Calypso genes

Four music experts help Garry Steckles chart its influence, everywhere from Jamaica to Guyana

Costa Rican calypsonian Walter “Gavitt” Ferguson. Photograph courtesy Geoffrey DunnDavid Rudder. Photograph courtesy David RudderElla Fitzgerald in 1947. Photograph by Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, William P. Gottlieb collectionGeoffrey Dunn. Photograph courtesy Geoffrey DunnHarry Belafonte in 1954. Photograph by Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Carl Van Vechten CollectionSylvester “Socrates” Hodge. Photograph coutesy Sylvester Hodge

Trinidad Carnival, the Caribbean’s biggest annual party, falls in February this year, so it’s an appropriate time for a somewhat whimsical, decidedly non-scientific, and probably long overdue — at least in this particular column — look at the influence calypso has had outside the land of its birth. To help me with this somewhat daunting task, I’ve enlisted the help of four people whose collective knowledge of the music and its history is extensive: two of them are acknowledged masters of the art form, the third is the director of what is widely regarded as the finest film ever made about calypso, and the fourth is one of the Caribbean’s leading young singer-songwriters. So let me start by thanking David Rudder, Sylvester “Socrates” Hodge, Geoffrey Dunn, and Lavaman.

Before sharing their observations on calypso and the truly remarkable impact it has had outside Trinidad, a few random snippets on the topic from yours truly. First off, it’s not widely known that some of the most revered mainstream artists in the history of popular music also recorded calypso numbers. Not that any connoisseur of the music would mistake the efforts of Louis Armstrong or Ella Fitzgerald for the real thing, but both recorded at least one noteworthy calypso. Fitzgerald even went so far as to try singing with a West Indian accent in her 1946 rendition of a major US chart hit called “Stone Cold Dead in the Market”. When I first heard it, I didn’t have a clue who it was — and I had the good fortune to see the glorious “First Lady of Song” perform live three times. I mean, who would associate the line “I lick him with de pot and de frying pan” with Ella Fitzgerald? The song, incidentally, was written by the legendary Trinidadian band leader Wilmoth Houdini, who spent most of his life playing calypso in New York.

Satchmo’s excursion into the world of kaiso came ten years later, in the opening scene of the popular romantic comedy High Society, when he and his band used the catchy “High Society Calypso” to set up the movie’s plot line. Fast forward another ten years, and Harry Belafonte had a monster hit with one of the landmark albums in the history of recorded music. How popular? It was the first album to sell a million copies. Its title? Calypso. And two of its most popular numbers, “Brown Skin Girl” and “Man Smart (Woman Smarter)” were written by Trinidadian Norman Span, known and loved by fans of classic calypso as Lord Radio.

And while calypso’s impact internationally has been somewhat overshadowed in recent decades by the global penetration of reggae, let’s not forget that the music was the driving force behind the birth of three of the world’s biggest annual street festivals: Brooklyn’s Labour Day Carnival, London’s Notting Hill Carnival, and Toronto’s Caribana — the biggest annual cultural extravaganzas in the United States, Britain, and Canada, respectively. In my books, that’s pretty impressive.

But enough from me. Let’s hear from the experts. First, an anecdote from Geoffrey Dunn, the director of the acclaimed movie Calypso Dreams, who came across some intriguing examples of calypso’s penetration in remote regions of Central America. Says Dunn:

“When travelling to Costa Rica a few years ago, I was a bit surprised to learn there was a tradition of calypso music on the east coast of the country. As a student of the art form and its roots in Trinidad, I was highly sceptical. Much to my joy, I discovered that Trinidadian calypsonians performed to English-speaking audiences in Panama, Costa Rica, and even into Nicaragua nearly a century ago, and the music caught hold. There are even calypso competitions in the port of Limón.

“In Cahuita, a small Costa Rican coastal village near the Panamanian border, I discovered a marvellous old calypsonian named Walter ‘Gavitt’ Ferguson, who had two brilliant albums recently produced by Papaya Music. It actually sounded like very early calypso from the 1920s and 30s — Houdini’s ‘Caroline’ or Lionel Belasco’s ‘Bajan Girl’ come to mind. Gavitt explained to me how he had listened to calypso records in his youth, and how he remembered several calypso performers coming through the Costa Rican coast when he was a little kid. It was exciting for me to discover ‘real’ authentic calypso so far from T&T.

