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When Harry Met Calypso

Published: 
Saturday, February 21, 2015
A review
The Calypso Craze boxed set.

Nearly 60 years before Bunji Garlin and Nigel Rojas’ Differentology got a half-minute play on the intro to an American TV show, Trinidad’s indigenous music completely dominated American pop music for half a year. 

Between late 1956 and mid-1957, calypso mushroomed so huge in the US that nightclubs refitted themselves overnight as “calypso rooms” with limbo floorshows, legendary American singer Ella Fitzgerald covered a kaiso, three feature-length calypso movies were rushed into production in Hollywood and advertising copy for cosmetics was copied from the lyrics and written to the tune of Lord Invader’s Rum and Coca-Cola. (“From down in the land of the sun and sea/ Comes your new fashion personality/ A new lipstick shade of happy cha-rac-ter/ Hi-Fi Calypso Beat by Max Factor.”) Indeed, the first million-selling LP in the United States was not a rock-and-roll record, as most people might reasonably assume, but Harry Belafonte’s 1956 album, Calypso. 

That insane little period—the Calypso Craze—has now been preserved in the best modern way any old music can be: as a Bear Family boxed set, curated—it is the right word—by the Alaskan-by-birth, Trini-by-adoption musicologist, Ray Funk. 

Bear Family, the world-respected German record label, last caught Trinidadian attention in 2007 with Dick Spottswood and John Cowley’s labour of love, the ten-CD boxed set West Indian Rhythm (pre-WWII recordings by Attila the Hun, King Radio, the Roaring Lion and the Lords Executor, Caresser and Invader, amongst others). 

Anyone who bought West Indian Rhythm knew two things, the first, instantly, the other, discovered over many hours: first, at TT $2,000, it was expensive; and, second, it was worth it—and not just because in an age of hideous mass-produced tat it was a singular thing of real and valuable beauty; no, amortised over the ten hours it took to listen to West Indian Rhythm and the same amount of time, or longer, it took to read the inch-thick, LP-sized accompanying book, the person enjoying the experience was transported back in time to the calypso tents of old Port-of-Spain, hearing and “seeing,” eg, Lord Beginner sing Run Yuh Run, Hitler.

Calypso Craze could well be better; and, at TT$1,450 for six CDs and a DVD, it is certainly cheaper! For whatever it’s worth, the writing in Calypso Craze’s hefty, 157-page book (by Ray Funk and Michael Edlrige) is impossible to shorten—the surest sign of good writing anywhere outside of William Faulkner, Marcel Proust and James Joyce. Every page is crammed with practitioner-textbook levels of information, every word of it read and digested as easily as a newspaper weekend supplement. 

The book is jammed with photographs and reproductions of memorabilia of the time, almost all from the personal collection of Ray Funk. Magazine covers, mail order clothing catalogues, concert tickets, record labels, party fliers, the Max Factor lipstick advertisement quoted above and more bring 1950 America to life in the reader’s hands. (The boxed set cover is a reprint of the menu of the then Calypso Restaurant in New York City’s Greenwich Village.) Calypso Craze also deepens and widens its visual dimension by adding moving pictures in a DVD.

As good as the words and pictures are, though, the boxed set would not be much good if the music wasn’t. 

The “weakest” disc—disc two, The Reluctant Calypso King—collects 27 of Harry Belafonte’s best songs, starting with his cover of Man Smart, Woman Smarter and running through staples like The Banana Boat Song (Day-O) and Islands in the Sun before its crescendo in a five-minute-long, Ralph McDonald-arranged version of Lord Invader’s Don’t Stop the Carnival.

And that’s the “weakest” disc!

Along with that deserved focus on the man who, at the time, represented calypso in America and the world, the musical story of the Calypso Craze is comprehensively told in the five other CDs. The entire collection begins with the Lion’s original Ugly Woman (in which he dispensed the famously misogynistic advice to men that, if they wanted to be happy in life, they should make an ugly woman their wife) and ending, some 173 tracks later, with Jimmy Soul’s pop cover of the same song (titled, If You Wanna Be Happy).

