The trinidad Guardian / Being recognised with the honorary Doctor of Letters degree by the University of the West Indies is the “sweet” culmination of a life started as a “country bookie”-incapable of sophistication; a street boy hustling bobs; a frequent denizen of rum shops; a composer robbed of justified recognition and reward for his talents. At last! Finally acclaimed as one of the greatest calypso composers in the land of calypso and steelband.
Winsford “Joker” DeVine was born in Morne Diablo, in the “deep south” of Trinidad. He graduated to life on the Coffee and Mucurapo streets in the Sando of the 1950s and 1960s. He got inducted into the rough but creatively vibrant steelband and calypso culture of Port-of-Spain in the 1960s.
There he grew into manhood among steelbandsmen, calypsonians and bad-johns. He emerged with the calypsonian sobriquet “Joker”. However, early on, he was informed that he “could not sing.” He turned to composing a few of the greatest of calypsoes of the modern (indeed any) era.
Life for “Mervyn”, as his father called him to counter his mother’s preference for the Tobago originated, Winsford, was typical of village life for a boy in those days. Cricket was the major sport. He was considered “bright” in Morne Diablo RC.
Joker (as he is universally called) has very rich and colourful historical roots. His grandfather, James Cooper was a Merikin, one of the black soldiers who fought on the side of the British in their 1812 war against their American colony. Cooper, like 500 others, was settled here by the British, and developed the Company villages (first to six) in the Moruga area – 1815.
DeVine’s grandfather “stole” his wife-to-be from the Warao (Amerindian) tribe who came from Venezuela, to trade their goods (cassava bread) on the Morne Diablo beach with the people of the village.
His father was Clifford Cooper, son of the Merikin. His mother was Uris DeVine from Tobago.
“I come and married to a woman up here (Patna Village, Diego Martin) whose mother is a Carib from Arima; her grandfather was an indentured worker.
DeVine remembers his days in Morne Diablo as being wonderful. “It had all different kind of people in the village-Indian people, and people from the islands. I never knew anything about racism until I came up to Port-of-Spain. An Indian lady used to bathe me to go to school, feed me when my father not around, so I never knew about racism.”
He remembers lovingly and with great thanks the kindness he received from the Paul family. “She would say, ‘Mervyn boy, come and have some bake’ and whatever they were eating. She would put me in the kitchen and I used to study with her children.”
His entry into San Fernando was invited by his mother. Again there was parental conflict. His mother would say, “let the boy go to school and become a lawyer or a doctor, he bright. My father say let the boy learn a trade.”
“After a couple weeks in Boys’ School, I end up in Justin Paul School and I only spend about 15 mins there.
“Being a country bookie in those days, ah get a lot of fatigue when I line up the first morning; they start to mamaguy meh and I just walk out of the school and I never went back.”
Thereafter it was life on the streets as his mother migrated to the United States. “Ever since I run away from school, I lived on the streets in San Fernando begging for bob and thing around the cinemas, New, Gaiety and Radio City.
“There too I started to play pan, when they allow me with a little steelband called Teenage Symphony. I eventually end up playing one Carnival with that band in the early 1960s.”
His transition to Port-of-Spain and the steelband world came “when a fella named Mervyn ‘Bolong’ Ross heard me playing and he came and stand up right in front my pan. He say ‘what is your name?’ ah say Mervyn. He say here what happen, ‘you could play real, real pan.’ He tell me he from Nelson St in Town. He tell me ‘watch nah, anytime you come up in town come Nelson Street and ask for me, Bolong.'”
It took DeVine more than a few years, but at 26, so said so done. He came into Town on a dry goods truck and he found Nelson Street and Bolong.
“He put me to play in the steelband, Blue Diamonds. From the first night I start to play in the band them fellas adopt me like if I from Nelson St. I used to play tenor pan.
“You see that same area, Nelson and Queen streets, one morning a fella tell me that Prime Minister Dr Eric Williams does be there on Wednesdays. I say I want to talk to him because I want employment. I walk in the office; he tell me ‘wait go outside and sit down I will call you when I ready.’ So when he eventually call me, he ask ‘what you want?’ I say I want employment. He start to question me where I from. After I explain him, he take a little slip of paper, he write a note and tell me to carry it down to Sackville Street to National Housing to a woman called Thora Rajin. She give me a job to pave the area in between the Planning Buildings with barber greene. When they close that project, she get a job for me in Works Department.”
Calypso composition and meeting up with a man called “Boncans” who owned a night club at the corner of Queen and Nelson streets, a haven for calypsonians and musicians, came next.
DeVine started composing, and one day Bolong, his long time sponsor, heard him singing a song. “He say I never heard that where you get it? I told him I compose it. He say write some calypsoes for me to hear. I write 20 songs and put it on a tape Bolong borrowed from Frank Martineau at National Music.
