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Calypso and Calypsonians in North America, 1934-1961

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Archive for May, 2010

Eric Hobsbawm’s Calypso-phile Cousin

Posted by Michael Eldridge on May 24, 2010

You learn something new every week from A Blog Supreme‘s Friday link dump.

Eric HobsbawmThis time, it was about nonagenarian Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm‘s semi-secret past as a jazz critic.  As Hobsbawm relates in a recent reminiscence in the London Review of Books, for ten years in the late 50s and early 60s, he covered jazz for The New Statesman under the pseudonym Francis Newton, borrowed from the “Communist jazz trumpeter who played on Billie Holiday’s ‘Strange Fruit.’”  His beat was the Soho jazz scene, which then featured the likes of Jamaican-born saxophonist Joe Harriott—though Hobsbawm confesses that, raised on swing, he spent much of the 50s “trying to understand or at least come to terms with bebop.”  (His columns were collected in 1989 as The Jazz Scene, but the book is now sadly out of print.  Several essays on jazz also make up the final section of his working-class history Uncommon People.)

Of course this same era was the heyday of West Indian culture in Britain.  For example: 1956, the year of “Francis Newton”‘s first byline, was also the year of Sam Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners.  (A year later Colin MacInnes, with whom Hobsbawm was friendly, would add a hip, white perspective with City of Spades.)  And until “blue beat” came along in the early-mid-60s, calypso was more or less the soundtrack of boheme London.  Lord Kitchener had arrived with his buddy Lord Beginner on the S. S. Empire Windrush in 1948 and never looked back; he counted Princess Margaret—whose famous “calypso tour” of the West Indies in 1955 raised the music’s global profile—among his most ardent fans.

Cousin Den

Cousin Denis

But here’s the kicker: Hobsbawm had come to jazz, he says, “thanks to [his] cousin Denis Preston.”  That would be jazz writer, BBC presenter, and record producer Denis Preston, who oversaw not only dozens of influential jazz discs for Pye and Columbia in the UK, but scads of sides by African and West Indian musicians, including classic recordings by Beginner and Kitchener for Parlophone and Melodisc, many of which have been collected on the London Is the Place for Me series from Honest Jon’s Records.  (In fact, as John Cowley points out via a post on the late DJ and music writer Charlie Gillett’s blog The Sound of the World, Preston counted calypso as his “first real success.”)

Richard Noblett, who researched and wrote the superb notes for the Honest Jon’s series, explains that Preston had included Freddy Grant’s West Indian Calypsonians in a London jazz concert he’d produced in 1945, and that three years later, serving as Decca’s representative in New York, he’d discovered the Harlem calypso scene and returned to England determined to promote the music there.  Since many of the West Indian musicians he hired who were then resident in the UK were  experienced jazz sidemen, it seems fair to give Preston at least partial credit, along with Kitch and his childhood friend Rupert Nurse (musical director at Melodisc), for introducing modern, debonair jazz arrangements into recorded calypso.

I can’t wait for the next installment of Hobsbawm’s hepcat memories, in which he will undoubtedly reveal how one of England’s most famous intellectuals limed with the West Indians at the Sunset Club in Carnaby Street and dingolayed at the earliest years of Notting Hill Carnival.

Posted in Calypso, Denis Preston, Eric Hobsbawm, Great Britain, Jazz | Tagged: , , , , | 2 Comments »

Lord Beginner, Pundit

Posted by Michael Eldridge on May 14, 2010

Classical Iconoclast relays this “video” of Lord Beginner’s 1950 British election commentary:

Not North American, I know (though Beginner did record for Moe Asch and appear at Harlem’s Caribbean Club in the 1940s), but too good to resist.  Now if only someone handy with iMovie would mash together a few fitting clips from the past week, preferably ending with the odd crane shot of the Brown family’s glum procession out of 10 Downing Street and around the corner to its waiting motorcade, and use Beginner’s calypso as the music bed….

Posted in British Elections, Lord Beginner | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

Bop Guy Goes Calypso

Posted by Michael Eldridge on May 11, 2010

In last weekend’s Saturday link dump, NPR’s A Blog Supreme pointed to a Brilliant Corners post by Matt Lavelle, who managed jazz sales at the old Tower Records on 4th and Broadway in New York during its final years.  Like a few thousand other people, I’ve got fond memories of that place.  The staff in the jazz department, which for ages took up half of the third floor, were wry, knowledgeable, and hip, and a number of them were working, if underemployed, musicians.  My favorite fixture, though, was an older gent named Garl Jefferson, who came out of retirement to take the job and stayed for well over ten years.

I only got to know him after about a decade’s worth of semi-annual pilgrimages.  Tower’s international section was for a while adjacent to jazz, and when I came to the counter in the summer of 2000 with a question about some obscure calypso disc that I hadn’t managed to find, the clerk referred me to Garl.  I was glad he did.

