Early this month, a couple weeks before the World Cup began in Russia, I was sitting with my younger sister’s husband at a birthday celebration for my father. My brother-in-law is from Dominica, and he is very much a music aficionado. It never occurred to me that he would not have been acquainted with a song by the one Lord Melody (Fitzroy Alexander) of Trinidad, a song my siblings and I spent many years listening to while it was being played loudly on the jukebox in Rick’s Bar across the canal/Bolton Bridge from our home.
As I have written in this column before, my parents moved with us children from Church Street to West Canal near Regent Street West in 1954. At that time, the two-storey building which later housed the said Rick’s Bar downstairs and Rick’s Club upstairs, was owned by a famous, wealthy mahogany contractor named Ben Stuart, and it was clearly one of his offices. Mr. Stuart’s beautiful, white Jaguar automobile would be parked outside, while logging trucks (camiones) would come and go periodically.
Older Belizeans would know that the other wealthy, famous mahogany contractor, the bigger man I think, Robert Sydney Turton, painted all his buildings white with yellow window blinds. Ben Stuart, who was not as rich as Bob Turton but much more flamboyant, was known for having the best race horses in Belize, and he painted his buildings white with red window blinds. This was how his office across the canal/Bolton Bridge was painted.
Incidentally, Mr. Turton’s main office could be seen on North Front Street across the Haulover Creek from Bolton Bridge. And, another sidenote, Mr. Stuart’s main stable for his magnificent horses had run east to west behind our Church Street home. Ben Stuart’s trainer was Mr. John Swift, Sr., and he and his family lived in a home at the eastern end of the stable yard, hence his younger children, like Frankie and George, had been our neighbors before we moved from Church Street.
It is difficult to pinpoint when Rick Castillo rented or bought the Ben Stuart building. Let’s say maybe 1956 or 1957. The entry of the Rick’s Bar and Rick’s Club businesses changed the atmosphere across from us. One of the keys to the change, apart from the alcohol consumption, thug types, and fast women, was the music from the jukeboxes, upstairs and downstairs.
YouTube is an incredible technology for older folk like myself. You can find music that has disappeared from our lives in Belize. I knew that Tony Wright had a copy of Lord Melody’s Gloria in his archives, because I had heard him play it on KREM before. But, through the miracle of YouTube, I was recently able to find Gloria for myself. I noted that the calypso had been released in 1958.
In 1958, the well-established Lord Melody was being challenged for the top spot in Trinidadian/Caribbean calypso by a “new kid in town,” The Mighty Sparrow (Dr. Slinger Francisco). It was a feature of such rivalries that the competing calypsonians made macho boasts and traded insults with each other, sometimes in recordings but also in person when they appeared at the same concerts and carnivals.
Gloria is an example of sexual boasting and braggadocio, and there was absolutely no way such lyrics would have been allowed on the British Honduras Broadcasting Service (BHBS) in 1958. But my brothers and I were listening to Gloria every day and every night, and there was nothing our parents could have done about it.
Well, at my father’s birthday party, my younger brother, Nelson, and I introduced our brother-in-law to Gloria. As I wrote earlier, I was surprised he’d never heard the song. After all, Dominica is in the Eastern Caribbean, much closer to Trinidad than Belize is. But, I realize now that he would have been just a little baby, or perhaps not even born yet, in 1958. And, British colonial administrations across the Caribbean would have wanted songs like Gloria to disappear from history as soon as possible. But, today there is YouTube, beloved. One of my brother’s granddaughters went YouTube, and soon Gloria was being blasted for the birthday guests to hear, while Nelson and I sang loudly in accompaniment.
Now, the thing about 1958 was that this was the year a young Brazilian who was too dark-skinned to be considered brown, Edson Arantes du Nascimento, made the Brazil football selection and led Brazil to its first World Cup victory ever, in Sweden. Pele was just 17 years old, and his was as sensational a story as has ever been told.
In British Honduras in 1958, you know we didn’t have television, and BHBS, the colonial government’s radio monopoly, was definitely not interested in telling us how a black Brazilian teenager had become the king of the world because of his football exploits. (The British consider football to be their own invention.) So, I don’t know how or when we began hearing about Pele in Belize.
All I know is that at that time the center of the throbbing entertainment scene in Belize City was Palace Theater on Albert Street. I was 11 years old in 1958, so I assume the following experience I will relate to you occurred at a 5:30 p.m. Sunday matinee as opposed to an adult movie showing, which would have begun at 8:30 p.m.
If I remember correctly, after the lights went out and the film projector took over at Palace, the first thing they would show was a cartoon, usually Tom and Jerry, or Bugs Bunny. Then, they would have brief clips of current world news, Movietone (?) or something like that.
Well, the world news clips that evening showed us brief video scenes of Pele on the football field in Sweden. The roar that arose in Palace was visceral. We were glorious in our pride, massively assertive of our human reality, because, for the first time in those days of Tarzan and the apes, a black youth was a world hero. And no one could deny he was black, because we were seeing it for ourselves.
After I re-discovered Gloria recently and found out that it was released in 1958, I remembered a line in it when Melody sings, “The whole of Brazil wanted me, to be president of their ‘indus-tree.’” Later, “The whole of Brazil was going mad, to see the lad from Trinidad.” Gloria recounts Melody’s exploits on a trip to Brazil, where he was apparently on a performance tour. I am wondering if that was before or after Pele in Sweden.
Pele is an old man now, in a wheelchair. He has travelled all over planet earth. He has never heard of British Honduras, or Belize. In 1958, in fact, nobody else had ever heard about us. In 1958, we were, in the oft-quoted words of Aldous Huxley, like “the end of the world.” We were mostly black. In some brief seconds in 1958 inside Palace Theater, nevertheless, Pele had made us feel like somebody. When there is no discrimination or bigotry in the selection of national sports teams, sports can be a wonderful, wonderful thing. Read, Olympic and Commonwealth bureaucrats. Read between the lines.
Power to the people.