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Calypso and Calypsonians in North America, 1934-1961

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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!

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