Happy Go Lucky Presskit Detail

Detail from a page of the “Happy Go Lucky” presskit (1942, rel. 1943)

Jefferson was born in Harlem in 1932.  Charlie (Congressman Charles) Rangel was in his brother’s class.  He met Sidney Poitier at the Red Rooster in the 1950s.  His high school basketball coach once wangled him an after-school job as Langston Hughes’s gofer.  And Jefferson was eager to tell me about how calypso, along with bebop and mambo, was a staple in Harlem during and after World War II.  (And even later: when he came back from the Korean War in 1954, he said, “there were still [calypso] bands and dances going on”).  He knew—and so did everyone else he knew—Houdini and the Great MacBeth and the Duke of Iron and Lord Invader and the Gerald Clark band.  He recalled seeing Sir Lancelot in “I Walked With a Zombie” and “Happy Go Lucky,” and he sang from memory a verse and chorus of Lion’s “Ugly Woman,” which Lancelot performed in the latter film.  Even Charlie Parker kept some West Indian music in his bag, he noted, citing not only Bird’s own “Barbados”—“one of the things that [eventually] got my wife closer to me, because she’s second-generation Bajan”—but also a cover of “Sly Mongoose.” (It’s included in the 1952 Live at the Rockland Palace concert; Jefferson remembered it being in Parker’s late 40s repertoire.)

Calypso Ball at the Golden Gate Ballroom (Amsterdam News, 1 February 1947)

As a teenager, Jefferson said, he heard all kinds of music in Harlem, and he leaned strongly towards bop.  But he often went to calypso dances with his best friends, many of whose parents were West Indian, at places like the Park Palace, the Renaissance Casino, and the Audubon Ballroom, as well as at smaller halls rented for the night by a West Indian social club or benevolent association.  Most any weekend, he said, you could count on hearing calypso somewhere or other.  Even at legendary jazz spots like Murrain’s and Small’s Paradise, he remembered attending “calypso dances…as well as jazz sessions.”  (He may have been too young to get into Boxil Jackson’s Caribbean Club on 7th Avenue.)  Usually there would be just one band—vocals, sax, trumpet, guitar, bass, conga, maracas—on the evening’s bill, he said, sometimes two or more at larger halls like the Park Palace.

At the time, Jefferson wasn’t aware whether any of these acts had a reputation outside of Harlem, but it wouldn’t have mattered: for him and his friends, the calypsonians’ cool factor didn’t depend upon their success downtown or out of town.  He could go to school the following Monday and say, “Man, we were at a dance [on Saturday] and MacBeth was burnin!” and he wouldn’t have to explain or defend his judgment.

West Indian Day Parade

West Indian Day Parade, 6 September 1948 (W. Smith, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs & Prints Division)

He was emphatic that a broad social spectrum—middle-class and working-class, West Indian and African-American—was represented at these events.  “For a kid my age, at the time, in the late 40s, [a calypso dance] was a social function that you counted on being at.”  The venue might only have accommodated a hundred people or even fewer, “but it was a happening!” The same went for the West Indian Day Parade, originally held on Lenox Avenue in Harlem: “For me, that was a big deal.  It meant a lot to me and the rest of the kids in my generation.”

Even if you weren’t an habitué of the dances, though, calypso was in the air: “On the jukebox, you would hear eighty per cent jazz, and all of a sudden here comes Louis Jordan.”  (Here he broke out in song again.)  “‘Run Joe!’ And ‘Stone Cold Dead.’  And that’s what I’m alluding to: you’re gonna hear this whether you want to or not.  So that’s why I’m saying, it wasn’t a matter of me going seeking it out, it was there for me to pick up on.”

Socially speaking, Jefferson said, calypso in Harlem was “primarily dance music”: at the clubs, “the accent was on dancing, and everybody’d be bumping hips.”  But his friends had plenty of records at home, too.  And when you heard calypso on disc or on the radio, “you listened to hear the words” as well as the music.  “Doris, darling I am feeling blue,” he sang, quoting a variant of Growler’s “I Don’t Want No Calaloo”: “I believe what the neighbors tell me is true / Just gimme de royal codfish / And not de green ting inside de dish / My darling I can’t call you / Cau’ I don’t want no more callaloo.”

What Jefferson particularly recollected, though, were tunes with social and political relevance, including one about Axis leaders and the cult of personality, whose title he remembered as “You Got to Have Power” (“Hitler had power, power; Mussolini had power, power; Hirohito had power, power”), as well as another uptempo tune that mentioned Pakistani Prime Minister Ali Khan: “This is really true / I dream one day I was really a Hindu (2x) / All the Indians from Hyderabad / Come to see me because I was feeling so sad.”  “Now at my age,” said Jefferson, “if I can still remember some of the words to these things, you’ll understand what an impression it made.  It wasn’t fleeting.”

