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Prominent Vincentian cultural figures die from cancer

Prominent Vincentian cultural figures die from cancer


by Nelson a. King

Hundreds of Vincentians in New York paid their last respects last week and earlier this week to two prominent cultural figures who went to the Great Beyond, succumbing to cancer after long battles.{{more}}

Cyril “Soca Devil” Lewis, an erstwhile Vincentian-New York Soca Monarch, and Owen “Sap” Coombs, an artist, poet, and former politician, died two days apart, on April 28 and 30, respectively.

Lewis, a chronic tobacco smoker, who became a “Born-Again Christian” during his illness, died from throat cancer, according to his close friend and fellow Calliaqua native, Garnes Byron. He was 46.

He was a year younger than his brother, Dr. Linton Lewis, a top-ranking official in the parliamentary opposition, New Democratic Party.

Coombs, an accomplished artist, who introduced the “tie-dye” hand-printed fabric in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, died from prostate cancer. He was 78.

Dr. Lewis trekked from home for a funeral service for his younger brother, on Thursday, May 3, at the Frank Barone Funeral Chapel in Brooklyn, at which a large number of Vincentian calypsonians and other artists paid their last respect.

A significant number of cultural figures were also present at a funeral service for Coombs, on Sunday, May 6, at St. Alban’s Episcopal (Anglican) Church, also in Brooklyn.

“He, in the face of cancer, learned to live with it,” said Brentford Ulric Jones, otherwise known here as “Soca Jones,” about Lewis, his cousin.

“This was a guy full of love,” added the entertainment promoter, son of Fr. Ulric Jones, an Anglican priest, who officiated at the funeral service.

“‘Devil’ lived and enjoyed his life,” the younger Jones continued. “He did not lose; he died a winner.”

Ainsley Primus, president of the Dynamite Calypso Tent in New York, said Lewis was in a class by himself.

“‘Soca Devil’ was one of the unique, dynamic and versatile calypsonians in New York,” he said about Lewis, who captured the New York Soca Monarch title in 1995 with “Whey Yo Want, Girl,” in a Searchlight interview.

“He could work the crowd and get the audience’s attention,” Primus added, disclosing that Lewis was one of the founders of the Dynamite Calypso Tent, who was diagnosed with throat cancer in 2002, the same year the tent was launched.

Alfred “Sam Tech” Samuel, a former police inspector at home, who was Lewis’ promoter, said he will be solely missed.

“I miss him so bad I don’t know if there’s anything worthwhile living for,” he said.

Coombs, a former student at the Grammar School, was also very versatile. He taught at the Kingstown Anglican School and worked as a customs officer before migrating, first to England, then to the United States.

He was an adept athlete and sports fan, who excelled in track and field, soccer and cricket, and represented his country at the Commonwealth Games in England in the late 1950s, competing in sprinting events and the high jump.

Coombs was a graduate of the Byam Shaw School of Painting and Sculpture in England, and introduced “tie-dye” painting in St. Vincent and the Grenadines soon after returning home in the 1960s.

He published two books of poems, the last of which, “Listening to the Spirit,” was published in 2005 after he landed a contract with the International Society of Poets.

Coombs’ paintings were exhibited at the Commonwealth Institute in London, Puerto Rico, and various venues in New York.

In 1974, he tried his hands in politics, unsuccessfully contesting the South Leeward seat for the then People’s Political Party of former Chief Minister Ebenezer Theodore Joshua.

Coombs lost his deposit in that race, which was won by lawyer Grafton Isaacs of the Milton Cato-led, now defunct St. Vincent Labour Party. Cato was the nation’s first prime minister.

Another lawyer, Othneil Sylvester, also contested that seat for the Mitchell-Junta Party.

“I think he was used and misused by many politicians,” said Noel Kirton, who officiated, along with the church’s pastor, Fr. George Bonner, at the funeral service.

Kirton, a former agronomist, said he was one of the beneficiaries of Coombs’ batiks, adding that they frequently “hang out” at the famous watering hole, “Calabash,” in Middle Street, Kingstown.

“He was a patriot, the ‘Son of the Soil,’” said Jackson Farrell, president of the St. Vincent and the Grenadines’ Ex-Teachers Association in New York.

“He helped to put St. Vincent and the Grenadines on the map in terms of his expertise,” added Farrell, disclosing that Coombs was his group’s general secretary in the 1980s.

At his request, Coombs’ body was cremated, and his ashes will be flown back to his native land for his relatives.

Lewis was interred Tuesday in Calliaqua after another funeral service at the Calliaqua Methodist Church.