One for the road: Trinidad & Tobago’s biggest road march hits

For Trinidadian musicians, there’s no bigger prize than the annual Road March title. Garry Steckles looks back at the songs that have made Road March history

Photograph courtesy mightysparrow.com

Hard to believe it’s that time again — it seems like just yesterday Trinidad and Tobago’s 2013 Carnival was wrapping up, and now the 2014 edition’s just round the corner. And with it, of course, the intense speculation over who’s going to take the Road March crown: the prize for the song played most often on the road during Carnival Monday and Tuesday.

T&T’s Road March title is widely regarded as the most coveted achievement in all of calypso. And I have to confess to feeling more than a little intimidated when Caribbean Beat editor Nicholas Laughlin asked me to devote this column to the topic of the greatest Road Marches of Carnivals past. So I promptly called on my friend Geoffrey Dunn, the co-producer of the wonderful documentary Calypso Dreams, for much needed help. And Geoffrey, as always, came through with some fascinating observations on which Road Marches have been the most significant. I’ll share those in just a moment, but first a little Road March history.

Like just about everything in Caribbean culture, the Road March’s past tends to be a bit murky. Depending on the sources of information, the Road March — or leggo, as it used to be known — may date back as far as the late 1800s. However, scholar Gordon Rohlehr, the single most knowledgeable authority on the history of calypso, believes the roots of the modern-day Road March date back to the early 1920s, and that’s good enough for me. Most sources agree that 1932 was the first year in which the title was formally awarded, and the first winner of the crown was King Radio, with a song titled “Tiger Tom Play Tiger Cat”.

Over the decades, the choice of Road March has reflected the evolution of calypso, soca, and Carnival itself, with a landmark song coming along every so often that would propel the culture of Trinidad in a new direction. And the winners of Road March titles have included some of calypso’s most legendary exponents. Not surprisingly, the artist with the most crowns — ten — is the man generally regarded as the most gifted composer of melodies in calypso history, the wonderful Lord Kitchener. Next in the all-time list is last year’s winner Super Blue, with nine titles. Three of them date back to the 1980s, when he was known as Blue Boy, and one — his 2000 song “Pump Up”, which shared the crown with Iwer George’s “Carnival Come Back Again” — the only tie in Road March history.

Other notable historic snippets include the fact that only one calypsonian has won four consecutive Road Marches: the legendary Roaring Lion, from 1934 to 1937 — and he was still recording superlative music in the 1990s. The only artists with three consecutive Road March titles are Kitch (1963–65), Christopher “Tambu” Herbert (1988–90) and Super Blue (1991–93).

But the single most important Road March was the song that proved to be the big breakthrough for the man who would go on to establish himself as the greatest all-round calypsonian of them all: 1956’s “Jean and Dinah”, the first of the Mighty Sparrow’s eight Road March crowns, and which also helped win him the first of his eight Calypso Monarch titles.

Over to Geoffrey Dunn on this one: “I think ‘Jean and Dinah’ is the most significant Road March of all time. It provided the soundtrack to T&T’s intellectual and cultural independence, and augured a new moment — a paradigm shift, if you will — in the calypso format. It was the beginning of a new age in calypso. Sparrow was the Picasso.”

The previous year, somewhat ironically, the most popular song at Carnival had been a terminally soppy North American ballad called “The Happy Wanderer”, so the Road March progressed from the ridiculous to the sublime, justifying, almost sixty years later, Geoffrey’s observations on the  phenomenon: “One of the things I absolutely love about the Road March competition is that it reflects a spontaneous and popular reflection of the musical pulse of the country on Carnival day. The notion is truly unique to the world.”

Not that Geoffrey always agrees with the judges who select the Road March by counting each song’s appearance on the road. He’s adamant that the great Kitch won the crown with “Sixty-Seven” in 1967 only because he was a man, and that the title should have gone to Calypso Rose with “Fire in Meh Wire”. “Based on interviews I conducted over the years with people who were in the streets of Port of Spain, Rose was robbed of the title because she was a woman, and I think it’s history’s duty to give her what was rightfully hers.”

It’s a view shared by Rose, who would have to wait another ten years before she finally won her first Road March, with “Tempo”. As she puts it, “I put licks on all the men, and it would be too embarrassing — embarrassing for them, so they deny me the rights. They deny me the rights of owning what is mine.” She won the crown again the following year, with “Soca Jam” — and went one better by also capturing the Calypso King title with “I Thank Thee” and “Her Majesty”, a turn of events that forced Carnival organisers to change the name of the competition to Calypso Monarch. Musical landmarks indeed.

Another landmark came in 1988, when David Rudder announced his arrival as a genuine superstar of soca and calypso, taking the Road March with “Bahia Girl” and the Monarch crown with “The Hammer”.

Geoffrey again takes issue with the Road March judges — he’s convinced they chose the wrong Rudder song. “I agree ‘Bahia Girl’ is a great song, but the song that should have been Road March was ‘The Hammer’. I believe ‘The Hammer’ was every bit the cultural landmark that ‘Jean and Dinah’ was — without the political timing, perhaps, but a monumental anthem to the deep, deep culture of Trinidad.”

I’m with Geoffrey one hundred per cent on that particular issue, and other songs we see eye to eye on are 1963’s “The Road”, the first of Kitch’s ten titles, and another cultural landmark, Blakie’s 1962 “Maria”, a number that interrupted a virtual stranglehold on the title by Kitch and Sparrow — who won every other Road March from 1960 to 1973. Then there was Shadow’s 2001 “The Stranger” — the last Road March victory by a “traditional” calypsonian still performing in the calypso tents in the months leading up to Carnival.

But I’m going to sign off with a Road March confession that won’t endear me to Caribbean Beat’s T&T readers. My personal favourite Road March isn’t from Trinidad Carnival. It’s from Barbados Crop Over, circa 1989: the Mighty Grynner’s brilliant “Leggo I Hand”. Sorry about that.