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'Duke of Iron,' Cecil Anderson, Celebrated as St. Thomas Receives a Gift from His Family

April 20, 2005 — Velma Anderson and her sister June Berliner were preparing to sell their late mother's house when they came across an important piece of their father's past—a quattro. An instrument played with a flat-pick, its sound has been described as "a cross between a 12-string guitar and a mandolin," and has a long history in South American and Caribbean music.
The sisters realized the humble instrument had traveled a long way to reach its resting place, but felt there was a more fitting home for this particular quattro.
"This is the place my father loved and preferred as his home in the Caribbean," said Anderson in a phone interview. "I'm giving it to the people of St. Thomas. This was an excellent time to do it."
Anderson's father, and the person who made that quattro sing, was Cecil Anderson, better known as the "Duke of Iron." He was a world famous calypsonian and a beloved performer at the Carnival revival in the early 1950s.
According to a 2000 V.I. Carnival Committee article by Sandy Ross, "It was held in September 1952, a day filled with gray skies and huge storm clouds," Ron "Mango Jones" de Lugo recalled. "All of a sudden this fungi band could be heard coming from the hills … And the rain – no St. Thomian wants to get their heads wet! Well, that band and the Duke of Iron kept coming despite the rain. Suddenly the Duke of Iron started improvising and sang, "Rain can't stop the Carnival!'"
From that moment the Duke made St. Thomas his home away from home, visiting in the winter months, singing frequently at the Virgin Isle Hotel, and becoming well known to residents locally.
Now, what is believed to be the quattro the Duke played that day in 1952 has been presented to the people of St. Thomas, to be housed in a mahogany case with glass front and sides at the Alton Augustus Adams Music Research Institute in Charlotte Amalie until the museum at Fort Christian is completed.
"Although the label inside the sound hole is almost illegible, the maker's name is Federico Gil and the country of origin, Venezuela," reads a description. "There is much evidence of long and enthusiastic use, such as a patch on the side where a hole was probably poked through and repaired. There is a crack on the face and marks of wear where Duke strummed."
The Duke was born in Trinidad in 1906 to a family of musicians. When he moved to New York at age 17, Anderson brought calypso with him. From the late 1930s through the 1950s he performed, composed and recorded. The Duke was heard on the radio, in nightclubs and numerous records.
Early in his career, the Duke played calypso in other parts of New York, then began playing all over the country. He later appeared at Carnegie Hall, the Apollo Theater in Harlem, the Village Gate and the Jamaican Room.
He was instrumental in establishing a Carnival celebration in the New York—first in dance halls, then Harlem, and eventually to Brooklyn, where a Labor Day Carnival still thrives.
For several years he also consulted at New York University and lectured as guest speaker for music classes. Alan Lomax hosted a landmark 1946 Town Hall calypso concert featuring the Duke, Lord Invader and Macbeth the Great, recorded at the time on twelve 78 rpm acetate discs and resurrected in 1996 by Rounder on two CDs. He starred along with Angie Dickinson in the 1957 Hollywood Allied Artists film "Calypso Joe," portraying — who else? — himself. And he also featured in a short-lived Broadway production, "Caribbean Carnival."
The Duke was invited by Aristotle Onassis to perform at Monte Carlo. But "I don't speak good French," the Duke reportedly said. Family members and friends encouraged him to go. He went, and looked up his good friend, the famous Hazel Scott, also a Trinidadian, who was living in Paris at the time. They performed in Monte Carlo together.
In the liner notes of the "Calypso!"LP, the Duke writes, "Calypso has a different rhythm all its own. It may resemble this and that at times, but it is in a class by itself where rhythm, style, and delivery are concerned. Some singers try to change Calypso but I try to keep it as it is."
Anderson was celebrated in song and speech at a Government House reception Monday night, held to commemorate the presentation of the quattro to the people of St. Thomas.
The evening got off to an unusual start with opening "remarks" sung completely in verse by storyteller and calypsonian Glenn "Kwabena" Davis. Carnival maven Kenneth "Lord Blakie" Blake and Elmo D. Roebuck Sr. treated the crowd of more than 100 dignitaries, government officials, former Carnival queens and Caribbean music aficionados to a medley of Anderson tunes and the keynote address was written and sung Wednesday night by calypsonians Ashley "Ashanti" George and Hollis "Chalkdust" Liverpool. George and Liverpool recorded the musical tribute – which chronicles the life of the Duke — and presented a copy of the CD to Anderson family. "It will not be for sale," George said.
As she formally presented the quattro, Velma Anderson said, "By donating this to St. Thomas I leave him here with you," in a place that she said her father loved far more than his native Trinidad.

Editor's note: Shaun A. Pennington contributed to this story.
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