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Calypso and Calypsonians in North America, 1934-1961

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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!”

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3 Responses to “Student Calypsonians in Canada”

  1. […] There may not be much here that isn’t already in De Castro’s memoir, Stories, self-published in 2009 from his home in Florida.  But “Bandit” is a delightful storyteller and a gregarious interviewee, and his recollections of the early history of calypso in Canada in the 1950s and 60s, in particular, deserve a wider audience.  And so here is more or less the entire interview, a brief excerpt of which appeared in a previous post: […]

  2. […] star of his own weekly radio show on the CBC.  (See “Caresser in Canada” and “Student Calypsonians in Canada.”)  He had probably composed his “Ode to Barbara Ann Scott” on the occasion of […]

  3. […] blowing my own horn (ouch!), I’ll just mention my posts on postwar West Indian immigrants, student calypsonians, and “Bandit” DeCastro, which also fill in one or two crannies in Plummer’s work. […]

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