Photo: Courtesy of Smithsonian Folkways

Lord Invader and His Calypso Group Go On ‘Calypso Travels’

Classic calypso from Lord Invader brings us incisive historical commentary with a new reissue of 1960's Calypso Travels.

Calypso Travels
Lord Invader and His Calypso Group
Smithsonian Folkways
31 January 2020

The history of 20th century calypso music is one strikingly well-recorded and analyzed, owing much to both its explicit sociopolitical nature and its global popularity. Calypsonian Lord Invader embodies both of these qualities. Coming from a rural background and therefore seen as less sophisticated than many of his contemporary, his lyrics nevertheless pull no punches, cutting and incisive even today. Smithsonian Folkways’ new vinyl reissue of his 1960 album Calypso Travels reminds us of that clearly.

Lord Invader (né Rupert Westmore Grant) has plenty to say on Calypso Travels, commenting on colonialism in his homeland of Trinidad and Tobago, local Trinidadian culture and cultural shifts, global politics, and his travels in Europe. While his point of view doesn’t always age well, he certainly makes himself clear. His gender politics, in particular, are a little difficult to listen to here in 2020. “My Experience on the Reeperbahn” relays the story of a night spent with a person Lord Invader describes as a feminine-presenting man, and while it’s played off as a harmless comic encounter, the language used is more than a little dehumanizing. Later, he balks at his wife’s sense of independence — as well as that of Queen Elizabeth – in “Women Trying to Rule”.

“As Long As It Born in My House (Lieutenant Joe)”, on the other hand, is refreshingly opposed to any shame linked to children born out of wedlock, with each verse telling a different story of a man who graciously accepts paternity of a child that’s not his. Inspired by the events surrounding the Little Rock Nine, “Crisis in Arkansas” takes a stand against racial segregation in the American education system. “Cat-O-Nine Tails” and “Steel Band War” are bold statements on crime and war. It’s an impressive assortment of subjects. The tracklist is filled out with Lord Invader’s experiences at the World’s Fair (“Beautiful Belgic” and “Auf Wiedersehen”) and songs touting his skill, status, and calypso traditions in general (“Me One Alone”, “Carnival”, “Te We”, and “Beway”).

Unlike the other albums coming out in this round of the Smithsonian Folkways Vinyl Reissue series (Tuareg Music of the Southern Sahara and Gambian Griot Kora Duets), the liner notes here are not ethnographic descriptions of setting and context, nor even of the artist himself. That is fitting enough; Calypso Travels is a popular music album rather than one of Folkways’ field recordings. Given that this is such a topical reissue, though, an addendum to the original liner notes would have been particularly helpful. Lord Invader’s perspective on current events of his time is so strong and so integral to his music that to neglect its context even half a century later does him a disservice.

With that said, his messages are not exactly coded, and that’s what makes Lord Invader and his calypsonian contemporaries so important. There’s no centrism here, and, at a time when black voices were finally beginning to gain ground amid ferocious oppression, particularly in the Americas, calypso was a form of social commentary that was not only direct but easy on the ears for all audiences. It was a way to spread important messages accompanied by a memorable groove. Few calypsonians then or now have managed to make waves quite as monumentally as Lord Invader. Calypso Travels serves as a testament to his no-holds-barred politics.

RATING 7 / 10