For once, the AI algorithms suggesting clips in the side column on YouTube turned up something of value—in fact, something almost invaluable. It’s certainly not every day that you find a calypso performance from 1948 with both sound and motion.
Yes, it’s Cecil Anderson, a.k.a. the Duke of Iron, laboriously lip-syncing to his own recording of “Wild Indian” a song depicting a costumed troupe playing American Indians in the Trinidad Carnival. From Dukie’s concentrated, slightly flickering gaze, you get a sense of the uneasiness of the situation. The artist was most probably not very used to addressing a light-hearted ditty towards a set of gigantic movie cameras while trying to keep his lip movements in sync with a backing track booming through some unseen speakers. But he does make a valiant attempt.
A similar Wild Indian theme was picked up by Lord Melody some years later in his song by the same name (sometimes called “Carnival Proclamation” or “Nikivo”), one of the differences being that Melo imagined himself as the leader of the carnival band. This fact may tell us something of the different outlooks of the two singers: Melody was a “true” calypsonian in the sense that he sang “from the inside”, for fellow Trinidadians, while Duke of Iron mainly performed for American nightclub crowds, presenting Caribbean culture, carnival parades, and Wild Indians as thrilling exotica.
The central element of both Melody’s and Duke’s compositions is the chorus of nonsense words that is supposed to imitate the portrayed band leader’s fake-Amerindian chants—dual mimicry going on there. The clou of Duke’s performance—which I believe must be the only live recorded part of the film—is undeniably when he suddenly stops playing to sound a “war cry”, during which the musicians try (but fail) to appear dumbfounded.
Surveying the musicians, I found that the bass player bears a pretty close resemblance to Bermudian singer Ross Talbot of the Talbot Brothers, but I wouldn’t bet on it. The only one who can be safely identified is Puerto Rico-born clarinetist Gregorio Félix Delgado (“The Benny Goodman of the West Indies”) who first came to New York in 1917. He went by at least four different names in musical contexts. When playing calypso, he seems to have preferred ‘Gregory Felix’, heading his bands Felix and his Krazy Kats, and later, Felix and his Internationals. Apart from Duke of Iron, he accompanied many of the famous calypso singers who spent time in New York at some point, like Wilmoth Houdini, Lord Beginner, Lord Invader, Bill Rogers, and Macbeth the Great. He died in 1965; Cecil Anderson stayed on for another three years.
Major credit is due to the man who found this lost reel and took time to digitize and upload it for the rest of us to enjoy: Chris Clawson at Meloware Media.