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Calypso and Calypsonians in North America, 1934-1961

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Archive for the ‘Great Britain’ Category

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.

Posted in Calypso, Great Britain, Lovey's Band, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Edmundo Ros, Centenarian

Posted by Michael Eldridge on December 12, 2010

At the risk of turning this into the Belated Birthday Blog, let me just mark the centenary, five days ago (December 7), of Trini-born bandleader Edmundo Ros.  Before the Windrush, before Kitch and Beginner, before The Lonely Londonders, it was Ros who introduced Great Britain to calypso.  BBC Caribbean has a quick remembrance, while Wikipedia has a lengthier bio.  (Clare Teal also aired a one-hour tribute on BBC 2.)  And here’s Ray Funk, from a forthcoming Bear Family “Calypso Craze” set (please note: this is draft text only–not for attribution):

Groups led by West Indian expatriates like Cyril Blake, Leslie Thompson, and Leslie “Jiver” Hutchinson were among the leading [British] jazz dance bands of the 1930s and 40s.  The most famous Trinidadian musician in England in the 1940s, however, was Latin bandleader Edmundo Ros.  Born in Trinidad, son of a Scottish father and a Venezuelan mother, he moved to England in 1937 to study classical music at London’s Royal Academy—though he never completed his studies, turning to popular music instead as world war seemed imminent.  He worked first as a jazz drummer and was even chosen to accompany Fats Waller on a visit in 1938, but he’d also begun playing with various Latin bands.  By the end of the war, Ros had formed his own “Cuban” band, whose members dressed in white trousers and frilled shirts in the style of the popular Lecuona Cuban Boys.  Soon he was all the rage, appearing frequently on the BBC and releasing literally hundreds of records, making a name for himself by rendering Broadway musical numbers in Latin arrangements.  Ros’s repertoire covered all styles of Latin American popular music from cha-cha-chas to rhumbas to tangos. He recorded a few genuine calypsos but also many pop calypsos, and many Britons’ first exposure to calypso was through his numerous radio appearances.

(Ros also reportedly taught Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret how to dance.  Who knew?  That Liz could cut a rug, I mean.)

I wanted to say that the first Ros record I ever heard, courtesy of the estimable Barry Thorpe (who’s been spinning old 78s Wednesday nights on KHSU for umpteen years), was a cover of the Harry Warren-Al Dubin novelty, “Latin from Manhattan,” originally sung by Al Jolson in the 1935 Warner Bros. picture, Go Into Your Dance.  (It went to #1, #4, and #15 in the pop charts that year, in covers by the Victor Young, Johnny Green, and Ozzie Nelson orchestras, respectively.)  Sadly, I misremembered: the cover that Barry played me was by Ros’s contemporary, English bandleader Benjamin Baruch “Bert” Ambrose.  Still, I’d be surprised if “Latin from Manhattan” didn’t appear somewhere in Ros’s extensive discography, too. Evidently, in the midst of the 1930s rumba craze, many dark-haired American beauties suddenly discovered their “Latin” roots in order to find work on the stage and in the dancehalls.  The last few lines of Dubin’s chorus blow one such faux-Latina’s cover:

Though she does the rhumba for us
And she calls herself Dolores
She was in a Broadway chorus
Known as Suzy Donahue

With a few minor changes, the tune could have been revived during the Calypso Craze, when nightclub owners faced a scarcity of “genuine” calypso talent, and (as Variety told it) “a lot of Harlemese have hidden their origins, accented the wrong syllables and are now passing themselves off as being from the islands”  (“Could Calypso Go Into Collapso By Too Rapid Rise in Salaries?”  Variety February 6, 1957).  Ros, always a canny businessman, wasn’t afraid to capitalize on the Craze himself, and he released (or re-released) several calypso records that year—though with a bit more authenticity.  Stateside, they appeared on Decca’s “London” label.

Here’s his orchestra performing Blakie’s “Sing a Simple Calypso” in 1969:

Posted in Edmundo Ros, Great Britain, Ray Funk | Tagged: , | 3 Comments »

Eric Hobsbawm’s Calypso-phile Cousin

Posted by Michael Eldridge on May 24, 2010

You learn something new every week from A Blog Supreme‘s Friday link dump.

Eric HobsbawmThis time, it was about nonagenarian Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm‘s semi-secret past as a jazz critic.  As Hobsbawm relates in a recent reminiscence in the London Review of Books, for ten years in the late 50s and early 60s, he covered jazz for The New Statesman under the pseudonym Francis Newton, borrowed from the “Communist jazz trumpeter who played on Billie Holiday’s ‘Strange Fruit.’”  His beat was the Soho jazz scene, which then featured the likes of Jamaican-born saxophonist Joe Harriott—though Hobsbawm confesses that, raised on swing, he spent much of the 50s “trying to understand or at least come to terms with bebop.”  (His columns were collected in 1989 as The Jazz Scene, but the book is now sadly out of print.  Several essays on jazz also make up the final section of his working-class history Uncommon People.)

Of course this same era was the heyday of West Indian culture in Britain.  For example: 1956, the year of “Francis Newton”‘s first byline, was also the year of Sam Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners.  (A year later Colin MacInnes, with whom Hobsbawm was friendly, would add a hip, white perspective with City of Spades.)  And until “blue beat” came along in the early-mid-60s, calypso was more or less the soundtrack of boheme London.  Lord Kitchener had arrived with his buddy Lord Beginner on the S. S. Empire Windrush in 1948 and never looked back; he counted Princess Margaret—whose famous “calypso tour” of the West Indies in 1955 raised the music’s global profile—among his most ardent fans.

Cousin Den

Cousin Denis

But here’s the kicker: Hobsbawm had come to jazz, he says, “thanks to [his] cousin Denis Preston.”  That would be jazz writer, BBC presenter, and record producer Denis Preston, who oversaw not only dozens of influential jazz discs for Pye and Columbia in the UK, but scads of sides by African and West Indian musicians, including classic recordings by Beginner and Kitchener for Parlophone and Melodisc, many of which have been collected on the London Is the Place for Me series from Honest Jon’s Records.  (In fact, as John Cowley points out via a post on the late DJ and music writer Charlie Gillett’s blog The Sound of the World, Preston counted calypso as his “first real success.”)

Richard Noblett, who researched and wrote the superb notes for the Honest Jon’s series, explains that Preston had included Freddy Grant’s West Indian Calypsonians in a London jazz concert he’d produced in 1945, and that three years later, serving as Decca’s representative in New York, he’d discovered the Harlem calypso scene and returned to England determined to promote the music there.  Since many of the West Indian musicians he hired who were then resident in the UK were  experienced jazz sidemen, it seems fair to give Preston at least partial credit, along with Kitch and his childhood friend Rupert Nurse (musical director at Melodisc), for introducing modern, debonair jazz arrangements into recorded calypso.

I can’t wait for the next installment of Hobsbawm’s hepcat memories, in which he will undoubtedly reveal how one of England’s most famous intellectuals limed with the West Indians at the Sunset Club in Carnaby Street and dingolayed at the earliest years of Notting Hill Carnival.

Posted in Calypso, Denis Preston, Eric Hobsbawm, Great Britain, Jazz | Tagged: , , , , | 2 Comments »

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