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Calypso and Calypsonians in North America, 1934-1961

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Posts Tagged ‘Growling Tiger’

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 »

Ol’ Time Calypso Come Back Again, Part 3

Posted by Michael Eldridge on June 3, 2012

A couple of months ago, the internet did one of those things it’s meant to do (but rarely does): it served up a huge cultural treasure, indexed, annotated, and easy to use.

The Association for Cultural Equity, founded in 1983 by musicologist Alan Lomax and housed at Hunter College in Manhattan, exists “to explore and preserve the world’s expressive traditions with humanistic commitment and scientific engagement.”  Its enlightened mission: to “preserve, publish, repatriate and freely disseminate our collections.”  (You can read the full statement here.)  Those collections include the Alan Lomax Archive—a “priceless” (and staggering) trove “of recorded music, dance, and the spoken word” begun in 1946.  So far, the online archive includes over “17,000 free full-streaming audio field-recordings, totaling over eight hundred hours […]; scans of 5,000 photographic prints and negatives; sixteen hours of vintage radio transcriptions; and ninety hours of interviews, discussions, and lectures”—with more to come.

Ticket to Calypso at Carnegie

Pete Seeger, Alan Lomax, Lord Invader

Pete Seeger, Alan Lomax, and Lord Invader. Afro-American (National Edition), 4 May 1946.

For calypso fans, the earliest item in the archive is also one of the best: the complete tapes of the December, 1946 People’s Songs “Midnight Special” concert at New York’s Town Hall, previously released on Rounder Records as Calypso at Midnight and Calypso After Midnight.  (Chris Smith penned a smart review of those CDs for Musical Traditions magazine, while Kevin Burke provides historical context at The Rum and Coca-Cola Reader.)  The concert’s front page leads to a track-by-track rundown; clicking on each track’s title yields an audio player and full recording details, with credits and scholarly notes by Don Hill and John Cowley.

Pearl Primus in "Calypso"

Philadelphia Bulletin, 19 October 1947 (courtesy Ray Funk)

The “Calypso at Midnight” show paved the way for a series of high-profile calypso concerts in New York over the next twelve months: at Carnegie Hall (as part of the Carnegie “Pop” Concerts series in May and June 1947), Town Hall and Carnegie Hall again (both in October 1947), and the Brooklyn Academy of Music (late 1947 and early 1948), and it probably emboldened Sam Manning to rush into production an ill-fated Broadway revue.  (That show, which previewed in Philly and Boston as “Calypso” and opened as “Caribbean Carnival” on December 5, 1947 at the International Theatre on Columbus Circle, closed after just eleven performances.  Although it was billed as the “First Calypso Musical Ever Presented,” that distinction arguably belonged to Katherine Dunham‘s similarly short-lived “Carib Song” from 1945.  [See Darrel Karl’s Keeping Score for recording histories of “Carib Song” and “Caribbean Carnival.”])

Calypso @ BAM

New York Times, 30 November 1947

According to the Afro-American, the May 8th, 1947 Pop Concert at Carnegie “saw more than 5,000 devotees of Caribbean folk lore unable to gain admission,” which meant that “by popular demand,” a second show (“with an enlarged cast”) had to be scheduled for June 9.[1]  Of “Calypso at Midnight,” the socialist Daily Worker had noted somewhat patronizingly that “[i]t has never been more noticeable that the first laughter and applause [for the calypsonians’ bons mots] comes from the uppermost reaches of the balcony.”[2]  (Meanwhile, calypso continued to draw crowds at clubs in Harlem and at other African-American gathering spots uptown like the Golden Gate Ballroom, the Park Palace, and the Renaissance Casino.  [See “Bop Guy Goes Calypso.”])

Lomax Geo Archive“Calypso at Midnight” isn’t the only item in the ACE archive of interest to calypso enthusiasts: Lomax traveled extensively throughout the Caribbean in 1962, and everything he recorded there has been placed online, indexed by session, date, and place.  That same material is also searchable via the Lomax Geo Archive, an ingenious tool that, with the aid of customized Google Maps, lets you retrace Lomax’s itinerary point by point and listen to the field recordings from each stop.  (The above link is centered on Port-of-Spain, but you can resize and/or recenter the map on any locale.)  There’s also a special feature on Lomax’s work in Grenada and Carriacou, and a little searching and sifting turns up all of Growling Tiger’s performances at the 1966 Newport Folk Festival.

So why aren’t other archives—at universities, research libraries, the BBC, the CBC—doing (more of) this?  They’re all sitting on collections that, if they were only made freely accessible, could enrich the world’s cultural patrimony.  You can supply the answers: not enough money, not enough staff, not enough resources.  (I get it: I work at a state-funded institution savaged by repeated budget cuts, too.)  Copyright mazes.  Possessiveness.  Inertia.  Etc., etc.  But ultimately it’s a matter of institutional will.  Copyright?  There are workarounds, there are people of good will, there’s public shaming.  Money, staff, resources?  Crowd-source it—either the financing and/or the labor. (There are plenty more scholar-drones like me out there who’d be glad to do some “hive” work in The Cloud.)