Another tune he recalled was “Fire Down Dey”: “The first place we heard that was in the old Park Palace,” he said; “just about all [the] bands would play it.”  And that’s why, he said, when Sonny Rollins recorded the same melody a decade later, “it wasn’t nothing new to me—but he called it ‘St. Thomas.’”

Intriguingly, when I first chatted with Jefferson at the register in Tower, he thought he remembered a friend of his father’s, a sideman with Rollins, who was reputed to be the Duke of Iron’s uncle.  When we sat down to talk at length a few days later, though, on a lunch break at the Astor Place Starbuck’s, he told a different story, about a tenor player with MacBeth the Great, a big man—physically not unlike Rollins—who had a particular talent for energizing the dancers.

“Knowledge, experiences, aren’t here to be kept to yourself,” Jefferson told me as we were packing up and saying our goodbyes.  “You gotta share it, otherwise you don’t really have any knowledge.”  You’ve got it, Garl.  I hope you’re still kicking.  Thanks for sharing.


Addendum, January 2014: I’ve since confirmed that the tune Jefferson recalled above was indeed Muriel Gaines singing “You Got to Have Power” (National 8001B, 1945), backed by Sam Manning’s Serenaders.

Posted in Calypso, Garl Jefferson, Harlem, Jazz, New York Nightclubs | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 9 Comments »

The King of Hearts Dreams of Lena Horne

Posted by Michael Eldridge on May 10, 2010

I Dream of Lena Horne

Lord Caresser, "I Dream of Lena Horne" (1947). Library and Archives Canada: George Robertson Fonds, Container 24, File 12

Posted in Lena Horne, Lord Caresser | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »


Posted by Michael Eldridge on May 9, 2010

Mary Lou Williams

Mary Lou Williams (with Moe Asch, seated, in the mirror?). From the Gottlieb Collection, Library of Congress

Last night, my friend Dan Aldag led the HSU Jazz Orchestra in a fantastic concert of works by Mary Lou Williams—including some amazing charts that Williams scored for the Ellington band but that Duke apparently just sat on.  The show was one of dozens of events around the country marking the centenary of the great composer and arranger’s birth.

I think I’ve proven that I’m not above stretching to make an unlikely connection between kaiso and just about any other subject you could name.  But while Mary Lou Williams was one of the most stylistically versatile composers in the history of American jazz, she never, in her long and productive career, pulled a Sonny Rollins (or a Randy Weston, or a Hazel Scott, or…).  Not that she couldn’t have.  Williams was also one of the most influential and well-connected figures in the history of American jazz.  As Dan reminded the audience last night: her New York apartment was like the Jazz Loft before there was a Jazz Loft.  Everybody who was anybody came by to hang out there and drink in the atmosphere.  Among those whose careers she fostered and whose composing she nurtured were fellow pianists like Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk—and Herbie Nichols, whose idiosyncratic writing did in fact draw on the music of his West Indian (Trinidad and St. Kitts) parents, among other sources.

I don’t know how many degrees of separation to score that as, but I think I can get even closer.  In the early 40s, Williams began a long, loyal, and fruitful association with Moe Asch, founder of Asch, then Disc, and finally Folkways Records.  Asch was never known for his business acumen, and he could be an irascible skinflint.  But his dedication to documenting “folk” music—and for Asch that umbrella covered jazz and blues as well as all sorts of ethnic, folkloric, and lefty “people’s” music—was unstinting, and to Williams he was extraordinarily devoted; he gave her the sort of money, studio time, and artistic latitude that he afforded few others, at least not consistently.  Asch’s stable in the 1940s also included a number of calypsonians: at various points he recorded the U.S.-based Sir Lancelot, the Great MacBeth, and the Duke of Iron, as well as Lord Beginner and (most famously) Lord Invader.  For a time, as biographer Peter Williams tells it, Asch’s studio became a kind of “open house” for musical cross-fertilization, a place where Woody Guthrie would rub shoulders with Leadbelly, Sonny Terry…and Mary Lou Williams.  While this never produced a Mary Lou Williams-Lord Invader mashup, it did put her on wax with both gospel singer Nora Lee King and folk singer Josh White, a good friend with whom she had often shared the bill at Café Society in Greenwich Village.

(Asch was also tight with the fellow travelers of the People’s Songs collective, although he was a bit standoffish about their political platform.  The Songsters, whose numbers included Alan Lomax, Charles, Pete, and Toshi Seeger, and a host of likeminded singer-songwriters, are famous in calypso circles for having produced the 1946 “Calypso at/after Midnight” concert at Town Hall in New York.  That show was part of the long-running “Midnight Special,” a series of sit-down concerts which complemented their more freewheeling “Hootenannies.”  At the latter, Lord Invader shared the stage with Josh White and other folk and blues singers on more than one occasion.)

