Working for the Yankee Dollar

Calypso and Calypsonians in North America, 1934-1961

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Archive for the ‘Beer’ Category

A Life of Craft–er, Mass-Market–Beer and Calypso. And Hockey. Oh, and Curling.

Posted by Michael Eldridge on May 3, 2010

Department of Contorted Rationales:  let’s say that with two weeks officially left of my sabbatical, I’m still in Canada in spirit.  The Habs are all tied up with the Penguins in the latest round of the NHL playoffs (has anyone thought to tell the National Hockey League that IT’S MAY?!?).  The franchise is once again the property of the Molson family, whose multinational megacorp is now known as Molson Coors, thank you very much—though they’ve made a big show of emphasizing their “heritage” and retaining “Molson Canadian” as their flagship beer.  And Google News Archive has thoughtfully offered up one more utterly unlikely point of connection between two of my favorite subjects.  (For the first one, see “A Life of Craft Beer and Calypso.”)

This has to be one of the most inexplicable print ads I’ve ever seen.  Emphasis on “print”: all words, no pix—not even a tiny logo hiding in a corner somewhere.  Unless you read it all the way through, you wouldn’t even realize it was an ad.  Oh sure, that might not strike you as all that remarkable if I’d pulled the thing out of last month’s, I dunno, Wired: these days, sophisticated modern marketers are always experimenting with edgy, ironic, anti-ad ads. But this one’s over a half-century old:

Mahd for Molson's

Montreal Gazette, 15 April 1954, p. 4

O-kayyy…Let’s overlook the stage-West Indian ahccent and the religio-geographic confusion.  (The Trinidadian version of Yoruba Orisha-based religion was more commonly known as Shango, though the folk practices of Obeah also derive from some of the same sources.)  Keep in mind that as far as I know, Molson’s, unlike some other prominent Canadian companies—Alcan, Sun Life Insurance—did not have an especially big presence in the Caribbean and had not otherwise established any relationship with West Indian culture at home or abroad.  In 1954, in fact, there was no real reason to do so: Belafonte was not yet a household name; the Calypso Craze was more than two years off; even Princess Margaret’s “Calypso Tour” of the Caribbean, which got mad press in Canada (and the rest of the English-speaking world), wouldn’t happen till the following year.  A Trinidad steelband, the Dixie Stars, would feature prominently that summer at the Canadian National Exhibition, but that was August, four months away.  Really, the only West Indian of note to have established a beachhead in Canada was Lord Caresser, and in 1954, his days on the CBC and at Rockhead’s Paradise both past, he was apparently off on a tour in Europe.  (He’d be back in Montreal clubs by 1955.)  Sure, more and more Canadian tourists were jetting off to the Caribbean by this point, but were there enough of them “Mahd about Trinidahd” to give an ad like this any kind of currency?  It’s a mystery.

Molson's and curling (not calypso)

At right is another Molson’s ad from the same period that plays up a much more typical association, with one of those pastimes that even in 2010 made Canada the butt of Olympic jokes on American late-night TV.

Back in the late 1970s and early 80s, the heyday of the Canadian “stubby” bottle, my brother and his family lived for several years just outside of Sarnia, Ontario.  This period also coincided with the dark ages of American beer, a decade or so before the dawn of the microbrewing renaissance.  And so whenever we went for visits, it was with great anticipation that we would make a pilgrimage to what was then known as Brewer’s Retail, the slightly creepy, bare-walled, government-licensed beer store, to acquire a case or two of exotic Molson’s Canadian, or Stock Ale, or Export, or Brador, all of which counted as tasty, characterful alternatives (relatively speaking) to the pallid swill that passed for beer on our side of the Blue Water Bridge.  Nowadays, the True North’s mass-market brands vie with their American cousins for the title of coldest, “lightest,” and blandest.  (Or just as often, they’ve ended the contest by merging with their Stateside competition, and/or with some other global brewing gargantua.  They got themselves some spiffy new-old graphic design as part of the bargain, however.)  Thankfully, craft brewing is thriving in Canada, too.  So keep your Molson’s; make mine a Lug Tread, or a Dead Elephant, or a Steam Whistle, or a 10W30, or a Granite Best Bitter Special, or a Black Oak Pale, or a Black Irish Plain Porter, or a Wellington Iron Duke, or a Church Key Holy Smoke, or a…you get the idea.  But Go Habs!

Posted in Beer, Calypso, Ice Hockey | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

A Life of Craft Beer and Calypso

Posted by Michael Eldridge on November 21, 2009

Nicholas Pashley, "Cheers!"I’d hate for it to get around that what follows is the upshot of my ongoing research (nobody tell my Dean! not a word to Fulbright!). But the fact of the matter is that while delving into the history of calypso—and race, and multiculturalism, and immigration, etc.—in Canada, I’ve also been schooling myself about Ontario craft brewing.

