Writing for the people

Rohlehr explores calypso’s many dimensions
By Gerard Best

Tuesday, December 7th 2004

Professor Gordon Rohlehr is a giant of a man. To hear him speak at the launching of his latest book last Tuesday was to stand atop this colossal iceberg of a man and peer into the crystal depths of his mind, longing for what Louis Regis called, capturing the ineffable in his feature address, “a view of the breadth and height of the professor’s imagination and quality of perception.”

A Scuffling of Islands, published by Lexicon, is the latest offering from the professor, and represents a distillation of the penetrating ruminations of that mind. It is a collection of essays exploring, among other things, the history, development and meaning of calypso, the state of contemporary calypso and various aspects of Caribbean political and social anthropology. In one essay, Rohlehr summarises calypso’s assessment of Dr Eric Williams’ legacy; in another he tackles Caribbean sexuality. The collection’s final essay is a eulogy to Kitchener, the modern Grandmaster of Calypso.

“When you start to write, sometimes you don’t know where you’re going to end but what you’re writing assumes its own direction and that’s how a large number of these essays take their shape,” the professor explained, leaning his towering six foot plus frame over the microphone to briefly acknowledge and thank the book’s many contributors. He gave the example of the title essay, an analysis of calypso’s projections of Caribbean integration.

“I ended up calling it A Scuffling of Islands because our islands are mutually impoverished and yet we’re always fighting over all kinds of things,” he explained, pointing out that in the Caribbean the word “scuffling” carried the dual notion of hustling or scrounging to live and of being involved in a fight.

Moonlight and cool breeze set the tone for the evening, infusing it with a special sense of intimacy which even crept into Rohlehr’s speech. Thanking his wife, Betty Ann, for her immeasurable inputs, he all but confessed his love to the small audience, “We chat a lot, we laugh a lot and that conversation and that laughter are both characteristics not just of marital life but they are also the basic ingredients of Calypso. And we have sustained our Calypso very beautifully.”

Rohlehr could well make such revelations. From a tall, dark frame, his bright, broad smile beamed into a roomful of “very good friends.” Indeed, for a moment, seated in the small classroom in the Centre for Creative and Festival Arts of the University of the West Indies, St Augustine, one could barely distinguish between collaborators, collectors and colleagues; one could hardly separate supporters from students. Even “Lady Africa” (Leslie Ann Bristow), who extemporaneously improvised her entire introduction of the guest of honour, and “Black Prince” (Kenroy Smith), who performed “Calypso Horrors,” seemed at once subject of the professor’s work and object of his admiration.

Though one happily recognised the faces of George John, Efebo Wilkinson and Pearl Eintou Springer, one inevitably noted the absence of Dennis “Sprangalang” Hall and Zeno Obi Constance, who along with Regis are the minds behind what Rohlehr termed “a whole mafia of [Calypso] research coming out of south Trinidad.”

But perhaps it was Regis, more than anyone or anything else, who set the emotional tone for the evening, his language expressing the pricelessness of Rohlehr’s contribution to intellectual (as opposed to popular) calypso commentary, “Gordon Rohlehr’s mid 60’s decisions to first include and subsequently to centre Caribbean orature in the examination of Caribbean literary aesthetics, and to engage Caribbean society primarily through its orature/ literature has generated four important publications and some 100 major essays. The volume and scope of the bibliography and discography documented in those earlier efforts and in this fifth publication testify to the eclectic, multi- and inter-disciplinary nature of Calypso research. It tenders the best answer to a rephrased CLR James question: What do they know of Calypso who only Calypso know.”

As Regis spoke, one imagined the intimacy and intensity of those afterthought sessions in which he and Rohlehr together “charted the shaping of the individual essays,” and one almost envied the mutual love and respect between the two scholars. One longed to have partaken in “that creative wrestle with language” which had wrought the latest offering from the author of My Strangled City, The Shape of That Hurt and Calypso and Society in Pre-Independence Trinidad.

“I expect that this collection will generate a lot of ‘Ah dint think about thats’ in a lot of people,” Regis said. “But it will also generate the pride and joy that one of our greatest thinkers has taken the trouble of thinking about it, reasoning it through, writing it down well and having it published properly.”

Now Rohlehr is speaking, responding to Regis, drawing the room to his overwhelming presence. One of his anecdotes starts with him in a Minneapolis airport analysing the calypsos of the 1970’s in his head “just to pass the time.” One tries to apprehend the man’s beautiful mind but one fails. Rohlehr’s response to Regis is characteristically modest, the Guyanese-born UWI lecturer’s trademark deference perfectly complementing Regis’ compliments.

“I have tried to write primarily for our people,” said the author, “and I try to write in a style where most people who can read can hopefully understand what I write. One of my reasons for not being a theoretician is that the language is often so abstract.”

He added, “I have tried to regard myself as a kind of pathfinder maybe, somebody doing spadework, just digging up stuff leaving a kind of foundation for other real scholars like Louis [Regis] to come and build on. I am just doing the spade work, laying out the grounds and I hope that the designs, the foundations that I have tried to establish will serve.”

When Rawle Gibbons’ Vote of Thanks brought the formal part of the ceremony to a close, the lecturer dedicated the better part of the evening to penning autographs and catching up with old friends. We can all look forward to the humble professor’s in-progress ruminations on poet Kamau Brathwaite and future reflections on the works of calypsonian David Rudder.

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