This week’s ‘Special Person’ is the ‘Mighty Rebel’
“Don’t enter the arena for money since there is none to be gained. You have to love it with a passion.”
‘Mighty Rebel’, a household name, is known and loved throughout Guyana. The little man with the big melodious voice became a favourite for his hard-hitting, controversial, witty lyrics and soulful gyrations. Many persons, particularly the older ones, can sing along to the words of his more popular hits like ‘Desi Yuh Wrong,” Rebel doan sing bout that’ and “Little Angie.”
He holds the title of the most decorated local calypsonian, having won five national Mashramani crowns along with four others from privately sponsored competitions. This little giant has written more than 700 songs and performed more than 5000 around the world.
His singing ability was personally acknowledged by the State of California, as well as the then Mayor of Ottawa, Marian Dewar, in 1981.
Those who have had the pleasure of meeting him can attest to his unassuming, friendly personality and quick witted nature.
But few may know and truly appreciate the invaluable contributions and tremendous inroads this calypsonian has made to this music genre.
His music career spans more than three decades during which he has been instrumental in advancing and preserving calypso music in Guyana.
In an effort to inspire and train others in perfecting the art form, he has been mentor to a large number of budding calypsonians at various levels of competition.
Among the persons he has tutored are reigning calypso monarch Young Bill Rogers, Mighty VJ and Lady Explainer.
As Mashramani 2K9 rolls around, Kaieteur News recognizes the sterling contributions of Mighty Rebel as this week’s Special Person.
Mighty Rebel, who was christened Geoffrey Phillips, was born in Evans Street, Charlestown, on November 7, 1945.
Migrating to Good Intent village on the West Bank of Demerara at a tender age, he obtained his primary education at the then La Retraite Church of Scotland School.
Unlike most musicians who claim that they discover their natural abilities from a young age, as a boy, Phillips had no idea that he could even ‘hold a tune.’ Even though he attended church services regularly he was never a member of the choir and it was not clear if anyone even knew that he could sing.
As is normal, he had a regular appreciation for the lyrics of the day to which he would sing along.
His father owned a banjo but he was never bothered about learning to play it. When his father died one of his friends taught him to play it. That marked his real introduction into things musical as he enjoyed this activity immensely, so much so that within a few months he decided that he wanted to move on from a four to six-stringed instrument. He saved up his pennies and bought himself a guitar which he taught himself to play.
One could say that at age 20, Phillips officially began his contribution to the music industry of Guyana when he along with some friends formed a string orchestra called the ‘Hermits’.
Recounting the rocky establishment of the group, Phillips related that one of his friends, Vincent James, who was a ‘mean guitar player”, had already been identified to be the lead guitar player in the upcoming group. There was only one problem; while they had the human resources, they had no instruments.
One day, Vincent was walking along the street when he ran into a young man by the name of Raymond Henry. Henry, a staunch Christian, was also a guitar player who was returning from church with his prized musical instrument. Vincent asked him to lend it to him a while to strike up a tune. His godly nature caused Henry to oblige.
Starved for an implement to vent his pent up musical prowess, Vincent grabbed the guitar and launched into a lengthy, passionate medley of secular music.
Aghast, Henry shrieked, “You have made this guitar sinful, I can no longer use it in service to God” He offered to sell it to the boys for five dollars.
The young men hastily took up the offer, noting that “God works in mysterious ways.”
At last they had at least one instrument.
Another band member Joseph Thomas who was agile with his hands built a bass guitar.
The boys then pooled their meagre resources and paid someone to build an amplifier though which the guitars played. Eventually over time, the band expanded its resources and after a few boos from a few audiences began to gain popularity.
‘The Hermits’ even managed to get a few gigs at small functions.
All this time, Phillips was playing guitar for the group, quite unaware that he could make any other tangible contribution.
This was about to change in the most unexpected way.
One Old Year’s Night the group had a gig to play at a cinema on the West Bank of Demerara.
This was big. After all it was Old Year’s Night. But as fate would have it, a few minutes before showtime it was noticed that the lead singer was absent.
Contact made with him revealed that due to a little tiff between him and the group earlier in the day, he was deliberately withholding his services and holding the group at ransom.
The group was in a frenzy and was contemplating canceling the show when Phillips who knew the songs decided to save face by stepping up to the plate and singing.
He remembers that his debut song was “Please don’t you leave me lonely’ which was well received by the audience
“Boy that was it. I sang all night and when the guy called the next night to return to his job, the band told him that he was not needed since they had found another singer who was just as good if not better… I must say I surprised myself and everyone else too.”
There was no stopping him now. Not only did Phillips have a voice but a melodious impacting one too and people instantly took to him shouting ‘sing short man, sing’.
He stayed with the band until 1978 when it disintegrated.
