Black Stalin - Biography
By J Poet
Stalin, five-time winner of the Calypso Monarch crown, took home the King of Kings Crown in 1999 for his songs “Black Man Feeling to Party,” and the political favorite “Wine, Dhanraj, Wine.” Born Leroy Calliste in Trinidad in 1941, Stalin is one of calypso's most militant lyricists, a practicing Rastaman and social revolutionary. His lyrics detail the sufferings of the poor and excoriate the rich and powerful. Stalin grew up in poverty, but there was always music in his home. He lived near a pan yard (a social club where a steel band rehearses) and was infatuated by kaiso, an early form of calypso, a style rife with social criticism and singers who could improvise on any subject at a moments notice. Stalin was performing for assemblies in grammar school; by high school was a street musician and free-lance calypsonian. He joined Southern Brigade Calypso Tent in San Fernando when he was 19, and moved to the Original Young Brigade Tent in Port-of-Spain in 1964.
Lord Kitchner discovered Stalin in 1967 and taught him the fine points of lyric writing and performance. He was one of the top performers in Kitchener’s yearly shows for a decade and made a series of best selling singles including “The Immortal Message of Dr. Martin Luther King” (1969 Freedom), “New Portrait of Trinidad” (1972 Strakers), and “Mr. Culture Man” (1976 Strakers.) In between he worked on the waterfront and performed as a limbo dancer, but soon was making enough money to survive as a full time musician.
In 1979, he joined the Mighty Shadow's King of the Wizards Tent and recorded his first album, To The Caribbean Man (1979 Makossa), which stands as one of the best calypso albums ever released. “Caribbean Unity” and “Play One” won him King of Carnival and Road march crowns, and the tracks “Black Man Music” and “Kaiso Gone Dread” are considered classics. Stalin's lyric's of Pan-African unity are full of militant fire and the tunes ride monstrous, sweat inducing groves that incorporate plenty of steel band music. Even as calypso changed its style morphing into soca and rapso, Stalin stayed true to a more traditional style and always writes at least one tune that uses a steel band each year.
The single “Black Star Liner” (1980 Makossa), a tribute to Marcus Garvey, set up In Ah Earlier Time (1980 Makossa), another militant classic. You Asked For It (1984 CCP) was less political, but still full of militant fire. The single “Wait Dorothy” (1985 B’s) won him another King of Calypso title and he followed it with two strong albums, Sing for the Land (1986 B’s) and I Time (1987 B’s), which included "Mr. Panmaker” and "Burn Dem” tunes that won him another Calypso Monarch title. In the late 80s there was a short-lived attempt to take calypso, then known as soca, to the mainstream. To De Master (1989 Sire/Warner) got widespread distribution and despite its frenetic dance beats and upfull message, it made few waves.
The Bright Side (1991 Strakers) included “Look on the Bright Side,” another Stalin anthem still played every year by pan bands; it won another Calypso Monarch crown. Roots, Rock, Soca (1991 Rounder) put Caribbean Man on CD for the first time along with other seminal early hits. Stalin was prolific in the 90s with solid albums like Cry of the Caribbean (1991 Strakers), Help (1992 Strakers), Rebellion (1994 Ice) an Eddy Grant production that’s slick and commercial, with a cover of Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released” to give Stalin another nudge toward the mainstream, and Message to Sundar (1995 Ice.) “Sundar” was a tribute to Chutney singer Sundar Popo the first Trinidadian of Indian descent to write calypsos that drew on the rhythms of traditional Indian music and bhangra. The song won Stalin one more Crown at Carnival and he sang it at Sundar’s memorial service in 2000. Black Stalin (1998 Oscars) and Roots/Crossroutes (1998 CTP) closed the decade on a high note.
Stalin celebrated his 60th birthday with 2000: New Times (2000 Composers) with American pan master Andy Narell sitting in, and went on to release Hard Wuk (2002 Elektro Sounds), Live at the Naparima Bowl (2004 TCL) a short live acoustic set of his hits, Just for You (2009 Charlie’s) and Dr. Leroy Calliste The Black Stalin 2009 (2009)
The Best of Black Stalin, Vol. 1 (1996 Strakers) gives you nine hits and a couple of remixes, but it’s light on his more militant, and more compelling music.