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Calypso and Calypsonians in North America, 1934-1961

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Archive for June, 2012

Mehr deutsche Calypso (oder, Die Mädchen aus der Mambo-Bar)

Posted by Michael Eldridge on June 25, 2012

Mona Baptiste, Es liegt was in der Luft

Even though I’m supposedly working on a Bear Family Records project myself, the members of that family (like so many others) don’t necessarily communicate so well.  So it was from a post on Berlin record collector Andreas Michalke’s blog, Berlin Beatet Bestes, that I first heard about Es liegt was in der Luft,  the German label’s collection of Mona Baptiste‘s mid-1950s Deutsches sides.

Mona Baptiste in The Mail

The Mail (Adelaide, Australia), 2 June 1951

Along with passengers destined for somewhat greater fame such as Lords Kitchener and Beginner (and, as it happens, the well-established transatlantic activist and culture-vulture Nancy Cunard), the Trini-born Baptiste emigrated to London in 1948 on the S.S. Empire Windrush and found some modest success singing with Black British bandleader Cab Caye and others.  In the early 50s she waxed a handful of sides for Melodisc with Freddy Grant’s Caribbean Rhythm Band, among them a cover of Nat King Cole’s “Calypso Blues”—a tune Baptiste reprised on a 1957 return visit to Trinidad for Emory Cook’s Beauty and the Brute Force.  (The Melodisc version appears on Volume 2 of the excellent Honest Jon’s series London Is the Place for Me.)

Europe's Calypso Queen

Muriel Gaines on the cover of Jet Magazine, 29 May 1952

The liner notes for Beauty tout Baptiste as “famous in Europe among patrons of radio, TV and nightclubs,” and by 1957 her celebrity had indeed crossed the Channel—and the North Sea.  Michalke recounts that Baptiste signed her first contract with the German branch of Polydor in 1953 and sang in seven German films before the decade was out, including 1959’s classic Die Mädchen für die Mambo-Bar.  Around the same time, according to The Beat columnist Dave Hucker, she was a repeat guest on the influential English pop show “Oh Boy.”  Presumably she had by this point dethroned Harlem’s Muriel Gaines (right) as “Europe’s Queen of Calypso.”  (On Gaines, see also the companion site to Irwin Chusid’s long-running radio program Muriel’s Treasure, as well as the Vocal Harmony Group website.  You can listen to Baptiste sing “Die Mädchen aus der Mambo-Bar” and “Boy, komm und küß mich,” both from 1959—and both in delightfully cheesy arrangements, at Michalke’s blog.)

The Germans’ infatuation with Baptiste wasn’t just a one-off.  Two years ago I blogged about Andy Narell and Lord Relator’s collaboration with the WDR Big Band (Narell has since released recordings of that splendid concert and others on DVD, by the way), but several dots connect die Mädchen mit der Panman.  Baptiste’s “Es liegt was in der Luft” (“There’s Something in the Air”), for example, also appeared on a recent collection of 50s Wirtschaftswunder-Hits with Greek emigre Leo Leandros’ Calypso Craze cover of “The Banana Boat Song,” “Komm Mr. Tallimann” (performed with his group “die Original Calypso-Stars”).

In 1975, the Globe Unity Orchestra, the large ensemble led by saxophonist Peter Brötzmann and pianist Alexander von Schlippenbach and featuring a collection of German, Dutch, English and American “out” jazz all-stars, recorded the slightly loopy “Bavarian Calypso”:

(The original single and its B-side, together with an alternate take and several more tunes from the same period, have just been collected on the album FMP S 6…plus, released digitally by the good people behind the “mp-free jazz blog” Destination: Out.  A rather more boisterous version of the tune appears on Globe Unity – 40 Years, recorded in 2006.)

Meanwhile, the website T&T in Germany (“conceived during the historic campaign of the Soca Warriors, Trinidad and Tobago’s national football team, to their debut appearance at the 2006 World Cup in Germany”) offers a near-exhaustive selection, most of it streamable, of “Calypso and Soca music by German artists, with German language or featuring Germany.”  The list includes not just old chestnuts like the Duke of Iron’s cover of “Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen,” Invader’s “My Experience on the Reeperbahn,” and Lloyd Thomas’s “German Calypso,” but such forgotten gems as Max Woiski und Seine Band’s “Nescafé Calypso.”

