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Calypso and Calypsonians in North America, 1934-1961

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2013: The Year in Calypso Reissues

Posted by Michael Eldridge on February 17, 2014

Periodically I find myself pining for the days when you could rely on Rounder to bring out some great new—which is to say, old—calypso anthology every other year or so.  But that race is run.  One fears that even a distance runner like Bear Family, who used to think nothing of producing lavish ten-disc box sets for obsessives and completists, must be on its last legs.  (One hopes such fears are unfounded; I hear rumors of great things in the works.  Still: there are only so many obsessives and completists in the world.)

In 2013, a lot of lesser outfits carried the calypso baton.  First, the gray-market stuff.  A while back, I surveyed some of the early entrants in the online race.  Now there’s yet another untraceable digital-download “label” (this one calling itself “Mondotone”) that specializes in tossing together loosely themed collections of vintage tracks, some well-worn, others relatively untrodden.  From the Caribbean corner of the mondo, they offer Calypso Kingdom: Lions and Tigers from Trinidad y Tobago, 1934-1957, which mixes up classic 1930s Deccas with small-label sides from the 40s and postwar issues from Melodisc and Parlophone; Treasure Isles: Music from Barbados, Bahamas & Virgin Islands, 1939-1958 (generous helpings of Blind Blake, George Symonette, and Lloyd Thomas, among others); and Mento Mania! The Origins of Ska and Reggae music in Jamaica, 1953-1955.  Each one is optimistically numbered “Vol. 1.”  We’ll see.  They feature enough good and/or or rare tunes to make all of them worth buying, but I can’t find anyone selling them with PDF booklets, so I assume there are none.  You want historical context and/or discographical details?  You’re on your own.

Or you turn to Frémeaux & Associés, who in 2010 inaugurated a series of double-disc sets devoted to various corners of the mid-century Anglophone Caribbean with Jamaica – Mento 1953-1958.  In 2011 they visited the Bahamas (Goombay 1951-1959) and Trinidad (Calypso 1939-1959), with a single-volume side trip focusing on the “internationalization” of calypso in the 1940s and 50s (Calypso 1944-1958).  In 2012 they sailed north to Bermuda (Gombey & Calypso 1953-1960).  This past year’s port of call: the Virgin Islands (Quelbe & Calypso 1956-1960).  You’ve got to admire the scope and ambition of the undertaking: compiler/producer/musicologist/musician Bruno Blum has clearly been working overtime to churn out these serial labors of love.  The packaging is nothing special—bulky quad jewel cases, hollowed out to make room for bilingual booklets—though the “retro” tourist graphics are very attractive.  And even if the notes are sometimes a bit dodgy, at least there are notes.  Above all, it’s great to see these tracks being cleaned up, documented, and circulated.

Fantastic Voyage Music adopts the “travel” trope more literally—well, nominally—although Jamaica is really its only stop in the Caribbean so far.  The latest:  Mento, Not Calypso!: The Original Sound of Jamaica, a two-disc set whose theme is in its title.  It contains a thoughtful selection of rare vintage tunes, many of which have not appeared on other, earlier collections.  And yes: even compiler Phil Etgart concedes (in his erudite notes) that back in the day, not all mento artists were particular about generic distinctions.  As a canny Lord Flea told an American fanzine during the 1957 Calypso Craze:

[I]n Jamaica, we call our music “mento” until very recently. Today, calypso is beginning to be used for all kinds of West Indian music. This is because it’s become so commercialized there. Some people like to think of West Indians as carefree natives who work and sing and play and laugh their lives away. But this isn’t so. Most of the people there are hard working folks, and many of them are smart business men. If the tourists want “calypso,” that’s what we sell them.

