Opinion: Farewell to Justin ‘Hero’ Cassell, my favorite Montserrat calypsonian of all time

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Justin "Hero" Cassell, from left, is pictured in 1973, early 1980s and in 2004.

The old saying “No news is good news” is flawed and conditional. I had a feeling something was wrong when I couldn’t reach Justin “Hero” Cassell by phone in recent weeks. Then I woke up Monday morning, February 5, 2024, to a flurry of messages on What’s App. They all revealed the same bad news. On the same day the world found out that King Charles has been diagnosed with cancer, we learned that Montserrat’s foremost calypso king had died from cancer.

Hero and I were intricately connected by calypso, culture, country and circumstance. We are actually related. His grandmother, Cashie Welch, and my great-great grandmother, Beth Welch, were sisters. I’ve interviewed him many times and sought his advice for my calypso compositions.

One afternoon during the Montserrat Festival season in 2018, I stopped by the Lyme, the now-defunct bar that was located in Brades. I heard someone calling me from the parking lot. It was Hero. He was sitting in his vehicle. He looked a bit somber. When I went over, he said to me: “Man, I gave you advice for your song and you didn’t even have the courtesy to buy me a drink.” I asked him what he would like. He said a Ginseng Up would be fine. I walked over to the bar, bought the Ginseng and took it for him. He said, “Listen man, I have a nagging pain right here in the bottom of my stomach. What do you think it is?” Assuming he was simply being a hypochondriac, I chided him a bit. “Hero, I’m not a doctor. Maybe it’s just gas.”

The following May, Hero traveled to Antigua to attend the funeral of his good friend, Dr. Prince Ramsey, who, ironically, had died of cancer. On that same trip, Hero ended up undergoing surgery in Antigua. So when I decided to enter the calypso competition in Montserrat later that year, I wrote a song called Unsung Hero, a tribute to my favorite calypsonian in Montserrat history. When I saw him in December of 2019, he seemed rejuvenated. He was his usual lively, talkative and brash self. He even casually spoke about his surgery. He visited the band house during calypso practice and gave me some tips. “Take your time and sing your song,” he would say. “It’s a singing competition.” He appeared on stage with me at the end of my performance of Unsung Hero, adding a crucial punctuation that surely boosted my presentation and helped me finish first runner-up.

Photo credit: Facebook
Hero appeared on stage with me briefly when I sang Unsung Hero in the Montserrat Calypso Finals, December 30, 2019.

In early 2020, it was announced that Hero would (finally) receive a National Award for his contributions to Montserrat. I was told (falsely) that my calypso tribute helped spur the powers that be to give him the honor. Hero later told me the award was already in the works before my song was released. On Sunday, March 8, 2020, Hero was presented with an Order of Excellence award, the highest civilian honor after National Hero. He was now officially The Right Honourable Justin “Hero” Cassell, O.E.

Fast-forward to August 4, 2022. A mutual friend sent me a video clip of Hero performing at the Breakfast Fete during Antigua Carnival. He looked a bit gaunt but he was a trooper and gave a lively showing as he delivered a medley of his hits. The video was accompanied by a voice note from my friend. “I think you should write something about Hero. I have a feeling we won’t see him in Montserrat again.” Hero flew to England the same day. I spoke to him several times while he was in the UK and he always gave an upbeat report. “All my tests look good,” he would say. I was encouraged when he would call in to Radio Montserrat, which he did as recently as late November. He always sounded robust, and I marveled at his resilience. But I was also realistic. I knew he faced tough odds.

‘A SPECIAL GIFT’

The terms “icon” and “legend” get tossed around a lot, mostly hyperbolically. Justin “Hero” Cassell, Montserrat’s first calypso monarch in 1962, was a generational talent – and he knew it. Hero was many things. Bashful was not one. He often uttered the famous Shakespeare quote: “Some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them.” Like Muhammad Ali, he was boastful, and he backed it up. As a songwriter he practiced profound simplicity. He loathed abstract compositions and believed that lyrics should never confuse the listener. He also liked short lyrical lines and utilized the formula of repeating a word or phrase three times: Hot Hot Hot, Money Money Money, Prum Prum, Prum Prum, Prum Prum. He was a master of melody and calypso scat. I once asked him how he comes up with some of his improvisational fillers such as Way-lie, way-lie and Prum Prum. “You’re just imitating the musical instrument,” he said matter-of-factly. It finally made sense to me.