It also includes various tunes by Christian Habekost, a/k/a “Chako,” a German academic who’s been writing about—and, um, performing—dub poetry and calypso since the 1980s.  T&T in G was too early, however, for the rather campier Lord Mouse and the Kalypso Katz, the Berlin-based band who have been active only since 2008 (MySpace | ReverbNation).

Posted in Calypso, Germany, Mona Baptiste | Tagged: , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Sometimes I Feel Like a Fatherless Child

Posted by Michael Eldridge on June 17, 2012

There are all kinds of fathers in the world.  After playing the role for nine years myself, I know how easy it is to fall short of every possible paternal ideal.  And after losing my own dad last fall (he stayed strong and healthy before cancer finally caught up with him at age 96), I also know how hard it is to get your progenitor out of your head.

Lord Caresser (Rufus Callender) wasn’t exactly a model family man: he sired children in several countries, and eventually, an increasingly disturbed soul, he walked away from his wife and sons in Montreal.  It seems that he, too, was haunted by the specter of his father—in his case, a father he barely knew.  Born in Venezuela, Caresser was raised, like plenty of West Indians, by strong women.  His mother reportedly died when he was four years old, at which point he was shipped back to Trinidad to live with a grandmother and, later, an aunt.  But his dad remained an enigma, a blank figure whose anonymity Caresser explored in an uncharacteristically autobiographical calypso from the mid-1940s:

Caresser, "I Ain't Got No Papa"

Lord Caresser, “I Ain’t Got No Papa” (ca. 1945).  Library and Archives Canada: George Robertson Fonds, Container 24, File 12

As a meditation on Caribbean colonial identity, Caresser’s lyric is right up there with Atilla the Hun’s “No Nationality” (or even George Lamming’s In the Castle of My Skin).  But as an expression of the sense of orphanhood we feel when our folks are gone, it’s more poignant still.  “I would like to behold him with my eyes….”  Me, too.

Posted in Lord Caresser | Tagged: , | 3 Comments »

Hip Hooray for de Gracious Queen

Posted by Michael Eldridge on June 5, 2012

Tibor Kalman, "Colors 4 (Race)"

Tibor Kalman, Black Queen Elizabeth. From Colors 4 (Race), 1993. ©M&Co.

Charles Roach

Charles Roach (photo: Colin O’Connor for the National Post)

With all the hoopla this week surrounding Elizabeth II’s diamond jubilee, it’s worth remembering that there are plenty of folks throughout her dominions who aren’t celebrating (or who, like Jamaica Kincaid’s Lucy, just aren’t happy being someone else’s “minion”).  In the Dominion of Canada, for example, veteran civil rights activist Charles Roach has long sought to alter that country’s Citizenship Oath, which requires new citizens to swear allegiance to the British monarch (who is technically the Canadian head of state).  Because of his refusal to take such a pledge, the Trini-born Roach, who has lived in Canada since 1955, remains a permanent resident rather than a citizen.  Although his legal challenges to the oath were rejected by a federal appeals court in 1994 and by the Ontario Superior Court in 2007, Roach, a member of the bar since 1963, is now once again arguing its constitutionality before the provincial court.

A story about this latest round in his fight (which he’s effectively conducting from his sickbed, battling cancer and stroke at the same time) appeared last Wednesday in the right-wing National Post—and immediately drew a handful of hair-raising comments from unreconstructed Monarchists and United Empire Loyalists suggesting that if they don’t like it in Canada, Roach and the rest of “these immigrants” ought to go back to the “hell holes” they came from.

In spite of its much-vaunted multiculturalism, Canada has a history of such bigotry, state-sponsored as well as petulant and personal (see “Domesticating the West Indies in Canada,” Part 1 and Part 2).  If immigrants insist on coming, some Canadians have felt, then it would be much more tolerable if they would just shut up and wave their flag (Union Jack, not Maple Leaf).

