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Calypso and Calypsonians in North America, 1934-1961

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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).

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