He graciously shared his talent by paying it forward. He wrote for countless artists in Montserrat and many more around the region. Calypsonians sought his counsel frequently because he could look at lyrics on a sheet and immediately diagnose the flaws and reveal how it can be improved. Send him a demo and he knew right away if was a potential hit. His calypso radar was precise.

Photo by Keith Dyett / Montserrat Reporter
The Cassell brothers, from left, Lorenzo, Alphonsus (Arrow) and Justin in 2007.

Then there was his voice, which was instantly recognizable. I describe it as a wailing lilt, like a gospel singer turned secular. It accentuated his supreme art of storytelling. When one listens to his classic Manifesto and hear Hero’s rendition of a politician’s plea – “Can you hear me? Can you hear me people!” – it creates an imagery that only a gifted writer can execute. He was the wizard behind the curtain of Arrow’s biggest hits and he once expressed to me how proud he was to have placed his fingerprints on arguably the two biggest soca hits of all time: Hot Hot Hot and Tiny Winey.

Alfred “Warrior” Christopher, who competed against Hero three times in the 1960s – including the inaugural Festival in 1962 – said of his former rival: “He was great composer. I actually knew Hero way before we started singing calypso. When he was very young he used to come by the Defense Force Club after school. I remember he could sing exactly like Nat King Cole. I couldn’t believe it. I said, ‘This guy has a special gift.’ “

With Hero gone, Christopher, 85, is now the only surviving member of the five calypsonians from the first Festival. The others were William “Ruler” Murrain, James “Tangler” Lee and Peter “Red Poll” Howson.

MULTI-FACETED MAN

Death is always shocking, even when it’s expected. But there are certain people – because of their personality and presence – that are difficult to fathom being gone. Hero is one. He was omnipresent and outspoken. He wore many hats – father, husband, teacher, pundit, mentor, agricultural specialist, political activist and more. He also wore many crowns, whether cheese pan or gold-plated. He was an imperfect man who was immensely brilliant and should have been a millionaire. He liked to wager. He won big and lost big. But then again, life itself is a game of chance.

I will remember his calypso artistry and our insightful conversations. I am grateful for his contribution to my calypso journey. In 2018 when I penned a song called Paging Dr. Sammy, I emailed the lyrics to him. He responded: “This is very good, but you should end each verse by saying, ‘If you see him tell him for me.’ ” Once again he was on point. His humor was also underrated. I used to playfully chastise him about his cigarette smoking, to which he would reply: “I’m not a smoker, I’m just a puffer.” Hero displayed a youthful exuberance, although he frequently fibbed about his age.

Like his brother Arrow before him, Hero has left a vast musical catalog, ensuring that his voice will reverberate for generations to come. Death may silence singers, but it can’t silence music. I will always see him, walking with a swagger, wearing his trademark shades and short dreadlocks. I extend profound condolences to his wife, children and the extended family. Hero has now faced his final curtain. The show is over. And what a show it was. But all things must pass.

Hero rarely lost on the calypso stage.

But sadly, Father Time is undefeated.


RELATED STORY: Arrow classic Hot Hot Hot turns 40

Hero and I sing Hero’s classic The Flood on December 16, 2019 in Salem.

Hero's calypso crowns

YearSongs
1962Lizzie & Joe
1965Wicked Married Men & Drive Old Man Drive
1971 (UWI)Hero's Sugar Factory
1972Cost of Living & Rum Side
1973Back to the Land & Long Time Christmas
1981The Flood & Don't Mess Wid Me Country
1983String Band Jam & Old Time Sayings
1985Who is de Man & Greedy Merchants
1986 (OECS)Who is de Man & Manifesto
1986Body to Body & I'm Underage
1989Where de Galvanize & Close Dem Down
2007Country Need Prayer & All They Want Is Money

3 COMMENTS

  1. Hero you will surely be missed.not only for your calopsoes and singing but your personality. You had that killing smile and personality, friend Ly caring and outgoing may your soul rest in eternal peace.sleep well my brother

  2. Thanks cuz. Sad story but he was a Hero in spite of his flaws. I met Hero, and was told by several people that he had a good heart. He helped my dad, William Bodkin aka Fred White, get to London in 2018, when he was ill, and I was blessed to care for him until he passed that October. I am also glad that ‘Christo’ is still with us. Thank you and RIP Justin ‘Hero’ Cassell ????????

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