Mary Lou Williams Trio

David Stone Martin's album cover for the Mary Lou Williams Trio (Asch Records, 1944)

Williams’s calypso connection is more prosaic, or rather, graphic.  One of the artists she introduced to Asch wasn’t musical but visual: her friend and former lover (there seem to have been many men in Williams’s life who fit that description) David Stone Martin.  Martin would become an iconic figure in American graphic design, in large part for his distinctive album cover art: his 1950s jazz covers for Mercury, Clef and Verve practically defined the genre.  But his talents were first employed by Asch, whose records acquired an instantly recognizable visual identity courtesy of Martin’s singular pen-and-ink style.  Martin’s first work as Asch’s art director was, unsurprisingly, on a Mary Lou Williams album.  But he knew how to catch the feel of calypso, too.

Disc Calypso albums

David Stone Martin's covers for Disc 614 and 628, "Calypso," vols. 1 & 2


Further Reading:
Linda Dahl, Morning Glory: A Biography of Mary Lou Williams (U of California P, 2001)
Tammy L. Kernodle, Soul on Soul: The Life and Music of Mary Lou Williams (Northeastern UP, 2004)
Mark Miller, Herbie Nichols: A Jazzist’s Life (Mercury Press, 2009)
Peter D. Goldsmith, Making People’s Music: Moe Asch and Folkways Records (Smithsonian, 1998)

Posted in David Stone Martin, Disc Records, Mary Lou Williams, Moe Asch | Tagged: , , , , , | 5 Comments »

Hockey, Lovely Hockey

Posted by Michael Eldridge on May 8, 2010

Victory Test MatchThere’s a venerable tradition of calypsos about cricket.  It stretches from the glory years of Calypso Cricket, when the Windies dominated the sport and David Rudder exorted the region to “Rally Round,” back through Relator’s 1972 “Gavaskar,” Lord Beginner’s “Victory Test Match” (a/k/a “Cricket Lovely Cricket”) and Lord Kitchener’s “Alec Bedser Calypso” (both from 1950), all the way to paeans to Learie Constantine by Caresser (1939) and Beginner (1928).

(King Radio, “We Want Ramadin on the Ball,” ca. 1952 – from Juneberry 78s)

Cricket plays a huge part in Caribbean identity.  One of the 20th century’s foremost intellectuals, the Trinidadian C.L.R. James, was famous among other things for his cricket journalism; his Beyond a Boundary, which Rudder’s calypso namechecks, is a landmark in West Indian thought.  All of the calypsos I’ve cited, and more besides, are generally fairly straightforward tributes to teams and individuals, though Rudder also takes James’s point that “[t]his is more than just cricket.”  I suppose that any attempt to explain the subject’s enduring popularity in calypso, however, should at least nod to the fact that bowling and batting present a wealth of metaphorical opportunities for boastful males to describe their technique in another, more universal, human endeavor.

In 1950, both Kitch and Beginner were based in England, and that’s where, at about the same time, bandleader Edmundo Ros started a vogue for calypsos about soccer with 1953’s “Exotic Football Calypso,” which was followed closely by Trini expat Edric Connor‘s “Manchester United Calypso.”  (Nowadays any English professional football team worth its cleats has its own calypso.)

Back in the 1930s and 40s there were any number of calypsos written about boxer Joe Louis, and there may even have been one or two homages to baseball pioneer Jackie Robinson.  But with the Habs still alive in the playoffs (as I write, the series is tied at 2), I’ll wager that Lord Caresser is the only bona fide Trinidadian calypsonian to have composed a tune about ice hockey.

Actually Caresser wrote about all sorts of winter sports during his time in Canada.  One of his most requested tunes was his “Ode to Barbara Ann Scott,” the Canadian Olympic figure skater.   (“You are a Skating Queen of the Ice / And, what is nice, you proved it twice / Adding laurels to your Country’s fame / Perpetuating its illustrious name.”)  His firsthand accounts of experiences with hibernal pastimes, however, are rather more equivocal.  Here’s the conclusion to his skiing misadventure in the Laurentians, for example (“Skiing”):

Constance found me trembling
From the shock I was just recovering
My  feet she tried to untangle
I was all wrapped up like a cross word puzzle
Struggling under cramping pain
I crawled and creeped until I reached the train
And swore never again in life to ski
Not if the snow on the mountains turned currency.

