Various Artists: Calypso: Vintage Songs From the Caribbean

[2 June 2003]

By Barbara Flaska

The late ‘50s was a time when the lively, upbeat phenomenon called calypso enjoyed a brief worldwide popularity, one of the first “world music” genres to gain international favor. In America, Harry Belafonte was outselling Elvis Presley, though Belafonte’s “Banana Boat Song (Day-O)” and “Jamaica Farewell” were just the outer layer of calypso, the music form but with lyrics devoid of the social content. For at least one summer season, the nation’s children and grown-ups alike resembled a population of Huckleberry Finns as cheap straw hats became the whimsical expression of this fleeting fashion. Meanwhile, in the Caribbean, artists throughout the islands were influenced by the growing success of calypso and began recording their own versions of calypso-based songs. This collection brings together 15 tasty vintage selections from the ART Records library; half the selections are drawn from the Bahamas while the remaining tracks are pulled from Jamaica and Trinidad.

It’s most fitting that Trinidad not be overlooked, as Trinidad is the real home of calypso which began emerging there about a century ago, recorded as early as 1912. For the common man, calypso was like a singing newspaper full of the social news and commentary of the day. The scandals of the upper class whites, always a topic worthy of gossip, began receiving treatment in popular song, and British censorship quickly came into force. The double entendre approach was refined by composers to evade official screening for political or sexual content, a ploy which remained steadily successful, even, as it turns out, with the very song that launched the global calypso craze. After WWII, American servicemen stationed in Trinidad returned home to tell of the unique sprightly music there. When the Andrews Sisters picked up “Rum and Coca Cola” for what became their massive hit, it didn’t dawn on the American listening public that Lord Invader’s lyrics were in fact a critique of U.S. presence there, censuring the rise of prostitution around U.S. bases. Americans just liked the happy sound of calypso and the cheerful beat.

Similarly, when continuing a folk tradition where market vendors would sing about their wares to attract buyers, George Symonette delivers his song of the marketplace, “Don’t Touch Me Tomato”. His wry easy-going comments seem to be addressed to the looky-loos, those casual browsers who can’t seem to decide what it is they’re shopping for, but who often can’t resist the urge to fondle or pinch the luscious flesh. Calypso Mama’s “Yes, Yes, Yes” sounds like a Bahamian blues mama’s bawdy raunch, with “yes, yes, yes” a substitute phrase for rhymes about the anatomy. There’s an especially funny ditty by the Percentie Brothers of the Bahamas about the travails of keeping up with the neighbors, which in the Caribbean playgrounds of the wealthy leisure class was not merely someone named Jones but just as likely to be “J.P. Morgan” himself. This tune because of humorous social content successfully crossed over and became a popular offering onstage on the ‘60s folk and old-timey music circuit in the U.S., and many have enjoyed hearing the tune without being fully aware of its origins.

There are some great songs on this collection, which seem to get better the older they grow. “The Jolly Boys” of Jamaica perform a bright rendition of “Take Me Back to Jamaica” in a calypso-inflected style called mento, with guitar and hand drums plus a banjo that sounds like steel drums. The jazzier influences from mainland U.S. shores were easily exported to the close-lying Bahamas, as demonstrated by Leslie Scott & Irene Williams “Crazy Like Mad”.

The rolling ragtime of Blind Blake and His Royal Victorians “Peas and Rice” has a ‘20s chord progression and sound when dealing with the topic of tourism and local acquired tastes for drinking and living the high life of tourists. The lyrics refer to local population as “natives” while the refrain is painfully vaudevillian: “Mammy don’t want no peas, no rice, no coconut oil”. While the well-off foreign visitors and resident British upper crust would empty the bays of lobster and grouper for their finer dining, Mammy simply exchanged the money she once used for her cheap foodstuffs for a bottle of brandy. Well, if she can’t drink and live it up exactly like the rich tourists, at least she’s half way there. The peas he refers to are pigeon peas, which as a starchy foodstuff really aren’t so bad, but they’ve likely yet to appear on a resort menu. Another touch of Bahamian life is Blake’s faithful companion “Music” who would accompany him everywhere. Given special mention in both historic and contemporary liner notes, the dog would sit at Blake’s knee while Blake was performing onstage or in the studio, and undoubtedly “Music” was there, too, during the recording of this very song.

This collection offers a good selection of artists including everyone from Grenada’s King Sparrow to Trinidad’s own Lord Beginner (here doing the African sounding “Fed-A-Ray” in a West African dialect). More from Trinidad with the horn-rich “Kim” by Lord Shorty who will get not just your shoulders wiggling but your “yes, yes, yes” moving. And the wail of the Mighty Panther who describes the annual Crop Over “bacchanal” also known as “Barbados Carnival”. He outlines the calypsos, the festive apparel (“I dress up in a kimon-ah / Richard dress up in his girlfriend’s collar-ah”) and the dancing (“Jumping like grasshopper / Me head reach up to the planet Jupiter”). If this song doesn’t make you want to go silly at Trinidad’s Carnival or anywhere else, you might already be a good candidate for the zombie jamboree.

This disc is so good, it’s a keeper forever. While the listener may never actually make it to Goombay or Carnival anywhere in the Caribbean, you can pretend just by listening to this music. Or anytime a taste of the older days of tropical islands is needed, those pre-soca days back when rum-runners were the baddest actors. What better way to refresh memories than with these gentle, humorous, easy-going calypso tunes. I’m an American, after all, and I like the happy sound and the cheerful beat.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/various-calypso/