After recent tributes to Lord Kitchener and the Shadow, the Little Carib Theatre will offer a special tribute to calypso great Penguin on August 27 at 6 pm.
This special show will feature Penguin’s son Krisson Seraphim Joseph and his nephew the two-time calypso monarch Chuck Gordon, backed by XDATT, a newly formed brass band led by trumpeter Philo Neptune. Krisson’s younger sister Kerissa Joseph, who had participated in junior calypso competitions, will provide spoken-word interludes. This concert is timed to occur the weekend that would have marked Penguin’s 80th birthday.
Penguin, Seadly Joseph (1942-2013), was both a distinguished teacher and calypsonian. He had a long career, teaching first at the primary-school level at Santa Cruz RC and Barataria Boys’ before finally heading the English department at Mt Hope Secondary School, from which he retired in 1995. Then he became the general secretary of TUCO ( Trinbago Unified Calypsonians Organisation) and in 1997 became its president and served in that role until 2002.
He is one of only a handful of calypsonians to have won both road march and calypso monarch titles. Over his career, he worked with some of the major calypso arrangers, including Pelham Goddard, Leston Paul, and Emmanuel Ector.
Penguin grew up a fan of literature, wrote short stories, poems, and songs. As he told Alvin Daniel during a 1993 Calypso Showcase appearance, “I graduated to calypso.” He loved calypso and believed it was a pinnacle of succinct literary forms.
“You need to do so many things with calypso. You don’t just need to tell a story, you need to divert emotions, you’ve got to give a mental picture, and you need to have a melody.”
In an interview with Mark Lyndersay in 1982, he commented, “The hook is very deliberate and very important in my work. People go through the whole of Carnival singing it, then afterwards they listen to the song.”
Early on, Penguin would write short pieces of calypso and sing them at home; aged only 13, he even wrote one on that year’s political events. As he grew up, he became a fanatical Sparrow enthusiast and used to go nightly to see him perform in the tent during the Carnival season.
“One of the outstanding skills of Sparrow is his ability to sing the same calypso differently every night.”
From being a fan, he became a calypsonian.
He took the sobriquet Penguin, not from the bird of the Antarctic or the character in Batman, but from the British publishing company known for decades for publishing paperbacks of both classic literature and the latest novels.
“Penguin books signalled excellence in literature, and everything I do must be associated with excellence.”
As a teacher, Penguin wasn’t worried about becoming a calypsonian, because Chalkdust had paved the way for that to be an accepted, and it never presented any issues.
Penguin was crowned calypso king at the Port of Spain Teachers College, where he was a student. He appeared in his first calypso tent in 1971 at Kitchener’s Revue, singing Sugar and Napoleon Party. He stopped for a few years and returned with Wishbone and Seasons, making it to the semifinals, itself an amazing feat given his short calypso career, and was again the next year in the Regal tent; but that proved to be its last year, causing him to skip a year.
It was in 1979 that he finally hit his stride. He joined Sparrow’s Young Brigade, issued his first single and captured the country’s frustration with phone-service problems in his lighthearted Telco Poops. His calypso career really took off.
Dr Rudolph Ottley has noted Penguin’s special skill in “his canny use of the folk medium in successfully combining a popular idiom with a familiar melody to address a serious issue.” In his 1980 calypso, Look De Devil Dey, he used the jab jab rhythm and, as Ottley explains, “juxtaposes the folklore of the devil with the behaviours of society’s leading figures” of the time.
He understood the importance of dramatic presentation, telling Lyndersay, “I always see an audience when composing. Look the Devil Devil Dey: when I sing that first line: ‘So you fraid Satan’ and point at someone (in the audience), everyone turns to look at that person too!”
In 1982, he offered Betty Goatie, written after the death of Dr Eric Williams, from his perspective looking back on his career, successes and struggles. Lyndersay called it “a masterpiece of political calypso, saying what it has to say, yet remaining totally apolitical in the process…Penguin manages to leave broad clues as to the identity of its author strewn all about, without once mentioning a name or specific incident.”