About hockey, he at least forced himself, after sitting through a professional match, to finish on an obligingly commendatory note:  “Cricket is really my favorite game,” he reminds us, just to reinforce his West Indian bona fides, “But from now on, hockey is my middle name / […] / For hockey today as it really stands / Should be supported by all the sporting fans.”   The bulk of “The Hockey League,” though, elaborates his discomfited surprise at what a brutal sport the fastest game on earth turns out to be—”naked war,” he calls it.  “If it wasn’t for the referees,” goes the chorus’s final couplet, “They would surely kill the goalies.”  Caresser’s sons, good French Canadians, grew up Black Iceplaying hockey, and as George and Darril Fosty’s Black Ice shows, the few dozen players of African descent who have made it into the NHL over the past 50 years or so are hardly the first black men to put on skates and pass around the puck.  (And given that the scene the Fostys document was centered around Halifax, it seems likely that at least some of those players, in later years, anyway, were West Indian.)  I didn’t ask his sons, and they didn’t say, whether, after watching the Habs’ choreographed brawl, Caresser was ever moved to grab a stick and get on the ice himself….


Further Reading /Listening:
  • Calypso Cricket Lyrics (West Indies Players Association)
  • Gordon Rohlehr, “Calypso, Cricket, and West Indian Cricket: Era of Dominance” (Anthurium 6:1 [Spring 2008])
  • Martin Williamson, “Those two little pals of mine...ESPN CricInfo 24 June 2006
  • Douglas Midgett, “Cricket and Calypso: Cultural Representation and Social History in the West Indies” (Sport in Society 6:2 [2003]), rpt. in  J.A. Mangan and Andrew Ritchie, eds., Ethnicity, Sport, Identity: Struggles for Status (New York: Routledge, 2005)
  • Hilary McD. Beckles, The Development of West Indian Cricket: The Age of Nationalism (London: Pluto, 1998)
  • Claire Westall, “‘This thing goes beyond the boundary’: cricket, calypso, the Caribbean and their heroes.”  In Antony Bateman and John Bale, eds., Sporting Sounds: Relationships Between Sport and Music (New York: Routledge, 2009)
  • Lord Kitchener, “The Ashes
  • Brothers Christefor & Batson, “Dividing of the Cricket Spoils
  • Posted in Calypso, Cricket, Ice Hockey, Lord Caresser | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

    A Life of Craft–er, Mass-Market–Beer and Calypso. And Hockey. Oh, and Curling.

    Posted by Michael Eldridge on May 3, 2010

    Department of Contorted Rationales:  let’s say that with two weeks officially left of my sabbatical, I’m still in Canada in spirit.  The Habs are all tied up with the Penguins in the latest round of the NHL playoffs (has anyone thought to tell the National Hockey League that IT’S MAY?!?).  The franchise is once again the property of the Molson family, whose multinational megacorp is now known as Molson Coors, thank you very much—though they’ve made a big show of emphasizing their “heritage” and retaining “Molson Canadian” as their flagship beer.  And Google News Archive has thoughtfully offered up one more utterly unlikely point of connection between two of my favorite subjects.  (For the first one, see “A Life of Craft Beer and Calypso.”)

    This has to be one of the most inexplicable print ads I’ve ever seen.  Emphasis on “print”: all words, no pix—not even a tiny logo hiding in a corner somewhere.  Unless you read it all the way through, you wouldn’t even realize it was an ad.  Oh sure, that might not strike you as all that remarkable if I’d pulled the thing out of last month’s, I dunno, Wired: these days, sophisticated modern marketers are always experimenting with edgy, ironic, anti-ad ads. But this one’s over a half-century old:

    Mahd for Molson's

    Montreal Gazette, 15 April 1954, p. 4

    O-kayyy…Let’s overlook the stage-West Indian ahccent and the religio-geographic confusion.  (The Trinidadian version of Yoruba Orisha-based religion was more commonly known as Shango, though the folk practices of Obeah also derive from some of the same sources.)  Keep in mind that as far as I know, Molson’s, unlike some other prominent Canadian companies—Alcan, Sun Life Insurance—did not have an especially big presence in the Caribbean and had not otherwise established any relationship with West Indian culture at home or abroad.  In 1954, in fact, there was no real reason to do so: Belafonte was not yet a household name; the Calypso Craze was more than two years off; even Princess Margaret’s “Calypso Tour” of the Caribbean, which got mad press in Canada (and the rest of the English-speaking world), wouldn’t happen till the following year.  A Trinidad steelband, the Dixie Stars, would feature prominently that summer at the Canadian National Exhibition, but that was August, four months away.  Really, the only West Indian of note to have established a beachhead in Canada was Lord Caresser, and in 1954, his days on the CBC and at Rockhead’s Paradise both past, he was apparently off on a tour in Europe.  (He’d be back in Montreal clubs by 1955.)  Sure, more and more Canadian tourists were jetting off to the Caribbean by this point, but were there enough of them “Mahd about Trinidahd” to give an ad like this any kind of currency?  It’s a mystery.

    Molson's and curling (not calypso)

    At right is another Molson’s ad from the same period that plays up a much more typical association, with one of those pastimes that even in 2010 made Canada the butt of Olympic jokes on American late-night TV.

