Pre-OCPA Calypso in Toronto: A Personal Memoir
By Lennox Borel
Here is an axiom that Pythagoras and his mathematical colleagues could never have conceived: “Wherever there are people of Trinidad and Tobago in the Diaspora, there will always be Calypso.”
The History of Calypso in Toronto did not begin with the birth of OCPA in 1980, in the same way as the History of Canada did not begin with the arrival of Europeans to Canada in 1643. The existence of several incarnations and manifestations of calypso in Toronto in the fifties and sixties may indeed have spawned the Organization of Calypso Performing Artistes.
The calypsonians in Toronto in the fifties and sixties were mainly calypso singers. The majority of them sang songs composed and made popular by calypsonians in Trinidad and Tobago like the Mighty Sparrow, Lord Kitchener and Lord Melody. Very few wrote and sang original songs before the advent of Dave Martins and the Tradewinds. They performed at local nightclubs, West Indian dances and the odd Canadian event that wanted a Caribbean flavour. There were also large shows featuring the Mighty Sparrow, and Harry Belafonte whom Canadians revered as the quintessential calypsonian.
Three hours after my arrival in Canada on a chilly night in September 1960, I went to a night-club in Montreal called The Venus de Milo. There Eddie Edgehill and Dave De Castro were blurting out the lyrics of Jean and Dinah, Mae Mae, P.A.Y.E., and Benwood Dick to a packed audience of Trinbagonians, mainly students who were hungry for a taste of their homeland. They were accompanied by their French-Canadian girlfriends. Meanwhile in Toronto, there were groups like the “Latins” later called “The Debonairs” headed by Eric Minns from The Bahamas. The Tradewinds was headed by Dave Martins from Guyana. The Delmas and the Mahon Brothers had a band which played at the Little Trinidad Club on Yonge Street. Charles Roach was an erstwhile calypso singer. Sello Gomes and his band sang and played at the Calypso Club. Bing Serrao and the Ramblers from Guyana were also part of the calypso scene. Night-clubs such as the Tropics, WE Place, the WIF club used to be hopping with pulsating calypso sounds.
In February of 1962, on Carnival Friday night, I went with a steel band to play at a dance at the Lions Club in Timmins, a city about 550 kilometres north of Toronto. It was a snowy, freezing night. In the midst of that arctic desert there were four young men called King Karib and the Calypso Bandits from Trinidad and Tobago belting out calypso lyrics. I am sure Jean and Dinah never thought they would have made it so far north. Many of the bands mentioned above sang and played at the Caribana Festival in 1967.
The first Calypso Competition was held in 1969 at the Maple Leaf Gardens. It was a Caribana-sponsored event. There were about 3000 people at the event, more than I have ever seen at any Calypso Competition in Toronto. There was a “Dimanche Gras” atmosphere at the Gardens. In the competition there were seven contestants. Each contestant sang one song. All the songs were original compositions. The music band was led by Sello Gomes. Contestant Number 5 was Dave De Castro with the sobriquet of “The Bandit”. He came out dressed up in a bandit costume, with a decorated Mexican hat and two cap guns smoking. He was totally inebriated, drunk like the fish he was going to play in the Caribana Parade the next day. He sang a song that he composed himself. It was titled “Caribana, The Big Fete”. The Bandit literally “mash up de place”. Even before the final two contestants performed, the large crowd was chanting in unison, “The Bandit win, the white fellow win”.
After the last contestant performed, the judges took a long time to make their decision. The crowd was very restless, all the while chanting, “The Bandit win, the white boy win”. Finally, the judges confirmed what the crowd was chanting. The Bandit was crowned the first Calypso King in Toronto. He was crowned with a gold silk crown made out of cardboard. He was also awarded a prize of $250. When I was leaving the Gardens I heard a guy say, “Ah never see nothing like dat in my life, a white fellow win Calypso King”.
Throughout the seventies the calypso singers and other pretenders dominated the calypso scene in Toronto.
There were no more calypso competitions until the organization that is now known as OCPA was formed. The organization was registered as the Calypso Association of Canada in 1982. It was renamed and registered as OCPA in 1991. In 1980 Lord Smokey was crowned the first Calypso King of the incipient organization. Since that time many calypsonians were born, not just from Trinidad and Tobago, but from other Caribbean islands.
There is a vigorous, sustainable calypso industry in Toronto with excellent lyricists, musicians, arrangers and singers, both male and female, who have distinguished themselves here, in the United States, in the Caribbean and even in China and Japan.
The current list is voluminous. Their compositions are original. Many of them are producing high quality CDs. There have been other groups promoting Calypso such as the Kaiso Breakfast Lime and the Calypso College.
Calypso is alive and well in Toronto.