Working for the Yankee Dollar

Calypso and Calypsonians in North America, 1934-1961

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Archive for the ‘Rum and Coca-Cola’ Category

Ron y Coca-Cola

Posted by Michael Eldridge on June 22, 2014

I can’t imagine I’d have much to say about Lord Invader’s “Rum and Coca-Cola” that Kevin Burke hasn’t already covered in his superb Rum and Coca-Cola Reader.  Revisiting Burke’s website has got me thinking, though: not to put too fine a point on it, but what happens when the creator of a brilliant and indispensable resource like this…well…dies?  Or even just gets ill, or grows weary, or can no longer afford to renew the domain name?  Does this part of his life’s work just vaporize?  It happened, tragically, and prematurely, with the late Jim Zwick’s Anti-Imperialism in American Life and Sentenaryo/Centennial. Heck, I myself could get hit by a bus tomorrow and Working for the Yankee Dollar would disappear, too. After a while anyway, one presumes. Don’t get me wrong: even as I slink further into middle age, I don’t make a habit of being morbid, and I sincerely hope that Kevin has many, many healthy, prosperous, and active years ahead of him. Me, too, for that matter.  But what happens then?  I really want to know.  One hates to think of something so valuable being so ephemeral.

Anyway, as I was saying: about the pilfering of Invader’s calypso, I’ve nothing to add.  But it’s the first day of summer, which has me thinking about hot-weather refreshment. So what about the song’s namesake drink?

Even if you weren’t especially sophisticated about cultural politics or imperial history, I suppose you could read the Rum and Coke as an emblem of Trini-American “hybridity.”  Never mind the fact that it was Yankee imperialists bringing their world-dominating soft drink to the tropics and mixing it up with the local spirit, itself a product of slavery and colonialism. (Although Burke reveals that Coke’s 1919 Trinidadian debut was actually the work of a local bootlegger who didn’t bother obtaining a license for many years.) And never mind how the Andrews Sisters softened Invader’s stinging (albeit sexist) critique of American hegemony with their saccharine fizz.  By Invader’s own account, all those encounters between Trinidadian mopsies and G.I. Joes—which yielded a bumper crop of blue-eyed, curly-haired offspring, to hear the calypsonians tell it—were facilitated by a peculiar sexual lubricant: a certain caramel-colored highball.

For a short while, Rum and Coca-Cola and “Rum and Coca-Cola” enjoyed considerable synergy: the hit song supposedly spiked sales of the mixed drink.  (One of the ostensible reasons for the song’s banning from American radio, in fact, was that it constituted free advertising for the Coca-Cola Company.)  Musically speaking, it’s now customary to trace the family tree of American pseudo-calypso from the Calypso Craze back to the Andrews Sisters’ bumpity bowdlerization.  But genealogy is a complicated business: in 1945, Invader also came north in pursuit of copyright justice and spent much of the next sixteen years in the States, floating freely between the worlds of jazz, blues, pop, and folk, borrowing promiscuously from all four.  In Britain, the West Indies, and America, his contemporaries were doing likewise.  It was a period of extraordinary stylistic development in calypso.

One of Invader’s last albums for Folkways Records, the aptly named Calypso Travels, includes the philosophical “As Long As It Born In My House, Is Mine.” (“It is said the child resemble Lieutenant Joe,” the lyrics begin; “Even [if] it is so, well, Honey, I don’t want to know.”)

Less than two decades after the Andrews Sisters and the American “invasion” of Trinidad, all trace of wounded male pride has vanished, and Invader is content to claim paternity for the bastard issue of wartime betrayal. Just months before his death in 1961, in fact, Invader would be pressed into service for a bizarre final episode of the celebrated TV newsmagazine Omnibus, where he appeared as a sort of wandering minstrel in the service of U.S. hegemony. Introducing—in calypso—a series of fusty academics prognosticating on the state of the Western hemisphere ten years hence, the former fiery tribune of civil rights and independence seemed to be shilling for the Pax Americana. More about this in a future post, perhaps.

But Lord Invader’s sorties and reversals make up just one chapter of a tangled tale of imperial love and theft. Before cola with rum was called “Rum and Coke,” it was the “Cuba Libre.” And the Cuba Libre—as the Americans would have it, anyway—was supposedly a drink concocted by U.S. soldiers in Cuba, in tribute to the fighting spirit of the country they had “liberated” in the Spanish-American war.

Last year, Bacardi, which makes the top-selling rum in the U.S. (and which is controlled by the descendents-in-exile of the company’s Cuban founder), acknowledged the presumptuousness of this self-serving myth—sort of.  In a television ad timed to coincide with “Cuban Independence Day,” a holiday not observed in Cuba itself, where the date in 1902 marked by the anniversary is instead viewed as the start of a half-century of neo-colonial subservience, a sultry independendista rebuffs a patronizing overture from one of Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, who impulsively offers her the glistening bottle of cola he has just plucked from the ice-bucket beside the desk in Teddy’s tent.  (He narrates the episode in an inarticulate, aw-shucks style reminiscent of George Dubya Bush.)

More screenshots at iSpot.tv. Watch the ad in its entirety on YouTube below. High-resolution versions available on Vimeo and brightcove (click the fullscreen icon).

