Professor Gordon Rohlehr
Gordon Rohlehr, Professor Emeritus at the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine, and Trinidad was born in Guyana in 1942. He graduated in 1964 from the University College of the West Indies, Jamaica, with a First Class Honours degree in English Literature, after which he wrote a doctoral dissertation entitled Alienation and Commitment in the Works of Joseph Conrad at Birmingham University, England (1964-1967). He has also been visiting Professor to Harvard (Sept-Dec 1981); the Johns Hopkins University (Sept-Dec 1985); Tulane University (Jan-May 1997); Stephen F. Austin State University (Jan-May 2000); Miami University Writers’ Workshop (June-July 1995); York University Toronto (January-Feb 1996) and Dartmouth College, New Hampshire (June-August, 2004).
He has spent around forty years in the Department of English at the University of the West Indies at St Augustine, Trinidad, has established an international reputation for his ground-breaking work on Caribbean literature, calypso and culture, is the world’s leading authority on calypso, tracing its development over the last two hundred years from its West African origins and studying the vast amount of recorded material produced by generations of West Indians, particularly in Trinidad and Tobago. Also, being a devotee of the game of cricket, Professor Rohlehr has been able to combine his love of the game with his professional interest in Caribbean oral tradition, as the sport is featured prominently in calypsos.
Gordon Rohlehr’s academic interest and research has resulted in the production of an extensive written opus on West Indian literature, oral poetry, calypso and the popular culture of the Caribbean and in particular between 1968 and 2004, he wrote more than 100 essays on these topics, held over three hundred interviews, prepared and participated in nearly 100 radio and television programmes, and lectured extensively throughout the Caribbean, US, Canada, and the UK. He has been the recipient of the University of the West Indies’ Vice-Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in the combined fields of Teaching, Research, Administration and Public Service (1995).
Unfortunately, a comprehensive synopsis of Professor Rohlehr’s publications, papers, interviews and essays is not available at this time, but among his extensive work are the following:
- Author of Pathfinder: Black Awakening in the Arrivants of Edward Kamau Brathwaite (Gordon Rohlehr 1981);
- Calypso and Society in Pre-Independence Trinidad (Gordon Rohlehr 1989);
- My Strangled City and Other Essays (Longman Trinidad 1992);
- The Shape of That Hurt and Other Essays (Longman Trinidad 1992);
- A Scuffling of Islands: Essays on Calypso (Lexicon Trinidad Ltd. 2004).
- He is also co-editor of Voiceprint: An Anthology of Oral and Related Poetry from the Caribbean (Longman 1989).
- Voiceprint: An Anthology of Oral and Related Poetry from the Caribbean. (1989) Harlow: Longman Caribbean.
- Transgression, Transition, Transformation: Essays in Caribbean Culture (2007).
On his retirement from the University of the West Indies, Professor Gordon Rohlehr received many tributes. The Trinidad Express devoted its editorial page on October 8 2007 to “A Gifted Son”. In the editorial he was acknowledged for the colossal contributions he made to West Indian scholarship and to the intellectual and cultural traditions of the people of this region. He was not simply a cloistered academic but lent his enormous prestige to a wide variety of community and cultural causes, never disdaining to address an audience on almost any subject handed him. In halls and centres high and low, in gatherings large and small, he would enrich an audience’s understanding of issues related to West Indian society and politics, art and culture, life and letters. Professor Rohlehr pioneered the academic and the intellectual study of calypso and the calypsonian, tracing its history over several centuries, and surveying the enormous material produced by generations of West Indians from one territory to the other.
Gordon Rohlehr, through his scholarship and personal example is an exemplar of the best of the distinct West Indian cultural identity.
The following interview given by Professor Rohlehr to the Caricom Perspective magazine is reproduced here in its entirety since it clearly illustrates his wide grasp of issues pertaining to Caribbean culture, music, art and sets out his vision as to how these relate to the evolving dynamic of the Caribbean identity.
