The Mighty Swallow

Sir Rupert “King Swallow” Philo, a four-time Calypso Monarch and five-time Road March winner in Antigua and Barbuda, died Friday.

Dear Editor,

My last article on “Respect for PhDs’’ caused many eyebrows to be raised: some people wanted to find out if persons without PhDs should not be respected; others asked if we shouldn’t show respect for the opposition members in parliament as well. My response to all such vain questions is that at age 11 at primary school with Mr. Lionel Mitchell in Tobago, we had to write in our government copy books for penmanship the following lines: “Have respect for everyman because he is a man.’’ I rest my case.

Well, the need to show respect for every man and woman was, however, again awakened in me when Antiguan Sir Rupert Philo (Swallow), a man in every sense of the word, went to heaven last Friday, for I recalled him telling me in the mid-1980s that it was a joy for him to sing to the Trinidad audience, since singing in Trinidad meant that he was mixing with the top calypsonians, and, “Charkee bwoy, the Trini people does show me respect.’’

In terms of respect, he explained, that when his name was announced by Tommy Joseph at Spektakula Forum, the crowd roared with delight; when he went to book his room at Chaguaramas Flats where he normally stayed annually, the authorities there knowing that he came to Trinidad every year, had already booked it for him without any down payment made; when he walked the streets of Port of Spain, all hailed his name aloud; when he checked in to BWIA without having the correct ticket and booking, his seat on the aircraft was already assured; and when he sought to go to a concert of any kind in Trinidad and Tobago, no one dared to ask him for an entrance fee. The voice at the concert door was always: “Swallow, you are free to enter.’’

In addition, Sunshine Awards gave him the prize for the ‘’Best Engineered Recording’’ and “Best Calypso Arrangement’’ in 1989 (Fire in the Back Seat), and had placed him in the “Sunshine Awards Hall of Fame’’ in 2008.

For all the aforementioned reasons that sparked of respect, Swallow loved to sing in Trinidad and Tobago and did so up to a few years ago when he appeared nightly at the Calypso Revue Tent with top artists such as Sugar Aloes, Pink Panther, Cro Cro and Sprangalang, to name a few.

I recall one year when Swallow was here, while we were travelling to Skinner Park, he fell ill. When I saw blood coming from his nose, I turned my car and headed straight for the hospital. The nurses at the emergency ward began to interview him, as it were, for on hearing his accent, they were asking him if he was a Trinidadian, since the medical service was for Trinis. I immediately jumped in: “Folks, are you all mad? That is Swallow,’’ I bellowed! Hearing the magic name Swallow, they immediately changed their attitude and wheeled him inside where he obtained, in the hour that followed, the best that a Trini hospital could offer.

Truly, Swallow was held in high esteem by Trinidadians, especially after he sang ‘’Trinidad, the Caribbean Godfather.’’ In addition, one of Gypsy’s absolute gems in calypso is the one titled “Respect the Calypsonian.’’

In terms of respect, however, the history of calypso shows that there have been multiple occasions, too numerous to mention, when calypsonians in Trinidad were shown total disrespect. For example, in 1955 one sunny Friday evening, five calypsonians were entertaining tourists on Wrightson Road, then a haven for tourists, when suddenly the police darted into the calypso crowd and arrested three of them. The litigants spent two days in prison and were charged five dollars for their crime on the following Monday. Years later, one of them told me that he could not travel to New York because of that “criminal’’ stamp placed on his passport and the fact that the bad mark from the court stained his character for the rest of his life.

Headteacher L.P. Mitchell used to make us write also: “When character is lost, all is lost.’’

Another example of the disrespect occurred in the 1960s when calypsonians used to entertain guests at tables in restaurants all over Port of Spain. A few restaurant owners felt that the singers were a nuisance. Indeed, a restaurant at the corner of Frederick and Park streets had at its entrance a large sign which read: “No calypsonians and dogs allowed.’’ I can give you readers several more examples of disrespect shown to calypsonians, but the above, I believe, should satisfy the point.

On the other hand, the government of Antigua displayed total respect for Swallow and continues up to this day to do so to all calypsonians. First, for his contribution to the art form of calypso, Swallow was named a cultural ambassador for Antigua and given all rights and privileges to the esteemed post. Second, when I was director of culture and travelled to Antigua, I was given an “official” passport. Swallow would ask me where was my “red’’ passport, since he thought that I ought to have one. I may be wrong, but I have never known any calypsonian in Trinidad and Tobago to have been given a red, diplomatic passport (in some countries they are black). Besides Swallow, other artists, namely Short Shirt in Antigua, Frankie McIntosh in St. Vincent and Gabby in Barbados, were named as cultural ambassadors for their countries and are holders of such passports, which indicate to the immigration officers of foreign countries that they, as holders, are diplomats and are acting on behalf of the countries that they represent. Thus, everything is usually done in their lands and overseas to make their travel smooth, comfortable and without any hiccups.

Third, in 2011, Swallow was knighted by the government of Antigua and the official title of “sir’’ (the highest award in the state) bestowed on him. Fourth, on being made a knight, he was granted a monthly salary by his state until his death. He called me on receipt of his monthly salary one night to find out if mine was bigger and to ascertain if the state of Antigua was robbing him. He could not believe that the Order of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago award in Trinidad given to me carried no perks: salary, housing, medical insurance etc. His knighthood had all such perks to the extent that during his illness, the government of Antigua paid all his medical expenses in New York for more than a year.

Fifth, many singers in Trinidad could not understand how Swallow was able to come here for carnival annually. Well, although the calypso promoters in Trinidad had to pay for his hotel and other expenses, the government of Antigua granted him free travel whenever he promoted the land and its culture overseas, so that Swallow, naturally, in singing calypso was seen by Antiguans as selling Antigua to the world. Accordingly, they paid all his airfares.

Sixth, when in the 1980s a band in New York refused to pay him for his performance at Madison Square Garden and was coming to Antigua to perform for carnival there, Swallow promptly told them that unless he was fully paid, they couldn’t come to Antigua. Of course, they laughed at him and landed at V.C. Bird airport. Swallow went to the prime minister, then Mr. V.C. Bird, and laid his complaint. History would record that Bird ordered the Immigration to put them out of the state. The band begged him and offered to pay since they had contracts to fulfil in Antigua. Prime Minister V.C. Bird refused. “Leave the state for ridiculing and disrespecting Swallow.’’ It is, in my opinion, true to state that no government in Trinidad and Tobago, colonial or post-colonial, has ever treated any local calypsonian in the esteemed manner, as was done by the government of Antigua to Sir Rupert Philo (Swallow).

My heart is overjoyed, then, when our Caribbean universities see it fit not only to honour PhDs but to state that artists like Mighty Sparrow, Lord Kitchener, Roy Cape, Pelham Goddard, Merle Albino DeCoteau, Winsford Devine, Eintou Springer, Derek Walcott, Earl Lovelace, Black Stalin, Bro. Superior, Mighty Shadow, David Rudder, Mighty Gabby and Red Plastic Bag in Barbados deserve to be named to the table of doctorates, because of their noble contributions to their nations in particular, and to humanity in general. Their lives explain the meaning of the title, man. Indeed, we can say with Shakespeare: Swallow’s life “was gentle and the elements so well mixed in him, that nature could stand up and say to all the world: this was a man,’’ polished, artful, refined, civilized.

— Hollis “Chalkdust’’ Liverpool has served as an associate professor at the University of the Virgin Islands and is generally regarded as one of the world’s greatest calypsonians. Also, he was a regular at St. Thomas Carnival’s Calypso Revue, expertly performing songs based on that day’s headlines.