    Back in the late 1970s and early 80s, the heyday of the Canadian “stubby” bottle, my brother and his family lived for several years just outside of Sarnia, Ontario.  This period also coincided with the dark ages of American beer, a decade or so before the dawn of the microbrewing renaissance.  And so whenever we went for visits, it was with great anticipation that we would make a pilgrimage to what was then known as Brewer’s Retail, the slightly creepy, bare-walled, government-licensed beer store, to acquire a case or two of exotic Molson’s Canadian, or Stock Ale, or Export, or Brador, all of which counted as tasty, characterful alternatives (relatively speaking) to the pallid swill that passed for beer on our side of the Blue Water Bridge.  Nowadays, the True North’s mass-market brands vie with their American cousins for the title of coldest, “lightest,” and blandest.  (Or just as often, they’ve ended the contest by merging with their Stateside competition, and/or with some other global brewing gargantua.  They got themselves some spiffy new-old graphic design as part of the bargain, however.)  Thankfully, craft brewing is thriving in Canada, too.  So keep your Molson’s; make mine a Lug Tread, or a Dead Elephant, or a Steam Whistle, or a 10W30, or a Granite Best Bitter Special, or a Black Oak Pale, or a Black Irish Plain Porter, or a Wellington Iron Duke, or a Church Key Holy Smoke, or a…you get the idea.  But Go Habs!

    Posted in Beer, Calypso, Ice Hockey | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

    Student Calypsonians in Canada

    Posted by Michael Eldridge on May 2, 2010

    Until the mid-1960s, Canada severely restricted immigration by black West Indians—and, for that matter, all other people of color.  About West Indian students, who came into the country on temporary visas, officials were a bit less wary.  Historian Robin Winks notes that after World War II, “thousands of black-skinned students,” including hundreds of West Indians, enrolled in Canadian Universities.  (As always, Montreal and Toronto had some of the greatest numbers.)

    Montreal Gazette, 23 August 1946, p. 7

    In December 1945, the CBC’s International Service, then in its first year of operation, recorded special Christmas broadcasts for many of its overseas audiences.  For the British West Indies, according to an article in the Montreal Gazette (22 December, p. 18), it prepared a “program of calypsos and songs, featuring calypso singing…by 15 students from those islands, who are now studying at McGill University.”  Some of those same students were undoubtedly recruited to perform as the “Tamboo-Bamboo Boys,” a trio of backup singers who appeared on the CBC’s “Lord Caresser Show” during its first year.  They may also have been part of the quartet Caresser led at McGill’s “Cafe Copacabana” in late 1947.

    For his part, Caresser seems to have had more than just a casual relationship with McGill.  One of his earliest Canadian compositions was his “Ode to McGill University,” a/k/a “McGill Song” and “My Name I Want to Enroll (at McGill),” which told of his ambition—fictional, according to his sons—to become a psychology student there:

    Yesterday I went at the campus gate
    But the Registrar told me: “It’s too late
    You must be [sic] pay a fee.”  I said: “Oh No,
    My budget is low; I’ll sing Calypso.”

    In his own version of “Donkey City,” he spun this somewhat less celebratory tale of a Caribbean émigré’s icy reception:

    I land in Montreal City
    Prepared to study
    At McGill University,
    Far away from the land of Iere
    I thought I was big and robus[’]
    ‘Till I feel the breeze on the Campus
    I said No,
    Too much snow
    for this Junior Commando

    And finally, concluding a lengthy report on McGill’s annual student variety show, the “Red and White Review,” Caresser adds, delightedly:

    But there’s one thing that you should know
    They even sang Creole Calypso
    Inviting Canadians if you please,
    To holiday in the West Indies.

    I enjoyed the show all along
    More so when they sang the calypso song
    I hope soon all Canadians would be
    Singing this tropical melody.

    West Indian Students at McGill, ca. 1959

    From the collection of Canada's Department of Manpower & Immigration at Library & Archives Canada: "West Indian students in Montreal celebrated the anniversary of the West Indies Federation with exhibitions of limbo, voodoo and calypso dances at the Negro Community Centre"

    Cary Cristall, author of the forthcoming Folk Music in English Canada, hipped me to this track sung by students of the West Indian Society of McGill University, which was recorded by Sam Gesser for Folkways Canada in 1957.  It appeared on the out of print CD box set A Folksong Portrait of Canada (Mercury, 1994), and the entire Folkways album of “Songs from the British West Indies” can be purchased at the Smithsonian Folkways website.  (The West Indian Society’s descendant, the McGill Caribbean Students Society, is still active.)

    Those same West Indian students from McGill and Sir George Williams (now Concordia) universities regularly held dances and fêtes in Montreal, including annual “carnivals.”  The photo at right, probably from 1959, depicts just such a celebration.  (The event’s location, Montreal’s storied Negro Community Centre, still exists as the NCC/Charles H. Este Cultural Center—though sadly the building has been closed for 15 years, awaiting sufficient funds for renovation.)

