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Calypso and Calypsonians in North America, 1934-1961

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Calypso on the Columbia

Posted by Michael Eldridge on August 13, 2014

Well, closer to the Willamette, actually, by a hair. But the relevant riverain name here, strangely, is Mississippi—as in the historically African-American district of north Portland, Oregon, one of a series of neighborhoods of color to be colonized by the ubiquitous (and overwhelmingly pale-skinned) hipsters lampooned on the IFC series Portlandia.

Mississippi Records was there when the gentrification began. The tiny, much revered shop—vinyl only, and no credit cards or computerized inventory, thank you—opened on Mississippi and Shaver in 2003. (A couple of years ago it moved a few blocks north, to the corner of Albina and Alberta.)  Its namesake label has issued dozens of LPs emphasizing forgotten gospel, blues, cajun, and “hillbilly” music of the 20s and 30s, some of it, like the label’s vinyl reissue of Harry Smith’s landmark Anthology of American Folk Music, licensed from Smithsonian Folkways. There’s also a reissue program focusing on assorted “world,” “ethnic,” and immigrant music, and three of the latest catalog numbers bring long-lost early Staple Singers albums back into print. Discogs.com has a reasonably complete discography.

Two other recent releases are hand-picked compilations of classic calypso, My Intention Is War (MRP-079) and Seven Skeletons Found in the Yard (MPR-080), named after compositions by Lord Invader and Lord Executor, respectively.

The discs suffer from some of the weaknesses of the gray-market, digital-only releases of recent years: no liner notes, no discographical details, no personnel or session listings. And no obvious organizing principle behind the selections: the compiler seems to have included whatever struck his ears and/or whatever he happened to have at hand. He had a fair number of sides by The Lion, evidently, and almost as many by Lionel Belasco; both are generously represented on the two albums. And in spite of their subtitles, which advertise twenty-year spans beginning in 1928, the collections also favor material recorded by Decca in Trinidad between 1938 and 1940. (The entirety of that output was collected on the Bear Family box set West Indian Rhythm, released in 2006.) But what saves this project is the obvious sincerity and the DIY ethic that animated it: even if the people behind the project don’t necessarily know a ton about golden-age calypso, they know what they like, and they know it sounds cool.

What’s also cool (again) is vinyl, and the clerk at Mississippi assured me that the compiler tried to find calypsos that had never been reissued in flat-black-and-circular form. Apart from a couple of cuts that showed up on the LP versions of early Rounder anthologies like Calypso Breakaway and Calypso Carnival (and of Lion’s Sacred 78s on Ice Records), he succeeded: most of the tracks on these two LPs have only ever resurfaced on CD—though some more than once. (Tunes like Atilla’s “Jimpy’s Ingratitude” and Invader’s “My Intention Is War,” however, are unique to West Indian Rhythm, and not everyone has several hundred dollars to spend on that magnificent set.)  And as near as I can tell, one of the “Spanish” instrumentals on these discs hasn’t seen the light of day in any format whatsoever since its original release by Decca in 1940: Luis Daniel’s “La Vieja Mia.”

If the label’s licensing deal with Smithsonian Folkways extends to side projects like this, then I guess we know where Invader’s “When You Hear I Die” and “My Intention Is War”—unissued tracks previously available only on Calypso In New York (SFW4054, 2000)—came from.  But one other unissued side, Atilla’s “Inequality of Life,” made its debut on West Indian Rhythm as far as I know, so I’m not quite sure from what other source that track could have been mastered.

Because I’m on the road and away from my turntable, I can’t yet comment on the quality of the mastering or the source material at all. But whatever other production details you might quibble over (the absence of liner notes, etc.), you have to admire Justin Cronin’s design work. The cover of My Intention, for example, is an obvious homage to Wilmoth Houdini’s 1939 album for Decca:

 

—while the label itself appropriates that of the shortlived Kiskedee calypso series manufactured by Oriole Records (UK) in the late 40s:

mrp-079  kiskedee5007

Nice touches. Mysteriously, there are no Kiskedee releases included on either disc—which suggests, perhaps, that there are hidden depths to Mississippi’s calypso archives. One can only hope: the Kiskedees really are rarities, and it would be fantastic to see them reissued in any form at all.

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