Professor Gordon Rohlehr, the ‘finest mind regarding calypso,’ dies at age 80 in Trinidad

Screenshot of Professor Gordon Rohlehr taken from the YouTube video entitled ‘Professor Gordon Rohlehr (1942-2023)’ by Visual Art and Production.

Professor Emeritus at The University of the West Indies’ (UWI) Trinidad campus, Gordon Rohlehr, who spent much of his life writing and educating people about calypso music, died on January 29 at the age of 80. Considered an expert on the history, development and social relevance of the art form, Rohlehr authored many books on the subject. He also had a keen interest in the region's oral poetry and cricket history, and was regarded as one of the Caribbean's most precious cultural resources.

Born in Guyana in 1942, Rohlehr gained his tertiary education at the University College of the West Indies in Jamaica, graduating in 1964 with a first-class honours degree in English Literature. Four years later, he would take up a post at UWI's Trinidad campus teaching the subject, and it was there he found a home for his ideas, research and academic pursuits, spending 40 years of his life at the university. His passionate, well researched and groundbreaking work on Caribbean literature and culture — most notably calypso — quickly made him a sought-after authority, having written several noteworthy books and hundreds of papers on those topics. He also generously shared his passion and expertise in numerous lectures and interviews.

One of his most important pieces of work was 1990's Calypso and Society in Pre-Independence Trinidad, which explored the development of calypso music from pre-Emancipation to the late 1950s. Unsurprisingly, Rohlehr was a great admirer of The Mighty Sparrow, and in 2015 published a collection of his writings on the “calypso king of the world” entitled, My Whole Life is Calypso: Essays on Sparrow.

Rohlehr once said that his interest in chronicling the journey of calypso music began after attending a meeting of the Caribbean Artists Movement in London, England, circa 1967. In discussing the concept of “the Caribbean aesthetic” with the likes of heavy hitters like Barbadian poet Kamau Brathwaite and novelist George Lamming and Guyanese artist Aubrey Williams, Rohlehr reportedly suggested that one way to consider it would be “to look at what Caribbean people have done and to create, through a close dialogue with the material, some way of talking about their achievement and of distinguishing what is peculiarly Caribbean about it”:

If you employ that method, beginning with the work — Walcott’s poetry, Sparrow’s calypsoes, Selvon’s novels — you might then be able to recognise recurring features. If for example, you read Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners and short stories alongside Sparrow’s calypsoes you might discover something that was peculiarly Trinidadian in both of these people […] Those were not my exact words, of course; only a paraphrase of the sense of what I said. Then someone, one of the big voices, said, ‘If this is the way you feel, why don’t you do it?’

Rohlehr did it so well that he found himself in great demand from foreign universities, earning Visiting Professor stints at Harvard, Johns Hopkins, Tulane, and Dartmouth in the United States, and at York and the University of Toronto in Canada. It was at home in the Caribbean, however, that people felt his loss viscerally.

The Office of the President of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, in extending condolences, quoted part of the citation for Rohlehr's investiture when he was presented in 2022 with a national award, the Chaconia Medal (Silver), for his work in the spheres of literature, culture, history and education:

Professor Emeritus Rohlehr designed, piloted and taught the first course in West Indian Literature. He later became active in the expansion and development of the course offerings in English and was central to the introduction and teaching of American Literature and Post Colonial Literature. His conviction was that literature had a fundamental role to play in developing adequate self-awareness without prejudice to the requirements of the wider world. His publications demonstrate insight, critical awareness and consciousness of the integration of the many social, historical, linguistic and political currents undergirding Caribbean reality.

His most significant contribution to raise national consciousness has been his phenomenal work on calypso. He has traced calypso's historical development and social relevance and has explored issues such as masculinity and gender long before these terms gained currency.

In a private Facebook post that Global Voices was given permission to republish, his colleague Dr. Gabrielle Hosein remembered Rohlehr as a “Caribbean academic legend”:

He was ubiquitously recognized as the finest mind regarding calypso and a deep philosopher of the Caribbean. His writing was thoughtful and lyrical, illuminating and precise. He was also kind, affable, humorous, encouraging and warm. For decades I’d cross his path here and there and he would always stop to chat, a gentle giant of a man. The Caribbean will not be the same without him here. A Guyanese son of the soil, and Caribbean man, of the kind heralded by Black Stalin. He was an era, now passed. May the angels sing kaiso and more kaiso to welcome him home. […]

He was a man to celebrate and one whose contribution will live on forever. My sincerest condolences to his family and to all who knew him, loved him, respected him, read him, and learned from him. Santimanitay. Santimanitay 🖤

More tributes poured in on Facebook. Geraldine Elizabeth Skeete called Rohlehr “one of a kind,” “a legend and a treasured scholar of literature and culture.” Colleague Amílcar Presi Sanatan expressed his love, calling Rohlehr “an icon and pioneer […] one of Guyana’s finest sons and Trinidad and Tobago’s greatest treasures.”

Journalist Tony Fraser honoured Rohlehr's intellectualism, noting he has “left behind his unparalleled work in calypso and West Indian literature for the generations to come.” Fellow journalist Soyini Grey added:

So sad that Prof. Rohlehr has left us. And during Carnival no less. 😭 I am grateful for his work on Calypso and that he was so free with his information […] Rest well sir.

Columnist Debbie Jacob, meanwhile, remembered Rohlehr as “an invaluable resource and the person I always turned to first when writing about calypso.”

Former student Juanita Cox Westmaas shared:

This is such sad news. His academic and intellectual study of Calypso was truly ground-breaking. I loved his generosity of spirit and laughter. As a young(ish) PhD student in the early 2000s I found him to be a genuinely kind and intellectually inspiring man.

Sonja Gopeesingh agreed that he was a “most beloved” professor:

We shall feel your absence intensely in what is becoming a Wasteland. Thank God we still have you in the written word. How I wish every lecture you did on campus was recorded. You shall forever tower in my mind as our most formidable Prof who shaped all of us with all the wealth of literary perspectives you could possibly bring to the table. […] Your voice is etched in my consciousness so much that I have often felt like your satellite. Safe journey for you our dearest soul. You have created such a Caribbean consciousness.

Finally, in a stirring and deeply personal post, Professor Kenneth Ramchand called Rohlehr's passing “shocking and grievous”:

I am trembling. We had a long and impactful working relationship in The Department of Literatures in English. We had unambiguous respect and appreciation for each other as persons and for the meshing of our different skills. He was cool. In the English corridors we had epic conversations, balancing securely on humour, irony and despair, about life, literature, calypso, politics and cricket. Condolences to his family, his friends and colleagues, and to the thousands of students, teachers, and professors who loved and enjoyed his teaching and writing, and were warmed by his embracing presence. I already miss your being at the other end, Gordon. It never crossed my mind that either of us could lose our wicket.

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