“Bolong take me with the tape to Maple Leaf club on Charlotte St. Syl Taylor was the manager of that club. I went up there and I meet all them calypsonians. Bolong called Shorty, Crusoe Kid, Bomber and he played the calypsoes I had recorded. They say these calypsoes pretty good. Bolong say ‘what you want to do with them because you cyah sing'”
He carry me by Sparrow who say ‘how much you want for them?’ He say take this $360. Is the biggest money I ever get. I feel it was the world of money. He (Sparrow) say he taking all of them.”
Among the songs was Drunk and Disorderly, “although I never got credit for it. It was called Drunkard Calypso. Sparrow take it and twist it around, and won the road march with it.”
Also on the tape he sold to Sparrow was Queen of the Bands – Ray Holman arranged it for Starlift and shared the Panorama title with Solo Harmonites.
Joker’s one night on the stage at the Original Young Brigade did not come off too well; they tell me “I cyah sing.”
“Listen to me carefully,” Joker said wanting my full attention, “my songs have won more Panorama than Boogsie, Holman, Professor; I won five Panorama with my songs: National Panorama, Queen of the Bands, Du Du Yemi, and Somebody. I won San Fernando Panorama with Melody 73 and the International Panorama with Curry Tabanca, and came second with songs like Statue.
“I also wrote Ah Digging Horrors and Miss Mary, and late in the season (1974) Sparrow start to get horrors with Shadow knocking on the door with Bassman and I Come out to Play. Sparrow came back and say, ‘what you could do for me?’ I sit down and write We Pass That Stage; he eventually won the crown and beat Shadow.”
“At one time when I was not getting sufficient recognition for my songs, Bolong and Arnim Smith took me down to Sparrow. He gave me $2,800 dollars and told me ‘look, doh write for nobody else.”
Among the great songs written for Sparrow was Memories, in which he, Joker, featured his son who was called “Sweet Pepper” and who had died. Joker referred to him with the words “sugary, peppery”.
“I wrote for Sparrow for 17 years unbroken until we had a falling out. The falling out was over the double album because I wrote nine songs. He paid me for six songs. It is only when I went to America I went by Charlie (Charlie’s Records) who tell me Joker ‘that double album bad. I say what double album you’re talking about. I say Sparrow bring one record for me and pay me $15,000 for that. I fall out with Sparrow for a long time. And then I still end up writing for him because I broken; I have to mind my family; he then helped me buy a car.”
But he still has great respect for Sparrow and rates him among the best.
“The last time me and Sparrow correspond was the day before he get the stroke. He call me. He used to call me ‘Joe Joe’. He say what happening man. He laugh out in his kind of laugh he does laugh. He say hear what ‘lots of things went on between me and you.’ He say ‘let we done with that nah.’ I say well I done with that long time. That is water under the bridge. I say I forgive you for whatever you do to me, and I want you to do the same thing for me.
“Then the next evening I heard Sparrow was in a coma.
But where did Joker get this amazing ability to compose calypsoes from?
“All I could say is that I get up one morning and had the ability to make songs. I realise that in life certain people are born to do certain things and they don’t know where it come from. The Almighty visits people and gives them certain qualities.” But Joker warns that it’s an ability that has to be developed.
He credits his association over many years with musicians such as Roy Cape, Clive Bradley, Pat Bishop, Merle Albino, Art De Couteau and with his beloved fellow composer, Merchant, for his development of the gift he received.
In addition, Joker identifies his voracious reading from dime novels to Marshall Proust, Mark Twain and the author he describes as the “most descriptive”, Charles Dickens, as reasons for his ability to compose.
Joker names Rudder and Stalin as his two favourite calypsonians and human beings: “I never hear them bad talk anybody.”
What is Joker’s greatest composition? “Sometimes I does disappoint people when I say Somebody is my best song. People believe it to be between Progress and Guardians, sung by King Austin.
“But why I say Somebody (sung by Baron) is because 28 steelbands play Somebody in Panorama. And I consider that to be a big achievement. Right now I have 600 to 700 unsung calypsoes.
“The minute they pin that doctorate on me I will call my life satisfied; that will be the pinnacle of my achievement. Fellas telling me ‘Joker boy that ent giving you nutten.’ I say, watch me, that will satisfy me inside here”, he said patting his chest.
“Look, I come from deep country where I drink pond water. I spend 13 years in San Fernando as a street child. I have no secondary school education, none. This doctorate will make me satisfied. The world does not owe me anything,” says a contented and reflective Winsford Joker DeVine, honorary Doctor of Letters for his tremendous work as calypso composer.