Red Plastic Bag loves performing in Toronto
October 14, 2018
Stedson Wiltshire’s (Red Plastic Bag) dream was to play cricket for the West Indies.
With Barbados producing some of the world’s most celebrated players, including Sir Garfield Sobers considered the sport’s greatest all-rounder ever and the three Ws -- Everton Weekes and the late Frank Worrell and Clyde Walcott, who could blame him?
The closest Wiltshire came to realizing his goal was in February 1980 when he represented a Barbados youth side against the touring English Young Cricketers in a three-day match at Kensington Oval. Opening the batting, he recorded a duck and his six overs of off-spin yielded 12 runs without a wicket in the drawn contest.
A year earlier, he made his calypso debut in St. Philip – the largest of the 11 Barbadian parishes in terms of land size.
“It was a local competition and the organizers were looking for five contestants,” Wiltshire, who will perform in Toronto later this month, recalled. “Three weeks before the event, I entered because they had only four.”
He won the contest three straight years.
Encouraged to participate in the national Pic-O-de-Crop competition because of the success, Wiltshire triumphed his first year in 1982 with sterling renditions of ‘Sugar Made Us Free’ and ‘Mr. Harding’
He was the youngest calypsonian in the competition at age 21.
With a record 10 titles, Wiltshire retired from competition earlier this year to freelance and focus on the Red Foundation charity launched in 2017 to target poverty alleviation, education and social welfare services for the neediest.
“I didn’t choose calypso,” he said. “It chose me and I have had a good run entertaining people around the world. I will continue to do that and have fun.”
Wiltshire worked in the airline industry as a sales and marketing professional until 1995 when he decided to be a full-time entertainer.
“Taking that plunge was very risky,” he recounted. “At the time, singing calypso was seasonal and there weren’t too many performers doing that alone. I took the chance because of the popularity of ‘Ragga Ragga’ which I released two years earlier.”
Recorded in seven languages and featured in the Irish movie, ‘The Sparrow’s Nest’, the hit is high among the more than 400 songs that Wiltshire has released.
The idea for the bestseller was conceived while enjoying a night out on the town at the defunct After Dark club in St. Lawrence Gap.
“Tiger (a Jamaican dancehall musician) performed a song that had everyone dancing and singing,” said Wiltshire who has recorded 25 albums. “The place was buzzing and in a frenzy. I couldn’t grasp the lyrics, so when the song played again later that night, I went closer to the speaker. But I still couldn’t understand what he was singing. So I left that night saying I want to do a song that would stir people up the same way Tiger did and, strangely, ‘Ragga Ragga’ became more popular in Jamaica than any other Caribbean island.”
While he admires several calypsonians, including seven-time Pic-O-de-Crop champion Gabby, 1973 and 1981 champion Romeo who died last June and Black Stalin who won the Trinidad & Tobago (T & T) monarch crown on five occasions, nine-time T & T monarch Chalkdust tops his list.
“I hold several calypsonians in high regard, but Chalkie is the one who has had a significant influence on my approach to the art,” Wiltshire said. “Through his work, I learnt about the power of calypso and the breadth that it has in terms of what it can do. He has a fascinating style that I gravitated to.”
Asked to comment on the state of calypso music, Wiltshire said artists have to share some of the blame for the decline of the art form.
“It’s unfortunate that we don’t hear as much social commentary, especially at a time we are living in when it should be flourishing,” he said. “Music has become commercialized and radio station are looking at the bottom line. At the same time, calypsonians have to take part of the blame for the way that we package it. Bob Marley did social commentary, but he packaged it in a way that was palatable to the world. There’s nothing wrong with dealing with local issues, but we need to do it in a way that others from outside our jurisdiction can easily understand the story line and where we are going with it. That’s crucial if we are going to broaden our base.”
Since making his first appearance in Toronto in the mid-1980s, Wiltshire has had a love affair with Canada’s largest city.
“This is one of my favourite stomping grounds and I have always had great support,” he noted. “I remember doing a show at St. Lawrence Market in the early 1990s that attracted a large and very appreciative audience. It was a lovely event and I left thinking at the time that there is a yearning for calypso music in places like Toronto. That’s was a defining moment.”
To mark his 40th year in the entertainment business, Wiltshire will perform on October 26 at the Armenian Community Centre, 45 Hallcrown Place.
Alex Waithe is the event organizer.
“Red Plastic Bag is appealing because he writes, co-arranges and sings calypso and soca superbly,” he said. “Whether it is commentary or a sweet soca song, he is outstanding every year in formal competitions or just performing at small fetes or large concerts.”
The three-hour show starts at 8.30 p.m. and the price of admission is $40.
The entertainer promised fans are in for a special treat.
“I am going to take my audience on the journey that I have travelled with my music,” he said. “It will be a musical conversation so they can see where I came from and how I arrived at the messages that are in my music.”
McMaster University professor and cell biologist Dr. Juliet Daniel is a big Red Plastic Bag fan.
“I love his music because it is very rhythmic and, for some songs, the lyrics are very clever, playful and full of innuendo,” she said. “For other songs, they are an excellent social commentary on the state of affairs in Barbados or the world.”