Quarkoo, circa 1942. (Museum of Antigua and Barbuda archival photo)

Quarkoo, circa 1942. (Museum of Antigua and Barbuda archival photo)

Quarko’s stage was the streets. He was what some refer to as a “town crier”, and his lyrics were controversial enough to get him jailed. In the spirit of Calypsonians to come, the improvisational singer touched on the day’s scandals, dragging them kicking and screaming from the boudoirs of society’s upper echelon’s into broad daylight. This was in 1940s Antigua, a fact that makes his ribald satire at the expense of those who held the reigns of power nothing short of fearless.

Later Calypso writer Shelly Tobitt, one of Antigua’s best, in his ‘Look (What They’ve Done to My Song)’ referenced Quarko, positioning him as first in a long line of revolutionary Calypsonians. In the song, delivered by Figgy in 2001, he wrote:

“Say do you remember when dey jail Quarko

for singing about de gal de governor rape

and do you remember Swallow’s ‘March for Freedom’

when Halstead ban the liberation day parade

Surely, you remember my good friend Latumba

When he told the committee ‘Culture must be Free’

Tell me you remember ‘Stand up, Grenada’, ‘Not by Might’, ‘Power and Authority’

Those songs were our very souls

Living deep within our hearts

Saying to the world, this is who we are…”

Quarko, whose real name is John Thomas, was as this lyric clearly demonstrates more than a singer of repetitive, folksy, colourful, tongue-in-cheek rhymes à la…

“Maude smell donkey, she smell so funky

Me gee she water, me gee she soap

And she still smell funky!”

He helped establish Benna-cum-Calypso’s irreverent sometimes revolutionary tone; and, as Calypso continues to do, he helped demonstrate that the folk were interesting characters in their own right. Poet Veronica Evanson-Bernard put it this way in her book Coconut Walk:

“History’s not about great kings and wars

and empires and countries and things beyond our shores.

History’s, too, what people do, common people like me and you

and that’s the real meaning of songs by Quarko.”

Quarko also pioneered the commercialization of the art form. He ‘recorded’ and sold his songs. By recorded, we mean that he printed and retailed his lyrics. Further, as noted in the history of Calypso piece in this very publication, he took his Calypsos to other islands. As that article summarizes, “Quite the beginning!” for Quarko and Calypso.

As with all content (words, images, other) on wadadlipen.wordpress.com, except otherwise noted, this is written by Joanne C. Hillhouse (author of The Boy from Willow Bend, Dancing Nude in the Moonlight, and Oh Gad!). This particular one was among several articles I did for the Calypso Association’s 50th anniversary magazine – I also served as consulting editor on that project. So, All Rights Reserved. If you enjoyed it, check out my page on Amazon, WordPress, and/or Facebook, and help spread the word about WadadliPen and my books. You can also subscribe to the site to keep up with future updates. Thanks. And remember while linking and sharing the links, referencing and excerpting, are okay, lifting content (words, images, other) from the site without asking is not cool. Respect copyright.

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