No Eclipse for the Mighty Gabby

Debbie Jacob meets one of Barbados' top entertainers, Mighty Gabby

Early triumphs: Gabby in 1965. Photograph courtesy Peter Roy ByerGabby in 1976. Photograph courtesy Peter Roy ByerPhotograph by Abigail HadeedPhotograph by Abigail HadeedSinger turned producer Eddy Grant. Photograph by Abigail HadeedThe Mighty Gabby. Photograph by Abigail Hadeed

Gabby sat beside a swimming pool under an eclipsing moon on Bayley’s plantation, remembering the first day he met the owner, the legendary singer Eddy Grant.

“I came that day,” he says, “because I heard Eddy Grant was coming here to live.”

Gabby glances over his shoulder across the spacious grounds. In the shrubs, intricately woven spiders’ webs shine like silk thread under the disappearing silver moon. “I must have walked around this property for about 15 minutes on that first day. Eddy was standing under that tree there. He was just starting to build his studio. Eddy watched me and didn’t say anything. I kept walking around his property. Finally, I got brave, went up to him and said, ‘Hi Eddy. I’m Gabby.’ I’ll never forget how Eddy smiled and shook my hand.”

Gabby was already one of the best-known and most popular artists in Barbados, a man who had spent most of his young life working for folk music and calypso. The meeting with Grant marked the start of a new phase.

“Gabby is a genius,” says Grant. “He’s a genius and I don’t use that term lightly.” Grant tells everyone he built Blue Wave, his personal recording studio, a stone’s throw from his plantation house, for himself, Gabby and Gabby’s long-time calypso friend, Grynner.

In the Ice Records office next to Grant’s house is another testimony to Grant’s admiration for Gabby. Among the giant laminated posters of Grant’s record covers, one solitary award is featured on the wall: a silver plaque commemorating Gabby for having the best-selling record in Barbados history. The plaque says that Jack, a hard-hitting calypso against a tourism official who wanted to reserve certain beaches for tourists, outsold any record in Barbados history – 20,000 copies.

Jack is just one record in a long list of glories and headaches for Gabby. The Prime Minister of Barbados in the early 1980s, the late Tom Adams, was not amused by Gabby’s criticisms of his government’s policies.

But Gabby has always aimed to keep traditional calypso alive in Barbados, with all its license to criticise and satirise, no matter what price he has to pay. His efforts have not gone unnoticed. He’s a folk hero in Barbados. In neighbouring Trinidad and Tobago, where people are very possessive of their music, Gabby has honorary musical citizenship. His name commands respect wherever it is mentioned in the Caribbean. It’s a fitting tribute for a man who could have been an actor, could have stayed in the United States, but chose to concentrate on calypso.

Nearly half of the moon has been smudged by the earth’s shadow as Gabby remembers his childhood as Anthony Carter and his home in Emmerton, a fishing village on the outskirts of Bridgetown.

“Calypso touched my life when I was seven years old. Miss Walcott had the first gramophone in our village. We used to hear merengue, calypso – Lion and Atilla, Houdini, Growling Tiger, all on those 78 records. The only other radio belonged to Miss Charles from St Lucia. She had a shop and she used to treat that radio so special. Every time she finished using that old RCA Victor, she covered it with a white cloth.” It was there one starry night, under a full moon, that Gabby learned his first song, Small Cone by Kitchener.

Gabby’s mother was a well- known midwife in the village. “She did everything to support myself, my three brothers and one sister,” says Gabby. “She even sold black pudding and souse. ”

Gabby was the fourth of five children, all of whom have made a name for themselves in sports and music in spite of the hard times they saw when their father, a seaman from St Vincent, abandoned them. “I was five years old when my father left. I remember he liked music and he was always whistling and tapping his foot. My mother sang too.”

As a boy, Gabby, sang in the St Mary’s School Choir and St Leonard’s School Choir. “We had to learn to sing in harmony. From the age of 9, I could sing harmony. We used to have choir competitions between communities like they have steelband competitions in Trinidad.” Most of the well-known singers in Barbados who rose to the top in the 1960s and 70s came from these choir competitions. Many were trained by a musician named Eucie Hackett who encouraged everyone to sing in a competitive spirit.