It did not have the effect that he hoped, but his other selection that year, Deputy, grabbed the spirit of Carnival and was the road march. “A deputy essential/To keep you living vital!”
Debbie Jacob has noted the impact of what happened when in 1984 he presented Living in Jail and Sorf Man: “I was in the Queen's Park Savannah when Penguin claimed his crown as the National Calypso Monarch. His singing resembled a penguin's walk, but his lyrics were so powerful that it didn't matter…Penguin had a one-two knockout punch in a time when there was supposed to be a magic formula for Dimanche Gras night: a serious political or social commentary and a lighter, danceable song. Penguin had both, and the ripping satire that permeated his selections proved unbeatable. From that night on, I looked forward to Penguin's calypsoes every year.”
As monarch, Penguin saw his year as an ambassador for calypso, doing lots of rural shows around Trinidad and two key trips to New York City. In March 1984, he was featured on a programme called Calypso Comes to Harlem with Explainer and Lord Nelson at the Apollo Theater. In October, he and Sparrow were sent to Carnegie Hall for the Caribbean Expressions Festival with leading Cuban and Brazilian artists and was there to celebrate TT culture, among others. As an ambassador for calypso, he told the New York Times, “Musicians from each of the Caribbean territories have been performing to their own audience….But there is a common thread running through all the Caribbean cultures, and if Caribbean artists can get together more, we can project the music internationally.''
While his calypso career continued, Penguin became involved in both COTT and TUCO. Becoming president of TUCO, in a sense, ended his calypso career, while the calypso world gained a skilled negotiator to take the artform forward. As he told Jacob, it was a conflict of interest and not appropriate.
In her obituary of him, she noted his personal attributes as others have commented: a “decent, quiet, conscientious man,” and those skills reportedly added to his abilities to move TUCO and calypso forward.
Now, with this tribute concert, his work as a calypsonian can be celebrated.
Penguin’s son Krisson is delighted at this time, almost a decade after his death, to present this memorial concert.
“It is an honour to have this opportunity to pay tribute to this part of my father’s life. It has given me a renewed respect as I prepare for the concert of the high level of craftsmanship that he brought to the art.”
Joseph is the programme co-ordinator for the Academy of Arts, Letters, Culture and Public Affairs at UTT, has a master’s degree in music business from NYU. He worked in the music industry before returning home to Trinidad, and has taught courses in that field at UTT.
Meanwhile, he has been building a growing reputation as a versatile singer in many settings for over a decade. He has been a featured classical singer, singing in operas, with choirs, in musicals and in church. He starred as a lead in the 2019 production of Rawle Gibbons’s classic Sing De Chorus, was musical director of the National Theatre Company’s production of Ronald Amoroso’s Master of Carnival and acted in Errol John’s Moon on a Rainbow Shawl.
Since 2015, to help UTT students better understand calypso music, Joseph has worked with students to produce a concert called In Defence of Calypso that focuses on a different theme each year and features calypsonians’ approaches to it. He has also participated in tributes with UTT’s Ibis Ensemble on the 1934 recordings of Roaring Lion and Atilla the Hun in 2017, and the Windrush calypsoes in 2019. The latter two both featured Chuck Gordon, who also starred in Sing De Chorus and in Malick Folk Performing Company.
In many ways, getting to hear a night of these classic calypsoes allows the listener to enjoy their richness and joy, subtlety, and exuberance and see how a number of Penguin’s political and social commentaries still ring true today.
Arrangements are being made for the event to be livestreamed for those not able to be there in person.
Tickets for the What Sweet in Goat Mouth are available at the Little Carib Theatre box office, or can be reserved online at https://bit.ly/Sweet-Penguin or at https://seraphimcgm.com/ or call 784-5269 or 622-4644.
To watch the 1993 classic Calypso Showcase episode with Alvin Daniel interviewing Penguin and featuring several performances by him (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0hRj-7BSjYU)