The Duke who was King

The Mighty Duke (Kelvin Pope), 76, died of myelofibrosis at the Ellerslie Private Hospital in St Clair around 1 pm on Wednesday. He had battled the incurable disease, which prevents the body from producing new blood cells, for several years.

He died with his most outstanding calypso achievement intact — four consecutive wins in the National Calypso Monarch competition, then known as the Calypso King competition. While other calypsonians have won the competition more times, none have been able to shatter that record of consecutive wins, achieved between 1968 and 1971.

Duke first copped the title with “What is Calypso” and “Social Bacchanal.” The following year, in 1969, he repeated with “Black is Beautiful” and “One Foot Visina.” In 1970, when Trinidad and Tobago was immersed in black consciousness, Duke delivered another winning performance with “Brotherhood of Man” and “See Through” and his fourth victory came in 1971 with “Mathematical Formula” and “Melvie and Yvonne.”

It took a calypsonian of the stature of the Mighty Sparrow to finally end Duke’s reign as Calypso King in 1972 with “Drunk and Disorderly”.

Even after that defeat in the calypso arena, Duke remained a force to be reckoned with. His fans eagerly looked forward to this performances in the calypso tents, to be entertained by his witty lyrics and mesmerised by his sartorial elegance. His perfect diction and articulation, coupled with a commanding stage personality made Duke one of calypso’s most polished performers.

In 1987, Duke made his mark on the soca scene, winning the Roach March title with “Thunder”.

Born in 1930 in Point Fortin, Duke grew up in a period of protests against working conditions, wages, racism and exploitation in the oilfields. Those experiences would have a lasting impact on the man and the music he would create.

He attended the Point Fortin EC School and became a pupil teacher at that school before leaving to take up a job with the Shell Oil Company.

Duke wrote his first calypso in the 1950s. Recalling his debut in an interview a few years ago, he said, “I had a very good friend whose name was Syncopater and he was a very good calypsonian. He lived next door to me and at the time he was singing calypso. As a matter of fact, the year when Sparrow won with “Jean and Dinah” I think he placed third.

“He encouraged me in a sense because he knew I liked singing. He used to hear me singing other people’s songs. I remember him saying to me, “Why don’t you try and write?” and I did. When I used to give him my ideas and so on he used to say, “You sing that for yourself!” and I did. That was how I started composing and singing. “Tent-wise, there were some young guys who had a calypso tent in Point Fortin at the time and, of course, they asked me to come and join them, and I did. We had guys like Impressor, Blacks and others, but most of them are no longer with us. I am talking about in the fifties when I started with these guys in Point Fortin. That was my beginning.”

When Sparrow’s Original Young Brigade (OYB) made one of its periodic visits to Point Fortin, Duke was urged by his friends to go on stage. Sparrow was impressed and Duke was invited to audition for the OYB. In 1964, Duke left his Point Fortin home for Port-of-Spain to sing professionally at the tent. That first year he enjoyed minor success with “Woop Wap Man”, “Soft Candle” and “Monkey Knows What Tree To Climb”. He was a master of humour and double entendre and became known for well constructed, sometimes suggestive lyrics that dealt with social issues.

As one calypso connoissuer put it: “No artiste has matched his style and grace in making people take humourous calypsos seriously. While other calypsonians used exaggerated antics to capture the audience’s attention, Duke remained regal and dignified in his presentation.

“Duke kept humour, the dying branch of the artform, alive and he gave humourous calypsos a dignity that few other calypsonians could match. While other calypsonian’s themes always dealt with sex, Duke’s often dealt with general social condition and position.”

An artiste who stood out over the years for his remarkable ability to make calypso fans laugh and cry, many of Duke’s classics contained serious social messages about race and apartheid, including “Black is Beautiful” and his haunting composition, “How Many More Must Die”. The latter, one of his most memorable compositions, ironically failed to earn him a top placing in the 1987 National Calypso Monarch competition.

He once said his black consciousness was awakened as a little boy growing up in Point Fortin.

“Let’s face it, apartheid was one of the worst things that happened to people and of course I elaborate on that a lot. That is something very important (that) they should teach the children about because I think that all black children should know their history.

Not the history in the sense of West Indian history or English history or American history but Black history. Because of my reading and seeing things and experiencing things, that helped me,” he explained.

In one of his last interviews late last year in which he revealed that he was battling a serious illness, Duke told a Newsday reporter he would continue to sing calypso as long as he had the strength.

“Once I can stand up and sing and shake the waist a little bit, until the Master says no more... until he says calypso and Carnival is no more. Then I will stop.”


"The Duke who was King"

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