That sentiment, as I discovered when I was researching the history of Lord Caresser (Rufus Callender) in Canada (see “Caresser in Canada,” “My Visit to Ottawa,” and “Canada So Cold“), extended to calypsonians, too.  Here’s a relevant excerpt from my essay “Calypso’s Cosmopolitan Strategy“:

Hip Hooray for Liz

Toronto Daily Star, 28 November 1953

…To begin with, Canadians had long delighted in noting what they regarded as West Indians’ touching loyalty to the British monarchy, especially as expressed in calypso.  A newsreel in the collection of Canada’s National Library shows Prince Edward being saluted by “calypso dancers” on his 1925 tour of the Caribbean.  In 1939, a Canadian Press newswire story in the Toronto Star remarked that six months on, the calypsonians then in residence at “Manhattan’s smartest night clubs” were still “singing sprightly ballads to rhumba-like rhythms about the [recent North American] visit of the King and Queen,” and it approvingly cited a sample stanza: “The charming, gracious, and smiling Queen, / Is the prettiest woman I have ever seen. / She was dress in an outfit of blue, / And wave to the crowd as the car drove through.”  (A similar notice in late 1953 marking Elizabeth’s first visit to the Caribbean jovially quoted from the calypso that greeted her arrival in Jamaica, “Hip Hooray for de Gracious Queen.”)

These dispatches were nothing, however, compared to the flood of coverage that accompanied Princess Margaret on her month-long circuit of the Caribbean in 1955—the “Calypso Tour,” as it came to be known throughout the English-speaking world.  All of Canada’s major newspapers featured front-page stories replete with lavish photo spreads and maps of Margaret’s itinerary, beginning in the run-up to her arrival and continuing well past her return.  “Trinidad’s Steel Bands Prepare for Princess,” shouted a headline in the Globe and Mail on January 31:  “Each band hopes to win approval and be chosen to play for the Princess.”  Indeed, claimed the Toronto Star, the “happy natives” of Trinidad, particularly its “colorfully garbed native dancers,” had been anxiously preparing for her visit for months.  Meanwhile, the Globe divulged, “Calypso writers have already produced a torrent of words extolling the virtues of the Royal visitor,” and one, the Mighty Panther (Vernon Roberts), had been chosen to “put his message across personally at a carnival in the grounds of Government House.”  (The paper reproduced the entire text of Panther’s laudatory lyrics in the next day’s edition.)

Calypso’s wartime displays of loyalty to Crown and Empire came in for special treatment.  A plummy profile of Caresser in the entertainment weekly Applause tried to establish his patriotic bona fides with the spurious claim that he had served in the army, entertaining the troops—British, American, or West Indian, it wasn’t clear.  “Many a soldier who blithely ignored the printed V.D. notices was sent scurrying to the medico by Caresser’s warbled warnings,” it grinned, “and the progress of the war was duly noted [by Caresser] in numbers such as ‘Hitler and the Rich Ukraine,’ [and] ‘Watch Out, Japan.’”[1]

"Subaltern" Mary Churchill

Globe and Mail, 21 August 1943

But it was a front-page, above-the-fold photo in the Globe and Mail in the summer of 1943 that truly spotlighted West Indians’ devotion to their martial Mother Country.  A teaser for a two-column story on the paper’s Women’s page, the picture illustrated a visit to Canada by servicewoman Mary Churchill (daughter of Winston), and featured a smiling, down-to-earth Churchill “[singing] calypso songs” amidst a group of dark-skinned Barbadian volunteers at the Auxiliary Territorial Services basic training camp in Kitchener, Ontario.  The photo-op with the West Indians, who accounted for precisely forty-seven of the camp’s 1000 trainees, was framed as the centerpiece of the story, which climaxed with the “girls” (including “Subaltern” [!] Churchill) in an impromptu performance of one of their “native” songs, clear evidence of their childlike trust in the Great White Mother:

There was a moment of shyness on the part of [the] girls from the British West Indies…when Miss Churchill appeared on the scene.  But when she sat on the grass, gathering them around her and chattering as naturally as if she knew each one, they were soon laughing hard and telling her all about themselves….