    David “Bandit” DeCastro, Canada’s first calypso monarch (1969) and founder of the 1950s/60s Montreal-based group “King Caribe and the Steel Bandits,” tells a story in his self-published book of reminiscences about playing for one such party, organized by students he says were from the University of Montreal—he may have meant McGill—in about 1958 or 59.  (Although he did not come to Montreal as a student himself, he got the idea to form the Steel Bandits while liming in an apartment belonging to some West Indian students in his neighborhood.)  Here is the version that he told me in conversation late last fall:

    Then, too, they had the University of Montreal: a lot of West Indians, especially Trinidadians went there too.  They would put on a big dance.  As a matter of fact, we played for some of their dances, because it was strictly calypso music, so everybody could dance to it.  Every year they had that, until the last year, when we played, a big fight broke out, and they said they don’t want us again. Like it was our fault!  Some white fellows came from Verdun and started some trouble and before you know it, they ended up fighting with our band, and we were in the fight so they figured it was our fault, and they said “We don’t ever want to see you again—go back, get out!”

    Posted in "Bandit" DeCastro, Calypso, Canada, Lord Caresser, McGill University, NCC | Tagged: , , , , | 3 Comments »

    Domesticating the West Indies in Canada (Part 2)

    Posted by Michael Eldridge on May 1, 2010

    West Indies in Canada

    A 1910 pamphlet published by Britain's Imperial Department of Agriculture for the West Indies

    For decades, Canada kept West Indians out of the country on all sorts of racist pretexts.  An old standby was that people from tropical regions were fundamentally unsuited to the climate and culture of Canada, and their propensity for indolence and moral turpitude would inevitably turn them into “public charges.”  Of course, that line of thinking could be conveniently suspended whenever there was a pressing need for cheap, exploitable labor.  One way that Canada periodically tamed its antipathy towards West Indians, then, was by “domesticating” them, a strategy that I touched on in Part 1 of this post.

    The other domestic strategy that Canada periodically pursued was at once more conventional and more bizarre.  It involved courtship and matrimony—but on a national scale.  I’ll explain with an abridged excerpt from the essay I mentioned last time:

    Canadian-West Indian LeagueIn the 1930s, for example, when Caresser was mourning the abdication of Edward VIII, Canada was still tucking in its shirt and wiping lipstick off its collar after a slightly caddish forty-year dalliance with the West Indies.  As historian Robin Winks tells it: on several occasions between about 1880 and 1920, prominent business and political figures in Canada led movements for federation or even outright “union” with the British West Indies.  (The most powerful and persistent of these voices was the “Canadian-West Indian League,” which from 1910 through the 1950s lobbied for closer ties between the two regions as a means of advancing Canadian trade and commercial interests in the Caribbean.  Its propaganda organ, the Canada-West Indies Magazine, outlived the League’s political influence.)  From the Canadian perspective, these efforts were mostly about securing trade advantages and a ready source of cheap labor.  However, while Prime Minister Robert Borden privately conceded to an aide in 1919 that such an innovative inter-colonial relationship might give Canada useful experience shouldering the white man’s burden, he did not relish facing what he called “the difficulty of dealing with the coloured population who would probably…desire and perhaps insist upon representation in Parliament.”  And that was the end of that.

    "The West Indies Want to Join Us"

    Maclean's 15 April 1953

    Trade and tourism increased steadily over the subsequent decades, however, and further proposals of union were mooted occasionally right on through the late 1950s.  The most sensational was a wide-eyed 1953 cover story for Maclean’s which trumpeted that “The West Indies Want to Join Us.”  (“At the stroke of a pen,” gushed its opening lines, Canada “could expand from Arctic to equator,” becoming “one of the most cosmopolitan nations on earth!”).  Inspired by two senior New Brunswick politicians who’d floated the idea in parliament, the article’s author, Eric Hutton, flaunted his own years of experience as a Caribbean correspondent with informants throughout the region.  After a quick overview of the many benefits that would accrue to Canada were it to annex a tropical archipelago as its eleventh province (“four million new citizens, frontiers on the equator, a three-hundred-million-dollar market, plus calypsos and cricket”), Hutton turned to the question he was sure was foremost on everyone’s mind: “what manner of people are these potential new Canadians”?  His first answer was oblique—and prophylactic:

    Racially, the West Indies could be nature’s experimental project to prove that people of all races, colors, and creeds can live, work, and play together in peace and prosperity—without consciously realizing that they are part of any such experiment.  Many an Anglo-Saxon resident of Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, one of the largest cities in the West Indies, would be astonished if it was suggested there was anything unusual in a white family having a Negro dentist, a Hindu doctor, a Chinese lawyer, and a next-door neighbor in whom were mingled the strains of all three.

