The Long Lost Letter
The Long Lost Letter
By; Will Johnson
Recently when reading the book “Fourteen Islands in the Sun” by Charles Graves, I came across the following passage:” That day I lunched at the Normandie, the second newest hotel in Trinidad. But thanks to Carnival, there were no shrimps, no langouste, none of the local dishes I wanted except for a tiny chip-chip cocktail.
“Fast asleep, head and shoulders across the bar (I can produce a photograph of him), was Lord Brynner, shaven as bald as the actor whose name he snitched. Not for Lord Brynner the alarums and excursions and risks of failing to be chosen Calypso King in 1964. He had already been signed to sing at the West Indian Pavilion in the New York fair later in the year for a pleasantly fat fee. So he was the winner before he had started, in fact without entering the contest at all.”
I decided to Google him and it was a real emotional experience to see him once again in the flesh so to speak and a flood of memories of my friendship with him on St. Martin came back to me so clearly that I decided to write this article as a tribute to him.
Lord Brynner was born as Kade Simon in Erin Trinidad in 1937, and only now I discovered that he died in 1980, though years ago I was told by someone from Trinidad that he had took up drinking and had gone on to other more potent drugs.
In the early nineteen sixties he used to perform at the Little Bay Hotel. He was always proud of the fact that he had won the Trinidad and Tobago Independence cultural contest in 1962. My job, consisted of speaking to the Manager of the Little Bay Hotel, and arrange one or two nights performance for him. He would send me a letter well ahead of time and I would send back to tell him what to expect. Usually it was no problem as back then there were few Calypsonians beating down the gates to perform on St. Martin. I do remember Lord Kitchener being there and giving a performance at the old airport bar around 1965 or so. And the Mighty Sparrow was there as well. Little Bay Hotel had a sell-out crowd for the visit of the “Merry men” from Barbados and I remember wanting to go to the show but could not afford the entrance fee. My fee from Lord Brynner was that during his performance he would mention that in the audience he had a friend named “Will Johnson” and that was enough payment for me. He would also perform in Bermuda, New York and other places.
On Trinidad Calypso has a long and fascinating history. It dates back to the days of Governor Picton in 1707 and Lawa Begorrat, a French immigrant who had a team of favourite slaves to entertain his guests on important occasions. A ‘chantuelle’ called Gros Jean was appointed as” Maitre Kaiso”, Kaiso being the West African word for what since 1925 has been known as calypso.
Like their descendants, these chantuelles had high sounding names, such as “Hannibal the Mulatto”, and lived very sheltered lives, considering the times in which they lived.
After the departure of the French the troubadours sang for the amusement of everybody, not just his patron. He became an indispensable figure at all parties. His songs became more and more topical and at one point extremely bawdy. As time went on, calypso singers multiplied all over Trinidad and throughout the Caribbean.
At first the Calypsonians, as they became known much later, sang in patois. They had splendid names Like Maxwell Greyhound, Richard Coeur de Lion, and Duke of Marlborough. Later came “Lord Executor”, a real master of contemporary verse. He was a remarkable chap and the sole exception to the rule that Calypso singers are coloured. He made his bow in 1897 and was at once a sensation – a white-skinned man singing Kaiso, dressed in a cultural way. Coat and Windsor tie. Picong or satire was his forte and when he was challenged by young “Attila the Hun” (real name Raymond Quevedo), he smacked him down with the following calypso:
“I admire your ambition; you’d like to sing,
But you will never be Kaiso King
To reach such a height without blemish or spot,
You must study Shakespeare, Byron, Milton and Scott.
But I’m afraid I’m casting pearls before swine.
For you’ll never inculcate such thoughts divine.
You really got a good intention,
But poor education.”
The crowd roared with approval and another upstart was demolished.
The Calypsonian is given the right by the people to attack, condemn, and praise without interruption. When it was rumored that the American troops in Trinidad were being sent to Europe, “Roaring Lion” at once proceeded to remind the local girls of their partiality for the company, and that he intended to get his own back. He created a character whom he called Pam Palaam, and addressed her as follows:
“Pam Palaam, you too smart
But know I’m no rubbish cart
And if you enter my bachelor
You’ll be paid a penny in silver paper
By the nineteen sixties, the Calypsonian was a cheapy eye wrinkling kind of lavatory humour with the sex angle predominant.
Carnival depends on calypso as a symbiotic twin for its survival. There is fierce competition among Calypsonions for the cherished crown of Calypso King. Even Aruba uses calypso rather than the tumba which Curacao uses, and believe me Calypso is better. Even when singing in Papiamento but using the calypso style it gives a certain feel to the revelry of Carnival. We all know what Carnival is about. There are other thoughts on the issue which I would like to quote Charles Graves on.” As I left the hotel a grubby little tract was handed to me by a coloured boy. It proved to be the religious pamphlet most unlikely to succeed anywhere in the world. For it attacked carnival. Here is one of the choicer extracts:
“The Oxford dictionary states, ‘Carnival is a riotous revel’. Revelry means ‘loose and clamorous and noisy merriment’. The Bible teaches in Galatians 5:19 that is sin and warns that those who do such things shall not inherit the Kingdom of God. God means what he says. He will not change His standards. He will not excuse the people of Trinidad and Tobago, if they do not repent and obey. It is recorded that God has destroyed cities and countries and nations for disobedience. He has even destroyed the world of Noah’s time. What He has done once He can do again. Tobago’s judgement should be a warning to everyone.
