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Calypso and Calypsonians in North America, 1934-1961

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Archive for the ‘Ray Funk’ Category

The Immigrants (update)

Posted by Michael Eldridge on July 31, 2019

A note from Nonesuch Records that Gaby Moreno and Van Dyke Parks’s album ¡Spangled! (which will include last year’s single, a cover of David Rudder’s “The Immigrants”) would be out soon, together with a lucky score (on my annual visit to Portland, Oregon) of a mint copy of the reissue of Parks’s pan-and-calypso-ful Clang of the Yankee Reaper, prompt me to make my first post in over a year.  The unrelenting horror of the current administration’s treatment of immigrants of color—all people of color, really—should have been the real motivation, I suppose.  But it’s all too easy to lose sight of that particular horror against the backdrop of a thousand others, not to mention the steady thrum of poisonous rhetoric that aids and comforts Aryan nationalist terrorists with guns.


I’ve written before about Parks’s cover of Tiger’s iconic “Money Is King,” and so has my friend and collaborator Ray Funk, who in his semi-retirement has become a regular (and prolific) correspondent for the T & T Guardian.  With his permission, and because the Guardian’s links tend to disappear capriciously, I’m sharing two of his recent pieces here.  The first was occasioned by former Carolina Chocolate Drop Leyla McCalla’s cover of “Money Is King” on her album Capitalist Blues:

Money is King TG 22 June 19 (click that link to view the pdf)

(Here’s the official video:)

The other concerns (take a deep breath) Carlos Santana’s cover of a Calypso Rose tune, “Abatina,” written by Kobo Town’s Drew Gonsalves in answer to Roaring Lion’s 1938 calypso “Tina.”  Santana’s version, retitled “Breaking Down the Door,” appears on his critically acclaimed comeback album Africa Speaks.

Here’s Santana, with vocalist Buika, performing “Breaking Down the Door” on the Jimmy Kimmel show:

Links to videos for Rose’s and Kobo Town’s versions are at the end of Ray’s feature (again, click the following link for a pdf):

Roaring Lion to Santana Trinidad Guardian 3 July 19

Two more bits of unrelated recent miscellany, in case another year goes by before I revisit this blog (!):

  1. Billboard reports that Smithsonian Folkways has completed its acquisition of the Stinson Records archives, which among other things will complement its collection of calypso recordings from Emory Cook and Moe Asch, with whom Stinson had a fraught relationship.  (Complicated story.)  Only a brief notice so far at the Smithsonian’s own website; we’ll hope to hear more soon.
  2. Documentarian Eve Goldberg has posted to YouTube her short film about Trinidadian-born piano virtuoso Hazel Scott, who was an enormous celebrity in the 1930s and 40s.  It’s entitled (appropriately) “What Ever Happened to Hazel Scott?


Posted in Calypso, Calypso Rose, Carlos Santana, David Rudder, Gaby Moreno, Growling Tiger, Hazel Scott, Kobo Town, Leyla McCalla, Moe Asch, Ray Funk, Smithsonian Folkways, Van Dyke Parks | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Calypso Craze: Soon Come

Posted by Michael Eldridge on May 9, 2014

Earlier this week, Bear Family Records announced the imminent (July 25) release of Calypso Craze: 1956-57 and Beyond, a 6-CD + 1-DVD + 170-odd-page-book box set, compiled and written by Ray Funk and yours truly, with pristine transfers by Christian Zwarg and truly snazzy design by Mychael Gerstenberger of Malbuch Berlin.  It’s got some well-worn tracks, together with scads of rarities and obscurities, plus the first-ever issue (that we know of) of the delightfully cheesy Calypso Joe, starring Herb Jeffries and Angie Dickinson.

You can pre-order from Bear Family (for the princely sum of €162142—worth every cent!), and you can also preview the first ten pages of the lavishly illustrated coffee-table-style book.  Oh—and we’ve started up a supplemental website, too.

In case you were wondering: the economics of this sort of project are such that Ray and I don’t stand to see a penny from it. But we certainly hope enough folks will shell out for the set to ensure that Bear Family recoup their production costs.

Go on: go crazy!

Calypso Packaging


Posted in Calypso, Calypso Craze, Ray Funk | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Peter Pan, or: Seeger and the Steelband

Posted by Michael Eldridge on January 31, 2014

A follow-up: in my last post, I mentioned (parenthetically) Andrew Martin’s excellent “Words of Steel: Pete Seeger and the U.S. Navy Steel Band“—and I related (in a footnote) Ray Funk’s reference, made in an online kaiso discussion group, to a video of Seeger performing Growling Tiger’s “Money Is King.”  Ray plans to screen that video in Trinidad next month, and as far as I know it hasn’t surfaced online.  But later in the day yesterday, another member of the same discussion group quietly posted a link to the lovely short film that emerged from Seeger’s 1956 visit to Trinidad, “Music from Oil Drums.”  (Several different users have put the film up on YouTube, as it turns out.)  Here it is:

Also circulating in the YouTube universe is Kim Loy Wong’s appearance on Seeger’s short-lived, mid-60s television show Rainbow Quest:

Andrew and Ray have been collaborating on pan history in the U.S. for some time now, and I don’t want to steal their thunder.  (Among their more recent work is a great series of short articles for the Trinidad Guardian, the latest of which have appeared in the past few weeks.)  For now I’ll just relate that Seeger produced two of Wong’s albums for Folkways Records (Kim Wong and his Wiltwyck Steel Band and The Steel Drums of Kim Loy Wong), and in 2011 Hollis Clifton interviewed Wong for When Steel Talks about his first meeting with Seeger and the early days of pan in New York.

Posted in Andrew Martin, Kim Loy Wong, Pete Seeger, Ray Funk | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

The Guardian’s Farthest-Flung Correspondent?