Calypso and Society
Reproduced from Caricom Perspective, July – December, 1990
In his recent publication, “Calypso and Society in Pre-Independence Trinidad”, Professor Gordon Rohlehr describes the development of the Trinidad calypso from pre-emancipation times to the late 1950s. The book attempts to explore the relationship between the calypso and social change in Trinidad and explores such issues as immigration, social conflict, gender, class, race, humour, commercialism, labour relations, World War II, censorship, the development of the recording industry, tradition and change in calypso.
Q. Are there lessons for the contemporary Caribbean, in general, and for Trinidad, in particular, from past analysis of calypsos, say, since the beginning of the century?
Most definitely, there are many things happening now in the calypso world that happened then. For example, the conflictual nature of social experience in Trinidad. We have come from so many different places in Trinidad, we have had to sort ourselves out, and this has led to a lot of conflict. Conflict is still stronger than consensus. We see that in our politics quite clearly. I note that throughout the period I have studied, calypso themes have been dealing with all sorts of conflicts – social, political, human (man/woman, domestic), gender conflicts; Trinidad versus small island, Trinidad African versus Indian; African versus African. We are somehow like that.
I looked at how humour has developed in calypso. It gives us a clue as to the kind of people we are. Our humour is a form for working out all of these conflicts. If we were to look at the things we laugh at, how we laugh and the nature of our laughter, we will see that humour, aggression, conflict and ways of resolving conflicts are all interconnected. I see it as a continuous thing.
During the 1930s, social upheaval, political confrontation, problems with labour and with depression led to the same conflicts and to calypsoes that were very, very socially conscious.
At the same time, they led to moves by the regime, at that point in time, to contain comments that came out of calypso; there was a very active censorship. Indeed, one of the new things that the book will add to what we already know about calypso in a very specific study of censorship of the thirties and forties. This is based on new material that was found in the archives in Trinidad which contain lyrics of calypsoes, which had to be sent to the Colonial Secretary’s Office in Port of Spain for censorship, before the record could have been brought in.
The decisions were never written up elaborately, but every now and then you could see they censored this or that. You got a good indication as to how they thought and the things that they thought were worth censorship.
Q. When you look at the political upheavals in the 1930s with what has happened in Trinidad in the 1990s, can we expect something like the censorship of that period to transfer itself in the 1990s?
Censorship has always been a possibility in the world of calypso. It took different forms. Some times it is extreme – as in the thirties and forties. After that period, it took the form of public pressure, writing about this or that calypso or this or than tendency in calypso, the ones that they called ‘smutty’.
Then there was the use of competition. Throughout the seventies, we had complaints that the judges for the calypso competition during Carnival were biased either in the direction of class of politics. For example, Chalkdust with “My Grandfather’s Backpay”. He was told in 1985 that he just couldn’t sing it. Shorty’s “The Art of Making Love”, was brought to Court in 1973 and 1974. Most of the really biting calypsoes were seldom played on the radio, and this is a very effective form of censorship, because the radio station managers are liable.
What happens is that a certain game is played, because the calypsonian tries to define over and over again the scope of the freedoms which he or she can exercise. If you say he can’t sing, he will find a way of singing it anyway and sometimes this leads to a better more subtle calypso which says precisely what you want to say. He might sing it metaphorically, like Penguin when he sings:
“Yuh ‘fraid de devil, Yuh ‘fraid him bad, Look the devil in yuh yard.”
The other way is to sing the thing more crudely, more openly and more viciously, and this has been developed certainly over the last four to five years. Calypso has increasingly been more bitter, as the pressures on the public seem to have increased.
Q. The changes that we are experiencing in the post-independence period are not only specific to the Caribbean and to Trinidad and Tobago. There are those who contemplate the vast irreversible- global changes and both their terrors and opportunity for the Caribbean today. How does the calypso deal with such changes?
