Wayne “Birdie” Kirton — The Musician from Belmont

March 31, 2024

Celebrating a Cultural Crusader

Wayne Birdie Kirton

In celebrating the life of Wayne “Birdie” Kirton one of our serious veteran composers, arrangers, and musician extraordinaire, I was inspired to a quest to set things straight and in motion - a perspective and insight of culture. Birdie was born on August 1st 1947 in Belmont, Trinidad and Tobago. He was a gifted musical prodigy from one of Belmont’s musical families. In this Freetown space thrived communities of gifted families. The spiritual dominance were Rada, Catholic, Anglican, Pentecostal and Lodge communities. There were Anglican, Catholic, private schools, convents and an orphanage. There were other types of education/creative spaces of pan-yards, mas- camps and sports clubs. Let us step back for a moment to look at the even bigger picture:

The Importance of the Who in Cultural Heritage

While we’ve made moves to raise the consciousness re our heritage spaces, more often than not, we’ve put the cart before the horse. We seem to never start with the ‘Who’. Without ‘Who’, there can be no What, Where, When, Why and Which. The living breath, or ‘inspiration’, which filled the length and breadth of these spaces, was inhaled and exhaled by the ‘Who’: those who lived there, leaving legacies. In Wayne Kirton, we mark the passing of a cultural crusader, a “who”, that you may not have heard of, but who affected us all, in the evolution of the music that shaped our identity.

Addressing Cultural Oversights

Since our Independence in the 60s there were two major latent occurrences which took place: The superficial ‘Celebration’, where we went on recess, as it were, and we never returned to class. The other, was our attempt to shape culture, but we viewed it with a closed or narrow aperture and never opened it with a scientific gaze nor inclusion. There are, among us, some who understand this latent dynamic but are unable to resolve it. The tendency is, therefore, toward unscientific repetition that is driven by under-researched anthropology, musicology and mis-information.

The Forgotten Musicians

The other question of concern is this: Why are so many of our important musicians/artists, thinkers and writers left out of our cultural lexicon? There were so many gifted musicians who accompanied and/or arranged our music, from our catalogue of old calypsos all the way to our modern era Soca compositions, who we do not know about. They had developed sophisticated a music and musical language that the steel bands emulated, and NOT the other way around, which we don’t acknowledge. Is it because we are locked into a too nationalistic representation of culture? Locked into the national instrument and its players, and solely focused on the management and organization of the culture that creates celebrities and ignores the creators?

Birdie in the group Sun Fire in mid 70s
Birdie in the group "Sun Fire" in mid 70s

The Belmont Experience

Returning, once more, to Belmont, there are a million revealing stories of ‘Freetown Belmont’ and this is one of them. (a cameo of the 60’s TV show “Naked city”). This colourful roots town, described by Derek Walcott’s as a fabric of pastel alleys, gingerbread houses and Barack yards is the very center of T&T’s cultural communities. There were large and intellectually progressive families, like the Smarts, Selmans, Bynoes, Brathwaites, Wong Chong, Faltines, Yeates, Corbies, Maximes, Ahyes, Nunes Bolands, Lovelace and others. Belmont’s artists, just to name a few, were Leroi Clarke, Norris Iton, Boscoe Holder, Ken Morris, Wayne Berkeley and the anthropologist Andrew Carr. Musicians were abundant: the deceased drummer Garth Brathwaite and father Braff, Winston Waggie McDonald, Joey Samuel, Bugs Niles, Chubby Garraway, Errol Wise, James; Pianists Ralph Davies, Dawlette Ahye, Wayne Kirton and guitarists Hilton Warner, Neil Payne, Clarence Charles, and bassists Angus Nunes, Michael Nisus, Iman Hector etc. Notable vocalists were Lancelot Layne, Jackie Wonder, Everson Sam, Elsworth James, David Rudder etc, while the Belmont Orphanage produced musicians like Roy Cape, Michael Tobias and contributed to T&T’s military music bands.

Belmont benefited from teachers par excellence like Clive Bradley and Desmond Waithe who taught at Belmont Intermediate School. Private music teachers who serviced the community were Wayne Kirton’s mother Iris Kirton and Victor Blackman. Then there was Kathleen Warner, an actress and radio personality, also known as "Aunty Kay”. She is best remembered as the long-time host of the popular children's programme in Belmont. She hosted the community’s families with kiddies carnival bands from the 40s to the 60s , There were also endless Panyards, including Dem Boys, Dixieland, Sun Land and Pandemonium. It is this thriving Belmont community that nurtured gifted sons and daughters. An integrated community always produces gifted individuals, with their talent for ‘building’ bridges of expression, which must then be secured and made sustainable.

