Kitch in Carnival

Originally published as the Trinidad Guardian's editorial for Carnival Monday, February 15, 2010.

Ten years after his sudden passing, it seems that there is much to lament today in the loss of the prodigious talent of Aldwyn Roberts, who wrote, sang and worked in his chosen profession for more than 60 years after getting his first break at a tamboo bamboo calypso tent in 1937.

In an era in which the successful careers of most performers in the soca arena are measured in months and there is little interest in becoming the kind of well-rounded musician, arranger, promoter and extraordinary composer that Kitchener was, it’s worth remembering the sheer scope of the man’s legacy and the enormity of his contribution to the Carnival landscape.

The man was no kaiso elitist. In the England years, between 1948 and 1963, Roberts worked his behind off, building his reputation and a small calypso empire fuelled by frequent performances, a nightclub and investments in properties even as he sent songs back to Trinidad and Tobago to let his fans know that he still had his sting. ‘Nora Nora Nora’ and ‘Trouble in Arima’ were songs from this period, music strong enough to succeed without the man present to sing them.

On his return to this country in 1963, he immediately staked his claim on the Road March, the anthem of each year’s Carnival celebration and the most forthright expression of a People’s Choice award anywhere in the world.
His combination of topicality, wit, and astonishing arranging skills landed him the award ten times between 1963’s ‘The Road’ and ‘Flag woman’ in 1976.

By then, the musical emphasis of Carnival on the road had changed and the impact of the steelbands for whom his music was so emphatically composed diminished in importance on the streets, replaced by brass bands and music trucks as portable generators finally became small enough to be practical on the road.
He remained, however, the pan arranger’s darling, his music gliding off the shimmering surfaces of hammered steel with a sweetness that has rarely been matched then or since.

Between ‘Mama dis is mas’ in 1964 and ‘The Guitar Pan’ in 1997, steelbands were victorious in the Panorama competitions with his music an astonishing 18 times.
While servicing his existing constituencies, Kitchener the composer proved a restless, ready observer of the music around him. He incorporated jazz credibly in ’12 bar Joan’ created one of the great lavway laments in ‘The Carnival is over,’ and cemented the relevance of soca for disdainful calypsonians with ‘Sugar Bum Bum.’

Roberts was a calypsonian’s calypsonian, and his Calypso Revue was nursery, school and finally home to a surprising number of today’s calypsonians who got their start at the tent and remained loyally with Kitch after they became successful.
In 1964, its first year of existence, four calypsonians from the Revue competed in the Calypso Monarch finals; Kitch, Nap Hepburn, Bomber, and Blakie, with Bomber taking the crown.

In 2000, after his passing, the Dimanche Gras stage was also commanded by a startling percentage of cast members of his tent, including Sugar Aloes, Crazy, Pink Panther and De Fosto, each of whom performed in a red suit and hat styled after Kitchener’s trademark stage uniform.
Lord Kitchener may be lost to us, but his influence and legacy remain. His son, Kernel, has grown into a potent musical force and serves as a composer, musical director and as a remarkable arranger for Machel Montano’s HD family.

He is father’s son, but he is also his own man, adapting his rhythmic talents to the fast moving world of modern soca and creating, among other songs, the JW & Blaze hit Palance, which musically riffs off a bridge formulated in the Brassorama competition to move from one song to another during the competition.

The enormity of Lord Kitchener’s influence on the music of Trinidad and Tobago is still to be fully evaluated. In 1996, an attempt was made at Queen’s Hall as an Honour Performance of the man’s work was mounted by a virtual who’s who of contemporary performers, from the boy group Blak Mayl to the Marionettes Chorale.

The lessons of Kitchener’s life offer rich example for today’s calypso and soca performers. This was a man who was, at every stage of his career, a remarkable mix of entrepreneur and artist, a composer, arranger and singer who accepted everything as an influence and created something unique out of all that he saw and heard.

Aldwyn Roberts was adaptable but firm in his style – there was never a Kitch calypso that sounded like anyone else’s – and he remained vital and relevant throughout six decades of the artform’s development.
His was a daunting example, a mountainous legacy worth climbing in deed.