(born Rafael de Leon
, British Trinidad and Tobago
, February 22
; d. July 11
) was one of the greatest calypsonians
(calypso singer/composers) of the 20th century. His 65-year career began in the early 1930s and he is best known for his compositions "Ugly Woman" (1933), "Mary Ann" and "Netty, Netty," which are still performed today.
Rafael de Leon was born in Aroquita, in the Caura Hills of northern Trinidad, to a mother named Basalicion de Leon and a father named Arias Cairi Llama. An illegitimate child, Lion spent some of his earliest years in two orphanages, before being taken in, following his mother's illness, by an elderly woman named Miss Charles who lived on Coffee Street in the southwestern city of San Fernando
. Finally, he was presented by Charles to a Muslim Indian
family in San Fernando who wanted him; he was adopted by Najeeran Khan, who became his adoptive mother. Although there has long been confusion about his full name, he himself gave it as Rafael Arias Cairi Llama de Leon
. He later met his biological father, who told him that his name, Cairi, was another name for Trinidad, and that "Llama
" is a sort of goat or deer from South America. In a 1990 interview, Roaring Lion stated that "from fear that I might be styled a thief, I only use Rafael Deleon."
Career as a calypsonian
From a young age, Roaring Lion (de Leon's adopted stage name) became known for his skill in creating calypsos (particularly in his ability to extemporize lyrics on any subject). Contrary to his humble origins, he cultivated a refined stage persona and always appeared sharply dressed. His career officially began in 1924. He recorded extensively between the 1930s and 1950s, and was one of the calypsonians who deserves the most credit for the increasing international popularity of the genre during this period. In March 1934 the Trinidadian phonograph merchant Eduardo Sa Gomes sent Roaring Lion and Attila The Hun
to New York to record; they became the first calypsonians to record abroad.
Roaring Lion achieved fame for his linguistic prowess as much as for his catchy tunes. His lyrics, delivered in rapid-fire style, show an impeccable command of the English language (as well as Trinidadian slang), and are replete with witty turns of phrase, humorous metaphors, and clever alliterations and internal rhymes.
Further, the lyrics of many of his "war calypsoes" (essentially insult songs) presage those of similar hip hop battle rap songs by over 50 years. An extract from his lyrics to "War" (recorded during the 1930s by Roaring Lion with Executor, Caresser, and Attila and directed against their fellow calypsonian Wilmoth Houdini) is a particularly good example of such lyrics:
- The earth is a trembling and a tumbling
- And the heavens are falling and all
- Because the lion is roaring.
- My tongue is like the blast of a gunman...
- Destruction, desolation and damnation --
- All these I'll inflict on insubordination,
- For the Lion in his power is like the rock of Gibraltar.
Roaring Lion continued recording through the 1990s; his later recordings feature electronic and soca
backgrounds, though he continued to sing in the classic early calypso style. He was regarded as an elder statesman and historian of calypso music and frequently appeared in the Trinidadian media in this role.
In 1986 he self-published a book entitled Calypso From France to Trinidad: 800 Years of History; in it, he claims that calypso is of French rather than African origin, and also shares many reminiscences about his career.
Roaring Lion died on July 11, 1999, at the age of 91. Reports claim that Lion had ten children. His sons include Ibn Llama de Leon, Ishmael de Leon, Akenathon de Leon, Rafael deLeon, Jr. (who lives in Minnesota), Mohondas deLeon (who lives in Norway), Karelius de Leon (who lives in Norway), Christobal deLeon (who lives in Brooklyn, New York), and Krishna deLeon (who lives in Paris). His daughter is Pamela deLeon-Lewis (who lives in Brooklyn, New York with her three children: Abigail J. Bishop, Darryl R. Bishop, and youngest daughter Keiela J. Lewis). He was formerly married to Marie Louise de Leon, of Norway.
In 2002 Akenathon announced plans to turn his father's Mt. Lambert property into a Roaring Lion Museum. His daughter is currently writing two books about the Roaring Lion; one is a compilation of the stories behind the writing of his calypsoes, his business successess, his world travels, his time as Goodwill Ambassador, entertaining the troops in World War II, his performances for historical figures like Winston Churchill, Rockefeller, kings and queens, the Pope, et al., as related by him on tapes he recorded with and for her. This book presents a side of the Roaring Lion that the public never saw or knew. The Roaring Lion-Trapped'--the second book--details the untold story of his final days and also presents another dimension to this legendary man.
- The oft-printed statement that Roaring Lion was born "Hubert Raphael Charles" is thus incorrect, at least as far as the surname "Charles" is concerned.
- "Kairi" is, indeed, the aboriginal name for Trinidad in the Island Carib language.
- Although his surname has variously appeared in print as "DeLeon," "de Leon," "De Leon," and "Deleon," Roaring Lion gives his name as "de Leon" in his book Calypso From France to Trinidad: 800 Years of History.
- Entertainment is in this family. One of the Lion's grandsons is Alfonso Ribeiro, also known as Carlton Banks, who appeared on the television program The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
- Roaring Lion (Rafael De Leon) (1986). Calypso From France to Trinidad: 800 Years of History. Trinidad: General Printers of San Juan.