Legendary Calypso Scholar Gordon Rohlehr Passes Away at 80

Gordon Rohlehr

Leaving Behind a Legacy of Musical Insight

Professor Emeritus at The University of the West Indies’ (UWI) Trinidad campus, Gordon Rohlehr, who spent much of his life writing and educating people about calypso music, died on January 29 at the age of 80. Considered an expert on the history, development and social relevance of the art form, Rohlehr authored many books on the subject. He also had a keen interest in the region’s oral poetry and cricket history, and was regarded as one of the Caribbean’s most precious cultural resources.

Born in Guyana in 1942, Rohlehr gained his tertiary education at the University College of the West Indies in Jamaica, graduating in 1964 with a first-class honours degree in English Literature. Four years later, he would take up a post at UWI’s Trinidad campus teaching the subject, and it was there he found a home for his ideas, research and academic pursuits, spending 40 years of his life at the university. His passionate, well researched and groundbreaking work on Caribbean literature and culture — most notably calypso — quickly made him a sought-after authority, having written several noteworthy books and hundreds of papers on those topics. He also generously shared his passion and expertise in numerous lectures and interviews.

One of his most important pieces of work was 1990’s Calypso and Society in Pre-Independence Trinidad, which explored the development of calypso music from pre-Emancipation to the late 1950s. Unsurprisingly, Rohlehr was a great admirer of The Mighty Sparrow, and in 2015

Calypso and Society in Pre-Independence Trinidad – the book

published a collection of his writings on the “calypso king of the world” entitled, My Whole Life is Calypso: Essays on Sparrow.

Rohlehr once said that his interest in chronicling the journey of calypso music began after attending a meeting of the Caribbean Artists Movement in London, England, circa 1967. In discussing the concept of “the Caribbean aesthetic” with the likes of heavy hitters like Barbadian poet Kamau Brathwaite and novelist George Lamming and Guyanese artist Aubrey Williams, Rohlehr reportedly suggested that one way to consider it would be “to look at what Caribbean people have done and to create, through a close dialogue with the material, some way of talking about their achievement and of distinguishing what is peculiarly Caribbean about it”.

Rohlehr did it so well that he found himself in great demand from foreign universities, earning Visiting Professor stints at Harvard, Johns Hopkins, Tulane, and Dartmouth in the United States, and at York and the University of Toronto in Canada. It was at home in the Caribbean, however, that people felt his loss viscerally.

The Office of the President of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, in extending condolences, quoted part of the citation for Rohlehr’s investiture when he was presented in 2022 with a national award, the Chaconia Medal (Silver), for his work in the spheres of literature, culture, history and education:

“Professor Emeritus Rohlehr designed, piloted and taught the first course in West Indian Literature. He later became active in the expansion and development of the course offerings in English and was central to the introduction and teaching of American Literature and Post-Colonial

Gordon Rohlehr

Literature. His conviction was that literature had a fundamental role to play in developing adequate self-awareness without prejudice to the requirements of the wider world. His publications demonstrate insight, critical awareness and consciousness of the integration of the many social, historical, linguistic and political currents undergirding Caribbean reality.

“His most significant contribution to raise national consciousness has been his phenomenal work on calypso. He has traced calypso’s historical development and social relevance and has explored issues such as masculinity and gender long before these terms gained currency”.

Rohlehr’s ashes will be interred at the UWI cemetery in St Augustine.