Some of the old-time calypso masters are found on Mondo Soca, major talents like Andre Tanker, Kitchener, and Pretender, mixed with the newer soca stars David Rudder, Brother Resistance, and 3 Canal. In the space of 14 songs, there is much history to be found, but more importantly great lyrics and rhymes, stories and social commentary are joined to infectious upbeat dance rhythms in this nice compilation.
Calypso. Who really can forget the first time hearing calypso music? The earliest ‘50s memories are those of Lord Invader’s effervescent “Rum and Coca Cola” and his kooky “Zombie Jamboree”. Soon, people were tying the front of their shirts in knots and hokey limbo dances were de rigueur for lawn parties. Then the great Harry Belafonte appeared and some others taught us how to sing calypso tongue-in-cheek, “You Put the Accent on the Wrong Syl-LAH-ble”.
Needless to say, there’s more than that to calypso, as the composer knew full well. Calypso is a form remarkable for a rich use of language, stories told using double entendre rhymed out in complex couplets that display a good natured disposition while not being anyone’s fool. In the ‘60s, Bongo Joe made up calypso-rhymes on the riverfront of San Antonio, Texas and probably was the first to fuse calypso with rap, although rap didn’t exist just then but beatnik poetry did, and he played to street audiences on his version of steel drums. Just a decade later, Ry Cooder and Van Dyke Parks were playing and expanding upon “FDR in Trinidad”. Within a few years, who hearing zydeco-king Clifton Chenier sing “Man Smart, Woman Smarter” could not help but believe him. Since the first introduction to American servicemen stationed in the Caribbean during World War II, calypso continued piquing American imaginations. Influences worked the other way, as well.
Musical tendencies from widespread American music and nearby Jamaica spread into the local music of Trinidad and Tobago. People there were still hammering and shaping steel drums into musical instruments and rhyming out in mighty competitions. Listen to Kitchener’s amazing “Bees Melody”, a story of a bee attack on a casual country stroll that prompts the singer into natural dance-like evasive maneuvers and occasional near-operatic shouts, and know why Kitchener was crowned Monarch.
Andre Tanker used many outside influences in his calypso mixing them with the steel pans, an instrument developed during the 1940s which has become the national instrument of Trinidad. His “Wild Indian Band” is a hot horn-heavy dance tune complete with surprising explosions of wild movie-Indian war whoops. On this song, there is still use of calypso’s traditional verse chorus/band chorus format. Perhaps closer to his early original sound is “Sayamanda”. Tanker’s use of Baptist-like chants in “Sayamanda” was also making a powerful statement, as there had been an ordinance against the Baptists prohibiting their form of worship until the law was repealed in 1951. The charm and beauty of traditional steel pan music is shown on Selwyn Henry’s “Maturity”, which just breathes lovely tropical airs.
Calypso in its homeland continued changing, eventually incorporating elements of soul music. How thoughtful of the people of Trinidad and Tobago to name their new music in a way that makes it easy to trace the roots, “so” for soul and “ca” for calypso, and now there is “soca”. It was with the advent of soca that the music was torn from its emphasis on lyrics, substituting heavy rhythm to make only the body, and not the brain, respond. With Dave Rudder, represented here by “Caribbean Party”, soca regained some of its lyric power. Rudder is regarded to calypso much as Bob Marley is to reggae, and Rudder calls all the yuppies, the soldiers, the dispossessed, the gangsters and all the international freaks to the breakdown dance floor party, to the “pyramid of the possible”.
Then calypso joined with rap and begot rapso, which is Brother Resistance’s style. “Run Yuh Run” is sub-sonic bass thundering under patois-sounding rap while “Drum and De Bass” puts pans back with a hot horn section while talking of redemption. Brother Resistance joins with the mighty Pretender in remix to redo the Pretender’s sweet signature piece, “Never Ever Worry”. All three songs show that rap subject matter (at least as rapso deals with life) can be uplifting and positive messages, but the Pretender’s older message is especially sweet spirited. Sadly, the Pretender passed on in January 2002, following on the heels of the passing of Kitchener. Calypso fans not only mourn the loss of legendary players but fear for the continuation of traditional calypso. Using Jamaican reggae pinnings, Super Blue (formerly known as Blue Boy) is still kicking and true to the spirit of calypso if his “Coming on Strong” is any indication, a ragga-soca song sweetened with hope and promises of enduring love.
Which leaves 3 Canal as the ultra current expression of calypso. 3 Canal has been described as one of the main “weapons” in the “Rapso Revolution” that is taking over the Caribbean. In Trinidad parlance, their name refers to a cutlass or a machete, which is used to clear the ground before planting crops. 3 canal is a visual and performance arts collaboration that produces rapso music and Jouvert (joo-vay) bands. Jouvert (from the French Jour Ouvert) is the ritual opening of the Trinidad Carnival, when the way is cleared and revellers covered in pigments form themselves into bands and parade through the streets, a procession called “Dirty Mas”. 3 Canal produces a Jouvert band with a related theme song each year. For their debut release “Blue” in 1997, they literally painted the town blue and took the island by storm.
On “Salt”, 3 Canal starts out with an echo from the successful musical, “Oliver”—“Please, Sir, may I have some more?”—and the artsy music video they created for the song has visual elements from Orfeu Negro with traces of the Zombie Jamboree mixed with a twisted bit from Oliver. On “Salt”, you protect yourself from the masters by the salt on your body even though “You gets nothing and you like it”. The overlords are depicted simply as blood-sucking vampires. Not too much double in that entendre, but the high drama of the political statement is the simple pronouncement the people aren’t going to take much more of that.
Gerald Seligman, Miles Copeland, and their selection of splendid musicians and material all got together to create Mondo Soca. Easy to suspect this is a tropical album because the cover is draped with copa de oro and pink hibiscus even in the middle of winter. Slip the disc into any player and be transported by the bright, sunny music to balmy Trinidad and Tobago. While Mondo Soca is a satisfying introduction to calypso, despite the richness of the musical feast, it will leave you wanting some more while checking travel arrangements.
// Notes from the Road
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