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Calypso and Calypsonians in North America, 1934-1961

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Reblogging: Torontoism

Posted by Michael Eldridge on February 16, 2014

CANEWA Dancers

Toronto Star, 5 November 1955

I’m long overdue in linking to a pair of impressively researched articles by Kevin Plummer that appeared way back before the holidays, over on the Torontoist blog.  Black History Month prompts me to acknowledge them at last.

These days Toronto draws smirks from its southern neighbors for the ongoing freakshow of its deeply troubled mayor.  What his yahoo antics belie, and what most Americans don’t know, is that Toronto has long prided itself—with at least some justification—on its tradition of multicultural cosmopolitanism.

Drawing on academic studies and contemporary newspapers, Plummer, um, plumbs the central role of calypso in the social life of Toronto’s small West Indian community during the 1950s and 60s.  By so thoroughly documenting calypso in nightclubs, house parties, social clubs, after-hours clubs, and fêtes, “Sounds of Home” (Part 1 | Part 2) complements the creative work of authors like Austin Clarke, Dionne Brand, and Lawrence Hill in evoking a formative period in Black Canadian life. 

Here’s Plummer on CANEWA’s first “Calypso Carnival” (see photo, left):

In 1955, the Canadian Negro Women’s Association (CNWA), formed a few years earlier with the goal of increasing the black community’s visibility, staged a more formal celebration of Caribbean music and culture called the Calypso Carnival. It was an overt attempt to foster a sense of common community between the club’s mostly middle-class and Canadian-born membership and the newly arrived domestic workers. An immediate success in its first year—organizers had to turn people away at the door—the Calypso Carnival was an annual event until 1964.

Each year a local community hall was transformed into a lively tropical atmosphere with decorations, a bazaar selling goods imported from the West Indies, and a buffet that included curried goat, mango chutney, fricassee chicken, codfish, ackee, sweet potato coconut pie, and other Caribbean foods. There was limbo dancing and entertainers could be local Torontonians, like Jamaican-born calypso singer Lord Power, or international, like the Duke of Iron.

Growing into one of the largest events in Toronto’s black community, the Calypso Carnival was attended by upwards of 4,000 people some years, earned a fair amount of media attention—a rarity at the time for the black population—and raised money for a scholarship fund.

Full disclosure: I first learned of Plummer’s articles when he linked to my 2009 piece on Lord Caresser in Montreal.  So as long as I’m back-handedly 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.  And because I’ve never found any other excuse to use it, I’ll take this opportunity to post the following ad (from the Globe and Mail‘s August 13, 1958 edition) for a football match between Toronto and what was very briefly my home town, Hamilton.  Even in 1958, I don’t think you’d have seen that kind of half-time show in Texas…

Go Ti-Cats!

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