    One can almost imagine Hutton hopefully anticipating the effect of these revelations on his own doubtful readers.  (“There are ‘Anglo-Saxons’ in the West Indies—who knew?  And colored professionals?  Perhaps those ones wouldn’t be so bad.  And they all live together in peace and prosperity, he says…Well, all right, then!”)

    A few pages later, Hutton faced the matter more squarely.  One of the proposal’s parliamentary sponsors claimed to have received letters from all over Canada in response to the Commons speech in which he had first advanced the idea.  Opinion was divided, he said, with correspondents from “The Maritimes and Quebec…preponderantly in favor” and those from the plains and the west, less so.  The objection most frequently raised, however, was that union

    would open Canada to free entry of colored “new Canadians” attracted by tales of high wages, but not adapted to living and working in this country; and that Canadian taxpayers would be burdened by the addition of a “poorhouse population” entitled to all the welfare benefits evolved through Canada’s high standards of production and consumption.

    As I mentioned earlier, it was precisely these pernicious myths that had informed the past half-century’s worth of immigration policy.  For that reason, perhaps, Hutton felt compelled to take them seriously, and to deflect them.  “On the subject of the feared invasion of Canada by the West Indies,” he demurred that while wages might indeed be seductively higher in Canada, so was the cost of living.  All things considered, then, the putative “attractions of Canada” were probably “more valid to Canadians than to West Indians.”  It was true, he conceded, that

    [t]here would be West Indians entering Canada, to do business, to go to school—even to work.  But the West Indians themselves do not think the number would reach problem proportions, especially if, as expected, Canadian investments in the West Indies result in development of the islands.  Given opportunities in their own land, the West Indians, especially the colored population, will choose to remain in their accustomed surroundings.  (my emphasis)

    Lest Canadians become preoccupied with questions of color, however, Hutton encouraged them to reframe the picture in terms of dollars and cents.  There was big money to be made in the “vast market” of the Caribbean, he reminded his readers, and union would merely formalize and protect a “Canada-West Indies interdependence” that was “already very real.”  West Indians were “eager for Canadian food, manufactured goods, and building materials,” he enthused.  And “[i]f the West Indies become Canada’s eleventh province, Canadians will find many profitable fields for investment and development,” including “unestimated quantities of bauxite, hardwood, gold, diamonds, manganese and mica.”  (Of course, Canadians had already made big money in the Caribbean.  At the end of World War II, more than 1500 Canadian firms had interests in the region. The Atlantic provinces, especially, counted the Caribbean as their most important trading partner, and Canadian banks and insurance companies had virtually monopolistic control over the Caribbean finance industry.)

    While he gave rhetorical pride of place to the economic argument for union, however, Hutton also emphasized that this potentially lucrative arrangement could have salutary social and cultural implications: a racially mixed nation, he thought, would be one—quite unlike the United States, with its increasingly ominous racial problems—that was entirely free of race-consciousness.  Indeed, Canadian “investment and development” had already shown how such an idyllic society could be achieved: in its company town in the Guyanese interior, where white Canadians mixed freely with local “colored” employees with “no trouble of any kind,” the bauxite-mining giant Alcan had “taken the lead in banishing racial discrimination.”  A tropical partner might encourage strait-laced Canadians to loosen up in other ways, as well:  not only would she model a more relaxed, “colorful,” and sophisticated way of life, she would instantly “put Canada into the big time in cricket” and give it “a track-and-field team of Olympic caliber.”  In calypso, moreover, her dowry would bestow upon Canada “a distinct art form, as genuine as American jazz or the German lieder,” and in carnival, Canadians would learn “sheer abandon” and “pagan joy unconfined”:

    A [presumably white] Canadian airline official who saw the carnival for the first time last year declared: “It simply has to be seen to be believed.  After I’d looked on for an hour, who do you think I found masked and wearing a funny hat and streamers of pink paper, singing and prancing down the street with a band of raving mad total strangers?  Why, ME!”

    Not for nothing does the pictorial spread (“What the British West Indies Would Offer in Return for Full Provincial Status in Canada”) accompanying the article lead with “A tropic resort area second to none” and underscore how “The colorful mixture of races would put us among the world’s most cosmopolitan nations.” “A new race is being born in the West Indies as types intermarry,” a sub-caption helpfully explained.  Who knows what kinds of free and easy relations all that tropical bacchanal might lead to?

    Even if Hutton’s case for union was built on wishful thinking, however, it had the virtue of clarifying the erotic logic behind all the previous proposals dating back to the 1880s.  All along, it seems, the plans for “union” had envisioned a marriage of convenience (for Canada) in which the partners would maintain separate households, the “wife” would for all practical purposes be a dusky mistress, and all the steamier forms of connubial congress between the two would be relegated to the tropics.  Canada may have wanted closer, uh, intercourse with the West Indies, just not in a way that would involve more West Indian bodies up north.

    Posted in Canada, Immigration Policy, Trade with Caribbean | 2 Comments »

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