Over the Boundary: King Onyan

This is a throwback to an article I did for the Calypso Association 50th anniversary magazine in 2007. In the interest of increasing awareness of the accomplishments of some of our iconic calypsonians and increasing appreciation for the art form, I figured I would share some of that issue with you. This particular article looked at a quartet of repeat-repeat-repeat winners. in this post, I’ll share the section of that article focused on King Onyan (as it ran, so some of the info will be dated), who came from the soca/party world as one of the original Burning Flames to create sparks on and off the stage in the calypso world. The previous excerpt from this article focused on Queen Ivena. DO NOT repost without permission or credit.

Onyan’s record breaking run as Calypso Monarch marked the competition’s most controversial period in recent years. The fact that he came from the jam band music scene as the distinctive sweet voice behind so many Burning Flames hits and claimed the title with Flamesesque ditties like ‘Swim’ went down with the Calypso die-hards about as smoothly as weeks-old milk. And as Maxine Allen wrote in 1997’s Calypso Talk, even Toriano ‘Onyan’ Edwards had his reservations. “He is not sure that he is comfortable with the Calypso idea – ‘I am a dance man’, he says. And obviously his writing style is inspired by dance, by movement of people on the road or in the fetes.”

But the saying “Don’t hate the player; hate the game” is probably the best fit here. Just as he’d done with his brothers since segueing to soca in 1985 and claiming the road march with ‘Stylie Tight’, Onyan dominated the Calypso stage before retiring undefeated. He eclipsed both Obstinate and Short Shirt, when he saw their three back-to-back-to-back wins and raised them four, making him the one to match as far as most consecutive wins is concerned. No one has done it yet.

‘Crazy Man’, the title track from his first solo album earned him his first crown and was picked up for the popular Soca Gold series put out by VP Records. The song chronicled the musical rift between him and his band of brothers. It also earned him 1997’s road march and party monarch titles.

Perhaps Onyan’s best remembered performance, however, is 1998’s ‘Stand Up for Antigua’. His producer, Dr. Prince Ramsey told the Daily Observer in 2005, “It was the right song at the right time (and) Onyan did deliver that night.” The flag waving masses at the ARG that night agreed, and so did the judges. Some newspaper reviews at the time were effusive; with comparisons to the past greats flying every which way. Timothy Payne wrote in the Sun at the time, that Onyan’s ‘Stand Up for Antigua’ was “so well delivered, he merely had to show up for the second round to retain his crown.”

The controversy did not abate, with the 1999 breakaway competition of the Calypso Association attesting to the discontent in the fraternity at the time. Meanwhile, pundits like Leonard ‘Tim’ Hector called in his Fan the Flame column for a “top ranking spanking” for those behind Onyan’s 2000 win. And the 2001 stage provided a platform for others to vent – see Ivena’s ‘Ms. Calypso’, de Bear’s ‘Calypso Come Home’, and King Fiah’s ‘De People’s King’ – about the Onyan years. The King had already delivered his last lick with 2000’s Criteria in which he sang, “is foolishness they chatting, they don’t study the criteria for judging”, before leaving the competition stage.

Onyan has not slowed since; he’s continued to enjoy popularity with tunes like ‘Back to Burning Flames’, ‘Riddim Box’, and ‘Passa Passa Party’. These days he’s performing again under the Burning Flames banner, though the lingering musical fracture with his old band means that it’s twice as hot for fans with two Flames – Burning and Red Hott – heating up the place.

FYI, here’s a short cut to some other calypso related links on the site: this is a report from the launch of the book on the Monarch King Short Shirt by veteran calypso writer – Dorbrene O’Marde; an article on that book being short listed for the regional Bocas prize and why it matters; an article on Antigua’s King of the Road – Swallow; an article on Marcus Christopher – the late great calypso writer and key figure in the development of the art form and of Carnival locally; a piece on pre calypso pioneer Quarko; an article on Short Shirt’s documentarian and the birth of his film; a piece on Short Shirt’s 50th; the site’s evolving songwriters’ data base – dominated by, you guessed it, calypso writers; an article on King Obstinate; a reflection on Latumba; a review of Dorbrene’s book by D. Gisele Isaac; a video retrospective – King Obstinate; an article on bandleader and key figure in the development of the art form – Oscar Mason; Lesroy Merchant was, among other things, a calypso writer – we remembered him here on the site when he passed; Short Shirt article; my review of his classic Ghetto Vibes album

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,  Fish Outta Water, Oh Gad!, and Musical Youth). 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 and/or follow the site to keep up with future updates. Thanks. And remember while linking and sharing the links, referencing and excerpting, with credit, are okay, lifting whole content (articles,  images, other) from the site without asking is not cool. And using any creative work without crediting the creator will open you up to legal action. Respect copyright.

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