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Calypso and Calypsonians in North America, 1934-1961

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Posts Tagged ‘Etienne Charles’

Kobo Town’s Western Swing

Posted by Michael Eldridge on July 30, 2013

Kobo Town, the Toronto band fronted by Drew Gonsalves, a Trini transplant with a penchant for classic calypso, has been on my radar for a few years now.  I first heard them on the CBC when I was living in Ontario, downloaded their debut album (legally!), checked their roots-reggae sound, and filed them away for future reference.

The drawer opened again a couple of months ago, when Afropop Worldwide producer Banning Eyre gave Kobo Town’s sophomore release, Jumbie in the Jukeboxa high-profile review on NPR’s All Things Considered.  It’s a great disc, heavier on kaiso but seasoned with ska, dancehall and other pan-Caribbean flavors.  Production values are high, thanks to Stonetree/Cumbancha founder Ivan Duran, who’s given worldbeat-minded crate-diggers lots to love over the last decade or so, having fostered the careers of Ska Cubano, Sergeant Garcia, the Sierra Leone Refugee All-Stars, and the late Andy Palacio & the Garifuna Collective.  The tunes can feel a bit “same-y” after a while, in part because so many of them are laid over a loping, midtempo kadans beat.  And there are one or two misses, sure.  But the hits—which include several re-minor tunes that recall the great “oratorical” calypsos of the early twentieth century—hit heavy.  Gonsalves has a relaxed, conversational delivery and a talent for the pithy turn of phrase.  (A slumming North American tourist comes to the Caribbean in search of “postcard poverty”; a Saddam-obsessed U.S. “Gone down in a hole to catch a mouse/While a rat livin’ large in the White House.”)

Imagine my delight when, vacationing in Portland, Oregon, I discovered that Kobo Town would be playing a small club on North Mississippi Avenue, a historically African-American street now choking on Portlandia clichés (artists, hipsters, twee boutiques, trendy restaurants; it’s crying out for a withering calypso).  Roughly fifty souls, including a few duffers in the balcony and some very enthusiastic Trinis on the dancefloor, turned out for a strong set.  Gonsalves has a lovely stage presence: humble, good-humored, genuine.  The rhythm section (Grenadian bassist Pat Giunta, Ottawan drummer Robert Milicevic) is solid as a panyard engine-room.  Wiry, barefoot multi-reedist Linsey Wellman is full of goofy spirit and improvisatory energy, while fellow Trini Cesco Emmanuel unassumingly trades lead and rhythm guitar duties with Gonsalves, who doubles on cuatro.  (Cuatro!  No horns in the road version of the band, though.)  There were originals, mostly from Jumbie in the Jukebox.  There were inventive covers of Tiger, Invader, Kitch, and Small Island Pride.  There was antiphonal audience-participation (we played the part of a bloodthirsty mob).  And there was an a cappella encore, down on the dancefloor: a medley of “Congo Bara” and other semi-tone chants that somehow morphed into a sing-along version of Sparrow’s “Jean and Dinah.”  Magic.

Although they’ve been playing bigger gigs back east and overseas—including a spot at this year’s Montreal Jazz Festival—this was Kobo Town’s first time on the west coast.  Touring is tough, I know, especially when you’re playing to small crowds in small rooms.  But I hope they come back (and play more cities next time!).

You can read a short interview with Gonsalves on the CBC Music blog and stream several tracks from Jumbie  courtesy of SonicBids.  There’s plenty Kobo out there on YouTube, but here’s the Jumbie EPK:


Kobo town aren’t the only ones out there doing new takes on old tunes.  Gonsalves’s age-mate and fellow expat, trumpeter and Michigan State University professor Etienne Charles, is winning big props for his new album, Creole Soul (samples on SoundCloud; profile on AAJ), while Van Dyke Parks incorporates his previously released cover of “Money Is King” into Songs Cycledhis first album of new material—never mind the backward-glancing title—in almost two decades.  Two degrees of separation: in their live show, Kobo Town also regularly covers Growling Tiger’s classic statement of outrage over what we euphemise these days as “income inequality,” while Charles’s grandfather played cuatro in Tiger’s band.  (Previous posts: Etienne Charles, Van Dyke Parks.)

Posted in Canada, Growling Tiger, Kobo Town, Van Dyke Parks | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Ralph MacDonald, 1944-2011

Posted by Michael Eldridge on December 18, 2011

Ralph MacDonald (

Ralph MacDonald (

I learned this morning from the “Limers” discussion group that percussionist, composer, and arranger Ralph MacDonald had passed–too soon–at age 67.  MacDonald may be best known to the wider world as the co-writer of two R&B classics, the Roberta Flack/Donny Hathaway duet “Where Is The Love” and Grover Washington, Jr.’s “Just the Two of Us,” with vocals by Bill Withers.  Denizens of the dancefloor and citizens of the hip-hop nation, meanwhile, will remember him for the old-school breakbeat sample from “Jam on the Groove” and for Saturday Night Fever’s Calypso Breakdown.”

Calypso Carnival

Calypso Carnival (RCA, 1971)

MacDonald didn’t come by his “calypso” credentials casually.  The son of Trini-born, New York-based calypsonian MacBeth the Great (Patrick MacDonald), he was an accomplished pannist who at age 17 started a decade-long stint as Harry Belafonte’s arranger and music director, eventually writing much of the latter’s Calypso Carnival album.  With pan master Robert Greenidge, he also brought a touch of authenticity to Jimmy Buffett’s “Coral Reefer” band.  (Greenidge, MacDonald, and fellow Reefers also performed and recorded independently as “Club Trini,” while MacDonald himself released eleven albums as a leader.)