In one swift motion, she rips the bottle from his hand, flips off its crown with the long knife with which she’s been whittling lazily between her parted legs, and dumps half its contents on the ground, spiking the remainder with a liberal splash from a flask she pulls from her garter, and whose cork she clenches savagely in her teeth.  “Cuba Libre!” she says, harshly, as she slaps the bottle back into his hand, then turns and sashays off into the jungle, casting back a withering glance at the dazzled, guileless hick.

Or is it a come-hither look?  Bacardi wants it both ways.  In spite of the tongue-in-cheek vignette where the rebel, not the soldier, is the agent of her own liberation (and her own mixology), the ending leaves open the possibility that the dusky maiden really might like to engage in a little mestizaje with the bandana’d blue-eyed hunk. (Unlike her Trinidadian counterpart, though, she won’t do it for money, or stockings, or chewing-gum, let alone Coca-Cola.)  And even if Bacardi manages to debunk a myth with one hand, it reinscribes it with the other. Touting the campaign, Tony Whitmoyer, Bacardi’s VP for marketing, was quoted in Advertising Age to the effect that “[m]illennial consumers are ‘really looking for brands that have authenticity and a heritage and a story…Bacardi has been incredibly successful as a business, but we really haven’t taken the time to tell consumers the real story behind the brand.’”  Meanwhile, a promotional website set up by Bacardi USA’s parent company, Bacardi Limited, simply rehearsed uncritically the old saw that gives credit for the drink to a U.S. Army Signal Corps captain in the “American Bar” in Havana.  (In an utterly incongruous gesture, in conjunction with the launch of the “historically-minded” ads, the company celebrated Cuban Independence Day in New York City by throwing a free concert at Roseland Ballroom featuring white hip-hop duo Macklemore & Ryan Lewis.)

With Trinidadian self-rule and the departure of American troops in 1956, an upstart Sparrow—in many ways Invader’s stylistic successor—could gloat that with “No more Yankees to spoil the fete / Dorothy have to take what she get.”  “The Yankees gone,” he crowed; “Sparrow take over now.”  Henceforth, Trinidadians would call the shots and set the price. It must have seemed an empowering notion. But as Earl Lovelace’s doubtful title has it: Is Just a Movie. True, the U.S. finally closed its naval base at Chaguaramas in 1967, five years after full Trinidadian independence. But Coke is still bottled in T&T. By contrast, in a final irony, after the 1959 revolution which freed Cuba at last from American domination, both Bacardi and Coca-Cola left that country, never to return. So you might say it’s Cuba libre, not Trinidad, which has been “free” of the Yanqui for the last half-century.  Free of Rum-and-Coca-Colonization, at least.

cuba-libre-tee


 

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Merengue and Coca-Cola (Jean-Léon Destiné, Patty Andrews)

Posted by Michael Eldridge on February 2, 2013

Late January saw the passing of two figures, both aged 94, who in very different ways helped raise the profile of Caribbean culture in the United States.

Jean-Léon Destiné

First was Haitian émigré Jean-Léon Destiné, part of a close-knit circle of influential dancer-choreographers including Asadata Dafora, Katherine Dunham, and Pearl Primus, who in the 1940s put African and Caribbean dances on the Broadway stage—and the stages of other prominent venues such as Carnegie Hall, the 92d Street “Y,” and the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival.  Destiné himself never danced anything that he called a “calypso,” as far as I know, although in Katherine Dunham’s 1946 Bal Nègre he sang a Carnival merengue, “Apollon“—and in 1957, the year of the Calypso Craze, he toured Japan with what was described as a “calypso troupe,” then set up a company of his own, the “Jean-Léon Destiné Carib-Creole Carnival,” that toured 22 cities in the eastern U.S. and Canada with The Duke of Iron, Lord Nelson, the Magnets steel band, and others.  (Update, January 2014: on a recent visit to the Schomburg to view the Cecil [Duke of Iron] Anderson papers, I learned that the Duke had taken part in Destiné’s productions as far back as 1949, both in New York and on the road—once, at least, as far west as Denver.)

The Andrews Sisters: Maxene, Patty and LaVerne

Eight days later it was Patty Andrews, youngest and last surviving member of the legendary Andrews Sisters.  As the opening music cue of NPR’s obituary implied, the sister act will be forever linked to their bumpity, bowdlerized rendition of Lord Invader’s “Rum and Coca-Cola,” which topped the charts for many weeks in 1944 and ’45 (despite being banned from radio), on its way to becoming the world’s most famous calypso.  (Kevin Burke tells the story of the song’s theft—and its afterlife—at The Rum and Coca-Cola Reader.)  In spite of the tune’s popularity, the Andrews Sisters never took on another bona fide calypso, though they did do the calypso-esque “Money Is the Root of All Evil” later in 1945 and gamely dusted off their “native” accents two years later for both the casually racist “Civilization (Bongo Bongo Bongo)” (with Danny Kaye) and a cover of Stan Kenton & June Christy’s “His Feet Too Big For de Bed.”

Posted in Andrews Sisters, Duke of Iron, Jean-Léon Destiné, Lord Invader, Rum and Coca-Cola | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

 
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