Disc one, Calypso Comes to America, includes songs performed in Trinidad by Attila the Hun, Lion, Caresser and Invader as well as genuine calypsoes that hit big in the USA, the most famous of which was the Andrews Sisters/Morey Amsterdam barefaced theft of Rum and Coca-Cola, and the ersatz Brill Building/Tin Pan Alley copies like Sing a Tropical Song, which ensured the Calypso Craze would ultimately crash. 

Importantly, the disc includes recordings by the best known Trinidadian or West Indian calypsonians in the US, such as Sir Lancelot and the Duke of Iron, as well as “calypsoes” done by huge American stars of the time like Ella Fitzgerald, Eartha Kitt and Nat “King” Cole. (Disc one contains, in Guests of Rudy Valee by Lion and Attila, the only track also on West Indian Rhythm.)

Disc three, Calypso Is Everywhere, might be the most impressive single disc of the boxed set, even if there are more fake calypsoes on it than real ones. In 31 musical tracks and one dreadful road safety campaign jingle (with Julie Conway’s terribly-faked Trini “ahk-sent”), Funk shows that the music of Trinidad was so pervasive, it drove country and western stars as big as Hank Snow into imitating it. Whatever musical weaknesses there might be elsewhere on disc three, it opens and closes with stunning recordings, the Tarriers’ haunting, definitive version of Day-O (itself introduced by a couplet from an old Maroon song) and many people’s favourite jazz tenor saxophonist, Sonny Rollins’ interpretation of Don’t Stop the Carnival.

Discs four; Calypso Goes to the Movies, Broadway, Television and More, and six; Calypso Goes Global, cover the ground their titles suggest, and include gems like Mama ist aus Kuba, which translates from the German as, Mama Look a Booboo Dey, the famous American actor Robert Mitchum’s cover of Jean and Dinah and the even more famous Maya Angelou—yes, the Maya Angelou—singing Run Joe and (Shame &) Scandal in the Family. (Maya Angelou’s reinvention of herself as a writer and poet was not the most stunning for a calypsonian of the Calypso Craze: that honour goes to the Charmer, represented, on disc one, with Is She Is, Or Is She Ain’t?, a ditty about a male transsexual; the Charmer would emerge from his calypso cocoon as Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam!)

Perhaps the most impressive musical disc, though, is number five, Calypso Across the Pond, which collects songs recorded in England. Lord Kitchener’s Keeetch (Small Comb) alone would have justified the whole disc but it also features several others of his best songs, including Kitch’s Bebop Calypso (which pointed towards future inventive crossover compositions like Sugar Bum Bum and Bees Melody) and London is the Place for Me (last heard on the big screen in the soundtrack to the film, Paddington). 

Disc five also features Lord Beginner’s Victory Test Match (Ramdhin and Valentine); the Mighty Terror’s Chinese Children; the most famous Trinidadian musician nobody in Trinidad knows, Edmundo Ros; and Gossip Calypso by Bernard Cribbins, which came in equal parts from the West Indies and London’s East End.

But it might be the DVD that really lifts Calypso Craze into a must-have, even with a four-figure price tag. The movie itself—Calypso Joe—might make Adam Sandler or Ed Wood cringe. Low budget, with a clichéd romantic comedy storyline, it’s far less interesting than any of the four videos included to fill out the DVD (which include precious footage of Beryl McBurnie dancing in the USA as La Belle Rosette). The movie’s real worth comes in the dozen or so live musical performances strung together by its weak plot—particularly the four of them featuring Lord Flea of Jamaica, which by themselves redeem Calypso Joe in toto. 

Look past Lord Flea in the straw hat and colourful shirt that became the calypsonian’s obligatory costume after its adoption by Madison Avenue and you see the first West Indian superstar, the forerunner of everyone from Jimmy Cliff to Rihanna; and the thing that makes Caribbean music in all its forms so easy to embrace: exuberance married to musicianship and delivered with showmanship; if we could bat now like Lord Flea performed half-a-century ago, the West Indies cricket team might be holding up the World Cup in a couple o’ weeks, instead of looking for their boarding passes today.

Calypso Craze is available from Paper Based, The Normandie, St Ann’s.

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