From the time Gabby made the choir, he knew he wanted to be a singer. He never had another career in mind. “My mother objected because I was a natural academically. She used to say, if you can show me one successful calypsonian, then I will agree with you.” Gabby couldn’t name one, but that didn’t stop him. “I kept trying and my mother kept breaking up my guitar. And who could blame her!” So Gabby kept listening to Charmer and Radio and Sir Don, and dreaming of calypso.

In 1965, when he was 17, he was supposed to sit his GCE exams. “I didn’t go because there was a calypso competition going on. I went to that instead. I was there first but I had to wait until all the big boys rehearsed – Sugar, Charmer, Romeo, Provider. Finally, I managed to get a rehearsal. I asked the jazz pianist Eric Fingers when the singers took a break if he would hear a song and I sang The Limers, a song I never recorded, which defended the people who hung out in the streets.”

Next, Gabby decided to sing an original song in a Buy Local Competition in Kensington Oval. But the people in charge said no one else was singing an original song. Gabby finally gave in and sang My Heart Belongs to You. Hand over heart, Gabby produces one of those cheeky grins he’s famous for and sings a couple of lines in falsetto. The message is clear: he didn’t have much patience for the mimicry underlying Barbados’s music when he was establishing his career.

Meanwhile, his mother was getting suspicious. “She wanted to know why I wasn’t getting my GCE results. I decided I had better come up with a story, so I told her I failed all the subjects. She couldn’t figure out how that could happen. She felt I should have at least passed religious knowledge.” It wasn’t until years later Gabby finally got up the nerve to tell his mother he never showed up for the test.

By 1966, Gabby had written the first Barbados Independence song called (you guessed it) Independence. The following year, a friend told him that a guy named Captain Carlo wanted a singer on a boat. “I said – singing on a yacht with tourists! I in that. I forgot all about the pay.”

Gabby grabbed his home-made guitar, strung with fishing line, and went for the job. He knew little about tuning a guitar; he memorised the scale with the lyrics Who killed Joe Poe not me, and learned three chords – C, F and G. He played the same four chords for about four years. Life, young Gabby thought, was truly a trip through paradise.

“Out there, on the Buccaneer, I learned about life. At 8 in the morning I cleaned the brass, mixed the rum punch, and when the captain signalled me to pick up my guitar, I played Island in the Sun, Yellow Bird, Day-O, Shame and Scandal in the Family. I learned every song from Harry Belafonte’s album. I was too afraid to put in my own songs because I felt people might get upset.”

Eventually, Gabby found the nerve to try one of his own compositions. Much to his amazement, people liked it. “I said, this is fantastic. No university could teach me what I’m learning here. I was getting an education on the sea. I saw all kinds of people. Some came on the boat full of racist ideas and left thinking twice. Sometimes a guy would drink his rum punch, start to cry and say, ‘I never knew. This is what life is all about.’”

While singing for the tourists, Gabby was experimenting on the side. In 1968, after the first successful heart transplant operation, he wrote a humorous song called Heart Transplant. “I thought it was a stupid song, but a guy named Tyrone Husbands got on hysterical about it when I sang it to him.”

With this song, Gabby ended up winning the Crop Over calypso competition in 1968, becoming the youngest singer to win a calypso crown in Barbados history. Just to prove it was no fluke, he won it again the following year with Family Planning, a subject which was just being considered in Barbados.

Gabby continued to work on yachts, and from l970 he began singing in the hotels with the band Tyrone and the Clouds. He was entertaining tourists seven days a week. Then, one day, he met the American ambassador and ended up with a visa to visit the United States. He took a plane to New York in 1971. “I just wanted to see what the U.S. looked like. And I had a girlfriend whose mother had sent for her and she was up there and I missed her a lot.”

Gabby worked as a clothcutter in a factory with lots of immigrants, and ended up organising a union. He even talked his boss into giving him a chance to entertain the staff at Christmas.

He became involved in theatre. He met Paul Webster, who had a radio programme and was producing a play, Under the Duppy Parasol, about a Barbadian girl who had lost her identity in the United States. Webster asked Gabby to write the music.

One cold night a Trinidadian actor didn’t show up and Gabby, who had already memorised most of the parts in the play, took over the part. “I was 26 and playing a 74-year-old man. I felt like my grandfather had taken over my body.” The play ran almost two years. When it closed, the actors decided to take it to Barbados.

