Thursday 9th December, 2004

 

100 per cent East Indian, 150 per cent Trini

 
 
 
 
 
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Bop Girl Goes Calypso, a 1957 US movie, one of three major calypso movies made in the 1950s.
George Maharaj with some of his calypso artefacts.

BY LISA ALLEN-AGOSTINI

The kinky afro he sports isn’t natural but his love for calypso and all things Carnival is.

He’s “100 per cent East Indian and 150 per cent Trinidadian,” says George D Maharaj, the calypso-phile whose collection of calypso artefacts and trivia is legendary. He’s put some of that info together in a book, The Roots of Calypso, launched in November at the National Library.

His hair, he admits, is permed. What can you expect from the son of a beauty maven? Madam Maharaj, south’s late famous beautician, was his mother. Her picture, garlanded, is prominently displayed in his family home in San Fernando. His 92-year-old father still lives there and Maharaj, after living in Canada since 1969, is once more calling it home.

He’s here in Trinidad—on one year’s sabbatical from his computer operator job in Canada—for a tour not only to promote the book but to share with young people his passion for the art form.

When he goes to lecture to schools he takes a CD he burned from his collection of vintage and current music. Scrunter’s Jumbie is on it—he says it’s his favourite calypso, ever—and so is a version of Brown Skin Girl recorded by the Charmer. (Back in the ‘50s that was the sobriquet used by a young man who would, in time, grow up to be US Black Muslim leader Louis Farrakhan.)

Part of his 5,000-artefact collection is here with him, including the cover of the first record of any kind to sell over 1,000,000 copies—Calypso, an album by US star Harry Belafonte.

“They all came out in the mid-50s,” he says of three Hollywood movies on calypso, “that’s when the big calypso craze was.” In the background, a scratchy version of Nat King Cole’s Calypso Blues is playing.

He started this monumental collection with one record, Sparrow’s More, Sparrow, More, in 1969.

That’s when he left Trinidad to study computers abroad. Out there, he found that his roots as a Trini were in pan and kaiso.

“I had to show off to the other races I was in school with,” he said in his quick, lightly accented Trini English. “We hold on to the red, white and black.”

More, Sparrow, More, is probably the best calypso album ever, he said. With hits like Sa Sa Ay, 60 Million Frenchmen and The Lizard, it set the bar high. Maharaj was well hooked. He started seriously collecting in 1980, he said, and began making trips to T&T to interview calypsonians.

They remain his major local source; there’s precious little about calypso in the land of its birth. He can get more about it in the Smithsonian than the National Library.

Now he’s a walking encyclopaedia on the art form. For instance, he could tell you that one Morey Amsterdam came to Trinidad in the 1940s and recorded Invader’s 1943 road march, Rum and Coca Cola, then sold it to the Andrews Sisters, who made it a big hit. It sold seven million. In 1947 Invader won a US court judgment against them and damages of US$150,000.

His book is volume one of a series, he said. It includes the stage and true names of “most” calypsonians; a list of road marches from 1897 to now (and second place winners from 1948); and calypso monarchs from 1929 to now.

As Rawle Gibbons said in his remarks at the book launch, “It is not an academic book… it is not a book that looks at calypso as literature… nor is it a book that looks at the music of calypso…. But it is a handbook that puts a lot of information together between two covers.”

Gibbons called on Government to acquire Maharaj’s collection and use it as the base of a calypso institute. Right now most of it is housed in “George basement” in Toronto.

That basement is not only a one-stop-shop for calypso researchers; it begat a Web site (www.rootsofcalypso.com) and a monthly kaiso breakfast that for two years was a hotspot in black Toronto.

The breakfasts ended in 2002 and Maharaj thinks he may bring them back, someday. But for now, he’ll continue researching, collecting, lecturing. And loving calypso.

George Maharaj is available until Carnival to give free lectures to schools on the importance of calypso and calypsonians. For information, call him at 657-7484 or e-mail [email protected] or [email protected].

 

 

 

 

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