Wed | Apr 24, 2019

The Music Diaries | The musical experience of the Empire Windrush

Published:Sunday | May 13, 2018 | 12:00 AMRoy Black
Immigrants welcomed by RAF officials from the Colonial Office after the ex-troopship HMT ‘Empire Windrush’ landed them at Tilbury.
Lord Kitchener was a passenger on the ‘Empire Windrush’ and took the beats of his native homeland, Trinidad, to England.
The ‘Empire Windrush’ berthed at Tilbury with 417 ‘Sons of the Empire’ on board. After returning to their homeland after the war, these Jamaicans found many unemployed in the island, and they hoped to find the answer in England.

The Windrush scandal is a topic that is currently dominating the headlines. Seventy years ago, the SS Empire Windrush - originally a German cruise ship - docked in Kingston, Jamaica, en route from several other countries to England. With over 1,000 passengers on board, it was designed to recruit undocumented labour to rebuild the United Kingdom's (UK) economy after World War II. The atrocities meted out to the immigrants and their descendants have recently been highlighted, along with the role that the vessel played in the entire scenario. It certainly gave the crisis its name.

But there were also notable connections that the ship had with music. This first wave of large-scale migration brought a number of musical styles to the UK. These styles became immensely popular among Britons and helped Caribbean music gain international recognition. Among the passengers on that fate-deciding voyage (May 27-June 22, 1948), were two Trinidadians, Lord Kitchener and Lord Beginner, who had already established themselves in their homeland as calypso stars. Kitchener, in particular, quickly built a large following in the West Indian expatriate communities and immediately got bookings at the only West Indian club in London. Soon, he was appearing in as many as three nightclubs nightly and executing gigs in music halls and variety clubs across the country.

The indifferent immigration officer who handled Kitchener's papers after he disembarked at the Thames to the Tilbury Dock in London on June 22, 1948, saw him then as Aldwyn Roberts, born in Arima, Trinidad, on April 18, 1922. By early 1950, he was stroking up a calypso firestorm in the UK that even had Buckingham Palace's royals tapping their toes in approval of his wit, humour, and writing skills, exhibited in recordings like Take It Easy, Red Head Lady, Take The Meat Out Mi Rice, and Ah Bernice - a risque composition that saw Bernice seducing him in the opening lines:

"Kitch come go to bed

I have a small comb to scratch your head

Kitch don't make me cry

You know I love you, you're playing shy"

By the middle of 1950, Kitchener took calypso international, spreading it to several European countries and parts of the United States.

But while all that was happening, 1950 would also witness a watershed event involving Kitchener and Lord Beginner that would change the course of calypso music and the sport of cricket forever.

In perhaps the most defining moment in West Indies cricket, Kitchener summed up and immortalised in graphic poetry the regional team's historic first win over England on English soil in the second Test match at Lords from June 24 to 29. Kitchener began writing the song - Victory Calypso (Cricket Lovely Cricket) and immediately he realised that England was set the impossible target of 601 runs to win, following a West Indian declaration. Kitchener's close friend, Lord Beginner (Egbert Moore), who accompanied him on the SS Empire Windrush, did the vocals and wrote some of the lyrics. Beginner was in full flight as he summed up in the opening stanza the outcome of the match:

"Cricket lovely cricket, at Lords where I saw it (repeat)

Yardley tried his best

Goddard won the Test

They gave the crowd plenty fun

The second Test and West Indies won

With those little pals of mine

Ramadin and Valentine"

Lord Beginner and Lord Kitchener, with guitar in hand, were in celebratory mood as they congregated on the pitch immediately following the match, contemplating their next lyrical onslaught. The win was crucial to West Indian postcolonial societies, and calypso became the primary vehicle that conveyed the message of pride and joy that lived thereafter in many West Indian hearts. It has always been thought that true independence and national consciousness could never be achieved until England was defeated on their own soil at the game they invented. Kitchener was, therefore, forced to express on their behalf the joy and exuberance that was felt after West Indies amassed 425 for six, declared in their second innings, leaving England a target of 601:

"Walcott was not out at 168

Leaving Yardley to contemplate

West Indies was then feeling homely

Their audience had them happy.

When Washbrook century had ended

West Indies voices all blended.

Hats went into the air

People shout and jump without fear

So at Lords was the scenery

It bound to go down in history"

When the dust had settled, England had managed only 274 out of 601.

From the pitch, Kitchener led singing, dancing, and instrument-playing spectators to Piccadilly Square, triggering bewildering and exciting scenes. It was the rudimentary stage of the merging of calypso and soca music with Test Cricket, which later stimulated the introduction of calypso mounds and party stands at cricket grounds specifically to provide entertainments, drinks, and food for spectators.

The Empire Windrush, far from being just a mode of transportation for persons seeking a better way of life, was like a catalyst in the propagation of West Indian calypso, and the increased levels of pride and joy experienced by West Indians.