The mountain Kitch climbed

Express February 3, 2000
By Keith Smith

THE block was brooding, the guys between 20 and 30 years old wondering "who going to sing dem calypsoes", even the youngest among them certain that "we not getting anything like that again".

And, yes, Kitchener is going to be a difficult act to follow-meaning no disrespect to the younger calypsonians whom you might expect to pick up the slack-only recognising that not only was his rate of output phenomenal (surpassed, by my reckoning only by Sparrow who, according to Professor Gordon Rohlehr, once recorded 100 songs in four years) but so, as well, was the quality of the work.

Rohlehr reports in his seminal book, Calypso and Society in pre-Independence Trinidad:

"In 1942, Kitchener ( Aldwyn Roberts) left Arima, where between 1938 and 1941 he had served as chantwell for a Sheriff Band, and won the Arima Calypso King title. He headed for Port of Spain, where for two years he sang with the Roving Brigade, performing mainly at cinemas. He was noticed by 'Johnny' Khan, manager of the Victory Tent, located that year (1944) on Edward Street, named by the Growling Tiger, and invited to join The 'Arima Champion', that is, the as-yet unnamed and unknown Kitchener, is listed among the singers who paid tribute to Captain Cipriani on his 70th birthday. Kitchener's 'Green Fig' was an instantaneous success, which made him one of the most sought after singers...."

And what did Kitchener sing to win his first "crown"? The result of Rohlehr's indefatigable researching:

"The youthful Kitchener, attuning his lyrics to the melody of Atilla's 'Women Will Rule the World', made the same point as Executor (who had sang against the Shop Closing Ordinance of 1938 which reduced the number of shopping hours), 'Kitch' singing:

Take for instance the place of Arima Town A very promising one With the closing of business places she cannot strive She's getting more dead than alive It is keeping her down to a low degree It's that the government can't see It's a flogging for each and everyone Advantage will never done.

"This calypso," Rohlehr writes, "helped Kitchener win the Arima championship in 1939, three years before he came to Port of Spain to join a roving brigade of singers, before his 'Green Fig' (1944) pushed him into public prominence...."

I have never heard anybody sing this "Green Fig", but I remember going to Chalkdust once and asking him to "tell me about this feller Kitchener", and Kitchener, picking up his trusty box guitar, turned to me to ask rhetorically "you want to know 'bout Kitchener?" before breaking into song:
"Mount Olga, Mount Olga Ah must climb Mount Olga" and this chorus: The mountain too hard to climb It taking a length of time The knife ain't so good I can't cut the road like ah really should"
I want to tell you that this was a rather simple ditty, given the more sophisticated Kitchener kaisos that were to follow ("Symphony in G"), and "Pan in A Minor", for example, is one that I frequently find myself singing and talking about. "Symphony in G" and "Pan in A Minor" reminds me of the "pan songs", the first of which was "The Beat of the Steelband" (1946):
Yes, I heard the beat of a steelband Friends, I couldn't understand It was hard to make a distinction Between Poland, Bar 20 and John John Zigilee, Pops and Battersby, They coming with a semitone melody When they start this contrary beat They had people jumping wild in the street Port of Spain was catching afire When the steelband was crossing the Dry River Zigilee, leader of the ping pong Had people jumping wild in the town.
"It was Kitchener, too," Rohlehr observes, "who first captured in calypso the sound and rhythm of the steelband... The Beat of the Steelband... whose chorus was a mimetic representation of untranscribable steelband sound-impressions. Celebrating not so much the birth as the 'coming out' of pan, Kitchener captures the counterpoint ('this contrary beat') and elation of VE-Day and VJ-Day.

The steelband, the simple old-time lavway in couplet form ('semitone melody') superimposed on the complex counterpoint of the iron, sustained the city's joy for the two days of each celebration..."

Today "pan tunes", initiated by Kitchener, have become so much a part of the calypso idiom that there is now an official competition at which thousands of dollars are at stake, each competitor following in the footsteps of the "old man", hoping if not for imitation then certainly for emulation. Things, however, just don't happen or, maybe they do, my colleague Kim Johnson (he of the Pan Pioneer series ) telling me only yesterday that when the young "Kitch" came to town he went to live in the barrack-yards of Lacou Harpe where he couldn't but be influenced by the likes of Bar 20. From barrack yard to "Rainorama Palace". Some mountain did the that man climb.
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Created on ... April 18, 2000