“They say Romeo does talk, but the people don’t listen to parents, politicians or priests, but the calypsonians get an ear because we are the vehicle to inform the masses.” Charles “Romeo” Smith, November 2016.
Charles Romeo Smith was laid to his eternal rest yesterday having enriched Barbados’ cultural landscape since 1963. He left many cherished memories and moments in the hearts and minds of Barbadians as well as the several colleagues with whom he would have rubbed shoulders professionally for more than five decades.
Over the years Romeo would have produced a body of work that included such gems as Scavengers from the late 1960s, the 1973 classic A Land So Dear, as well as his 1981 Pic-O-De-Crop-winning selections Brother Fuzzy and Gem Gone. Though he never won the crown again, Romeo remained a permanent fixture in Barbados’ premier cultural event – the Crop Over Festival – and gave of his music, time, advice and affection to those who sang beside him and those who watched him in the audience.
However, it is a pity that the huge volume of songs which he would have performed over the past decades is not part of a catalogue stored by calypso tents or the National Cultural Foundation for posterity. It is one of the weaknesses of our festival that many excellent songs are lost forever annually because they do not make it out of the tents in terms of recordings or due to the lack of advancement in the Pic-O-De-Crop competition.
Following Romeo’s death accolades have streamed from several sources. They have referred to his love of country, the art form, his willingness to help others, his unselfish nature, his good heart, his penchant for sharing ideas and encouraging young calypsonians, his dedication to fighting causes in the name of fellow calypsonians and his ever affable nature. During remarks following Romeo’s passing, Minister of Creative Economy, Culture and Sports John King had this to say: “I think that when the historians begin to write, that his name will be mentioned in a good place as one of the pioneers. But also if you study his work, some of the things that he sang, he used Barbadian dialect well, he used Barbadian sayings. Romeo was such a gem.” Mr King’s predecessor Mr Stephen Lashley was in similar tongue and tone, noting that Romeo would be remembered for his significant contribution to the development and enhancement of the calypso art form in Barbados and beyond. “Romeo has left an indelible mark on the history of calypso in Barbados and we applaud his selfless contribution, even during times of personal difficulty,” Lashley said.
And here is where Romeo’s story gets somewhat sad. Romeo last appeared on a calypso stage in 2008 and even then he was not 100 per cent in terms of his health. And we ask the question, what was done between 2008 and May 2018 to show this Barbadian gem how much he was appreciated? How did the Government – specifically the Ministry of Culture and the National Cultural Foundation – demonstrate the nation’s respect and admiration for this calypsonian? How did the calypso tents and fellow calypsonians with whom he was associated demonstrate that Romeo’s worth was tremendous in their estimation? How did Barbados react in this national treasure’s moments of greatest vulnerability over the last decade?
We respect and agree with all the praises which have been showered on the late Charles Romeo Smith. But did he know these things? Did Barbados officially convey its appreciation for him and his contributions to his face or within his earshot in a major way? Good or great things said in a eulogy might make the living feel warm and fuzzy but they do nothing for the deceased. Eulogies are not for the dead.
While expressing his gratitude that Barbados had honoured Anthony Gabby Carter for his contributions to calypso, Romeo once said in an interview that more calypsonians were deserving of the country’s highest honours. He noted then that Barbados’ 50th anniversary celebrations were particularly appropriate to do such as it would remind everyone of the importance of the music of Barbados. Unfortunately, it seems that our cultural performers are often placed somewhere near the bottom rungs of the ladder with respect to accolades and national recognition while politicians and to some extent academics are placed at the top. Our history is replete with too many examples of persons who have made tremendous contributions to Barbados but meaningful national recognition was often slow or late in coming.
The likes of musician Lord Radio and sportspersons Seymour Nurse and Kathy Harper-Hall, cultural practitioner and trade unionist Nigel Harper, educators Viola Davis, Charles Pilgrim and Pamela Hinkson, attorney-at-law Robert Bobby Clarke and several others, have left an indelible mark on the lives of thousands of Barbadians and on the Barbadian tapestry. But do they know how much we appreciate them? Perhaps, this is the time to start praising them from the church steeples when they can hear, rather than do it when they lie in a box in the aisle where they can’t.