Swallow, Still Flying High

With yet another plaudit pending, this one a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Soca Awards Organisation, Rupert “Swallow” Philo could rest comfortably at the top – “I’m at the top!” he insists – of Antigua’s calypso triangle of greats.

But he won’t.

He talks animatedly of Pepperpot insisting that there’s much more that he wants to do with the calypso university; a new CD and possible return to competition in 2011; a tell-all book-in-progress (Calypso Backstage); a Calypso Hall of Fame; and his busy touring schedule.

Far from a full stop, Swallow regards accolades like his induction into the Sunshine Hall of Fame, national honours, spots on Calypso and Soca “Best of the Century” lists, and now the International Soca Award as “a kind of inspiration (to) go ahead.”

That said; he’s pleased as punch about the recognition. It shows that people appreciate the work.

And it’s quite a body of work. He has netted four Calypso Monarch crowns – 1973, 1977, 1978, 1985 – and five Road March wins – ’72, ’73, ’75, ’83, ’84. But his legend is greater than the number of crowns thanks to enduring tracks like Satan, Party in Space, March for Freedom, Dawn of a New Day, Subway Jam, and Man to Man to name a few.

That last song, Man to Man, is significant for other reasons. He counts the year of its release, 1976, as his breakthrough year. It marks his crossover from traditional calypso to socalypso. Most significantly, though, it was the year he stopped being a calypso hobbyist and became a calypsonian.  “I only (got) serious (about calypso) when I got fired from LIAT,” Swallow reflected, noting that the incident inspired the song.  “I think that is when Trinidad saw me for the first time,” he said, revealing that he has a $100 bill that he still treasures from when the crowd would shower him with money every time he performed Man to Man at Kitchener’s Revue.

He credits his success and sustainability since to “the amount of work I put in and the quality of the work;” also quality contacts, people like Rawlston Charles, Leston Paul, Frankie McIntosh, William Lewis, and the like.

There’s also a lot to be said for the crossover power of his music. With an eye on the international market, he pays keen attention to the universality of his themes. Of Man to Man, he said, “What happened at LIAT, some time or the other in somebody’s life, it can happen as long as you’re in a job; and I realised that.”

He’s also mindful of language, noting, “You have to spin it around sometimes … even the accent on some of the words.” He believes in craftiness as well; “there should be a story, there should always be a story,” he said, noting that artistes need to be creative in telling that story. His high level of showmanship – from the sharp suits and flying cape to his natural charisma and soaring vocals – guarantee a high level of entertainment. And, he readily acknowledges that the rivalry that was the hallmark of his relationship with that other giant, Short Shirt, helped sharpen his skills. He told himself then, “This is what I have to fight with and I have to be as good or better.”

All of that may now be legendary lore, but he remains relevant, and motivated. Though still saddened by the theft of his favourite guitar, Gertrude, he can be heard, he said, at all hours strumming and laying down melodies on tape. And he doesn’t rule out returning to competition, arguing that it could be just the injection of excitement that the flagging Calypso Monarch Show needs.

Either way, a CD of 10 new songs is planned, and Pepperpot will be cooking. There, he keeps a critical eye over the art form; as dean of the university, he gives calypsonians an honest assessment when they approach him with “boss, wha me do wrong tonight?” He doesn’t only school them, he said, on performance, but on the business including registering their songs and collecting on royalties. The way he sees it, “What I have or what I experience, when God says ‘I’m ready’, I can’t take it.”

In fact, he plans to leave bits and pieces of it behind in more tangible ways – there’s the book and the Hall of Fame idea; the latter languishing for several years since his submitted proposal, he said, didn’t even merit a response from the powers that be. The way he sees it, it should be more than a black tie affair but a physical space where the young ones can learn of the ones that came before.

He’s regretful that this hasn’t yet come to pass but, generally, he said, he’s not bitter. “I’m alive, I’ve been places, and I know I can keep going … if I ask for more God will say, ‘Swallow, you presumptuous’.”

Presumptuous, indeed; after all, he’s a living legend and a working calypsonian with New York, St Kitts, Miami, Orlando, Atlanta, England and Boston among his tour stops from now to Christmas.

He said it: “I’m having a nice life.”