Named a distinguished son of St. Mary’s College in the 1990s, Dr. Hollis Liverpool – known by the sobriquet The Mighty Chalkdust began singing calypso during his school days. But it was at Teacher’s Training College he knew calypso was going to be in his future. It was also where he met Roy Augustus, Ramesh Deosaran and many other prominent Trinbagonian sons-of-the-soil.
Uniting the World with Calypso
Calypso music has taken the Mighty Chalkdust as well as many other artistes to perform on stages on almost every corner of the world over the years. From the borders of Russia, Finland, Sweden, Norway, London, North America and the Caribbean, The Mighty Chalkdust has performed his compositions to audiences.
“The feeling of hearing the audience cheering for calypso at my first public appearance in 1960s was like no other.” This was at the People’s National Movement, Buy Local Calypso Competition where he went on to win a record 8 times (funny enough, I can identify, since it reminds me of the time I sang at karaoke and almost every time after).
“Touching savannah grass’ in 1968 as a young man singing at my first ever Dimanche Gras show was also an unforgettable experience. It was a big deal in those days since only the top 6 qualified to perform on the savannah stage, so you had to be good.”
Here The Mighty Chalkdust sang with masters such as the Mighty Duke and Lord Blakie.
With more experience under his belt, he says the experience of performing at CARIFESTA in the 1970s alongside Jamaican legend, Jimmy Cliff at their National Stadium was electric. Especially in the Caribbean where it’s a hot debate whether the genre of calypso or reggae is more popular, the veteran calypsonian says to look out to the audience and see thousands of Jamaicans applauding calypso was amazing.
“Jamaica just went crazy as they embraced our culture wholeheartedly.”
He rates the second most memorable performance being at Norway simply because of the composition of the audience which was predominately Europeans, at a time when calypso was a new phase in music. Next was Fasching’s Jazz Club in Stockholm, Sweden where Lord Nelson once sang.
“Only the rich and famous were present and there was Trinidad singing calypso!”
Toronto was another memorable occasion where he captivated an eager audience with his music sung with guitar in hand.
The Changing Artform
Dr. Liverpool says that long ago calypso was accepted on all platforms: social, political etc. The emphasis was on good melodies and strong lyrics that made sense, yet was still entertaining. In this way, you don’t put audiences to sleep with big words and big ideas. The more seasoned calypsonians knew how to use the artform to maintain rhythm using the Trinbagonian touch and still inform the masses on topical issues.
“The tradition was to sing and perform your own compositions. Today, there are calypsonians who sing, but don’t compose and vice versa. In spite of this, if you disregard the ones that compose, but don’t sing you would have lost some good calypsos. The key is remaining consistent each year.”
Some may know the Mighty Chalkdust as a great scholar. In 1973 he won the best undergraduate thesis of all three University of the West Indies campuses in History and Social Sciences.
This was later published in a book – From the Horse’s Mouth. He was the first UWI student to graduate with a Master’s degree in History. Based on this, he was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to pursue his PhD in History and Ethnomusicology at The University of Michigan, USA.
He completed his PhD with the second fastest record (3 years, 8 months) in the history of the university which ranks in the top 20 schools globally. While there, he also worked playing steelpan at the Hugh Borde Orchestra.
After many years of teaching at the primary and secondary school levels, Dr. Liverpool lectured at the University of the Virgin Islands for eight years and is now the Programme Professor at the University of Trinidad & Tobago where he lecturers on Carnival Studies – the only master’s programme of its kind in the world, now in its fourth cohort.
Advice to new calypsonians
Dr. Liverpool says you must understand the artform, as well as your role for singing which is to inform the public on societal issues. He advises calypsonians to stick to the original rhythm patterns: 2/2 beat, 4 verses, 16 bars in the verses and 16 bars in the chorus.
“Sing for the right reasons, not for fame or to make money. It is not about singing about the moon and the stars, but singing about the moon and the stars in a way that is Trinbagonian.”
He acknowledges talented artistes such as Kurt Allen, Pink Panther, Devon Seales, Michelle Henry and Lady Tallish as well as Sugar Aloes – the latter who he taught at Nelson Street Boys.
Liverpool recommends that there is a need for training in the fundamentals in calypso music by TUCO and other bodies. His mentoring workshops in past years via the Ministry of Culture has produced top calypsonians such as Shawn Daniel, Bodyguard, Twiggy and Stinger. He would love to see more of this in the future.
“Your legacy is your songs, thoughts and ideas. If you’re not a composer, the legacy you leave is not your own.”
He shares that an artform is a projection of your own ideas. Years from now, students will quote the great calypsonians long after they have died, in books, theses and dissertations.
“My style is unique because I am me. A leopard can’t change his spots. My uniqueness lies in my juba dance, juba dubai cry – a war cry of the Zulus.”
At the writing of this article [in 2016] Dr. Hollis Liverpool seems to have mastered all aspects of his life. He recently celebrated 53 years of marriage with his wife with whom he shares 5 children, who share a basic foundation in music, though chose to pursue different interests.
He pauses as he remembers those calling for ‘the end of the Chalkdust era’. To this he says he does not compete to win; rather to keep the artform alive – the standards high and the fires for calypso burning.
“From the cheers alone last Sunday, the people are saying to me ‘Don’t ever stop’. It was encouraging to be called for an encore even before I came on stage!”
As he strums his guitar and hums a tune he composed in 1973, the legend looks at me and says, “My aim is really not to win a crown, but until I die, they will hear my cry, Juba dubai.” He looks up and says: “My goal? As long as God gives me health and strength, I will fulfill my purpose on this Earth and continue the Chalkdust era.”