Instead of finishing Himani Bannerji’s Dark Side of the Nation, for instance, I’ve been falling asleep at night with Nick Pashley‘s hilarious first book, Notes on a Beermat: Drinking and Why It’s Necessary, and before that, his latest, the delightful Cheers: An Intemperate History of Beer in Canada. The good people who post at sites like The Bar Towel and CASK! have also served as discerning and enthusiastic guides to the region’s best efforts. (Heaven knows you need someone to show you the lay of the land, since Ontario’s Liquor Control Board—like its surprisingly large contingent of United Empire Loyalists a relic of the province’s whiter, tighter days—is not much interested in enlightening you, and the hopefully named “Beer Store,” owned by the multinational overlords of megabrewers Labatt and Molson, would really just as soon keep you in the dark.)

And then there’s the, erm, “field research.” While there are honest folk who’ll dispute this claim for a variety of reasons, Hamilton has, to my mind, precisely one genial spot for acquainting oneself with Canadian craft beer: the Winking Judge on Augusta Street.  In a city of half a million, with a major university. Go figure. Luckily Toronto, the urbane sister city along the lakeshore, which unfairly casts its long shadow westward all the way to Hamilton, features any number of friendly, first-rate establishments to which one may repair for a pint of locally brewed, cask-dispensed refreshment after a hard day slaving over a hot microform reader.

George Maharaj and his collection

George Maharaj with items from his collection (Trinidad Guardian)

One of Pashley’s favorite haunts (he’ll be having a book launch there on Tuesday, November 26, in fact) is the Granite Brewery at Eglinton and Mount Pleasant, where I took myself on Thursday after a pleasant afternoon at the home of George Maharaj, author, archivist, and (we decided) “adjunct lecturer”—just three of his many titles—and still, for the time being, at least, the owner of one of the world’s foremost collections of recorded calypso. (For decades, Maharaj has been trying to persuade the government of Trinidad & Tobago, or failing that, the University of the West Indies, to preserve and promote the nation’s cultural heritage by founding a calypso institute and research library with his formidable collection at its core. Let’s say it’s been a frustrating twenty-odd years.  You can find out more about Maharaj, and buy his two books, at Roots of Calypso.)

To judge by his spiral-bound address books, the gregarious Maharaj knows just about everyone in the world, and one of his six-and-a-half billion connections is Wilma Cayonne Cromwell, widow of “Jamaica Johnny” Cayonne, a Trinidadian who performed in New York in the late 1950s (and later, in Canada, in the 1960s), notably at the beatnik hangout Cafe Bizarre.  Even more bizarre: there was a second Jamaica Johnny, a rough contemporary of the first, who made his name in Amsterdam, where he recorded several sides for Philips, including this ode to the fruits of brewing science (a copy of which was on the shelves of Maharaj’s collection, of course):

Okay, so Amstel hardly counts as craft beer, and Jamaica Johnny isn’t the first entertainer, or even the first calypsonian, to employ his talents hawking products of questionable quality. (While the Netherlands produces a number of top-shelf brews, Amstel is the Dutch Bud: clean, consistent, and thoroughly unadventurous.) Just the same, I couldn’t help but see, in my serendipitous introduction to the commercial side of Jamaica Johnny’s career, an emblem of my current idyllic life. A week or so ago, NPR’s A Blog Supreme ran a feature on Bruno Johnson, founder of the Okka Disk record label and proprietor of two highly esteemed Milwaukee taverns. The latter specialize in craft beer (American and Belgian), while the former specializes in free jazz, by the likes of Ken Vandermark, Fred Anderson, and—you knew there was going to be a Dutch connection here somewhere—Peter Brötzmann. “Good music by day, craft beer by night,” wrote Patrick Jarenwattananon, pithily summing up Johnson’s life.

Back in my home state of California, a cabal of administrators, under cover of an ongoing budgetary crisis, is busily realizing one of the right wing’s oldest and wildest dreams, deprofessionalizing the professoriate and methodically dismantling what used to be the greatest system of public higher education in the land. (That’s one way to shut up those tenured radicals.) It’s not a hopeful prospect for an academic to return to. But for now, I still get to relish a core feature of what Stanley Aronowitz once called “the last good job in America.” I.e., I get to hang out in libraries, read books, and enjoy the hospitality of good people like George Maharaj by day, then pore over my notes, catch up on my periodical reading, and quaff pints of Granite Best Bitter Special (well, okay: and delight in the company of my longsuffering family) by night. As Jarenwattananon said of Bruno Johnson: “Best. Life. Ever.”

Posted in Beer, Calypso, Canada, George Maharaj, Jamaica Johnny, Jazz | Tagged: , , , , | 1 Comment »

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