[23 April 2009]
Calypso is a West Indian phenomenon, a genre that started somewhere around the beginning of the 1900s and ran forward through the decades, eventually jumping to the top of the US charts in 1944 when the Andrews Sisters sang a bowdlerised version of Lord Invader’s cheerfully bitter “Rum and Coca-Cola”. But the arts run in other directions too, not only from poor countries to rich neighbours, or from colonies to the colonisers and their friends, but from rich to poor, from coloniser to colony, and from one colony to another. Marvellous Boy is evidence of artistic movement between the Anglophone West Indies and Anglophone West Africa: a compilation of 1950s calypso-inflected songs from Sierra Leone, Ghana, and Nigeria.
Highlife was pop music in that part of the continent. It was a hybrid genre, willing to incorporate any other music as long as it was lively or could be made lively. When calypso arrived, highlife closed around it as readily as an amoeba. What Honest Jon’s has given us is not so much straight calypso as a set of highlife-calypso mixtures.
In practical terms this means that if you compared the songs on Marvellous Boy to a compilation of Caribbean calypso tracks from the same decade you would probably notice a greater emphasis on circling dance melodies and less of an emphasis on clever lyrics. If you heard some of them away from this album you might not think of calypso at all. “Oh, listen,” you’d think. “Old songs from Ghana. Nigeria too.” Nigerian English rolls out of the speakers, extending its us into os, lifting in arches as if the tongue is taking a bow. Chris Ajilo and his Cubanos kick in with the opening bars of “Awilo” and the world goes Mondo Exotica for a minute, all piano and Cuban drum. Something else comes along—a touch of jazz. Then Rolling Stone and His Traditional Aces turn up with “Igha Suo Gamwen” and for once the calypso theme is firmly established.
There are instrumental numbers, social commentaries, slice-of-life tracks with names like “Cost of Living Nar Freetown”, and “Dick Tiger’s Victory”, the last one relaying the story of the Nigerian-born boxer Dick Tiger and the fight with the American Gene Fullmer that made him the WBA Middleweight Champion in 1962. “Dick Tiger” is noteworthy for the amount of detail in the story:
“Yes he became the champion
On October twenty-third
At San Francisco Park
The whole of Nigeria
Was awake for the title fight,
And Tiger knew this before
So he battered the American.
Fullmer started bleeding from the second round …”
Other lyrics are simpler. The track the compilation takes its title from is not much more than a Sierra Leonean named Famous Scrubbs singing, “Scrubbs na marvellous boy, Scrubbs na marvellous boy … wherever he go, driving sorrow, giving pleasure,” over and over while someone else clangs out chords on a piano and a glass bottle is tapped with a hard object, possibly a pencil or a stick. The superbly adhesive “Nylon Dress”, by Steven Amechi and his Empire Rhythm Skies advises listeners to go shopping for their girlfriends.
“Nylon dress, it’s a lovely dress, nylon dress, it’s a fancy dress.
If you want to make your baby happy, nylon is good for her.”
The playing and singing in some of the songs sounds uneven, in the way that musicianship in old recordings often sounds uneven. People are not perfectly in synch, or they play half-familiar tunes more slowly than modern listeners are used to, or they are standing too far away from the microphone. Famous Scrubbs seems to have taken up his singing career in a spirit of pure optimistic gumption. A trumpeter toward the end of “Calypso Minor One” by Bobby Benson and his Jam Session Orchestra is audible only as a distant beetling purr while the percussion that was supposed to be backing him up takes the foreground. A drummer in “Bere Bote” by the Mayor’s Dance Band sounds like a man who is carefully mimicking a piece of drumming he heard on a recording of someone else’s song. Note for note he knocks out a noise you could stick a label on and call the Ancestor Of A Drum Solo.
Everyone is game, even the person banging the glass bottle. Their idiosyncrasies mean that the tracks are stubbornly various, each song unexpected, the sound of the past finding new wrinkles, new ideas that might have gone somewhere or nowhere: more trumpet in this one, less in that one, some saxophone here, some English here, some Igbo there, until we arrive at a rough collective thing we can look back at with pleasure and call West African Calypso, or Old Highlife With Big Calypso Touches or some alternative label that gives people an idea of what we might be getting at. It’s wonderful, it’s particular, and Honest Jon’s has done us all a favour by compiling it.