When Ptc. M. K. Evelyn from the Barbados sang a native calypso, Miss Churchill joined in the chorus heartily.  “It’s simply marvelous!” she said, clapping her hands.  “I wish we could have had a recording of it!”[2]


[1] Hughes, Betty. “We Meet the Lord….” “Chez Montreal” column.  Applause February 1947: 18.
[2] Tupper, Jan. “Keeping Pace With Father Easy, Says Mary Churchill.” Globe and Mail 21 August 1943: 10.  The story’s bad faith is compounded by the wartime files of the Immigration Branch at Library and Archives Canada, which are filled with hundreds of rejected applications by West Indian men who wished to come to Canada and train with the armed services.  “[T]he Royal Canadian Air Force hesitates to encourage [Applicant X] to make the long and expensive trip from Port of Spain, Trinidad, in view of the possibility that he may either fail to qualify for enlistment or that his enlistment cannot be effected as a result of the requirements being filled,” went a typically mealy-mouthed reply to a query on an aspiring serviceman’s behalf.  “If [X] should decide to come to Canada [to a Recruiting Centre], the journey must be made at his own expense with no assurance that he will be accepted into the Royal Canadian Air Force…” (RG 76, File 471, Item 721432).

  • See also Gordon Rohlehr on “Calypso and the Ideology of Empire” (pp. 182-6) and “World War II and Its Aftermath” (esp. pp. 316-355) in Calypso & Society in Pre-Independence Trinidad, as well as Ray Funk’s discussion of “reverential” royal-themed calypsos in his “In the Battle for Emergent Independence” in Anthurium 3.2 (2005).
  • Listen to Young Tiger’s “I Was There (at the Coronation)” and Beginner’s “Queen Elizabeth Calypso.”
  • An interview with Charles Roach aired on the the June 4th edition of the CBC’s Connect with Mark Kelley.  (Move the slider to 47:09.)

Posted in Canada, Charles Roach, Citizenship Oath, Immigration Policy, Library & Archives, Lord Caresser, Mary Churchill, Queen Elizabeth II, Racism | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Ol’ Time Calypso Come Back Again, Part 3

Posted by Michael Eldridge on June 3, 2012

A couple of months ago, the internet did one of those things it’s meant to do (but rarely does): it served up a huge cultural treasure, indexed, annotated, and easy to use.

The Association for Cultural Equity, founded in 1983 by musicologist Alan Lomax and housed at Hunter College in Manhattan, exists “to explore and preserve the world’s expressive traditions with humanistic commitment and scientific engagement.”  Its enlightened mission: to “preserve, publish, repatriate and freely disseminate our collections.”  (You can read the full statement here.)  Those collections include the Alan Lomax Archive—a “priceless” (and staggering) trove “of recorded music, dance, and the spoken word” begun in 1946.  So far, the online archive includes over “17,000 free full-streaming audio field-recordings, totaling over eight hundred hours […]; scans of 5,000 photographic prints and negatives; sixteen hours of vintage radio transcriptions; and ninety hours of interviews, discussions, and lectures”—with more to come.

Ticket to Calypso at Carnegie

Pete Seeger, Alan Lomax, Lord Invader

Pete Seeger, Alan Lomax, and Lord Invader. Afro-American (National Edition), 4 May 1946.

For calypso fans, the earliest item in the archive is also one of the best: the complete tapes of the December, 1946 People’s Songs “Midnight Special” concert at New York’s Town Hall, previously released on Rounder Records as Calypso at Midnight and Calypso After Midnight.  (Chris Smith penned a smart review of those CDs for Musical Traditions magazine, while Kevin Burke provides historical context at The Rum and Coca-Cola Reader.)  The concert’s front page leads to a track-by-track rundown; clicking on each track’s title yields an audio player and full recording details, with credits and scholarly notes by Don Hill and John Cowley.

Pearl Primus in "Calypso"

Philadelphia Bulletin, 19 October 1947 (courtesy Ray Funk)

The “Calypso at Midnight” show paved the way for a series of high-profile calypso concerts in New York over the next twelve months: at Carnegie Hall (as part of the Carnegie “Pop” Concerts series in May and June 1947), Town Hall and Carnegie Hall again (both in October 1947), and the Brooklyn Academy of Music (late 1947 and early 1948), and it probably emboldened Sam Manning to rush into production an ill-fated Broadway revue.  (That show, which previewed in Philly and Boston as “Calypso” and opened as “Caribbean Carnival” on December 5, 1947 at the International Theatre on Columbus Circle, closed after just eleven performances.  Although it was billed as the “First Calypso Musical Ever Presented,” that distinction arguably belonged to Katherine Dunham‘s similarly short-lived “Carib Song” from 1945.  [See Darrel Karl’s Keeping Score for recording histories of “Carib Song” and “Caribbean Carnival.”])