Wayne Kirton: A Musical Legacy

It is with that broader understanding that I can now reintroduce the Saga of the Wayne “Birdie” Kirton, pianist from Belmont. Birdie was born in St Francois Valley Road in Belmont in 1947. He was the last of three siblings. His Mother, Iris was a popular music teacher in Belmont and so his home was always a flowing traffic of piano students. All of his siblings played. Birdie would praise his brother as being more advanced than he was musically. He and his brother Lennard, attended Queen’s Royal College. Lennard was also a sportsman and he was the captain of Harvards Sports Club. There was always ‘action’ in the Kirton household when the Harvard boys came to their house, either arguing athletics, football and cricket or, in festive celebration with piano and bottle and spoon rhythms, as the season warranted. Birdie, in the midst of the robust boy days environment was shy and an introvert but he had a cunning wit. His sparring school friends were intellectual rebels - the young journalists Kieth “Sheppie” Sheppard and Roy Ackong. In Belmont his liming buddies were Baldwin, Ron “Beef” Pollard and Boland.

QRC Jazz Club

In 1960 he joined the first chapter of QRC Jazz Club. The Jazz Club was an institution that explored and researched the multi-cultural timbre of music from Calypso, Afro Latin, East Indian and the Steel-drum integration. It was a music laboratory that connected the earlier generation of musicians to contemporary musicians and their styles, thus formulating the calypso Jazz language that came into existence as a result. Calypso Jazz, which is part of the wider Caribbean Jazz universe, is one of the root influences in the later Soca genre. It was part of the explorative ‘groove expression’ developed by the performing and studio musicians in early 70s.

The Club was founded by Caribbean bohemian musician and QRC’s Latin teacher Scofield Pilgrim. (Ref: Newsday Sunday 23rd January 2022 David Boothman: When I met Clive “Zanda” Alexander). The First Chapter students/musicians were Mike Georges bass; Ray Holman pan, Birdie piano; Jon Golding piano and drums; Feroze Ali bongos; Valmiki Maharaj pan; Doyle brothers admin and percussion, Bill Henry drums, Johnny Blake guitar, Peter Farmer and other students. In the second Chapter, Wayne Bonaparte, deceased drummers, Garth Brathwaite and Michael Benoit, Neil Payne, Hamil Ali, David Thompson, Richard and Steve Seepaul, Ruthnath Sahadeo, Michael Thompson and other students. I was the vice president. The Jazz Club was a formal organization. Visiting musicians were Clive Zanda, Wilfred Woodley, Happy Williams, Mike Tobias, Larry Atwell, Mike Boothman, Andre Tanker, and a host of other renowned musicians. The Both chapters performed in schools, convents, UWI, Queens Hall and Naparima Bowl.

As musicians of the day talked and shared discoveries among themselves, there was an awareness of the “Who”, the what, the when, the where and the which, which was integral in the understanding of the legacy left by our pioneering elders. They understood styles of the Russ Henderson, Bertrand Innis, Edmundo Ros, Joey Lewis, Fitzroy Coleman, the big bands style of Fitz Vaughn Brian, Dutchie Brothers, Ron Berridge, Clarence Curvan, Mano Marcelin, Bonaparte Brothers, and Gemini Brass and the list goes on to other Big bands in the 70s.

Back in the day, the Jazz Club would practice at the Boothman home, which also housed the Rockerfellers Combo. It was part of the jazz sessions that my father Oliver Boothman would organise. At that time, there was a generous, progressive culture of sharing between record clubs which included musicians Jocelyn Pierre, Andrea Thompson Carr, Ralph Davies, Felix Roach, Sonny Lohar, Durham brothers, Bertrand Innis and others who were part of the Sunday Serenade sessions in Radio Trinidad. So there was a nexus of hearty arts/music intellectual environment.

The Musical Milieu of the Sixties

In 1966 Birdie, after a small stint with Gemini Brass, joined the Life Rockerfellers, replacing Robert Bailey who was the band’s organist from 1964. Robert went on to create Group Solo. Rockerfellers was sponsored by Life cigarettes and Group Solo was sponsored by Joseph Charles’ of “Solo” fame. Robert and and Birdie were a huge influence and inspiration to me in terms of my early piano playing. They both had a unique but distinctly different style. Robert was more of an organist and Birdie was the pianist. There were not many pianos around in the bands until mid 70s with the entry of the Fender Rhodes and Yamaha electric grand pianos. In the 60s most keyboards were organs Farfisa, Vox, and Harmon. Although Birdie had to conform to the organ, which is a whole different feel, he had a similar temperament to that of American organist composer Billy Preston, popular at the time. Even Preston’s composition “ Spinning Wheel” which was popular in the 60s, was Birdie’s favourite and he would infuse it in his Calypso Jazz way. The 60s showed off many different styles and temperaments in the Calypso rhythms, phrases and folk inflections. There was also a strong Latin presence in the music which was intrinsically part of the Caribbean sound and culture with its clave and montunos. This eventually influenced pan orchestral arrangements.