And you private collectors: ars longa, vita brevis.  You can’t take it with you.  It couldn’t be easier to start a blog.  Channel your OCD into something beneficial.  Get to work sorting, scanning, and digitizing, even if it’s only for 15 minutes a week.  I’ll begin:

  • Carnegie Hall program booklet, “Cla-Mac of Trinidad Inc Presents | Its First in a Series of Authentic Calypso Concerts | On Sunday Evening, Oct. 12th, 1947; 8:30 p.m. Sharp | At Carnegie Hall, 57th St. & 7th Ave.”
  • Flyer, “People’s Songs Inc Presents | The Midnight Special at Town Hall | A Series of American-Folk Music Concerts under the Supervision of Alan Lomax | Calypso at Midnight | Gerald Clark and Band | Lord Invader | Duke of Iron | Macbeth the Great | Town Hall, Saturday Dec. 21, 11:30 p.m. [illustration by David S Martin]”
  • And:
Carnegie Pops Calypso Town Hall Calypso Carnival Manning's Caribbean Carnival
L-R: New York Amsterdam News, 3 May 1947 | New York Amsterdam News, 15 October 1947 (courtesy Ray Funk) | New York Times, 30 November 1947

[1] “Calypso Carnival in Demand Encore.”  Afro-American, nat’l ed. 7 June 1947: 8.
[2] Murray Chase, “Music in Review.”  Daily Worker 24 December 1946: 11.

Posted in Alan Lomax, Association for Cultural Equity, Calypso at Midnight | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Ol’ Time Calypso Come Back Again, Part 2

Posted by Michael Eldridge on May 23, 2012

Discover AmericaVan Dyke ParksActually, this is something like “Ol’ Time Calypso Come Back Again” squared.  Visionary American songwriter/musician/arranger/producer Van Dyke Parks first championed vintage calypso back in 1969, when a blow-out from an offshore Union Oil rig spread as much as 100,000 gallons of crude over the coast of southern California.  Around the same time, Parks happened to catch the Esso Trinidad Tripoli Steelband serving as exotic props in Liberace’s Las Vegas nightclub act.  “I thought it was a vulgarity,” he said; “I wanted to save them from their trivialization.”  Youthful but good-hearted paternalism.  Yet something else clicked: an understanding of the links between globalization, neo-colonialism, environmental racism—and an Afro-diasporic cultural affinity for what the great Barbadian poet Kamau Brathwaite describes as “twisting music out of hunger.”  (“America pollutes its environment with oil: Little Trinidad makes beautiful music from the drums that you throwaway,” as Esso steelbandsman Godfrey Clarke put it.)  In short, Parks “went calypso,” and within the space of a few years he produced records for Warner Brothers by the Esso Trinidad Steel Band (1971) and the Mighty Sparrow (1974), touring the country with the former; he also recorded his own album of classic calypso covers, Discover America (1972) and arranged a cover of Calypso Rose’s “Wha She Go Do” for Bonnie Raitt’s Takin’ My Time (1973).   (Later, with help from Ry Cooder and Jim Keltner, Parks orchestrated a minor comeback for the retired expatriate calypsonian Sir Lancelot.)  You can read a fuller account of Parks’s discovery of calypso here—and listen to him talk about his first encounter (and his American tour) with the Esso Trinidad Steel Band at NPR’s Lost and Found Sound.

VDP, Lancelot, Cooder

Van Dyke Parks with Sir Lancelot and Ry Cooder, McCabe’s Guitar Shop, Los Angeles, December 1984. Photo copyright Sherry Rayn Barnett.

In 2009, Parks reissued the Esso and Sparrow discs on CD on his own “Bananastan” label (Warner had originally made the albums as an indulgence to their wunderkind, but never really promoted them and long ago let them fall out of print), and he also dusted off Atilla the Hun’s “FDR in Trinidad” in a 1996 concert that finally made it to CD in 2011. Discover America (where his rendition of that tune first appeared) and its follow-up, Clang of the Yankee Reaper, are slated for re-release this summer.  In the meantime, Parks has revisited calypso’s Golden Age with a timely arrangement of Tiger’s classic “Money Is King” as the b-side of his own “Wall Street.”  The pair of songs constitutes the first release in a series of 7-inch vinyl 45 rpm singles—remember those?—available for order exclusively from Parks’s website.  (They can also be had commercially as digital downloads.)  Of Tiger’s classic tune, which offers “transcultural truths about the lives of the rich and the poor,” Parks comments (at the blog of the Los Angeles Review of Books):

Wall Street/Money Is King

Cover art by Art Spiegelman

Today, the pressing questions are economic ones. Inequalities between the rich and poor could not be more entrenched anywhere than they are in the United States. That fact is largely overlooked by foreign observers, blessed by national healthcare safety nets and other civil services. MacWorld now views the U.S.A. primarily through its music and movies, which paint a picture of vapid sitcom jollity. T’aint so…”Money is King” …underscores this sudden spate of public outrage at the bank and corporate bail-outs, with a simultaneous reduction of services for the poor. This toxic mix has created a spontaneous combustion reminiscent of Tsarist times.

The Growling Tiger discovered America a long time ago:  he first came to New York with Atilla and Beginner at the height of the Depression in 1935, the very year he composed “Money Is King.”  In 2012, thanks to VDP, he occupies Wall Street.

Posted in Growling Tiger, Van Dyke Parks | Tagged: , , , , | 7 Comments »

 
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