We are not tourists to this country. We were born in it. We know what Carnival gives. We may try to dress it up as we like but it is bacchanal. It is the time of rum and women, jump-up and caiso. Do you know where Carnival started and how? It was the pagan worship of Egypt, Greece and Rome, marked by sex and drunkenness in honour of Bacchus, the god of wine (note the word bacchanal), and Venus, the goddess of love. The calypso, one of the medieval developments, (Trinidad did not invent it), is relished most if it is disguised and obscene. Do we not know how many acts of sin are committed during Carnival-adulteries and fornications, everyone having a so-called good time? If God were to bring immediate judgement, we should all perish, but He is giving us time to repent. No one can defend it as a harmless pleasure. In Brazil, a Carnival country, it is reported the highest illegitimate rate for the year results from conception at Carnival time.”
The mention of Tobago is a direct reference to the hurricane of 1963 which, indeed, killed quite a few people and knocked down thousands of coconut palms. As for the illegitimacy in Brazil, it is true that the Trinidad birth rate in October or November, according to the date when Easter falls, is two or three times higher than that of any month. Known as “spree children”, they are differentiated from ‘yard children’, ‘own children’, and the less common legitimate child.
A spree child is one whose father metaphorically did not take off his cap. A yard child’s father is one who is vaguely known to the mother, because he has been hanging around the yard or area for some time. An own child is one who is actually acknowledged by the father, whether or not he provides the customary sixpence-a-week maintenance. It is not at all unusual for a man to sire eight children by six different women inside two years. Quite clearly (a) he cannot marry them all; (b) he cannot support them all. What is unusual is that many mothers have no desire to marry. They say that it is bad enough to bring up children without having to look after their fathers as well. In any event, if they were bound in lawful wedlock, the husband would probably beat them and certainly treat them like children. And if they went to Court the Judge would tell them to go back and patch things up. Whereas if they were unmarried they could take up their abode somewhere else, with no strings attached. In other words, the seventh commandment has absolutely no meaning in the Caribbean”.
My friend Lord Brynner (Kade Simon), born in Erin, south Trinidad, was a popular calypsonian from the late 1950’s to the 1970’s. He moved to Jamaica to join the West Indies Regiment during the time of the West Indies Federation and performed there for a while before returning to Trinidad after the collapse of the Federation. In August 1962 at the age of 25, he won a calypso competition held to celebrate the Independence of T&T, beating the Mighty Sparrow, Nap Hepburn and the Mighty Bomber into second, third and fourth places, respectively. His winning calypso, Trinidad and Tobago Independence, earned him a cash prize of $1,000. The other eight finalists were Lord Pretender, The Hawk, Mighty Power, Mighty Dougla, Lord Cristo, Chang Kai Chek, Mighty Striker and Lazy Harrow, chosen from a field of 35 who had auditioned at the Radio Trinidad Studio on August 9, 1962.
Lord Brynner recorded 50 seven-inch records and 13 LPs. On at least one of his calypsos, Bob Marley was a back-up chorus singer. Brynner died at a relatively young age, destitute and lonely.
When I knew him I was a heavy drinker and moved around with like fashioned lovers of bacchanal. I remember in one of his performances an older friend of mine was hackling him during his act and he did not appreciate it at all and when in verse he attacked back, my friend the aggressor in this case was not amused. We remained friends throughout his visits to St. Maarten. On his last visit that I remember he asked me if he could borrow my manual typewriter while I was at work. From there he was going on to perform in Bermuda. As he would be leaving during the time I was at work we said our goodbyes thinking that we would surely be seeing one another in a matter of some months. When I got home after work Mrs. Bertha my landlady told me that Mr. Brynner had left my typewriter with her and with a letter addressed to me. Thinking it was a thank you note I left it sitting for some days on the typewriter. Finally one morning I decided to open it and saw that it was two pages long. Mainly it was advice from a recovering alcoholic telling me that he was concerned that his friend Will was going overboard with the drinking and that I should consider stopping. I have a friend on Statia who often told me that his father’s advice to him was “Don’t stop, as if I tell you to you will drink more. All I am asking you is to SLOW down.” Well after Lord Brynner’s letter I neither stopped nor slowed down for a number of years. I often wondered what had happened to him. I thought that perhaps he had become so successful in other places that St. Martin was too small a market for him. I was busy putting my own life in order and setting my own course in life’s turbulent waters. A couple of years ago I was mentioning to a friend that I knew Lord Brynner way back when and my friend told me that he had understood that Lord Brynner had took up drinking again. I never heard about his problems and neither did I hear that he had died. While reading this book I came across the passage with him lying across the bar and concluded that it had to be after1964, as a recovering alcoholic, that I met him at Captain Hodge’s Guesthouse and we became friends for perhaps five years or so. When I Googled him and saw his photograph I remembered the letter which he had written me and regret that along with many other letters from well known personalities I had met that I had lost it while moving around through the islands before settling down.
Since Carnival is coming up I thought that I would share this with my readers and May Lord Brynner continue to rest in peace.