Born: April 18, 1922
Died: February 11, 2000
Country: Arima in eastern Trinidad
Roberts was born in the town of Arima in eastern Trinidad on April 18, 1922. He was one of six children of a well-known blacksmith. There are two explanations commonly given for his early involvement with music. Some of his biographers trace his interests in music to his father's blacksmith shop in addition to his blacksmithing his father was also a musician and many other fellow musicians went to his smithy to play and listen to each other's tunes. Kitchener acquired a taste for music and learned music and guitar from his dad. Other biographers reasoned that Kitchener developed an interest in singing as a way to counteract stammering, a speech problem that afflicted him throughout his life.
As a composer and musician, Roberts is generally considered to be self-taught and self-made. He started composing calypsos when he was 10. Although he attended the Arima Boys Government School as a child, he had to abandon his education after his father's death, when he needed to work in order to help support his family.
He took a job as a musician in 1936, singing and entertaining the employees of the Water Works Department in Trinidad for 12 cents a day. Known during the beginnings of his career by the artistic sobriquet of the "Arima Champion," Roberts was a tall and lanky youngster whose sisters teased and called him "string bean."
Roberts started his professional career as a calypso singer and composer when he was 15. He changed his artistic name to "Lord Kitchener," inspired by the British field marshall, and by 1938 was a popular singer in the town of Arima. That year he won the first local calypso competition with the song "Shops Close Too Early." During his early years as a singer, Roberts worked as a musician in Arima, where he was able to successfully popularize many songs and win several local competitions. In 1942 he moved to Port of Spain, where calypso was more popular than in Arima and he was able to reach much larger audiences during the yearly carnival season.
On his arrival in Port of Spain, Roberts immediately affiliated himself with some of the important performers of the time and joined several singing troupes and calypso nightclubs. Eventually he formed his own calypso troupe known as the Young Brigade and worked with the most important groups of the time. "Green Fig Man," his first major song, was released during the carnival season in 1944. This song was the first in a string of successes.
Like many other Trinidadians of his generation, Roberts decided to leave the island in search of new horizons. After touring the Caribbean, he emigrated to London in 1948. He was the first person to import Trinidadian calypso and steel pan music to Europe. He lived both in London and in Manchester, England, where he experienced considerable success and was able to make substantial amounts of money with his recordings. He also opened a nightclub that helped to build his name not only as a composer and singer but also as an entrepreneur and businessman. For the British, the often caustic and witty lyrics of Lord Kitchener represented a dramatic new style of music. In fact, it is said that the late Princess Margaret of England was a fan of his shows (Mason 2000,24). Even when he was in England, he kept abreast of calypso trends in Trinidad and continued to write and enter his calypsos in the yearly festival competitions.
In 1962, after 14 years abroad, Roberts returned to Trinidad, where he received a hero's welcome and was able to pick up his career where he had left it. He started winning the Road March competitions, awarded to the performer whose songs are interpreted most often in the streets during Carnival. Winning ten road marches competitions between 1963 and 1976, Roberts and calypso singer Mighty Sparrow decided to stop competing in 1976 to give an opportunity to other younger competitors. He also won 19 Panorama awards, a prize given to the best composer of steel pan tunes.
Despite his resounding successes in Trinidad and abroad, the government of Trinidad shunned Roberts' talents by denying him the Trinity Cross, the island's highest decoration. Instead, they offered him the Chaconia medal, a less-valued distinction, which he refused. His fans were enraged by this gesture, collected money, and built a statue in his honor that was placed in the outskirts of Port of Spain. Although the government of Trinidad issued a commemorative stamp in his honor in 1994, their earlier attempts to ignore his legacy left him frustrated and upset. When he died on February 11, 2000, his family refused the government's offer of a state funeral and instead decided to give him a people's funeral, where his beloved masses were able to bid him farewell. Despite his re-sounding popularity and success, he died a relatively poor man.
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