The name Romeo immediately conjures up the image of a man who is a born lover, not a fighter.
But if you sit and chat with calypsonian and a former Pic-O-De-Crop Monarch Charles Romeo Smith, you’ll see that this Romeo is, in fact, both.
The last time Romeo graced the stage was in 2008 for finals night of the Pic-O-De-Crop competition. That night, the always dapperly dressed calypsonian performed his two songs in a wheelchair. Following a bacterial viral infection and spinal surgery in 2005 doctors had told him he might never walk again. Clearly, he had refused let that stop him from performing.
Speaking to the jovial entertainer from his St George home recently, it is clear that Romeo has kept on fighting to regain his confident stride and he is now a bit more mobile.
Standing in front of his blue reclining chair in his living room, he said with a smile: “The balance is not all there, but I can move around the house with the help of a cane, I can drive my car and I am in good spirits.”
It’s his biggest comeback to date, in a life that seems to have had more than its fair share of tragedy.
He and his wife Cecily lost their Wildey home in a flood back in 1977. Then, years later, in October 2003, a raging fire at their Prospect, St James home claimed all their worldly possessions.
In 2005 he was at death’s door and Romeo will tell you that, for a moment, he stepped through into the great beyond. Initially, doctors were at a loss as to what was causing his illness. In the midst of the pain, weakness and many tests, inflammation was finally found in his spine and doctors operated. For a while, he quite literally could not even lift a finger to help himself. Doctors told him he might never walk again.
But with his loyal wife Cecily by his side, he again persevered.
He had to learn how to walk all over again, willing his sometimes uncooperative body to do what his mind willed it. Slowly, as he worked with his physiotherapist, doing squats, climbing stairs, using the balance bar, the treadmill and other equipment, he started to find his stride again.
“Learning to walk again isn’t easy . . . it was tiring,” he explained.
These days, he works out at home. He bought all the equipment necessary to maintain his exercise regimen and tries to be consistent with his workouts. Never one to dwell on his misfortunes, he has instead chosen to revel in the life lessons that they have brought, including the deepened relationship he now has with his wife.
“She made sacrifices to be in the hospital with me. I spent 92 days in the hospital and 11 were in the MIC unit, and then when I went on the ward, she admitted herself to be my nurse. She got involved in patient care and all such and that is why I am here now. So this new life is hers,” he said, adding that they recently celebrated 43 years of marriage.
With a twinkle in his eye, Romeo grinned: “That’s 50 years of togetherness and still courting.”
During this time of the year, the former monarch admits to feeling a little nostalgic, and his mind is never too far from the art form which he loves.
He recalled the early years of the Pic-O-De-Crop competition, when Barbados’ finest calypsonians fought with biting lyrics and hard-hitting performances to claim the calypso crown. His first win was in 1973 when the event was held at the YMPC.
“I won $150 and they still owe me $50!” he quipped, leaning back in his chair and laughing heartily.
He considers 1981 to be the year of his big win. That year, he thought Gem Gone was the song which would carry him to success. As it turned out, he recalled having problems with his props.
At the end of the first half, he said Destroyer came over to him and told him that while he had done well, Serenader was the man to beat. It was that observation that made him dig deep in the second half and his performance transformed Brother Fuzzy, turning it into a bigger hit than he could have expected.
“We were more committed to the art form, the whole science of it, singing in key, [using] the tuning fork. [But] these guys just get a rhythm now,” he noted.
Holding up his hands in “mock surrender” he stressed: “I am not bashing the youth.”
As examples, he singled out Lorenzo, Gorg and Bobo as all having songs and lyrics that he likes.
However, he explained: “Back in those days, we used to see it as a competition and you brought your school skills, your English skills to composing. But now a fellah singing anything – “put up yuh hand”, “tek down yuh hand”, “put it sideways”, “guh back”, “juck she here”, “bend she over” and they are making money.”
He stressed that when you look back at songs from yesteryear it becomes clear that “we have some beautiful songs that never got the financial rewards”. He said he puts himself into that category.
Although he has not been active in calypso for a while, he said he has been asked on several occasions by one tent manager to work with them. Meanwhile, the members of his old tent, Bacchanal Time, ensure that every year a special collection is taken in his honour. It is gestures such as these that warm his heart and he is thankful for all those who have not forgotten him.
“I tell people I had spinal surgery, but not brain surgery. The brain is still ticking,” he chuckled, adding that he has some ideas for a few songs.
Come July 25, he will make a brief comeback for the 40th Anniversary Crop Over Monarchs In Concert at the National Stadium.
“They called and invited me, so I will go,” he said. Clearly he is honoured by the invitation. However, he explained that at this point, he is largely interested in doing charitable events to benefit the disabled community or children.
His willingness to do that kind of work shows Romeo is a lover of a worthy cause. The fact that he is alive today and able to do it just goes to show that he’s every bit of a fighter too. (Green Bananas Media)