West Indian Rhythm: “The real native music”

West Indian Rhythm transports listeners to the early days of calypso in Trinidad

Left to right: Caresser, Atilla, Lion, Executor: a Sa Gomes publicity photograph from 1937. Photograph by © Kevin BurkeWest Indian Rhythm Box Set. Photograph courtesy The Classic Calypso Collective

West Indian Rhythm: Trinidad Calypsos on world and local events featuring the censored recordings 1938-1940
Various Artists (Bear Family Records)

It was a fortunate coincidence that prior to acquiring West Indian Rhythm, the definitive 10-CD boxed set of music recorded in Trinidad by the Decca Recording Company between 1938 and 1940, I had immersed myself in the history of the blues, so I was attuned to the slightly tinny sound of old recordings. I could hear the artistry through a veneer that was foreign to modern tastes nurtured on deep, pounding bass riffs.

So too West Indian Rhythm might best be approached through the Roaring Lion’s 1995 rapso-and-soca hit, a remake of his 1941 “Papa Chunks” on the album Viva Le King. Do that and the music of 70 years ago glows once again with the sheen of the new or the polish of the old.

Two hundred and sixty-seven songs, many previously unreleased because of the local censors. Sixteen calypsonians (including three from B.G.—British Guiana), 11 ensembles (including one from Grenada, one from Venezuela and one from B.G.). There’s a tamboo bamboo bottle-and-spoon group and, magical to my ears, the Sa Gomes Rhythm Boys. Among others you hear Lord Beginner, Black Prince, Caresser, Destroyer, Gorilla, Growler, Pretender, Tiger, Lord Ziegfield, Atilla, Executor and—more than anyone else, with 53 songs and a more inventive, more varied repertoire—the Roaring Lion.

There are Baptist, Orisha and Rada chants, call-response stickfighting lavways, sans-humanité calypsoes in patois, English and African languages. The singers alternate between the bombastic, humorous, contemplative, gossipy, commentative and salacious. Standing above all is the Lion, whose music straddles the old and the new, just as he did in life, crooning and castigating from the early 1930s through to the 1990s, when he died.

The years of these recordings were pivotal. Tectonic social, cultural and political changes shook both the small colony and the rest of the world. It was a time of global depression and assertion. Avant-garde writers and painters in Trinidad had begun to celebrate the local by the mid-1930s, and in 1937 labour riots here gave traumatic birth to industrial democracy. In 1939 the Second World War began. All these themes and others are treated in song.

The veterans sing with string bands that sound like village paranderos, whereas the young men are accompanied by a more brash, jazzy sound. Caresser chants “Clear the way when the bamboo play”, and with him is someone syncopating on a gin bottle. There is the 1940 remake of the old “Run your run” chant, initially sung during the First World War against Kaiser Wilhelm. Now, at the start of the Second World War, the Sa Gomes Rhythm Boys tell Adolf Hitler to “run your run” with a novel, clanging background rhythm, heralding the birth of the steelband movement. The Port of Spain Gazette reported on that particular session: “There is the real native music that is so characteristic of the Trinidad Carnival. No longer does the bamboo band hold sway, it having given place to the steel drums with bottle and spoon. This ‘Steel Music’ as it is called, has also been recorded.”

Poised between the traditional and the modern, West Indian Rhythm as a whole and many songs in particular are living links between the past and the future, and that’s what I find fascinating. Many songs, for instance, conjure up a quieter city, with tramcars and besuited pedestrians. This music isn’t strident and its lyrics are like the gossip of a small community. Other songs could be imaginably heard in a calypso tent today. George Cabral’s composition for solo piano, “Memories of Trinidad”, has the traditional sans-humanité calypso structure, yet it could be in Keith Jarrett’s repertoire. The saxophone riffs on some calypsoes would lift the offerings in any twenty-first-century calypso tent, and in them you can hear the germs of several great Kitchener and Sparrow classics. But what rings loudest in my ear are the close musical parallels with the blues: both rely on standard, traditional minor-chord progressions. Even lyrically there are traditional progressions, such as the repetition of a song’s first line.

Many of these classic calypsoes are about sexual relationships, as are the blues, but without the latter’s sense of tragedy. Rather, the calypsonian is a trickster who celebrates his wit in avoiding the snares of unfaithful, mercenary women, who are not above using obeah in their schemes. These are the songs which grate most on today’s sensibility, and here too Lion has a foot in either camp.

Talk about women bad
Them we got in Trinidad
I never met women more bad-minded
Dirty and nasty-handed

he sings on the one song, and on another:

Men are always arguing stupidness
Saying women is that and women is this
How the devil do you expect the women to be good
When you don’t treat the women as you really should
Because you walk around Trinidad
Telling your friends and your neighbours how the women bad.

To assist your mental teleportation back to an earlier Trinidad, the CDs come with an album-sized 316-page companion book, which has a chapter on each CD. It contains lyrics to all the songs, background essays, comprehensive explanatory notes and sidebars, newspaper and magazine clippings from the era, a detailed glossary and hundreds of illustrations of anything to do with the music and its local and global context. There are photos of the singers, of Carnival, of Orisha drummers, advertisements in the press, urban cityscapes and rural landscapes; there are record-label scans, clippings of local news items, as well as photos of international newsmakers: Joe Louis and Max Schmeling, Bing Crosby, Hitler, Benito Mussolini and Neville Chamberlain.

Almost every imaginable related topic is covered by the archival clippings, essays and sidebars by calypso scholars John Cowley, Don Hill, Dick Spottswood, Lise Winer and Robert Noblett. Hollis Liverpool—The Mighty Chalkdust—provides a long introductory essay. This is substantive fare which could conceivably have been published on its own, or perhaps with a companion CD.

West Indian Rhythm is not for the mildly interested tourist. There’s too much of it, too many songs, the annotations are too detailed. Our ears are more accustomed to thumping bass and pounding drums. But for a diligent listener, who can make the effort to shake off his time-bound sensibility, there are gems in the collection as glittering as any you could find anywhere. And as the great poet David Rudder sang in 1988, “Something in the rhythm does tell you where they coming from.”