THE WORK of legendary songwriter Winsford "Joker" Devine transcended parties and tent shows and made its way into classrooms abroad – something his admirers think those who design local school curricula should ponder.
In the same breath, Trinidad and Tobago need not always look outside for validation but focus on what makes it unique.
These were some perceptions offered during a tribute to Devine and his extensive list of song credits, which is believed to number over 500 titles, written mostly for local talents, including Sparrow, Sugar Aloes and Machel Montano. He is believed to have written many other songs without receiving credit and, by extension, royalties.
Devine died last month at 77 after an illness.
The tribute was hosted online by cultural NGO Friends of Mr Biswas, together with the National Library and Information System Authority (Nalis), and UWI.
Although retired teacher and dramatists Victor Edwards did not know Devine personally, the lyricist's work inspired him to lobby for calypso to be introduced in schools as a form of poetry, rather than be taken away as was the case of a public school he taught at.
“I have been a kind of resistance as it were at a school that I taught (at) for 16 years, a Baptist school that eventually banned Carnival and calypso and so on,” Edwards shared.
“Anything I had to do or anything I had to say, I would use calypso.
“I remember onstage I quoted Joker’s Progress, because we were talking about worldly things, and one of the then board members of the school was encouraging it...although it was the board itself that had banned calypso and Carnival celebrations in the school.
“Strange enough, a number of things happened after that with calypso, including one of the new junior monarchs coming out of the school a couple years later,” he said.
Edwards, citing Progress as his case in point, said, “Joker stands out as a world-renowned writer. When you look at his work, his work is so profound and deep.”
Some of Devine’s other classic songs were performed a cappella by his longtime friend and industry colleague Crazy, and interpreted by the contributors.
Academic, writer, critic and chairman of Friends of Mr Biswas Prof Kenneth Ramchand said the Sparrow’s Memories, written by Devine, is about immortality, not death.
“When I read it, it became immediately clear to me that Devine is able to deal with immediate realities...The kind of poet he is and the kind of mind and stability he has, he is always extracting some philosophy out of the immediate situation, a philosophy that has universal implications.
“I have no doubt that people in other countries would sing this song when someone else dies."
Although it became a nostalgic local hit spanning decades, poet and writer Dawad Philip remembers Memories wasn’t immediately well-received.
“Sparrow, from the time he had the song, he believed in the song, but on opening night at the tent, they booed Sparrow off the stage when he sang that,” said Phillip.
“Sometimes we often may not see the value of things at the outset. In other words, the only other song I remember it happened to, I remember Nelson singing Foreigner, and it was so lukewarm, and then by the end of the season, people were running down the aisle and handing him $100 bills and all kinds of thing.”
Philip described Devine as a “lyrics man” and “one of the most expansive writers.”
Johnny Coomansingh, a US-based lecturer, said years ago he referenced King Austin’s Progress, written by Devine, and it remains a topic of discussion.
“During my studies on the human impact on the environment, I mentioned in class Joker’s words in the song Progress about environmental warfare and thermo-nuclear warfare and students in the class couldn’t understand that that was in a calypso. ‘Who is this man what wrote that?’ That was the question.
“And I had to explain to them what calypso is all about in Trinidad and this man was great since back then. Those words kept ringing in their minds all the time.
"So the Joker had a big influence on people in the midwest, where I studied.”
Mighty Gabby, whose career benefited from Devine’s lyrics, said, “Most writers are identified by an area (of expertise).
"Not Joker. Joker could write you the funniest song and then turn around and write the most serious song or one of satire. He can have two things going on at the same time.”
Devine received an honorary doctorate of letters from UWI in 2017.