This was a time without smart phones, google and the new-age technologies. Musicians at the time, were not technically trained. However, they were more intuitively gifted. It was an era in the past of arranging movies theme songs like “Madame X”; James Bond soundtrack- Gold Finger, You Only Live Twice; “Good Bad and the Ugly; Dr Shivago and list goes on. This was the norm. These songs were worked from memory from a 12:30 matinee and fully arranged by 8pm. Those who were in the mix of Latin musicians’ sharing in the musicians parlour talk were Mongo Santamaria, Eddie and Charlie Palmeri, Willie Bobo, Sergio Mendez, and Hugo Blancos.

The latter part of the 60s witnessed a latent renaissance happening in the form of Afrocentric rebirth worldwide. The coming of Reggae, Jamaica; the Ashè and Tropicalist Movement, Brazil; Soca, (and its variations) T&T; Spouge, Barbados; Zouk, Kompa and Cadence, French Caribbean, and African Highlife were all progenitors of the World-beat curation. The renaissance was deterred by America’s economic war on drugs and the cultural stigmatisation backlash. The consciousness went North.

Today's Music — Losing the Human Touch

Today’s evolution or devolution of the music to some, shows a surge in artificial beats, quick hustled produced music, the ego-centric I AM (exclusive) celebrity popular music have faded out the romance we once had and shared. The human groove is gone. According to our Caribbean drummers Richard Bailey and Dean James “groove is everything”. And what is the groove? It is that intuitive play that unlocks the meter. It has the imprint of spirit that defies time, just like light codes.

The roots of the true musician - the intuitive musician with their rhythmic inflections gives the song life. This in turn is what moves or dances the audience’s body and mind. This is also transcended in hit lines in the songs. An example is the beginning/ intro of David Rudder’s “Calypso Music”, Pelham Goddard’s line and Tony Voisin’s rhythmic riff inflections together is what drives the lyric - “When you hear the distant drum”. These inflections are more primal than lyric.

Wayne “Calypso Jazzist” and Innovator

In this light, let us look at Wayne Kirton again. He was master of hit lines. It is his rhythmic inflections that make the music jump. He was a Calypso ‘Jazzist’. His Piano accompaniments can be sourced on Gene Lawrence’s 70’s music LPs “Rio Manzanares, recorded at Semp Studio on their detuned piano which created a honky tong of the 40s calypso piano style, Family Tree 45- “So Dey Say”and “Tabou”, recorded at Max Serrao Studio 1972, Lord Melody’s “One Note Soca” produced by Michael Gould B’s Records Label. Birdie recorded with Andre Tanker, Super Blue, Dakota Stanton, Explainer, Swallow, Poser and many other artists. He travelled with the Mighty Sparrow world tours and other world famous artistes. He also arranged for Invaders USA.

He attended the famous Berkeley College of Music for a brief time. According to his brother’s keeper, guitarist Keith Walcott, Birdie confided that the experience was too robustly clinical and that it conflicted with his intuitive sensibility. Sometimes this is the case for some gifted artists.

Wayne “Birdie” has joined the legion of our past pianists/composers/keyboardists - Lionel Belasco, Shirley Scott, Boscoe Holder, Clarry Wears, Winifred Atwell, Russ Henderson, Bertrand Innis, Ed Watson, Joey Lewis, Wilfred Woodley, Clive Bradley, Scofield Pilgrim, Clive Zanda, David Marcelin, Raf Robertson - All Keyboardists.

Birdie with David Boothman
Birdie with David Boothman

Article by David Boothman — Artist/composer/musician/educator — This is an Excerpt from “The Elders Before us”*

CRF’s Resonating Affinities Series:
Critical thinking and action in Culture, Arts and Sciences.

Caribbean Renaissance Foundation www.caribbean-renaissance.org “Celebrating the Caribbean in Us”

David Boothman is founder of Caribbean Renaissance Foundation.
MAiR Master Artist in Residence at the University of Trinidad and Tobago