“Extensive” doesn’t do justice to MacDonald’s list of sideman credits.  As the New York Times noted, he was “the ghost” behind dozens of 1970s radio hits.  His percussion flavors albums by everyone from jazz lions like Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Joe Henderson, and Ron Carter; pop stars Bette Midler, Don McLean, and Paul Simon; and R&B icons Aretha Franklin, Teddy Pendergrass, and Ashford & Simpson.  (As for his calypso bona fides: he also answered calls from David Rudder and the Mighty Sparrow.)

More recent collaborators include the late Amy Winehouse; “When Steel Talks” caught a 2008 appearance with the Caribbean All Stars on video (HQ version here).  But my favorite recent performance of MacDonald’s is on Kaiso, the splendid album that Trinidadian trumpeter Etienne Charles released earlier this year.  He’s featured prominently on this sweet, soaring cover of Kitch’s “Sugar Bum Bum”:

Now he’s beating percussion with the ancestors.  Rest in peace, Ralph MacDonald.


Posted in MacBeth the Great, Ralph MacDonald | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Le Jazz Primitif

Posted by Michael Eldridge on May 21, 2011

Sonny Rollins

Photo: John Abbott (WBGO's "The Checkout")

Sonny Rollins, who played the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival earlier this month, has given a number of interviews recently in which he discusses his career-long affinity for calypso.  (I’m thinking particularly of his conversations with Josh Jackson of WBGO’s The Checkout, with Larry Appelbaum for the Smithsonian Jazz Oral History Project, and with John Swenson in OffBeat Magazine.)  “People relate to my Caribbean music all over the world,” he told Swenson, “but I notice something especially in New Orleans, the people there seem to have a deeper understanding of it.”

The reason?  Well, he recognizes that the Crescent City is effectively the northern capital of the Caribbean, but he suspects a deeper cause.  Like him, Rollins speculates, New Orleanians are “primitives” — a term academics would decry as problematic, though of course Rollins means it in the most flattering way: unschooled, un-self-conscious, authentic — someone who can tap into pre-modern roots.

Rupert Clemendore, Jazz

(Even Trinidadian bandleaders John “Buddy” Williams and Rupert Clemendore once released an album called Le Jazz Primitif — with tunes that were characteristically très sophistiqués — though I expect the exotic appellation was Emory Cook’s idea, not theirs.  Clemendore did a second album called simply Le Jazz Trinidad; the other notable entry in the short-lived “calypso jazz” category was Freddy Grant’s out-of-print Calypso on Bethlehem.  Others, like Dave Pike’s Carnavals and Don Elliott’s Jamaica Jazz, were mainly “exotic”-flavored lounge fare.)

At any rate, if the Jazz Fest primitives came to hear Rollins play calypso, they weren’t disappointed: I can’t find a full set list, but the accounts I’ve read say that Rollins opened with a 28-minute calypso, then followed with a ballad, another (12-minute) calypso, an unidentified postbop tune, and a 20-minute workout of “St. Thomas.”  (The encore had a “Bags’ Groove” head; no word on whether the Milt Jackson jazz standard was subsequently calypsofied.)   “Rollins seemed most comfortable with the calypsos,” reported Dr. Jazz on the Jazz Programmers List:

The lilting rhythms and short, melodic phrases made it easy for him to alternate a bright, singing sound on his sax with knotty harmonic variations and low, throaty honking.  Instead of tiring, as you might expect, Rollins kept getting stronger…His fingers loosened up, and the notes started coming faster and freer…the set was far from the nostalgic, last go-round for a living legend many expected. Rollins still had a lot to say, and he kept delaying the end of each number to make sure he had room to say it.

And the closer he gets to the ancestors, apparently, the more he says it with calypso.

The octogenarian Rollins isn’t the only modern improviser to have brought jazz and calypso together.  I’ve written before about Andy Narell and Lord Relator’s brilliant reexamination of Kitch’s marriage of kaiso and small-group jazz on University of Calypso.  This summer, in collaboration with veteran calypsonian Lord Superior, Trinidadian jazz trumpeter Etienne Charles (who’s already scattered a handful of fine calypsos on his first two albums; for a taste, see “Santimanité“) follows suit with Kaiso (try the 1080p HD version in full-screen!):

Meanwhile, singer Fay Victor, the Brooklyn-born daughter of Trini parents, gave classic calypso the “out” treatment, with the help of avant-garde ensemble Other Dimensions in Music, on Kaiso Stories (hear selections from the album on Jason Crane’s interview program The Jazz Session); saxophonist James Carter brought his talents to Puerto Rican composer Roberto Sierra’s “Concerto for Saxophones and Orchestra” on Caribbean Rhapsody (which features folk and clavé, but not calypso, rhythms); and Virgin Islander trombonist Reginald Cyntje successfully crowdfunded the production of his first album, Freedom’s Children.  (He’s not saying yet whether it will include a cover of, say, “St. Thomas.”)

I propose that jazz audiences henceforth adopt a new expression of approbation for the killin’ solo: “Kaiso!”

Fay Victor, Kaiso StoriesJames Carter, Caribbean RhapsodyReginald Cyntje, Freedom's Children

Posted in Calypso, Jazz, Sonny Rollins | Tagged: , , , , , | 4 Comments »

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