Music

André Toussaint: Bahamian Ballads: The Songs of André Toussaint

Michael Stone

AndrÉ Toussaint

Bahamian Ballads: the Songs of André Toussaint

Label: Naxos World
US Release Date: 2002-05-21
UK Release Date: Available as import
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Listeners who know Alan Lomax's 1935 Bahamian field recordings, or the rhyming spirituals of Bahamian roots artists like the Pinder Family and Joseph Spence (whose work inspired Ry Cooder), will protest that André Toussaint is neither "folk" nor Bahamian. Indeed, the Haitian-born singer-guitarist immigrated to Nassau in 1953, seeking regular work, armed with a sparkling inventory of Creole-, French- and Spanish-language songs, while speaking not a word of English.

Toussaint's hybrid cultural origins (a defining condition of Caribbean identity, really) made for easy conscription in the small army of international musicians working the lively Nassau club and hotel scene. A quick hop from Havana and Miami, local nightspots drew top entertainers from the United States, Cuba, Haiti, Jamaica (Tommy McCook and Ernest Ranglin paid their dues there), Martinique, and Trinidad. The crossbred pop repertoire reflected little of Bahamian folk pedigree, but affluent English-speaking tourists on tropical holiday wanted ambiance, excess, and deference to their misconceived tastes, not cultural realism.

Accordingly, Toussaint is best understood as a consummate entertainer. As documented here, he expanded his repertoire to include familiar calypso, Afro-Cuban, Mexican, French, Italian, Yiddish, and American popular songs, all expertly sung in their native idioms. The recorded evidence confirms Toussaint's rare ability to inhabit his material completely, whatever its origin. Audiences seeking the benignly foreign couldn't get enough, especially as the Cuban revolution began diverting risk-averse sunbirds to more secure tourist havens. Indeed, Toussaint would continue to delight until his death in 1981.

What was his secret? Toussaint possessed a crooner's silken voice, on par with Harry Belafonte, Nat King Cole, and Johnny Hartman. He also had a fine talent for language and musical mimicry, comparable to Slim Gaillard -- minus the gonzo factor. Big smile, suave cosmopolitan delivery, appealing material, a hint of romance and Afro-Latin fire, the multilingual exotic, style to spare, Toussaint had it all.

His range was astounding, from the Beny Moré sabor of "Felicidad" to the R&B swing of "Little Nassau-Bahama Mama", a Chevalieresque "C'est Si Bon" to Deano's "Bambino", the Belafonte signature "Cu Cu Ru Cu Cu Paloma" to the bolero "Perfidia", from "Calypso Island" to cha-cha to a remarkable "Mi Yiddische Mama" -- and then some. Toussaint was also a tasteful acoustic guitarist, adept in a range of styles. Working with top songwriters didn't hurt, and he enjoyed fine cabaret backing from the likes of fellow Haitian saxophonist Marcel Pierre, singer-guitarist Eloise Lewis, and standout (albeit uncredited) jazz-tinged work on piano, trumpet, drum kit, Afro-Cuban percussion and male chorus.

The Toussaint paradox makes Bahamian Ballads an illuminating social document. Digitally remastered from analog sources, the compilation reflects the unusual social history of the Bahamas, a political product of its geographical status as a cultural crossroads and international jet-set watering hole. Hence, the question of cultural authenticity is really beside the point. This is the dreamy, romantic oeuvre of a persistent western conceit, the cultural domination of a dependent post-colonial society that takes what others would make of it, and turns it into something else altogether. There is no other kind of artistry.

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