Approaching 80, singer Cyril Paul still performing strongby Dan Olson, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — As Cyril Paul nears 80, the native of Trinidad is still singing and performs Sunday night at a Minneapolis Martin Luther King Day observance.
A couple of generations of Minnesotan's know Cyril Paul. Paul has spent a good share of his life visiting schools and congregations in Minnesota singing and telling stories.
Paul grew up in poverty in Trinidad. When he arrived in Minnesota in the mid 1950s he said he was treated like a star.
Paul was a standout athlete. He'd won a scholarship to St. John's College, now University, in central Minnesota. His star status rose when people heard him sing.
Since birth, Paul said, he was surrounded by music in a village where children used their voices to make the sounds of steel drum.
"Our voices were the instruments, we had no instruments, except boxes and biscuit pans and dust bins and things like that drumsticks and coconut and bamboo," Paul said. "Those were the instruments."
Fast forward 70 years.
At a fundraiser recently at Cyril Paul's south Minneapolis church, St. Joan of Arc, Cyril Paul was still singing. The former track star leapt onto the stage for his turn at the microphone and races into an up tempo version of Angelina.
Cyril Paul's introduction to the Minnesota music scene came in 1958. Residents were celebrating 100 years of statehood and planners arranged a talent show at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.
Seven students from St. John's University calling themselves the Latin American Combo - Cyril Paul and six white guys - took first prize.
Calypso was popular and Paul recalls one of the tunes they performed was Yellow Bird.
After college, Cyril Paul became a teacher at a Minneapolis junior high school.
The late 1960s riots in north Minneapolis fueled the flight of white families to the suburbs, and Paul remembers his junior high classes were increasingly populated with young African American students he describes as disruptive and frustrated.
"They wanted to do something with their lives, they had no idea what to do, they couldn't read, they were always promoted ... and we said if we want to teach successfully let's break down the classes, make them smaller," Paul said.
The school district didn't go for the idea of smaller classes. A disillusioned Paul quit teaching shortly after. He devoted more time to singing professionally and hiring out as a music resource person in schools and churches.
Cyril Paul's ready smile and infectious music can't hide a deep restlessness to improve the human condition. He's not always an optimist on how things are going.
He worries race discrimination is not disappearing and is growing more subtle, that young African Americans have forgotten the hard won civil rights of their forbearers, and that people generally in this country seem more absorbed with accumulating things than with helping their community.
"The point is we have to contribute, and I'm talking about all of us, not just whites contributing large sums of money, but the blacks supporting ways if they can't find the money, they'll find the time, use their bodies to utilize this initiative," Paul said.
Cyril Paul doesn't have a lot of money but that hasn't stopped him from contributing. At age 78, he bicycled 2,200 miles from Minnesota to California to raise scholarship money for students in the West Indies.
Paul turns 80 in March, still using his body and his voice to try and make the world a better place.
- All Things Considered, 01/15/2010, 6:24 p.m.