Portrait of the Calypsonian as a Young Man

June 2019

Anthony Joseph, Kitch: A Fictional Biography of a Calypso Icon (Leeds: Peepal Tree, 2018); 266 pages; ISBN 978-1845234195 (paperback)

When Trinidadian-born poet, musician, and novelist Anthony Joseph set the publication date of his second novel to coincide with the seventieth anniversary of the arrival of the Empire Windrush at Tilbury, he could not have foreseen the 2018 scandal that rocked Britain and the Caribbean diaspora. British citizens, by virtue of both birth under empire and the 1948 British Nationality Act, were stripped of citizenship rights and deported from the home and society they had helped build for more than half a century. There is perhaps no other Caribbean individual so suited to encapsulate the Windrush generation than calypsonian Lord Kitchener, especially given the iconic images of his disembarking on 22 June 1948 and singing the now infamous strains of “London Is the Place for Me” into the microphone of a Pathé journalist. These scenes appear a third of the way into Kitch: A Fictional Biography of a Calypso Icon, but they telegraph the salient questions of belonging that the novel probes and the social and historical record that Trinidadian calypso creates in song.

Dubbed a “fictional biography” in its subtitle, Kitch explicitly evokes Michael Ondaatje’s 1976 Coming through Slaughter, which uses fiction to fill in the absent archives of jazz pioneer Buddy Bolden. But whereas Bolden left few documents behind for Ondaatje’s imagining, Aldwyn “Lord Kitchener” Roberts left many: hundreds of recorded calypsos and numerous newspaper articles, as well as the Pathé clip of his arrival in England. Kitch’s three chronological movements describe multiple exiles and returns: part 1, “Bean, 1941–1947,” traces Aldwyn’s early life in Trinidad in the 1940s and his move to the formative barrack yards of Port of Spain to begin honing his craft; part 2, “Lord Kitchener, 1948–1963,” chronicles the calypsonian’s migration to England in 1948 and his struggles and successes in the next decade that establish him as Lord Kitchener; part 3, “The Grandmaster, 1962–1974,” narrates his return(s) to postindependence Trinidad (1963) and his longstanding rivalry with the Mighty Sparrow for the ultimate title of Calypso King and grandmaster of calypso. A brief three-chapter epilogue jumps forward a quarter decade to his death (and then back to 1999 and 1987) and the legacy he leaves behind for both calypsonians and archivists alike.

But this is not a conventional biography by any means; the novel is the product of Joseph’s experimentation—as part of a PhD thesis in creative and life writing at Goldsmiths College—with using fiction to explore the limits of an objective recreation of history. In the resulting novel, Kitchener’s life story and subjectivity emerge in degrees from the fragments of “ancillary devices” (264) Joseph accumulated in his research after Kitchener’s death: calypso lyrics, newspaper clippings, film reels, and interviews with friends, lovers, and rivals that become monologue chapters. These ancillary devices are supplemented by more traditional third-person novelistic chapters imagining Kitchener’s interiority—as a young man, discovering that he could hear the musicality in everyday sounds in Port of Spain, or his first nights of loneliness and cold in postwar England. The result is a polyphonous, “discontinuous and dislocated” narrative that evokes the era, the places, the personalities, and the art and craft of calypso more than they do the man himself (264). Although the titular character, Kitchener is in many ways liminal to the story, very much the “savannah ghost” that younger calypsonians encounter on Carnival Tuesday in his fading years (261). In this way the novel performs an act of memory and nostalgia; Kitchener comes alive on the page through the collective memories of others. As such, his death is not only the epilogue but haunts the entire text as the pretext for the remembering and narration.

In many ways, Kitch is the portrait of a man in perpetual exile, a man who “tired roam” (136), always searching for a home and perhaps finding it only in music. Kitchener’s wanderings, music, and narrative arc thus also describe the development of calypso as music form; he is a kind of Forrest Gump of the calypsonian class and the Windrush generation. As one character notes, if you follow Kitchener, “you will know exactly where the steel band start” (43). You will also trace the migratory moves of calypsonians and other fortune seekers in the fifties, historic moments in the music’s development, and a fine-grained account of Calypso King and Road March competitions for decades through the rivalry between Kitchener and Sparrow.

That Joseph, also a musician, found parallels between himself and Kitchener (266), gives the novel its second primary literary context: that of the musical novel more broadly and the calypso novel in particular. Like Earl Lovelace’s The Dragon Can’t Dance (1979) and Samuel Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners (1956), which first novelized Kitchener’s arrival and the Windrush generation, Kitch is replete with calypso lyrics and descriptions of music akin to instrumental breaks. The novel is thus thoroughly consistent with Joseph’s earlier works that use music to express the Caribbean and black British experience—poetry collections that transpose his jazz albums from music to lyric, and a first novel, The African Origins of UFOs (2006), an avant-garde, Afrofuturistic riff on blackness throughout time and space. Despite and amid its generic silences and gaps, the portrait of Kitchener that emerges—like Ondaatje’s prefatory fuzzy snapshot of Bolden—is of a lyrical “grandmaster” with unrivaled composition skills. As a young man, melodies fall into his mind from nature, fully formed. His admirers remark on his genius in rhyme, diction, and storytelling, the ways his composition skills inspired the expanded melodic range of the emergent steel pan as calypso accompaniment. But his genius is marred by his awkwardness on- and offstage, his stutter, his insecurities, and his many, many foibles, including his temper and philandering.

Kitch therefore illuminates the paradoxes of calypso as a documentary music idiom. As attested by Gordon Rohlehr’s encyclopedic Calypso and Society in Pre-Independence Trinidad (1960) and the Calypso Collective’s 2006 release, West Indian Rhythm: Trinidad Calypsos, 1938–1940, road march songs and recorded calypso hits served as contemporaneous historical records that enable later historians and researchers to rebuild a sketch of the past, even if the archive they create is fraught with elisions. Joseph’s calypso novel interrogates the nature of the historical record that calypso songs and narratives provide us. By the time we get to Kitchener’s mid-life, very little of his interiority emerges, and the snippets about him that do accrete paint him only in increasingly unsympathetic tones. Ironically, in the periods when there are more musical and other records, there is less of Kitchener’s felt life; the archive overwhelms fiction and exposes the limits of what records can capture and retain.

That we ultimately come to know more about the collective experience of calypsonians and early migrants than we do of the individual man is the novel’s genius. If the clip of Kitchener on the gangplank of the Empire Windrush telegraphs the reality check that undercuts the hopeful song about his generation’s “place” in London, then so too does the novel look through the man to the entire class of early calypsonians, the greats of a bygone era. The inability of the novel to completely fill out the life of Lord Kitchener thus encapsulates its overarching project of mourning that lost era, beautifully rendered in the account of Sparrow’s attempt to eulogize his longstanding rival in song. Since his grief leaves him partly unable to sing, he must call on the audience to help him. Likewise, even with the company of narrators, the biography remains incomplete. Remembering Kitchener, the novel ultimately suggests, is a collaborative, call-and-response undertaking that necessarily includes the readers as well. This antiphony makes Kitch a delightful read and an engaging and important lens through which to view the art of calypso and the workings of memory.



Njelle W. Hamilton is an assistant professor in the Departments of English and African-American and African Studies at the University of Virginia. Her first monograph, Phonographic Memories (Rutgers University Press, 2019), considers the impact of Caribbean popular music on memory and the novel. Her current project, “Caribbean Chronotropes,” reads time-bending Caribbean fiction through the lens of cosmology and quantum theory.