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Calypso and Calypsonians in North America, 1934-1961

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Merengue and Coca-Cola (Jean-Léon Destiné, Patty Andrews)

Posted by Michael Eldridge on February 2, 2013

Late January saw the passing of two figures, both aged 94, who in very different ways helped raise the profile of Caribbean culture in the United States.

Jean-Léon Destiné

First was Haitian émigré Jean-Léon Destiné, part of a close-knit circle of influential dancer-choreographers including Asadata Dafora, Katherine Dunham, and Pearl Primus, who in the 1940s put African and Caribbean dances on the Broadway stage—and the stages of other prominent venues such as Carnegie Hall, the 92d Street “Y,” and the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival.  Destiné himself never danced anything that he called a “calypso,” as far as I know, although in Katherine Dunham’s 1946 Bal Nègre he sang a Carnival merengue, “Apollon“—and in 1957, the year of the Calypso Craze, he toured Japan with what was described as a “calypso troupe,” then set up a company of his own, the “Jean-Léon Destiné Carib-Creole Carnival,” that toured 22 cities in the eastern U.S. and Canada with The Duke of Iron, Lord Nelson, the Magnets steel band, and others.  (Update, January 2014: on a recent visit to the Schomburg to view the Cecil [Duke of Iron] Anderson papers, I learned that the Duke took part in Destiné’s productions as far back as 1949, both in New York and on the road–at least once as far west as Denver.)

The Andrews Sisters: Maxene, Patty and LaVerne

Eight days later it was Patty Andrews, youngest and last surviving member of the legendary Andrews Sisters.  As the opening music cue of NPR’s obituary implied, the sister act will be forever linked to their bumpity, bowdlerized rendition of Lord Invader’s “Rum and Coca-Cola,” which topped the charts for many weeks in 1944 and ’45 (despite being banned from radio), on its way to becoming the world’s most famous calypso.  (Kevin Burke tells the story of the song’s theft—and its afterlife—at The Rum and Coca-Cola Reader.)  In spite of the tune’s popularity, the Andrews Sisters never took on another bona fide calypso, though they did do the calypso-esque “Money Is the Root of All Evil” later in 1945 and gamely dusted off their “native” accents two years later for both the casually racist “Civilization (Bongo Bongo Bongo)” (with Danny Kaye) and a cover of Stan Kenton & June Christy’s “His Feet Too Big For de Bed.”

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