|Died||29 January 2023(aged 80)|
University College of the West Indies
|Notable work||Calypso and Society in Pre-Independence Trinidad (1989)|
Gordon Rohlehr (20 February 1942 – 29 January 2023) was a Guyana-born scholar and critic of West Indian literature, noted for his study of popular culture in the Caribbean, including oral poetry, calypso and cricket. He pioneered the academic and intellectual study of Calypso, tracing its history over several centuries, writing a landmark work entitled Calypso and Society in Pre-Independence Trinidad (1989), and is considered the world's leading authority on its development.
Born in Guyana in 1942, Rohlehr was educated at Queen's College, Guyana, and at the University College of the West Indies, Mona, Jamaica, graduating in 1964 with a first-class Honours degree in English Literature. He then wrote a doctoral dissertation entitled "Alienation and Commitment in the Works of Joseph Conrad" at Birmingham University (1964–67), before taking up an English Literature appointment in Trinidad at the University of the West Indies (UWI), St Augustine.
Spending 40 years at UWI, St Augustine – he began as Assistant Lecturer in 1968 and achieved a personal Chair by 1985 – he established an international reputation for his ground-breaking work on Caribbean literature, calypso and culture, building an extensive opus that comprises books, hundreds of essays, interviews, lectures and broadcasts. He co-edited, with Stewart Brown and Mervyn Morris, Voiceprint: An Anthology of Oral and Related Poetry from the Caribbean (Harlow: Longman Caribbean, 1989).
Rohlehr had also been Visiting Professor to Harvard University (September–December 1981); the Johns Hopkins University (September–December 1985); Tulane University (January–May 1997); Stephen F. Austin State University (January–May 2000); Miami University Writers’ Workshop (June–July 1995); York University, Toronto (January–February 1996) and Dartmouth College, New Hampshire (June–August 2004).
Rohlehr died on 29 January 2023, at the age of 80.
Rohlehr is the author of several books on different aspects of Caribbean culture. He has said that his interest on researching and writing about calypso music dates back to his attendance of the Caribbean Artists Movement's second meeting, held in 1967 at the North London flat of Orlando Patterson, when in response to discussion among the likes of Kamau Brathwaite, George Lamming and Aubrey Williams about "the Caribbean aesthetic" Rohlehr was prompted to say: "The way to determine what this aesthetic might be is to look at what Caribbean people have done and to create, through a close dialogue with the material, some way of talking about their achievement and of distinguishing what is peculiarly Caribbean about it, if you employ that method, beginning with the work–Walcott’s poetry, Sparrow’s calypsoes, Selvon’s novels–you might then be able to recognise recurring features. If for example, you read Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners and short stories alongside Sparrow’s calypsoes you might discover something that was peculiarly Trinidadian in both of these people…..those were not my exact words, of course; only a paraphrase of the sense of what I said. Then someone, one of the big voices, said, 'If this is the way you feel, why don’t you do it?'"
Since then, as Raymond Ramcharitar has noted, "Gordon Rohlehr’s accomplishments in mapping this territory are monumental." In particular, his 1990 book, Calypso and Society in Pre-Independence Trinidad, describing the development of the Trinidad calypso from pre-emancipation times to the late 1950s, is considered a seminal work. His most recent book, launched in August 2015, is My Whole Life is Calypso: Essays on Sparrow.
In 1995 Rohlehr received the University of the West Indies (UWI) Vice-Chancellor's Award for Excellence in the combined fields of Teaching, Research, Administration and Public Service.
His retirement from UWI in 2007 was marked by a conference in his honour, "for his sterling contribution to the development of West Indian literary and cultural criticism".
Rohlehr's life and career are celebrated in a documentary film entitled Rivers of Sound.
In 2012, Rohlehr was awarded the Nicolás Guillén Outstanding Achievements in Philosophical Literature Award by the Caribbean Philosophical Association.
At the 2014 NGC Bocas Lit Fest, Rohlehr was honoured alongside Professor Kenneth Ramchand with the Henry Swanzy Award for Distinguished Service to Caribbean Letters, which recognises the lifetime achievement of editors, publishers, critics and broadcasters.