Music

Various Artists: Marvellous Boy: Calypso From West Africa

The tracks are stubbornly various, each song unexpected.


Various Artists

Marvellous Boy: Calypso From West Africa

Label: Honest Jon's
US Release Date: 2009-03-31
UK Release Date: 2009-04-13
Amazon
iTunes

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

Nineteen Sixty-Two.

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.

8

Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" Wryly Looks at Lost Love (premiere + interview)

Singer-songwriter Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" is a less a flat-earther's anthem and more a wry examination of heartache.

Music

Big Little Lions' "Distant Air" Is a Powerful Folk-Anthem (premiere)

Folk-pop's Big Little Lions create a powerful anthem with "Distant Air", a song full of sophisticated pop hooks, smart dynamics, and killer choruses.

Music

The Flat Five Invite You to "Look at the Birdy" (premiere)

Chicago's the Flat Five deliver an exciting new single that exemplifies what some have called "twisted sunshine vocal pop".

Music

Brian Bromberg Pays Tribute to Hendrix With "Jimi" (premiere + interview)

Bass giant Brian Bromberg revisits his 2012 tribute to Jimi Hendrix 50 years after his passing, and reflects on the impact Hendrix's music has had on generations.

Jedd Beaudoin
Music

Shirley Collins' ​'Heart's Ease'​ Affirms Her Musical Prowess

Shirley Collins' Heart's Ease makes it apparent these songs do not belong to her as they are ownerless. Collins is the conveyor of their power while ensuring the music maintains cultural importance.

9
Books

Ignorance, Fear, and Democracy in America

Anti-intellectualism in America is, sadly, older than the nation itself. A new collection of Richard Hofstadter's work from Library of America traces the history of ideas and cultural currents in American society and politics.

By the Book

Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto (excerpt)

Just as big tech leads world in data for profit, the US government can produce data for the public good, sans the bureaucracy. This excerpt of Julia Lane's Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto will whet your appetite for disruptive change in data management, which is critical for democracy's survival.

Julia Lane
Music

Mobley Laments the Evil of "James Crow" in the US

Austin's Mobley makes upbeat-sounding, soulful pop-rock songs with a political conscience, as on his latest single, "James Crow".

Music

Jordan Tice's "Bad Little Idea" Is a Satirical Spin on Dire Romance (premiere)

Hawktail's Jordan Tice impresses with his solo work on "Bad Little Idea", a folk rambler that blends bluesy undertones with satiric wit.

Music

Composer Ilan Eshkeri Discusses His Soundtrack for the 'Ghost of Tsushima' Game

Having composed for blockbuster films and ballet, Ilan Eshkeri discusses how powerful emotional narratives and the opportunity for creative freedom drew him to triple-A video game Ghost of Tsushima.

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Film

Love and Cinema: The Ruinous Lives in Żuławski's L'important c'est d'aimer

Żuławski's world of hapless also-rans in L'important C'est D'aimer is surveyed with a clear and compassionate eye. He has never done anything in his anarchic world by the halves.

Books

On Bruce Springsteen's Music in Film and TV

Bruce Springsteen's music in film and television captured author Caroline Madden's imagination. She discuses her book, Springsteen as Soundtrack, and other things Springsteen in this interview.

Music

Alt-pop's merci, mercy Warns We May "Fall Apart"

Australian alt-pop singer-songwriter, merci, mercy shares a video for her catchy, sophisticated anthem, "Fall Apart".

Film

Tears in Rain: 'Blade Runner' and Philip K. Dick's Legacy in Film

Blade Runner, and the work of Philip K. Dick, continues to find its way into our cinemas and minds. How did the visions of a paranoid loner become the most relevant science fiction of our time?

Music

London Indie-Poppers the Motive Impress on "You" (premiere)

Southwest London's the Motive concoct catchy, indie-pop earworms with breezy melodies, jangly guitars, and hooky riffs, as on their latest single "You".

Books

Vigdis Hjorth's 'Long Live the Post Horn!' Breathes Life into Bureaucratic Anxiety

Vigdis Hjorth's Long Live the Post Horn! is a study in existential torpor that, happily, does not induce the same condition in the reader.

Music

Konqistador and HanHan Team for Darkwave Hip-Hop on "Visaya"

Detroit-based electronic/industrial outfit, Konqistador team with Toronto hip-hopper HanHan for "Visaya", a song that blends darkwave and rap into an incendiary combination.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.