A walk with Roy Cape

Journalist Nyerere Haynes reports on his interview of famed musician  and bandleader Dr. Roy Cape, Trinidad Guardian Jan. 18, 2012.

I arrived at the home of legendary musician and bandleader Roy Cape; he’s already at his front gate signalling to me to park in the garage adjacent to his charming burgundy home. When I get out of the car he asks me if I made it to his place all right. He shouldn’t have worried, as his directions landed me right at his front door. Before we could get the interview started, he takes me to a room where his computer stands and proceeds to show me his moving performance of a song done by Black Stalin for his Honorary Doctorate acceptance ceremony on YouTube. We stand watching the performance silently…all the while, Cape is unable to remain still, and fingers an invisible saxophone with his knees slightly bent, as he relives one of the sweetest performances of his career. He goes on to tell me about the week of non-stop preparation for the performance where he re-worked the song and played it “into eternity” until he was finally satisfied. Yet still, at the ceremony, spontaneity ushers itself in an element towards the end of the song that was befitting of the occasion.

“I didn’t plan the phrasing of the final bars of the song, but in the moment, I was filled with so much happiness and appreciation that it happened that way,” Cape says in his soft, yet gravelly tones. “It was all about giving the fans a performance they would never forget.” We relocate to his living room and the first thing I notice are his trophies, accolades and pictures all proudly on display upon his television cabinet. The photos tell a story of his long journey and the labour of love that has seen Cape and his band through the years. He proudly states that music is his vocation and while he did other jobs periodically, it was the music that truly opened up the world to him. “In this vocation, people like myself pay a lot of attention to the needs of the audience. Through the years I’ve received awards through different bands but the greatest award is one from the public. They awarded me with love, appreciation and admiration for my service to the people and country. When this happens it creates a space for what has happened…me receiving an honorary doctorate for my life-long journey,” he says.

Cape’s love for music has been a passion that burned within his spirit since a tender age. As a child he would spend the majority of his time at panyards and by age of eleven he purchased his own pan. However, his mother gave it away—that wasn’t the life she wanted for the young Cape. Her death a year later would see Cape making a decision which would ultimately define him. The choices that lay before him were either to go to Grenada to live with his grandmother or to live at an orphanage that is now known as the St Dominic’s Home. He chose the latter and it was at that very orphanage where he would join the steelband (and later the music band) where he started playing the clarinet and later the alto sax.

He recalled the days of playing at the calypso tent Kingdom of the Wizard under William Munroe; the band that he would eventually lead. “When I was approached by Monroe to lead the band, I asked him if I would be able to determine the salaries of the musicians. He tell me to submit a budget and that was the beginning of what would become the Roy Cape All-Stars,” Cape relates, smiling. “We did shows, studio work and jammed on the road with some the best…(he counts them off on his fingers) Black Stalin, Sparrow, Kitchener, young Machel Montano, Arrow, Swallow, Beckett, Gabby, Duke, Super Blue, Shadow, Rose. Is so many people we work with, even younger singers during the Keskidee Caravan days like Homefront, Denise Belfon and Supa Chile. This was a nice time of mixing the music with that project by Mr Robert Amar.”

He goes on about the years of opportunities the band has had working with some of the most highly regarded calypsonians in the world. I ask him about his most memorable experience leading the Roy Cape All Stars. He rubs his bearded chin and thinks a bit as he mentally searches though his many salient memories. “Apart from playing the music…I would have to say performing as a Soca Monarch finalist in 1998 with a song called Jam Meh Mr Cape. It was an experience I had never thought about…it was like I walking in a dream. I placed ninth in the competition out of 30-something contestants. I have to say that I was very much satisfied with my involvement at that level,” Cape recalls.

I shake my head in agreement, expecting to hear more positive reminiscing. “I can still remember my first journeys outside of Trinidad. It was in 1961 that I was a part of an inter-island tour…we went Barbados, Grenada, St Vincent and Antigua. Things could have gone wrong…things went wrong.” He drops a bomb. “We got thrown out of a hotel,” Cape says, and abruptly changes the subject. I steer him back to the topic because, well…I have to know what went down. Cape frowns. “The show buss nah; the promoter couldn’t pay the bill. We were lucky. Good Samaritans take us in and let us stay by them. Those things wasn’t strange in them days. Shows used to buss, shows does still buss.”

Thankfully, the hardships faced by Cape back then are now replaced with lavish accommodations whenever he travels with the band. “People putting me up in five star hotels and all kinda thing now; I don’t need all that but they tell me it comes with the territory so I humbly accept it,” Cape says, grinning. We talk some more, until it’s time for me to head back. Cape gives me directions again to get on the road safe. We part and the music is still in my head. I can’t help but think about this humble man, who has accepted the honour on behalf of all the other musicians who have gone before him, those who currently strive to keep the culture alive and those who are yet to come.

He knows that what he has received is not easy to come by; his life is a testament to that. First published in Distinguished Gentleman December 2011/ January 2012 Carnival.

For original post: A walk with Roy Cape | The Trinidad Guardian Newspaper.

Author: Ken Archer

I am an ethnomusicologist, who obtained my doctoral degree at the Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio. My areas of interests include the musical, ritual, and celebratory traditions of the circum-Caribbean and the African Diaspora. I worked as a lecturer at the Columbus and Marion Campuses of the Ohio State University, where I taught classes in World Music, Rock and Roll/American Popular Music, Western Art Music, and directed the OSU Steel Pan ensemble.