“Another Caribbean country where calypso roots took hold, of course, is Guyana. Trinidadian performers often toured Guyana after Carnival season. The nineteen-year-old Mighty Sparrow spent several months there in 1955 after he had just broken into the calypso scene in Port of Spain. Sparrow told me it provided him with ‘an opportunity I never got in Trinidad — to sing almost every night.’ The following year he stormed back to Port of Spain and captured not only the calypso crown, but the imagination of an entire nation, with his iconic ‘Jean and Dinah’. Today, calypso performers in Guyana like the elderly Canary and ‘Young’ Bill Rodgers still carry on a vibrant calypso tradition.”

David Rudder, one of the most accomplished singer-songwriters in the history of calypso, has this to say about the music:
“Trinidad has always been seen, as calypsonian Mudada sang many years ago, as the ‘Mecca’ of not just calypso, but of a large chunk of Caribbean culture. From Cuba to Guyana, traces of its influence can be felt. The residents of Guantánamo are mostly Cuban offspring of English-speaking West Indians, and they proudly attribute their musical style to the calypsos of their parents and grandparents who migrated there to cut cane. Their most famous song, ‘Guantanamera’, holds remnants of vintage calypso in its musical structure.

“Almost every island has its own Trini-style carnival, where the calypso contest is structured along the lines of the Trinidad model. Even Jamaica, where Lord Creator, Brynner, Lord Laro, Nerlin Taitt, and others set up shop, was strongly influenced by calypso culture. Jamaican calypsonian Lord Flea was a hometown star, even though most of his songs were actually the songs of Lord Kitchener, who ironically was described on arrival in England as ‘the voice of Jamaica.’

“So from Guyanese King Fighter to Bajans Gabby and Red Plastic Bag, to Antiguans Short Shirt and Swallow, and Grenadian Ajamu, just to name a few, all would tell you they were nurtured by the Trinidad calypso, and the name Sparrow will come up regularly in the discussion.”

One of the Caribbean’s leading young singer-songwriters, Grenada’s Marcus “Lavaman” James, agrees wholeheartedly with Rudder’s observations. Says Lavaman, last year’s Power Soca Monarch of Grenada, and the 2010 Road March winner:
“The music coming out of Trinidad has definitely influenced me greatly. I grew up listening to music from calypso pioneers like Sparrow, Kitchener, and Shadow, among others. They focused and taught us how to talk or sing about social issues, our heritage, culture, politics, and traditions. The style of calypso, the melodies and rhyming patterns, gave me ideas when it came down to making good music and adding my input to soca music.
“Other than the older artists mentioned before, I am inspired by younger artists such as Machel Montano, Bunji Garlin, Destra, Alison Hinds, and Lil’ Rick.”

Lavaman also stresses that the soca and calypso of Grenada has its own distinctive character. “There is definitely a different sound, and it all stems from the Jab Jab, Conchshell, Shortnee, Vecko, Wild Indian influences. There is a difference in the drum patterns, and the percussion patterns vary as well. It’s the same in other islands, there is always a sound unique from there — sometimes as soon as you hear a song you are able to determine the island it is from, if you know music well.”

Finally, let’s hear from Socrates, the five-time Calypso Monarch of St Kitts and Nevis, and an acknowledged authority on the art form and its roots — who also has no hesitation in crediting Trinidadian artists with a huge influence on his songwriting and that of musicians throughout the region:

“In terms of the calypsonians and the types of calypso we write, we’ve all tried to write like the Sparrows, the Chalkdusts, the Dukes, the Stalins, and the Cro Cros. We fashion our writing patterns after them. And of course there’s Ras Shorty I, the creator of the soca tempo.

“Then there’s the later crop of calypsonians, starting with David Rudder, who brought a new avant-garde style of melody and lyrics to the soca craze.

“There is no difference among all the islands, we’re just models on a smaller scale.”