Calypso @ BAM

New York Times, 30 November 1947

According to the Afro-American, the May 8th, 1947 Pop Concert at Carnegie “saw more than 5,000 devotees of Caribbean folk lore unable to gain admission,” which meant that “by popular demand,” a second show (“with an enlarged cast”) had to be scheduled for June 9.[1]  Of “Calypso at Midnight,” the socialist Daily Worker had noted somewhat patronizingly that “[i]t has never been more noticeable that the first laughter and applause [for the calypsonians’ bons mots] comes from the uppermost reaches of the balcony.”[2]  (Meanwhile, calypso continued to draw crowds at clubs in Harlem and at other African-American gathering spots uptown like the Golden Gate Ballroom, the Park Palace, and the Renaissance Casino.  [See “Bop Guy Goes Calypso.”])

Lomax Geo Archive“Calypso at Midnight” isn’t the only item in the ACE archive of interest to calypso enthusiasts: Lomax traveled extensively throughout the Caribbean in 1962, and everything he recorded there has been placed online, indexed by session, date, and place.  That same material is also searchable via the Lomax Geo Archive, an ingenious tool that, with the aid of customized Google Maps, lets you retrace Lomax’s itinerary point by point and listen to the field recordings from each stop.  (The above link is centered on Port-of-Spain, but you can resize and/or recenter the map on any locale.)  There’s also a special feature on Lomax’s work in Grenada and Carriacou, and a little searching and sifting turns up all of Growling Tiger’s performances at the 1966 Newport Folk Festival.

So why aren’t other archives—at universities, research libraries, the BBC, the CBC—doing (more of) this?  They’re all sitting on collections that, if they were only made freely accessible, could enrich the world’s cultural patrimony.  You can supply the answers: not enough money, not enough staff, not enough resources.  (I get it: I work at a state-funded institution savaged by repeated budget cuts, too.)  Copyright mazes.  Possessiveness.  Inertia.  Etc., etc.  But ultimately it’s a matter of institutional will.  Copyright?  There are workarounds, there are people of good will, there’s public shaming.  Money, staff, resources?  Crowd-source it—either the financing and/or the labor. (There are plenty more scholar-drones like me out there who’d be glad to do some “hive” work in The Cloud.)

And you private collectors: ars longa, vita brevis.  You can’t take it with you.  It couldn’t be easier to start a blog.  Channel your OCD into something beneficial.  Get to work sorting, scanning, and digitizing, even if it’s only for 15 minutes a week.  I’ll begin:

  • Carnegie Hall program booklet, “Cla-Mac of Trinidad Inc Presents | Its First in a Series of Authentic Calypso Concerts | On Sunday Evening, Oct. 12th, 1947; 8:30 p.m. Sharp | At Carnegie Hall, 57th St. & 7th Ave.”
  • Flyer, “People’s Songs Inc Presents | The Midnight Special at Town Hall | A Series of American-Folk Music Concerts under the Supervision of Alan Lomax | Calypso at Midnight | Gerald Clark and Band | Lord Invader | Duke of Iron | Macbeth the Great | Town Hall, Saturday Dec. 21, 11:30 p.m. [illustration by David S Martin]”
  • And:
Carnegie Pops Calypso Town Hall Calypso Carnival Manning's Caribbean Carnival
L-R: New York Amsterdam News, 3 May 1947 | New York Amsterdam News, 15 October 1947 (courtesy Ray Funk) | New York Times, 30 November 1947

[1] “Calypso Carnival in Demand Encore.”  Afro-American, nat’l ed. 7 June 1947: 8.
[2] Murray Chase, “Music in Review.”  Daily Worker 24 December 1946: 11.

Posted in Alan Lomax, Association for Cultural Equity, Calypso at Midnight | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

 
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