Anthony Joseph: Lord Kitch and Calypso

Poet, musician and writer Anthony Joseph presents his unconventional biography of Trinidadian calypso legend Lord Kitchener at Unbound. Joseph talks us through the importance of Kitch to Trinidadians past and present

Feature by Kirstyn Smith | 03 Jul 2018

On a carnival Monday afternoon in Queen’s Park Savannah, Port of Spain, Trinidad, Aldwin Roberts – better known by his stage name Lord Kitchener or simply Lord Kitch – was standing alone watching a steel band. This was the first and only time Anthony Joseph met his musical idol.

“The city was hot with carnival: bands passing, loud music, and suddenly in the middle of the field, there was Kitch,” says Joseph. “I couldn’t miss the opportunity to at least say hello. I mean, he was a legend.”

Although he’d seen him perform many times and caught glimpses of him around town from a distance, he hadn’t ever encountered Kitch alone and accessible. “We spoke for about 15 minutes, mainly about calypso. He was explaining the difference between major and minor modes, about lyrics, about the calypsos he liked and didn’t like that year, about double entendre. It was amazing.”

The importance of this serendipitous meeting cannot be understated. Like most Trinidadians, Joseph grew up listening to Kitchener: he and his music were deeply woven into Joseph’s identity. He also sees parallels between Kitchener’s story and his own, both having left Trinidad in their mid-20s to pursue a music career in the UK. After Kitchener’s death in 2000, Joseph felt as though a family member had died.

“It also felt like the end of an era, as if the generation that included Kitch and my grandparents, who were born in the early 20th century into the height of the colonial project, were making room for the new. These were people who were still touched by colonialism, who looked to the ‘mother country’ while still being quite nationalistic as Trinidadians.” 

Another thing Joseph noticed was that after 60 years of making such important music, not much was known about Kitchener at all. There were no biographies and even fewer books to consult. So Joseph decided to write one. He took an unconventional approach to his own writing, partly because of his belief that a mainstream bio isn’t the most accurate way to represent someone’s life, but also because he found so little information about Kitch that it became necessary to take on a storyteller role, to re-imagine the narratives behind the anecdotes he was collecting.

“No one lives a detached, singular existence,” says Joseph. “I was interested in levelling the narrative field, to have the people that knew him also reveal themselves. In a way that’s a political choice, to focus on the community rather than the individual. I was interested in testimony, in how people saw Kitchener and how we all created his mythology.”

While Joseph is a musician and writer, he primarily sees himself as a poet, and any other work he produces is informed by his poetry, in a mutual meta exchange of ideas.

“Sometimes poems or prose become ‘songs’, sometimes the poem remains intact, sometimes music enforces change,” he says. “It’s a symbiotic process. I’m a Trinidadian, and the way I grew up speaking, the particular swing of Creole we have, is pure music. I never move too far from that.”

It’s this experimentation, this playing with established forms and coaxing something new to the surface that audiences can expect from Joseph’s Unbound show.

“I like odd juxtapositions, so the key for me is in finding a new space or as-yet-undiscovered moment in the telling of a historical narrative. I’ll be joined in Edinburgh by three improvising musicians who are able to move back and forth between calypso, poetry and free jazz.”

Looking at Kitch through these lenses gives Joseph a chance to lay bare his wisdom and knowledge of the legend onto a brand new audience, and to dictate through poetry and music the secrets he learned on that hot Monday afternoon in Trinidad.

Calypso King of the Windrush Generation, Edinburgh International Book Festival, Spiegeltent, Charlotte Square Gardens, Sun 19 Aug, 9pm