- An edited version of this review was published in the Trinidad and Tobago Newsday on August 5, 2022 as “‘Disco Granddaddy’ Nelson shakes up Queen’s Hall.”
At the beginning of 2022, veteran calypsonian Mighty Bomber died at age 93, he being the oldest living calypsonian at that time, and also having retired from regularly performing live more than a dozen years prior. Lord Nelson (Robert Nelson), at one time heralded as the Calypso King of New York in the 1960s, performed some days after his 91st birthday at the tribute concert, A Musical Evening with Lord Nelson at the Queens Hall on Saturday July 30. And one might add, he performed sublimely with an audience connectedness that proves that in our context, experience matters in performance excellence.
The concert, organised by the Friends of Lord Nelson, had been a two-year effort, stalled by the COVID-19 pandemic. Friends leader, John Arnold, a Tobago stalwart in things cultural, spoke at the top of the concert of the necessity of guaranteeing this concert took place now, also noting that sponsors should come forward to fund the writing and publication of a biography of a still-alive Lord Nelson for posterity. (It should be noted that the biography Machel Montano, authored by his mother, Elizabeth, was published that same weekend, adding bit by bit to the handful of biographies of local artistes.)
After powerful start by the superbly attired Errol Ince Brass Band, then an awkward segue where singer Debra Bartholomew arrived onstage at the same time as MC Errol Fabien to sing “Sweet T&T”, the singing tributes flowed in a fashion to highlight the legacy of Nelson as more than a party song composer and singer, but a calypsonian who covered humorous topics, and dabbled in social commentary. Despite living in the US for many years, his connection to these islands remains strong, and his influence was and is still palpable in performance and recordings that are still being made by him, as recent as this year with Kes on their collaboration “De We Ting”.
After Fabian comically introduced Oscar B (Oscar Benjamin) with a pair of bon mots — “dis fella perform all over the world…and other places,” and “he so good, he perform an instrumental a cappella” — the tributes began with two songs, “Garrot Bounce (Whoopsin’)” and “Ah Goin’ an’ Party Tonite”. The initial release of these two songs span from 1963 for the former to 1982. With a calypso predating soca, it was obvious that Nelson’s compositions are timeless, and in the hands of Oscar B, a performer of high impact, these two songs were a great opening for what proved to be a night of great calypso and soca, effective audience engagement, and memories made real.
The award-winning Signal Hill Alumni Choir followed up with another pair of Nelson’s early soca compositions from the 1980s, the groovy “Feelings”, and “Jenny”. This performance was where the chink in the armour of the overall production was exposed. The choir was hampered and hindered by poor miking and a too-loud Brass Band effectively drowning out any vocal arrangements that a choir of this calibre can produce. The possibilities of an a cappella arrangement of any song would have been interesting for this ensemble. It felt like a slowing of the momentum produced by Oscar B.
The calypso tent as an institution was where our local music industry was born and has been, in recent years, in decline, subsisting on State sponsorship. Nelson, as a resident abroad, had both the opportunity to spread the soca and calypso message beyond the boundary, and the privilege of performing locally in tents. That calypso tent aesthetic was replicated, probably unintentionally, via a set by Devon Seales bookended by the comic genius of Fabien as man-of-words as giver of picong and deliverer of risqué humour.
It was adult time now, “big people party.” Fabien tells the audience that, “calypso is the greatest thing in the world,” and then proceeds with smutty ditty on his love of vegetable quiche: “Ah feeling for quiche.” Say that deliberately with a deadpan expression. Uncontrolled laughter. Seales then sang his trio of calypsos, “Analog in a Digital world,” a humorous commentary on progress, “Fashion Parade,” and the still funny “Siamese Twins,” showcasing the range of Nelson’s writing over the years. The calypsonian’s performance aesthetic — narrow stage presence, focus on lyrics — versus the soca singer’s broader appeal to an awed experience, was clear as day. Great songs, unheard for many years, were rendered, but not uplifted. The return of Fabien to close the calypso tent experience was happily received. If he heard, from the audience, “sing Errol, sing,” he willingly gave more smutty kaiso. Encouraging politicians to not give up in the face of constant rage and “pong” from electorate, he sang to them, “continue.” Sing that, syllable by syllable, in your head. Yes, that! No more words necessary, just applause.
Ronnie McIntosh, son of Art De Coteau, is Mr. Showtime. Energy, wide stage usage, enthusiastic sing-along and waving of hands and any fabric, they were all there in his set of three songs — “two for Nello, one for me” — “Calamity” a humorous calypso from 1966 and “Boat Ride”, originally arranged by De Coteau, as well as McIntosh’s “How It go Look”. How McIntosh navigated calypso and soca was a contrast to the earlier performers, and the final tribute for what Lord Nelson represents as a calypsonian and soca artiste of long standing, and for some, how the soca industry has a lot to live up to in terms of impact and range. There may have been bigger artists, but Nelson’s footprint is huge.
After an introduction by Sunshine Awards founder, Gil Figaro, the man of the moment arrived, sparkling in golden sequinned jumper, jacket, shoes and cap to show how it is done, and how it can be done at 91. With his cane as medical aid and performance prop, Nelson blew the roof of the almost at capacity Queen’s Hall. Hit after hit after hit. Loud sing-along, sustained ovations, dancing in the aisles. From the word go, he was on fire; “La La”, “Disco Daddy” (or Disco Granddaddy, as he called himself), “King Liar” had the audience singing loudly. “Foreigner”, his lament of early Trinidadian xenophobia towards him that hurt, “dem wha’ call meh dat,” was followed by ‘Tobago’s national anthem’, “We Like It”. “Mih Lover” was too much for the audience. Wining low-ish as his nonagenarian hips would allow, people were dancing. All inhibitions were removed. Belly like Buddha, he was bounding with energy, nearly baring all to see.
A birthday gift on behalf of the government presented by Minister Fitzgerald Hinds, a Happy birthday sang by the cast and the rapturous closer, “[All ah We is One] Family” made the night a reality check by everyone of what is possible in the local music industry by having a deep catalogue of songs, a positive outlook, and fans still wanting great entertainment. And the ability to deliver, as Lord Nelson did. The cult of nostalgia among music fans that pops up so often in the music industry, Calypso Rose being a recent example, may look to Lord Nelson as a new figurehead. The title of oldest living calypsonian must now belong to him, and he is a deserving title holder with a future that does not look diminished.
© 2022, Nigel A. Campbell. All Rights Reserved.