So in August 1976 Gabby came home as an actor. The play got rave reviews in Barbados and Gabby won an award as best actor. But when the theatre group decided to return to the U.S., Gabby didn’t have a visa. “There was some mix-up about my papers which were never forwarded to me. I didn’t pursue it. I decided to remain in Barbados and build back calypso.” He made his mark at once, winning back the calypso crown with Licks like fire.

Gabby began to write protest songs about social situations, and started to read about black history. “I was amazed. I didn’t know there was anything written about black history. I wanted to learn about myself.”

He learned about Bussa, the slave who lived on the plantation Grant now owns and orchestrated a slave rebellion in which 60 plantations were burned down. Gabby, folk-singer of the year from 1977-1979, was developing a social conscience. He was questioning situations which had always been accepted in Barbados. “Almost from the beginning Tom Adams and the Barbados Labour Party thought I was singing against them. I wasn’t. I was just singing against situations I felt were wrong.”

In 1979, Gabby formed his Battleground Calypso Tent, which quickly started creating Road March Kings. For more than a decade, the title went to a Battleground singer every year except when the tent had financial problems and closed in 1986 and 1987. Gabby started the winning trend himself in 1979 with Burn, Mr. Harding. Then came Viper in 1980 with Ting Tong, Adonijah in 1981 with Rock in Ethiopia, and Gabby again in 1982 with Jack. Grynner won in 1983 with a song Gabby wrote for him, Mr. T, again in 1984 with Stinging Bees, and in 1985 with More Grynner. When Gabby’s tent re-opened in 1988, Grynner recorded another hat- trick with Wait for Me followed by Leggo I Hand in 1989 and Get Out the Way in 1990. Madd Comedians won the Road March in 1991 with Tribute To Grynner, and last year Carew sang his way to Road March fame with Mad Woman Jenny.

Gabby met Grant in 1982. “My songs were being banned left, right and centre when I met Eddy. I had written Jack, and West Indies Records told me I didn’t have anything worth recording. Eddy said, That is madness’, and recorded Jack.” In 1984, Boots, which questioned the need for an army in a small state like Barbados, was banned in the hotels. Gabby and Grant released a collection of Gabby greats called One in the Eye which included a song about Gabby’s childhood home, Emmerton (which doesn’t exist any more – sewage plant stands where homes once were). Gabby’s song recalling his childhood home was voted the song of the 1980s.

The hits kept coming. Hit It was a teasing number about sex using cricket metaphors. Mr. T, written for Grynner, was banned. By then, Gabby had received an invitation from the Mighty Sparrow in Trinidad to perform in his tent, The Young Brigade. Gabby’s calypsos were being sung across the Caribbean. Jamaica’s Byron Lee had his Dragonaires singing Give Me Soca. Trinidad’s Singing Francine sang She.

Gabby’s mother finally came to see him sing for the first time five years ago. He was singing Miss Barbados, about a beauty contest in Barbados which involved a contestant from Canada. “I didn’t even know she came,” says Gabby. “When we took half-time I saw my mother getting a. soft drink and I said, ‘What are you doing here!’ She said,’ I came with your sister,’ and that was all she ever said.

The wiry little man with the booming voice and Cheshire-Cat grin is now one of Barbados’s veteran entertainers, and might seem sometimes to be the Charlie Chaplin of calypso with his antics on stage. But his serious side remains, even though all those years of struggling seem as remote now as the eclipsing moon.

This Crop Over Gabby was a tent director by night as well as a director on the Barbados Board of Tourism, in charge of promoting culture. He’s the recipient of the Barbados Service Star (1990). He’s a justice of the peace who can sign passports and marry people. A Gabby song is featured in the movie Mustard Seed this year, and Gabby will also be singing one of the six songs Eddy Grant wrote for the movie.

“I hope one day the work I do will help in some small way to unite the region. One day I hope we can pass from island to island without anyone having the audacity to ask for a passport. e I would love the day to come that one single calypso penetrates that international market. I don’t care which island that person is from. I believe calypso music has suffered so unfairly so long.”

It’s late. Gabby wants to check out what’s going on in the studio. The moon has slipped away from the earth’s shadow and its silver light casts a bright glow on Bayley’s plantation. Gabby disappears somewhere in the direction of the music.