Phillips went to join the Calypsonians’ Association of Guyana that same year and made his debut at the Mash calypso contest in 1979 singing under the name ‘Mighty Rebel’. He placed fourth that year.
In 1980 in the same competition he placed 2nd and then got another 4th and 5th in 1981 and 1982 respectively.
This was followed by a series of second places from 1983 to 1987 successively.
He believes that withholding the crown from him was a deliberate act on the part of the judges because his songs were controversial and against the government of the day.
In 1988, he broke that streak with the song ‘Second Hand Man” which even the judges could not ignore.
This is my dilemma in this Kaiso arena
I do not know why this must be so
From the time I enter they does start to shiver
Especially when they hear my lyrics and melody
Which calypsonian in history get as much second place as me successively
Nobody can answer.
I ask this question time and again still the answer the same
But recently my mother sit down and explain to me
I was born the second year in the century, the second of February
Two o’clock Monday morning, my mother keep on explaining
She said you is my second son cause ah throw away the number one
So don’t be ashamed if they gave you second again
The response was overwhelming. The crowd threw money on stage for this short man with the great voice and infectious personality, and the spell was broken.
A new calypso king was born.
For the next five years he would tour the world with the Chronicle Atlantic Symphony singing in the band along with Compton Hodge and Dan Shultz.
He entered the competition again in 1993 and won the crown again with the famous “Desi yuh wrong”, which was a satirical piece that criticized former president Desmond Hoyte for his role in the 1992 elections after which the government was changed.
He went on to win the calypso monarchy in 1997 with “Political lies”, in 2001 with “Ask the President”, and 2007 with “Is we put yuh deh”.
He also won the soca monarch crown in 1999 with his piece “One step forward, plenty plenty backward”.
As a cultural ambassador for Guyana, Phillips was fortunate to tour the United States on eight separate occasions, performing in and visiting New York, Washington, California, Texas, Delaware and Miami. He has also performed in Ottawa in Canada, Belize, Barbados, Trinidad & Tobago, Antigua, French Guiana and Suriname, among others. His most recent trip was the Guyana Day performance in Queens, New York, last May, where afterwards he was awarded for his contribution to music in Guyana by an organization based in the same state.
Phillips, who is married with nine children, has a distinction in Public Speaking and Communication from the Critchlow Labour College.
Sadly Mighty Rebel has hung up his hat, or in this case “put down his microphone’ from competitive singing.
According to him, last year when he competed at the Mash Calypso competition was his last. In that instance he failed to place.
Phillips said the decision was a difficult one to make since he emphasises “calypso is my life” but believes that the “disrespect and disregard perpetuated against calypsonians have reached an all-time high” and is at a point that he can no longer condone.
“Most of my adult life has been dedicated to calypso singing and it really hurts me to see the way that we are being treated now. I tried to cope with it over the years but things keep getting worse each year and I am at a point where I can no longer function as a calypsonian in this environment.”
According to him, calypsonians “do not have a voice” and are not given a hearing on matters pertaining to their interests.
He lamented the measly amount of money that calyponians are given for performing in the annual Mashramani competition, noting that it is grossly inadequate in meeting even the basic preparation needs for the contest.
“All we get is 15,000 dollars and this is far from sufficient to even get a proper costume and props for us to get onstage. The powers that be just decide what is enough for us, as opposed to meeting with us and letting us agree on a workable sum.”
He compared to purse up for grabs for the soca and calypso Mash Competitions, noting the marked difference in the amounts.
While he will no longer be competing he said he will continue to sing.
He is also desperately working to resuscitate the Calypsonians’ Association of Guyana which he believes will return some credibility to hopefully revive the art form which he sadly noted is dying.
He, however, lamented that there has been no comparable replacement.
“People are drawn now towards the soca music, but it is a sad replacement because calypso has a message while soca music does not. All Soca tells you is to wine yuh bam bam…every soca singer that goes on stage sings actually the same thing as opposed to the calypso music which has a message.”
He also called on the local artistes to be supportive of this venture and to actively participate when the association is resuscitated.
At the moment, Phillips is involved in training persons at all levels desirous of entering competitions.
He worked with a number of individual artistes as well as schools in preparing children for this year’s junior calypso competition as well as the children’s Mashramani competitions.
In an effort to preserve the music genre, his aim is to hold workshops in schools where he can educate on calypso singing.
To aspiring calypsonians he advised, “do not enter the arena for money since there is none to be gained. You have to love it with a passion.”
In this vein he admits that many times over the course of his career, with a family to feed he was tempted to give up, but noted that the love for what he did kept him going.
Lamenting the poor quality of some of the pieces that are being sung nowadays, he reminded that a good calypso is one that is written on a current issue and is witty, ambiguous, yet tasteful.