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Rounder's "Calypso After Midnight"

By Norman Weinstein

JANUARY 31, 2000:  "Tonight it's the music from a small island. It's music that's spread out almost like atomic energy from Buenos Aires to New York City," announces MC/producer/ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax at the start of a 1946 New York Town Hall concert that's captured on the first volume of the two-disc series Calypso After Midnight (Rounder). Lomax's nuclear metaphor may have been in bad taste, coming as it did a mere year after the bomb dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But he wasn't overestimating the impact calypso had on American popular music, from the million-selling 1944 Andrew Sisters hit "Rum and Coca-Cola" to Harry Belafonte's 1957 favorite "Banana Boat (Day-O)."

Calypso is an island music that grew out of the Trinidadian Carnival celebrations in the early 1900s and its spirited West African dances. The music and its often irreverent lyrics came to reflect Carnival's transitory displacement of conventional mores. Theories abound as to the derivation of the word itself. One of Calypso After Midnight's featured artists, Lord Invader, offers this observation on the Calypso After Midnight taping: "Calypso is folklore of Trinidad, a style of poetry telling about current events in song."

Seeking greater financial rewards than they could attain in Trinidad, many of the great calypso singers migrated to London and NYC in the first half of the 20th century, and that's where many of the first calypso recordings were made. Broadcast between the hours of 11 p.m. and 1 a.m. (the entire first hour is featured on disc one of the Rounder series; disc two contains the rowdier "after midnight" portion), the radio show was intended by Lomax as a calypso primer of sorts. Indeed, he was able to find three top-notch calypsonians to showcase the style in its various forms, including political songs, bawdy dance tunes, a drum jam, and a traditional mock martial-arts "stick fight" drama.

Lord Invader, Duke of Iron, and Macbeth the Great are the singers who share the spotlight on Calypso After Midnight. Lord Invader, the best of the vocalists, was the only one who still lived in Trinidad. He recorded the original and definitive version of "Rum and Coca-Cola," and he performs that song here. The Duke and Macbeth were both residents of New York, where they'd learned to adapt their music for American tastes by dropping the island patois and slang. The three are ably backed by guitarist Gerald Clark's Invaders, a quintet with Victor Pacheco on fiddle, Albert Morris on piano, "Hi" Clark on double bass, and Gregory Felix on clarinet. Felix, whose broad vibrato and sense of swing evoke Sidney Bechet, is the star player in the band.

Lomax presented the concert with a political agenda in mind because from his vantage point he couldn't have seen calypso as anything other than a progressive political music. The Duke of Iron's "Roosevelt in Trinidad" is an indirect hooray for the Roosevelt's New Deal, and Lord Invader's "God Made Us All" is a plea to end institutional racism. Even more pointed is "Rum and Coca-Cola": "And when the Yankees first went to Trinidad/Some of the young girls were more than glad/They said that the Yankees treat them nice/And they give them a better price/They buy rum and Coca-Cola." The implication here is that colonialism turns Third World women into whores. By today's standards (compare it with, say, Rage Against the Machine diatribes), that might come across as a subtle and veiled attack; in the '40s, however, it was heard as anything but.

The concert ends with a competitive "war" among the three calypsonian singers. And it is here that the music, transcending sharp-eyed political observations and Carnival rhythms, becomes an arena where the singer emerges as a master of verbal excess, luxuriance, word-drunkenness. As Lord Invader puts it in his opening volley: "Calypso singing is such a technical thing/It was not made for one and every to sing/How by the heavens can these songsters win/Except by necromancy and that is a sin."

You can hear echoes of Lord Invader's battle cry in the boasting of hip-hop MCs. So though it may be hard to find pure calypso of the Calypso After Midnight variety these days (unless your radio picks up Caribbean stations from Brooklyn or Miami), it seems Lomax had it right when he likened the music to a dynamic, irresistible force. Throughout the 20th century, calypso has radiated its rhythmic warmth northward, inspiring musicians like roots guitarist Ry Cooder and jazz's Sonny Rollins and according a historic depth to the verbal sparring of today's folk hero, the rapper.

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