We were aware of and certainly very much part of the apocalyptical upheavals of fifty years ago. Calypso documented that, and I deal with that in very great detail in the book. If we are talking about changes relating to the world at large, the calypso served us extremely well indeed in the late thirties and forties; there were great documentary calypsoes sung by, for example – Atilla and Lion and Growler and Penguin. They looked at every facet of the war. In fact, the calypso was really and truly the newspaper by which the man in the street got a notion of what was taking place. It was used to boost people’s morale. It was used to entertain the Americans. In fact, when the Carnival was stopped between 1942 and 1946, in the latter years of the war, the calypso became King, really. It was the only thing allowed to continue.
People were allowed to hold small parties in clubs, etc., nobody wanted to ban the upper class mass, but they wanted to ban the mass on the streets, and the calypso was the thing that carried the entire spirit of carnival. People used to come to tents as late as the Tuesday night, that was the last lap, it became everything.
Looking at this period, you will see many calypsoes that deal with international issues. South Africa has long since been a theme. We can go back to the sixties when Pete Simon was singing on South Africa, and come to the seventies and eighties when all the major calypsonians sang about South Africa – Sparrow, Duke, Stalin.
As to the specific changes taking place – in 1989 and 1990 – we are seeing the dismantling of the world that came into being indirectly after World War II. The forces are being realigned. I am sure that the calypsoes are going to try to deal with this, but I think it is going to take a little while before it hits us as to what those changes have in store for us. I am sure that CARICOM is aware of the greater need for regional unity in the face of the alignment in Europe, where Eastern Europe might be entering Europe and whatever colonial linkages they might maintain with places like the Caribbean might obviously disappear.
Q In the Caribbean, calypso is still the great essence of our oral tradition and our history. What seem to be the major waves of consciousness and action in defining the history of the Caribbean?
As a student studying history – English, European, American and Caribbean – what struck me certainly was how Caribbean history was. It was presented mainly as Caribbean economic history and still is largely so today.
Oral history changes the way one looks at issues because oral history has of necessity to put the people’s voices at the very centre of the historical process.
An economic change will be presented in terms of how it affected our buying power in the supermarket. Look at Relator’s great calypso in 1981 – “Food Prices”. It may be a way of analysing the budget, but the budget as it impacts on your day-to-day spending habits.
Similarly, we get people’s reactions to political change. The vocabulary which politicians have been using over the past few years has a very intensely-worked up rhetoric. It is interesting to hear Errol McLeod interpret Divali – “we are in the grips of Rawan – the dark God of Evil,” and now Rawan begins to symbolise all the things that he is fighting against as a union leader; calypsonians are singing about Demons and demonising political figures.
When we approach the thing from the oral tradition, we get a clearer notion of how change impacts on people’s mentality. It is a very important dimension to add to the histories that we have.
Technology has Emotional Warmth
Q How has the calypso responded to, and itself initiated changes in the art form relative to technology?
Changes take place in the technology first, and then the calypsonian relates to that. For example, in the whole business of record production, that has changed from the days when you had a tape recording machine weighing 300 lbs. Now you have 16, 12-track tapes, dubbing, over-dubbing. The technological changes take place first and the calypsonian follows:
The question is whether some of these changes are good for or bad for the calypso. Should calypso be always state of the art? If it isn’t state of the art, would it lose out in competition with other popular forms of music? Would people want to buy calypso records if the reproduction is less or lower than other popular music forms, if when they listen they are not hearing what they are accustomed to hear?
Suppose they are hearing what they are accustomed to hearing – synthesizers, drum machines, etc., clarity of sound. Suppose it comes across as a cold, ruthless piece of engineering, rather than what the calypso always used to be – something warm, that came out of the soul of the emotion of a people? What concessions need to be made to the state of the art, and, when we make these concessions, can we retain the sense of community, warmth, the relevance to a particular people at a particular time, that which we still give our gut response to when we hear a really good calypso?
