king-short-shirtA gentleman and a Calypsonian

Poverty, pride and patriotism – Calypso legend King Short Shirt’s rise to royalty

Long considered the voice of social conscience, Calypso music is characterised by its upbeat West Indian rhythms, punchy lyrics and harmonic vocals. With roots in 17th century West Africa, the genre has a proud history of challenging the powers that be through satire and stinging censure. And few performers have earned their stripes as soundly as McLean Leroy Emanuel, aka King Short Shirt.

Over the last five decades, the man they call ‘The Monarch’ has earned the country’s Calypso Crown 15 times and put the nation squarely on the world’s musical map. Here the charismatic septuagenarian discusses his childhood, his hopes for the dying artform - and how to make fungee fit for a king.

First things first, how did you get the name?

Growing up as a boy from a poor family, my sister ‘Tiny’ used to make all my shirts. To save on material, they were always much shorter than the norm. In the street the other kids used to call me ‘Short Shirt’ and I took it as a nickname. When I decided to get involved in Carnival, the organisers asked me what my Calypso name was. I said I didn’t have one and they said, well, what do people call you? I said, they call me Short Shirt and it stuck. I would have liked a fancier name, (laughs) like Lord Kitchener, Obstinate or Mighty Swallow (Calypso contemporaries) but, out of lack of finance, came a name.

What was it like growing up in Antigua?

I grew up in Point and I now live just around the corner in Villa. I grew up in paradise. My father was a very good fisherman so we were never hungry. In those days, things were very different to now. As boys we used to ride on go karts, shoot birds, or cut out of school and go down ‘washing basin’ for a swim. That’s what we used to call it, the area where Deep Water Harbour in St John’s is now.

How did you get into music?

I think music is in me. The question is, how it comes out of me (laughs). I was always singing when I was a boy, I’d just make up songs about things I saw. Later, I started winning the Calypso crown and getting famous. The key to my longevity is with assistance from our talented songwriters like Stanley Humphreys who I have worked with for more than 30 years and has written over 100 songs for me, and Marcus Christopher and Shelly Tobitt. I’m a political person, I like politics, I always wanted to express things other people may not be able to without my podium. I am glad and happy to sing songs to help and educate. Quite often it’s got me into trouble, and made some politicians not like me! I see things that are not right - people suffering, people being hungry, or people misbehaving in public office. Thankfully we do have free speech in Antigua now but that wasn’t always the case.

What’s the future of Calypso?

It’s in danger. I think younger artists can do more to save it. They really need to keep it the way we had it with good social commentary, songs that make you laugh. The soca people need to bring some interesting lyrics, not just loose ‘boom boom boom’ lyrics. Over in St Thomas, my 10-year-old son ‘Prince Short Shirt’ just won Junior Calypso for the third year running.

What’s your favourite Antiguan dish?

Did you know I am actually a chef too? From 1963 to 2006 I ran Shorty’s Glass Bottom Boat tours. I used to do all the cooking for the trips; local recipes, like fresh conch curry, red bean rice, served with fresh mango and pineapple and Shorty’s famous rum punch. I am a good fungee and okra man; the secret is a little nice butter, a little salt, blend it with some okra, have a little saltfish or ling fish nicely stewed down with garlic and thyme, and tomato paste to give it a little colour. That’s a Sunday morning breakfast right there.

What makes you a proud Antiguan? Why should more people visit?

I think it’s one of the finest places in the Caribbean. It’s a beautiful country, the layout is nice and the people are friendly. Our soil is fantastic and we grow the best fruit and veg. I am a resident of the United States but I spend most of my time here. This is home and there’s no place like home. I would tell tourists, come and see paradise, come and enjoy our 365 beaches, there’s even more to be discovered. Come and meet people like me and Vivian Richards and the rest of the superstars here; you will have no regrets.

How would you like to be remembered?

As a wonderful person who really loved the artform, his kids, wife, friends, fans and his country. And as one of the greatest Calypsonians who faced this earth. If I could give people one piece of advice, I would tell them to be caring and to look after their children. They are our future doctors, politicians and judges. They are our future, everything is in their hands.

by Gemma Handy