This is one of those seasons that makes the Caribbean and environs look a lot less attractive, with storms piling up on top of one another, taking the fun out of the sun and reminding us who the REAL superpower is: Mother Nature.
With concern and best wishes centered on the Caribbean and West Indies, now is a great time to talk about the musical charms of vintage calypso, as found on yet another wonderful collection from the Putumayo label.
With the label’s standard colorful, vibrant, playful art work from Nicola Heindl, informative liner notes and bios on each artist, the packaging for Calypso: Vintage Songs From the Caribbean is as enticing as the music presented therein.
Culled from the golden age of the ’50s – when for a time calypso was the most popular music in the world and (American) Harry Belafonte outsold Elvis Presley – the music is tradewind gentle but rhythmically insistent, with a melodic signature all its own and a certain colonial faux-gentility that make the double-entendres of Calypso Mama’s bluesy “Yes, Yes, Yes” and George Symnette’s bouncy “Touch Me Tomato” – and the innuendo and social commentary scattered throughout the collection – all the more amusing and appealing.
Calypso is a rich blend of African, European and indiginous musics that originated in Trinidad at least a century back with an emphasis on story-telling and clever wordplay. Many Americans were based on Trinidad and elsewhere in the Caribbean during WWll and brought back a fondness for the music and culture. The first calypso smash in the U.S. was the Andrews Sisters’ “Rum and Coca Cola” in 1945, written by Trinidad’s Lord Invader as a critique of the skin trade that blossomed around the U.S. bases there (“working for the Yankee dollar”). The Andrews Sisters pretended not to notice.
Following Symonette and Calypso Mama on the collection, Jamaica’s Jolly Boys – who play in the folkish pre-reggae “mento” style to this very day, with its distinctive banjo, bongos, guitar and kalimba instrumentation – robustly sing their way back home on “Take Me Back to Jamaica.”
Also Jamaican was Lord Composer, one of the island’s most popular singers of the era, specializing in mento and calypso standards including the classic “Linstead Market,” an oddly jaunty tale of abject failure in the fruit marketplace.
We return to calypso proper with the calypso-iest singer of the all, King Sparrow (a.k.a. The Mighty Sparrow), whose career is now over 40-years strong and includes eight Trinidad Calypso King titles among numerous other awards. He playfully upbraided the musical blasphemy of a certain ’50s American import on “No More Rocking and Rolling” (“no rocking, no rolling, no jumping up like a fool”). Rock ‘n’ roll was last seen swimming back to the mainland.
Surprisingly rocking electric guitar, rolling beats and gritty soulful singing accent the Percentie Brothers’ (Bahamas) “Goombay Drum,” which is not unlike the electric Chicago blues of the era – I wonder if each heard the other.
Haitian Andre Toussaint moved to the Bahamas in the early-’50s and his exceptional and elegant baritone wrapped itself around nearly every language swirling around the islands – French, English, Spanish, Italian, even Hebrew! – and his popularity as a Nassau mainstay was a reflection of his genial talent and eclecticism. His “Little Nassau/Bahama Mama” medley, complete with swinging horns and jazzy combo, is slick pan-Caribbean tuneage at its finest.
Back to the source, Mighty Panther’s “Barbados Carnival” is a classic uptown calypso with the careening, slighty tipsy sax style we have come to identify with Caribbean (especially ska), rapid-fire conversational lead vocals on the verse, and call-and-response chorus – pure Trinidad. A time, a place, a permanent smile on your face.
Of much more recent vintage, Putumayo just released another Caribbean collection, this one aimed at children called Caribbean Playground, which is much broader stylistically than Calypso, but also redolent ofisland cheer.
The great ska king Desmond Dekker puts in an appearance with a reggae update on the Harry Belafonte standard “Jamaican Farewell”; Francophone Kali from Martinique gets all percussive and polyrhythmic; we venture a bit north into the Gulf of Mexico for Keith Frank’s zydeco transformation of Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds”; the African origins of Caribbean music are highlighted in “Little Anancy,” a traditional folktale of the spider who always outwits the bigger animals who want to consume him and his eight tasty legs.
And in case you’ve been wondering what they’ve been listening to in Trinidad for the last 25 years or so, Atlantik, who close out the collection with “All ABoard,” is one of the island’s most popular “soca” bands (a contraction of “soul” and “calypso”), an uptempo party music geared toward dancing.
Playground is a nice contemporary tour of the islands, but not in the same league as Calypso.