An offhand remark by a relative nearly 40 years ago laid the foundation for the stellar career of one of Barbados’ and the Caribbean’s best loved calypsonians.
In 1979, organizers of the St Philip Calypso Competition wanted at least five contenders, and at the time there were only four. So when no one was forthcoming, resident and committee member Stedson Wiltshire decided to enter the competition late in the day “to make up a number”.
“I had no stage name, and I wanted to get a stage name. I went to the beach two Sundays before the actual competition, and I came back all burnt by the sun; and a nephew looked at me and he said, ‘You look like a red plastic bag!’
“It was so funny, I said, ‘You know what? That is the name that I’m going to use’. Because it was different. It wasn’t Lord anybody; it wasn’t King anybody; it wasn’t Mighty anybody. It was just simply Red Plastic Bag.”
Today there are other versions of the sobriquet, with fans affectionately referring to him as RPB or just Bag.
What he didn’t know at the time was that the 1979 competition would be just the beginning of a successful career.
“Having gone in the competition in ’79, I enjoyed it; it was fun. I actually won in 1979, and my life changed forever. Because I went on to win again in 1980 and 1981 . . . and quite a few people around started to say to me you know maybe you should enter the national competition.
“It was around 1982 when the Conquerors Calypso Tent was formed, and I –– reluctantly I should say –– joined the tent, because I really wasn’t one for the limelight; even now I still feel a little uncomfortable with all the attention. And I decided to become part of the tent,” RPB said.
But he readily admits that calypso was not his first career choice, as he had set his sights on becoming either a teacher or a policeman “because I like working with people and helping people. But I never saw myself on stage”.
He continued to balance calypso and his work with cargo companies Caribbean Air Cargo (Caricargo) and Laparkan for another 16 years before deciding to pursue entertainment as a full-time career that would allow him to pursue his passion of helping people.
“I ended up being able to work a lot with people and being able to help people through music and especially in schools. I’ve been able to use my career to speak to children, to influence the thinking of children. And that for me is quite fulfilling –– to be able to help.”
RPB would go on to cop nine calypso monarch titles and in the process win a legion of fans in Barbados, the Caribbean and the Diaspora.
He won his first national title in 1982 with Mr Harding, a commentary on the state of the economy at the time, referencing the symbolic Mr Harding which depicted the hard times between the sugar crops, and Sugar Made Us Free, a tribute to the contribution of the sugar industry to the island’s economic development. But it was 1989 he singled out as a “special year” for him, having won the calypso monarch title with De Country Ain’t Well and the controversial Pluck It.
“I see myself as a representative of the masses. I see myself as that person who is getting the opportunity to speak for those who don’t get a chance to speak out. So every time I get an opportunity to write a song, or to go on stage and perform a song, I feel as if I need to represent, so to speak.
“So I’m always seeing the calypso stage, especially as a social commentator, I always see the calypso stage . . . as my parliament.”
These days, RPB no longer competes in the Pic-O-De-Crop; but he treats the public to an annual supply of “feel good” songs.
“Especially in these times when people are under lots of stress, and struggle; and things are tough, I try to make songs that can lift the spirit of people; make them happy,” he said.
Indeed, who can forget 2010 when Britain’s Prince Harry joined RPB and Mac Fingall onstage to dance to the ever-popular Something’s Happening during a fund-raising concert for Haiti which had been struck by a magnitude 7.1 earthquake.
This, no doubt, is one of several memories of his career to date.
“I remember in 1996, in terms of being onstage, I had the opportunity to perform at Radio City Music Hall, and being one of the top performing centres in the world, to me that was quite an achievement and quite a feeling being there as well.
“Being able to perform not only there, but at Madison Square Garden and the Apollo Theatre –– you know, performing centres like these can be quite a lot to comprehend for some person coming from pretty much obscurity,” Bag reflected.
Outside of performing, RPB has penned a number of hits for local and regional artistes, including the late Mighty Arrow of Montserrat, Swallow of Antigua, Square One, TC, Natahlee and Ras Iley.
He also works with several organizations in the Diaspora to raise funds for worthy causes in Barbados.
“These are organizations that have done quite well in terms of making major contributions to Barbados, and I have been part of them; and anything I can do to help my country, I’m willing to do. I’m a proud Barbadian,” he said.
This year’s 50th Independence anniversary is a source of immense pride for RPB, who says Barbados has countless reasons to celebrate.
“I’m a proud Barbadian. I think it’s going to be a proud time for Barbados as a nation. I think that as a small country we’ve been punching above our weight, and doing quite well as a small nation.
“What I’m hoping to come out of all the celebration is a rekindling of that pride . . . that patriotic feel that we’ve always had about our country.”
Bag noted that while the country had made strides in education and health, there was need for improvement in the
“I think that we need to retool the minds of our people in terms of how they approach life. I think that education has to be a very well rounded thing; so we have to teach our children from early and make them understand that growth is not just about being able to go to school and learn something and write it down. They have to grow as individuals, grow in terms of their attitudes, in terms of their approach to life in general.”
And RPB says Barbadians can count on him to continue to play his part, through song, in the continued development of his beloved country.
“I am hoping that I can do my little part. But as it relates to contributing to the development of young people, I have always put my hand up and said, ‘Yes, I am willing to be a part of that’.”