Former Calypso Monarchs - Where are They Now?
In the years BD (Before Dice) Dominica's calypso thrived in an epoch of wit, an age of satire, and an era of sagacity.
"They could sing, they could write, they could perform," said Alex Bruno, a researcher, former executive member of the Dominica Calypso Association and popular master of ceremonies at Calypso shows.
Many of those who sang their way to the Calypso throne – call them "unforgettables" - gave fans, patrons and revellers hits that still seem current today. Songs such as "Rebecca", "Elizabeth", "Ba Yo Bwa", "Mass In The Cemetery", "Bombers From South", "Never Hang Your Hat" and "Tiway Yo" touched the soul and sent fans into a frenzy. Those were the days!
"Calypso was built on the social issues," said Bruno.
However, some of the presenters of such beautiful music, the occupants of the throne and wearers of the crown appear to have slid into calypso inconspicuousness. So where are they now?
Gregg "Breaker" Bannis, who won the title in 1967 and 1968 – who can forget "Rebecca?" - still sings but not Calypso. He sings blues and pop from his base in Europe, Bruno told The Sun.
Herman "Spark" James first won the crown in 1962 and retained it in 1963. In 1972 his massive hit, "Massa Day Done", helped propelled him once again to Calypso royalty. Today, the retired pharmacist continues to live in Wesley and is an elder in the Seventh Day Adventist Church.
"He's totally committed himself to that," said Bruno, who's routinely in contact with the former monarch.
The era of Solo – given name Melvin Constant – began in 1973 when "Black Man Leads the Way" and "I Pleasing Me Fans" placed him firmly on the throne. And, after a brief interruption in 1974 when Caterer won with "Sogo Fly" and "Ba Yo Bwa", Solo held a grip on the title for three straight years in 1975, 1976 and 1977, the year he sang the memorable revellers anthem, "Mass in the Cemetery".
Solo currently lives in the United States and continues to be active, performing as recently as last year in the annual King of Kings extravaganza in New York.
The Solo era was followed by a period where the title changed hands every year from 1978 to 1981. Among the four different kings was Shakey – given name Vaughn James – who in 1977 lost to Solo by a point-and-a-half as a 16-year-old and the youngest person ever to compete in the senior contest. Shakey, who won in 1979, is an attorney and professor of law at Texas Tech University Tax Clinic. A Lubbock, Texas resident, Shakey is currently battling serious health issues, according to Bruno.
Shakey's uncle, Rabbit, also wore the crown, riding high with "Never Hang Your Hat" in 1984. He currently lives in Bronx, New York and is a programme director for a group of homes for disabled people. He also remains somewhat active, participating in the King of Kings show and "doing shows here and there", Rabbit told The Sun.
Unlike Rabbit, close friend and fellow former monarch, Venturer, is not involved at all. Venturer, who won in 1986 and 1987, told The Sun he's simply too busy as a construction worker from the Bronx, where he has lived for about 30 years.
"I'm not really involved in Calypso anymore. I don't really have the time. When I first came I tried to maintain the Calypso vibes but it couldn't pay the rent, it couldn't support the kids, so I took a different turn," he said, while stressing he remains "a Calypso lover through and through".
The Rabbit and Venturer wins apart, the period from 1982 to 1988 was the aeon of Ency – real name Norman Cyrille – who won four titles during this time – the most successful calypsonian until Dice – with songs such as "Bombers from South", "Consider Me" and "Reunion 88". After being resident in the US for some time, Ency is back in Dominica, living in a convalescence home at Morne Daniel, according to various sources.
The end of Ency's reign saw a number of repeat winners, the most successful among them being Cleve "Hurricane" Jean Jacques. Hurricane won three titles – in 1993, 1994 and 1996 – with hits such as "Custom Pressure", "Tiway Yo" and "Unarmed and Dangerous". He now lives in Chicago and owns a reggae band, playing at different clubs.
"He's very, very current, he's very alert. He has transitioned out of Calypso, he sees himself as an entrepreneur with a band, so if you're going to hire him you have to hire his band," said Bruno.