Kaiso No 35 - 25th April, 2000

Another death of a calypso pioneer has occurred and so, in this newsletter, we celebrate a colorful if lesser known calypsonian.

Mighty Popo (Reginald Blondell Alphonse)

Born circa 1913 in Blanchisseuse and died April 4, 2000. He was a boxer, wrestler, a road race walker, a man of words in the classic sense with a boastful nature and a warm heart. He had been a member of Alexander's Ragtime Band and went from steelband member to calypsonian. He began as a calypsonian in the OYB in 1959 with Snake in the Bag and Highway Robbers. In 1960, his song, Jack Spaniard Bite Me was noted to be a road march contender. He took a tent to Tobago in 1961 with his tunes, Jack Spaniard Bite She and The Police Looking for Me. He issued a challenge to Sparrow and Dougla in 1962 while he appeared at the Independence Tent to meet them in the Savannah each with 12 new calypsos. They didn't take him up on it. In 1964, he was a member of the Roving Brigade with Chinese in the Mango Tree and Nobody Going to Heaven. In 1965 he switched to the OYB tent with The Crab. In the early Sixties, he issued three singles on the Telco label, Forbidden Fruit/Bingo Party (Telco 3020), Jack Spania Bite Me/Police Looking For Me (Telco 3052), Half Dead Aeroplanes/Football Season (Telco 3116) and the two on Telco 3052 were also issued on an anthology album, 1961 Trinidad All Time Calypso Hits, (Telco 5004).

He ran the Unity Brigade tent in Diego Martin in 1969 and the tent returned in 1970 with him featuring Policewoman in the Bag. In 1973 tent with Brooklyn Girl and Sweetie. Performed take off on recent murder trial in 1978 New Republic Brigade tent. In 1980 he opened his own tent again Mighty Popo's Surprise Brigade, Communication's Worker's Union Hall, Upper Henry St., POS. It lasted only for one year. He then returned to the Revue for two years, appearing in 1981 with Rape, Rape, Murder, Rape and the next year with Ram De Pole. He was featured on occasion in the Nineties singing his classics but in his last years was inactive and resided at the Tritscher Home for Aged Men.

One of his interesting numbers from 1961 celebrated Sparrow's popularity while offering another take on the incident that gave rise to Sparrow's Ten to One is Murder.

Mighty Popo - Prisoner's Regret

Popo want to know
Why they deprive prisoners of hearing Sparrow
Popo want to know
Why they deprive prisoners of hearing Sparrow
Birds in the ar, fish in the sea
The worms in the gutter also hear he
I can't understand
Why they leggo the shooting man

Oh my, oh my, the prisoners had to cry
Oh my, oh my, the prisoners had to cry
Was a big preparation for a grand celebration
Inside the jail for he
But something happen, the judge and jury
They leggo the Sparrow free

The dumb, the deaf, the blind and the cripple
He was heard by millions of people
Madagascar, South Africa, Asia Minor and even Russia
I ain't lying a dead man come from the grave
To hear sparrow sing
So I ain't see no reason,
They didn't send him to jail to sing in prison

Holiday in the jail and all
Sparrow coming to make a call
Prisoners jumping up in the air
Shouting Sparrow coming here
But they feeling so sorry at half past three
When they get to know
The judge and jury leggo Sparrow

I meet a turnkey, he come appealing to me
He said they can't get the Mighty Sparrow
The prisoners say they must send Popo
But ah make him to understand
It ain't me who shoot down the man
Is the judge and the jury that fail
To send Sparrow to sing in the Royal Jail.
I never got to meet the Mighty Popo but heard many stories about him from others including his friend, the journalist Debbie Jacobs. Below is the vivid and warm portrait she wrote of him published in the Sunday Express for April 9:
Hours after the US launched Desert Storm, The Mighty Popo, who had recently broken his leg, hobbled into the Express office to sing his calypso about the attack on Kuwait. He took a deep breath, pressed both palms on his knees, tapped a rhythm with his good foot, and sang five verses of a brand new calypso in that high-pitched, squeaky voice that always made everyone laugh.
"Popo, how did you write that song so fast?" I asked.
"My dear lady, do you not know that I am the Hasley Crawford of calypso?"

Popo always addressed me in his version of the Queen's English. That's why I never could reconcile myself with the brazen image people fed me about this dear old man who often came to visit me. Some said Popo was one of the rudest winers who ever climbed on a calypso stage. Others said Popo was one of the most vicious fighters around in the days of the steelband clashes. Once, I asked about the fights and Popo replied, "What you go do? If a man lash you, you have to lash him back."

I first saw Popo sing on stage at the Deluxe Theatre. It was 1985, my first year at the Express. Popo squealed and squeaked and Peter Blood asked Shadow, "What's he singing?" Shadow laughed and replied, "I don't know, but it sounding good."

Popo proved that character could transcend talent, but his music had its moments. Years ago, Leston Paul took Popo in his studio to record an album. It never came out. But I got to hear Popo sing The Snake (Hold Him in the Bag). David Rudder says that Popo composition has the best line ever written in calypso "A man thief a river and sold it to a man with a reservoir."

"That's a kind of surreal song," says Rudder, "because Popo is singing about all kinds of fantastic events that happened in the past and none can compare to a snake holding a man in the bag. Then he throws in a weird line about a man in the future who is going to thief the moon."

American calypsonian Lady Complainer, World Beat correspondent for Rolling Stone magazine, deemed Popo one of the all-time great calypso characters. To this day she always laments, "Where are all the calypso characters today? Where are the Popos?"

Nobody but Popo has ever informed me he was on his way to a Nissan dealer to sell a calypso he had just written. I can still see Popo singing, "If you want to look like a financier, drive a Nissan Sunny car. If you want to look like a financier, drive a Nissan Sunny car. Everywhere you pass, people will say you have class."

Needless to say, Nissan didn't take the calypso. On another day, Popo came to tell me he was opening a calypso tent. When I asked who would sing in the tent, Popo laughed. "My dear lady, Carnival is ended. Where else will they sing?"  Calypsonians continued on their tours and there never was a tent.

After that, Popo decided he had invented the pan. One rainy day, the telephone rang, and a voice said, "Hold for Popo."
"My dear lady, we're going to the Ministry of Culture to tell them I invented pan," Popo said. "There's a lot of money in this steelband thing. Seeing as how you and I do good, I'm going to cut you in. But only if we go today."
He told me to meet him at some funeral home. "Why there, Popo?" I asked.
"I live in an apartment on top the funeral home," he said.
I could imagine Popo singing and waking up the dead. "Don't frighten," Popo said, "it's a very decent place."
I told Popo that the Minister would not see us without an appointment.
"I'll get in," he assured. "I always get into offices."
"How?" I asked.
He sighed at my ignorance and said, "I knock on the door."

Shadow tells me Popo used to participate in walking races and that he was always good "partners" with Kitch.

David Rudder says the Kitch connection explains Popo's death.

"He's gone to meet Kitch," Rudder says with conviction. "He always was a Sancho Panza, a sidekick for Kitch, his Don Quixote. When Kitch, the Archbishop, and Beryl McBurnie died, Popo must have decided to get on that bus. Who else is going to make everyone laugh on that journey?"
Rest in peace, Popo. There will never be another character like you.

Complete back issues of the Kaiso newsletter can now be found on the web at the excellent on-line world music journal, Musical Traditions.  If you missed any, check them out at: http://www.mustrad.org.uk/articles/kaiso.htm

Keep those email messages and news coming to the cold and Frozen North.

Ray Funk - 25.4.00
POBox 72387, Fairbanks, AK 99707, rfunk@ptialaska.com

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