Posted by Michael Eldridge on May 13, 2013

Ray Funk in the Guardian

Ray Funk (center) at the 2013 T&T Film Festival

Another school year gone—almost.  (The stacks of papers arrive soon, then it’s a weekend of marathon grading.)

In one of my earliest posts to this blog, I lamented the fact that globetrotting musical omnivore Ray Funk had abandoned his long-running Kaiso Newsletter, and I expressed my hope that he’d find another regular forum for news of his latest researches.  (He typically has so many projects going at once that I can’t keep count.)

I’m happy to report that he now has a regular gig with the Trinidad Guardian, where his byline has been appearing in a series of articles co-written with Andrew Martin, author, ethnomusicologist, steelband historian, and Associate Professor at Inver Hills College in suburban St. Paul, Minnesota.

Here’s a profile of Funk by Guardian feature writer David Cuffy, and here’s a selection of recent pieces by Funk and Martin:

As you can see, the pair have a special interest in the NIU Steelband, the first (and arguably the most influential) active steel band formed at an American university.  They’re collaborating with Jeanine Remy on a history of the group, which was founded in 1973.  Keep your flak jacket on and your Moleskine at the ready, Ray!

(P.S.: check out Christopher Laird‘s interview with Funk about his filmic sleuthing, done for Laird’s FLIMS series, now available on Vimeo.)

Posted in Ray Funk | 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 »

Giving Thanks for an American Calypso Pioneer

Posted by Michael Eldridge on November 26, 2010

Wilmouth Houdini, "Harlem Seen Through Calypso Eyes"

The first anniversary of this blog came and went unmarked, and I blame it on Ray Funk, who’s been cracking the whip to get me to finish editing his manuscript for the book portion of a planned “Calypso Craze” box set for Bear Family records.  (I’m working as fast as I can, Ray!)  On a wee-hours-of-the-morning break from these labors—my way of making lemonade from the lemons of post-Thanksgiving Day insomnia—I discovered, courtesy of the “On This Day in Jazz Age Music” blog, that I’d just missed another anniversary:  the birthday of Wilmoth Houdini, who was supposedly born on November 25th, 1895 in Port of Spain.  (He rests in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.)

Houdini himself wrote some fine calypsos about food (cf. “Hot Dogs Made Their Name”), but I’ll commemorate his birthday with an excerpt from Caresser’s calypso “Thanksgiving,” written in Canada in the late 1940s:

From early morn till evening
It was real rejoicing and feasting
I couldn’t even walk talk nor dance
I ate until I fell into a trance.

CHORUS: So much to drink so much to eat
I wish they keep it three times a week

I love my food-centered holidays, but once a year’s enough for me, thanks.  Now if you’ll excuse me: I’m going to take some Alka-Seltzer and get back to work.  (Soon come, Ray!)

Posted in Canada, Lord Caresser, Ray Funk, Thanksgiving, Wilmouth Houdini | Tagged: , , , , | 3 Comments »

Saturday Link Dump: We Want the Funk!

Posted by Michael Eldridge on November 14, 2009

Well, okay, maybe not a “dump,” exactly.  It all starts with just one link.

In the process of collecting links for this site’s blogroll, I happened upon a fine article about Beryl McBurnie, one of several prominent dancers (cf. Katherine Dunham, Pearl Primus, Josephine Premice, Geoffrey Holder, Calypso Joe & Coco Te) who came to represent “calypso” and Caribbean culture to American audiences in the 1940s and 50s.  (McBurnie died in 2000 at age 84.)

Ray Funk (Anne Kimzey)

Ray Funk (photo by Anne Kimzey)

The article was written by the amazing Ray Funk, who back in the day used to send out—by e-mail, to a long list of friends, associates and admirers—the Kaiso Newsletter, an occasional missive containing the latest results of Funk’s dogged detective-work into the history of calypso and carnival traditions.  These posts were gems of research and reportage, yet while Funk’s river of research still flows unabated, the newsletters trickled to a halt around five years ago, and they’re sorely missed.  Thankfully, the British magazine Musical Traditions has, with Funk’s blessing, gathered the complete run into an online archive.  (MT‘s web server misbehaves from time to time, but if you get an “Error 404,” don’t despair; just check back in a day or so.)

Trial judge by day; author, correspondent, researcher, consultant, curator, radio programmer, television host (“Dingolay with Ratiray“), Midnight Robber, culture bearer, and self-described “Carnival Fanatic” by…um, night (well, figuratively speaking—though let’s not forget that in his hometown of Fairbanks, Alaska, it’s night about half of the year), Funk manages to pack more into one lifetime than most of us could in two or three.  Good on him.  But apart from an obligatory Facebook page, he still doesn’t have a central web presence, no repository for his important work and work-in-progress—or for selections from the peerless collection of clippings, recordings, photos, interviews, and ephemera that he’s amassed through his own fanatical efforts and through the generosity of his many connections worldwide.  (C’mon, Ray:  your public is clamoring!  Put Emma to work!)

Richard Bolai has a quick rundown of Funk’s impressive curriculum vitae at his blog Wonder of the World. He also has a few snapshots, including one of the august judge in his Midnight Robber getup.  (A veteran masquerader, Funk had a surprise role to play—literally—in the performance that won The Mighty Chalkdust his eighth Calypso Monarch title in 2009.)  Apart from the Newsletters, however, Funk’s many essays, articles, liner notes, talks, and presentations are for the most part either trapped in amber (i.e., print) or circulating among a select few.

Let’s hope that changes.  In the meantime, here are a few other places where you can find Funk’s work on the web:

Posted in Beryl McBurnie, Calypso, Kaiso Newsletters, Ray Funk | Tagged: , , , | 3 Comments »

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