Lord Nelson (Robert Nelson), heralded as the Calypso King of New York in the 1960s, performed some days after his 91st birthday at the tribute concert, A Musical Evening with Lord Nelson, at Queen’s Hall on July 30.
And one might add, he performed sublimely, with an audience-connectedness that proves that in the local context, experience matters in performance excellence.
Nelson now appears to be the oldest living and performing calypsonian, since Mighty Bomber died at 93 at the beginning of 2022, and he had retired from regularly performing live more than a dozen years earlier.
The concert, organised by the Friends of Lord Nelson, was a two-year effort, stalled by the covid19 pandemic. Friends leader, John Arnold, a Tobago stalwart in things cultural, spoke at the start of the concert of the necessity of guaranteeing it took place now, also noting that sponsors should come forward to fund the writing and publication of a biography of a still-alive Lord Nelson for posterity. (It should be noted that the biography Machel Montano, by his mother, Elizabeth, was published that same weekend, adding bit by bit to the handful of biographies of local artistes.)
After a powerful start by the superbly attired Errol Ince Brass Band, then an awkward segue where singer Debra Bartholomew arrived onstage at the same time as MC Errol Fabien to sing Sweet T&T, the singing tributes flowed in a fashion to highlight the legacy of Nelson as more than a party song composer and singer, but a calypsonian who covered humorous topics, and dabbled in social commentary.
Despite living in the US for many years, his connection to these islands remains strong, and his influence was and is still palpable in performance and recordings he is still making, as recently as this year with Kes on their collaboration De We Ting.
After Fabien comically introduced Oscar B (Oscar Benjamin) with a pair of bon mots – “dis fella perform all over the world...and other places,” and “he so good, he perform an instrumental a cappella” – the tributes began with two songs, Garrot Bounce (Whoopsin’) and Ah Goin’ an’ Party Tonite. The initial releases of these two songs span from 1963 for the former to 1982. With a calypso predating soca, it was obvious that Nelson’s compositions are timeless, and in the hands of Oscar B, a performer of high impact, these two songs were a great opening for what proved to be a night of great calypso and soca, effective audience engagement, and memories made real.
The award-winning Signal Hill Alumni Choir followed up with another pair of Nelson’s early soca compositions from the 1980s, the groovy Feelings, and Jenny. This performance was where the chink in the armour of the overall production was exposed. The choir was hampered and hindered by poor miking and a too-loud brass band effectively drowning out any vocal arrangements that a choir of this calibre can produce.
The possibilities of an a cappella arrangement of any song would have been interesting for this ensemble. It felt like a slowing of the momentum produced by Oscar B.
The calypso tent as an institution was where our local music industry was born and has been, in recent years, in decline, subsisting on state sponsorship. Nelson, as a resident abroad, had both the opportunity to spread the soca and calypso message beyond the boundary, and the privilege of performing locally in tents. That calypso-tent aesthetic was replicated, probably unintentionally, via a set by Devon Seales bookended by the comic genius of Fabien as giver of picong and deliverer of risqué humour.
It was adult time now, “big people party.” Fabien told the audience, “Calypso is the greatest thing in the world,” and then proceeded with a smutty ditty on his love of vegetable quiche: “Ah feeling for quiche.”
Say that deliberately with a deadpan expression. Uncontrolled laughter.
Seales then sang his trio of calypsoes, Analog in a Digital World, a humorous commentary on progress, Fashion Parade, and the still-funny Siamese Twins, showcasing the range of Nelson’s writing over the years.
The calypsonian’s performance aesthetic – narrow stage presence, focus on lyrics – versus the soca singer’s broader appeal to an awed experience, was clear as day. Great songs, unheard for many years, were performed, but not uplifted.
The return of Fabien to close the calypso-tent experience was happily received. If he heard, from the audience, “Sing Errol, sing,” he willingly gave more smutty kaiso. Encouraging politicians to not give up in the face of constant rage and “pong” from electorate, he sang to them, “Continue.” Sing that, syllable by syllable, in your head. Yes, that! No more words necessary, just applause.
Ronnie McIntosh, son of Art de Coteau, is Mr Showtime. Energy, wide stage usage, enthusiastic sing-along and waving of hands and any fabric, they were all there in his set of three songs – “two for Nello, one for me” – Calamity, a humorous calypso from 1966 and Boat Ride, originally arranged by De Coteau, as well as McIntosh’s How It go Look.
How McIntosh navigated calypso and soca was a contrast to the earlier performers, and the final tribute for what Lord Nelson represents as a calypsonian and soca artiste of longstanding, and for some, how the soca industry has a lot to live up to in terms of impact and range. There may have been bigger artists, but Nelson’s footprint is huge.
After an introduction by Sunshine Awards founder, Gil Figaro, the man of the moment arrived, sparkling in golden sequinned jumpsuit, jacket, shoes and cap to show how it is done, and how it can be done at 91.
With his cane as medical aid and performance prop, Nelson blew the roof of the almost at-capacity Queen’s Hall. Hit after hit after hit. Loud sing-along, sustained ovations, dancing in the aisles. From the word go, he was on fire; La La, Disco Daddy (or Disco Granddaddy, as he called himself), King Liar had the audience singing loudly. Foreigner, his lament of early Trinidadian xenophobia towards him that hurt, “dem wha’ call meh dat,” was followed by “Tobago’s national anthem,” We Like It.
Meh Lover was too much for the audience. While he was wining low-ish as his nonagenarian hips would allow, people were dancing. All inhibitions were removed. Belly like Buddha, he was bounding with energy, nearly baring all to see.
A birthday gift on behalf of the government presented by National Security Minister Fitzgerald Hinds, a Happy Birthday sung by the cast and the rapturous closer, (All ah We is One) Family, made the night a reality check by everyone of what is possible in the local music industry by having a deep catalogue of songs, a positive outlook, and fans still wanting great entertainment. And the ability to deliver, as Nelson did.
The cult of nostalgia among music fans that pops up so often in the music industry (Calypso Rose being a recent example), may look to Nelson as a new figurehead. As the oldest living calypsonian, he is a deserving title-holder with a future that does not look diminished.