musical mentor was just singing the praises of England in song "because it was a song (and) he knew the behaviour...the way they treat black people."
Indeed, Kitch was to later lament: "It's a shame. It's a fear but what can you do?/The colour of your skin makes it hard for you./You can tour the world you still will get no place./Every door is shut in your face."
Joseph's account also contends that despite the late calypsonian's sometimes mixed messages about what he had once described as his "Mother Country" he was prepared to serve as a veritable messenger on behalf of Caribbean immigrants in Britain facing sometimes unwelcome and hostile conditions.
In fact, when the West Indies cricket team beat England in a Test match in England for the very first time in 1950, out came Kitch at the famous Lord's cricket ground, guitar in hand, leading in Pied Piper fashion a band of cheering West Indian fans celebrating a victory many considered to have consequences way beyond the game itself.
"He was the voice of Caribbean people," Rudder says. Indeed, his move to Manchester five years after his arrival in Britain, which brought about his marriage to Marjorie also saw a more intimate engagement of the wider Pan-Africanist struggle. It was this connection that saw the launch of Birth of Ghana–a musical tribute to the people of Ghana on its accession to independence in 1957.
The hosting of the Fifth Pan-African Congress in Manchester in 1945 was still resonating among the black population of the city and Kitchener's employer at the time, at the Forum Club, was also an activist who was a close friend of people such as Ghanaian leader Kwame Nkrumah and Trinidad-born thinkers and writers George Padmore and CLR James.
Wilmer claims in the documentary that at Kitch and Marjorie's wedding breakfast in Manchester in 1953, the man who became prime minister of Kenya in 1963, Jomo Kenyatta, sat around the table with the couple. The historical records however show that Kenyatta was in prison in his homeland at that time.
What is clear, though, is that the Manchester experience helped fine-tune Kitchener's political sensibilities. Though such commentary would not come to dominate his prolific musical career, the Arima Champion as he was known in his early years as a calypsonian, is deemed important as much more than a composer of brilliant Road March winning songs (11 of them) and made-for-pan music.
Joseph's documentary adds important brush marks to a timely portrait of a genius.
"Genius, genius, genius," concludes Young Kitchener. "He was fantastic. The greatest calypsonian ever. He was the Grand Master and will always remain that way."