The calypsonian is in a sense returning to the people their own voice. Can the calypsonian keep up with developments that are taking place in the calypso, in the technology of the thing and, at the same time, retain his warmth and his closeness to community?
The recent publication of ‘Voice Print’ seems to signal a recognition of, not only what is publishable, but also what and how Caribbean art should be constituted for learning. In this scenario is consideration being given to popularisation, marketing and policy institutionalisation through the calypso?
‘Voice Print’ is a collection of oral poetry, edited by Mervyn Morris of the English Department of UWI, Mona, Stewart Brown of Central African Studies in Birmingham University, and myself. The whole aim was to present the art of poetry of the West Indies, the ones that do not get anthologised. So we looked at such things as oral forms, a few calypsoes, narrative poems, a whole range of oral or oral-based material.
Q. Will this give recognition to that sort of material which the calypso itself needs to have? And, if the calypso needs to have such recognition, what is being done to give that recognition?
I would say that the calypso has had such recognition, and has gained that recognition through the efforts of people who have recorded it from 1912. After 1927, a lot of the words of calypsoes were recorded by Houdini, Nigel Velasco and after 1934, Lion, Atilla, Growler, Tiger, Beginner and Black Prince, Ziegfield and Decker. The Calypso has had contexts within which it has become known. Long before Belafonte appeared on the scene in the 50s, calypso was well known in such places as Greenwich Village in New York.
We are not at the stage where the calypso needs to be popularised in the same way as oral poetry is being popularised in ‘Voice Print’. We need to find out if there are any new initiatives which need to be taken to ensure that the Calypso survives particularly in this competitive period. Looking at calypsonians, I would say that they have been doing a fair amount to keep their art form popular. Rudder is now well known in Europe, and you can see the impact of the international forum on Rudder’s concerns.
Preserving Our Heritage
If we want to widen the context, we first have to realise that It is already wide. We have got to support the singers who go out. We have got to purchase the records here, too, if we want them to keep singing for us. We have got to show that we appreciate what they are doing by being prepared to support them. If you are not getting that recognition, then you will become the servants of whoever gives you that recognition.
Here, too, the forces of the market determine the direction that the art form is going to take. I feel it is a wider question of recognition what the calypsonian has been achieving on his own, and supporting that effort in a tangible form at home.
The question of State input of cultural policies and directions and what can the State do – I would say what I have said over and over again: we need a heritage series of things like calypsoes, maybe a package of ten to 12 LP records or compact discs, whatever, cassettes.
I see no reason why the State cannot initiate that via a foundation, or a combination of the State, business and the public, e.g. have a sale of shares for the financing of a Foundation to establish a heritage series for the collection of all sort of things – calypsos – CLR James’ Library, Eric Williams’ Library.
I would like to see a serious concern for the collection, promotion and marketing of the calypso tradition, that is, the old material which is probably more marketable than we think and the new material which would at last be given a sense of where it is rooted, where it came from, and how it has departed from others.
Embassies abroad should all have cultural attaches who should be locating our material which is all over the place e.g. the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian Institute. If the initiative came from a government as part of its cultural policy, it would be far easier to do this than as an individual.
I can see it being done for the calypso in the pre-independence period. But, let’s say living history, current history, if the state were to intervene in any way to make permanent records to institute policy guidelines, for example, on calypso, I think censorship will be greater.
Something should exist in addition to the initiative which the calypso already makes. This is one of the ways in which the state can get interested. A State institution should not over-exercise a monopoly. A Foundation that is sort of State-encouraged need not necessarily be state-run – though it is difficult to see the State not interfering in one way or the other. But we can’t have it both ways. We cannot say that the State must have some say in the shaping of cultural policy and in the fostering of cultural forms, then say, if the State sets up an institution to do this, it might be simply to take over those items. It would be something for the people to quarrel about and argue about, but we should have a say as to the shape of that institution and the powers it should have.