Fantastic Voyage is a British company, and the UK seems to be where most of the reissue action is at these days.  Case in point: Stuart Baker‘s Soul Jazz Records, which has put out its share of classic Jamaican music in the last 20 years, thanks to a licensing agreement with Clement Dodd’s Studio One.  Its latest release, however, is a collaboration with British Pathé that takes a more Pan-Caribbean view—keeping in mind the fact that the UK itself became the second most populous West Indian island some time ago.  Which is another way of saying that the organizing principle of Mirror to the Soul: Music, Culture and Identity in the Caribbean 1920-72 is loose.  One disc, “Caribbean Jump-Up, Mambo & Calypso Beat 1954-1977,” is broad-minded enough to encompass Irakere, Peanuts Taylor, Edmundo Ros, the Fabulous McClevertys, and the Duke of Iron.  The other, “Afro-Caribbean Music Up From the Roots 1994-2013,” emphasizes folkloric music from the francophone Caribbean—mostly.  (Cuba, Colombia, and Belize are represented, too.)  In some ways, though, the CDs are an afterthought: the centerpiece of the set is a DVD of the film from which the entire package takes its name, Mirror to the Soul: A Documentary film about British Pathé in the West Indies 1920-72.  It contains some truly fantastic footage, including not just the obligatory clip of Kitch at Tilbury Docks but also patrons and performers at London’s Caribbean Club in 1947, Boscoe Holder’s dance troupe in London in 1956 (and daily life in Brixton that same year), and the Talbot Brothers in Bermuda in 1959 and 1962.  The title is a misnomer, though: the film isn’t a documentary “about” British Pathé, but rather fifty-odd fragments of newsreels with no framing or commentary, save Baker’s smart essay in the accompanying booklet.  Baker emphasizes how Pathé, a private company, nevertheless reflected the paternalistic prerogatives of Empire in its representations of the Caribbean, even as it “chart[ed] Britain’s changing relationship towards its colonies” over the course of the 20th century.  “We are here because you were there,” goes the anti-anti-immigration slogan that began as a London graffito at the start of the modern black British civil rights movement.  Mirror to the Soul shows Pathé—and West Indians—both “here” and “there.”  (You can preview the audio on Soundcloud and the video on Vimeo.)

Two other compilations focus exclusively on Britain.  The first, Calypsos, Boogies, Rockers, Ballads, & Bluebeat: The Rise of Black Music in Britain, is of interest less for its smattering of 1950s calypsos, none of them new to CD, than for the diverse context of black genres—jazz, pop, R&B, rock, ska, bluebeat—in which they’re set.  It’s a worthy project, but a low-budget one, and consequently notes are scant and discographical info absent, even on the label’s website.  I’m surprised to have similar complaints about what is nevertheless the cream of last year’s crop, namely, the latest installment in Honest Jon’s indispensable series London Is The Place For Me.  Or rather, installments, plural, as Afro-Cubism, Calypso, Highlife, Mento, Jazz comprises volumes 5 & 6 (unless you’re buying it on vinyl). This set also puts calypso in context, though the backdrop here is the very worldly jazz and highlife that Denis Preston and Melodisc were also recording in the early 1950s, often in the same studios and with many of the same musicians.  Notes to the set are breezily informative but somewhat piecemeal, and apart from a few label scans there are no dates, no catalog numbers, no session details.  The gorgeous packaging, replete as usual with evocative photos from the Val Wilmer collection, almost makes up for those flaws.  Almost.

Inattention to detail is one thing you never have to worry about with Steve Shapiro or John Cowley—or with Bear Family, whose production values are unstintingly high.  No surprise, then, to find first-rate research, commentary, sound restoration, and design in Calypso Dawn: 1912, an album marking the centenary of the historic New York recordings of Lovey’s Band, the twelve-piece string band from Trinidad led by George “Lovey” Baillie.  The one-disc Digipak—released in late 2012, it didn’t hit the States till 2013—collects nearly all of the group’s sides for Columbia and three for Victor, including many “paseos,” two-step instrumental versions of popular calypso melodies of the day.  (Several will be familiar to afficionados of classic vocal calypsos recorded in the 20s and 30s.)  Between them, Shapiro and Cowley are responsible for a gaggle of those nostalgia-inducing compilations from Rounder (and Matchbox, and Smithsonian Folkways, and…) that I alluded to at the top of this post.  Moreover, Cowley’s Carnival, Canboulay and Calypso is one of the starting points for anyone doing research in Caribbean culture, and he was chief cat-herder of the “Classic Calypso Collective,” which produced Bear Family’s monumental West Indian Rhythm in 2006.  So this is a welcome addition to the canon.  And if the big box set really has run its course, then I hope this type of “one-off” charts a way forward.

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