Pimped-up Calypso: Case Studies

I have often mourned the absence of calypso on the radio, on the DJ decks in the clubs and in the general consciousness of music-loving people. I have thought to myself, “Now here’s some great old music that ought to get people dancing the night away if they just could accustom themselves a little to the lo-fi standards of old recordings. We have fantastic minor-keyed, jazzy instrumentals, bewitching Caribbean guitar crossovers, hilarious, commanding proto-rap—you name it!”

In truth, though: if we’re talking vintage Caribbean music, it’s hard to match the cool backbeat groove of a rocksteady classic, the punch of Latin mambo horns in hi-fi or the electrifying symbiosis of guitar and drums of a Haitian konpa band at its best. In calypso there’s just not enough rhythmic force, generally speaking, to catch the jaded ears of the postmodern dancer. That’s my gloomy conclusion, at any rate.

As an amateur musician, I’ve had some experience with the amazing, easily maneuvered digital audio tools and synthesizers available today. Not long ago, an idea popped into my mind. Could one not, maybe quite easily, “enhance” the rhythmic elements of some potentially dance-friendly calypsos? Not only through remastering (the guys at Soundway are damn good at that sport), but by actually adding synthesized or sampled percussion and bass notes to amplify the force of the rhythm section. A guiding principle could be to aim for how the recordings would have sounded if they had been made a couple of years later, say, in the mid-seventies. If done well, I’m sure it could tickle the eardrums of a contemporary club-hopper, hungry for mature exotica.

A couple of years ago, in a Berlin bar, I had a funny encounter. The DJ was serving a rather typical mash-up of looped samples, spacey sounds, blips and blops moving in and out of an ambient soundscape. As with composers Erik Satie’s and John Cage’s notion of furniture music, the piece was seemingly designed to be used as an atmospheric backdrop to the chatter of the bar. Indeed, I enjoyed its company while sipping on my Weissbier. Primarily, perhaps, because it was rather easy to block out when I needed to focus my attention elsewhere. But suddenly, I was startled to hear a familiar voice on top of the sequenced beats, singing in a somewhat shaky and nasal tone about “blowing the dynamite”. Sure enough, it was Atilla the Hun in his first recording session, back in 1934, singing the true story of the man who blew himself up with dynamite after having slashed his ex-girlfiend with a razor (Atilla somehow manages to put the blame on the woman). I was quite stunned by the time-and-culture-crossing effect created with the playful use of some digital audio tools. Just a few lines from the song had been sampled and put into the mash, like:

He cut she neck with a razor first
then he blow he head with a dynamite
If a princess was mih bride
I’d never commit suicide
Well he blow, mama, how he blow the dynamite
He blow down the town when he blow the dynamite

Just now I tried googling some different keyword combinations. Maybe the re-edit had found its way into cyberspace? Guess what: it had. At least I think Repi Multimedia’s version is the one I heard (there can’t be two of them, right?). Have a listen:

On a previous Google journey I came across another case of pimped-up calypso. It was an ad on a Japanese record shop site for an odd-looking 7” single, borrowing artwork from the National label (operating in Trinidad in the 1960s) and crediting the mysteriously generic-sounding (and badly spelled) Carribiean Boys feat. Lord Mighty. Listening to the sample clip in the ad, it turned out to be Mighty Sparrow’s 1966 cover of Cole Porter’s “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”, topped with a rather straightforward sequenced drum beat. Not the bold deconstruction à la Repi Multimedia, but exactly in line with the concept I presented in the beginning of this post. So thumbs up from me, Repi Multimedia and Lord Mighty—whoever you are. Anything contributing to carrying calypso across the century gap has my full support.

A two minute extract of the song can be listened to here:

On a side note: it’s funny how Sparrow’s Tattoo Woman album and the associated singles always generate soaring bids on eBay. The “Under My Skin” single has, at least once, gone for well over $600. I wonder why this is. The Cole Porter link? Lord Mighty hitting it big in Japan? It can’t be solely down to the rarity of the original records, since many way rarer ones never get such high bids. Feel free to share any knowledge on this topic in the comments field.

More recently, I was astonished to learn of an even earlier renovation project, orchestrated back in (I believe) 1973 by a bunch of good ol’ boys, namely renowned bandleader John ‘Buddy’ Williams and his cronies. Using ten 1950s masters by the late and great Mighty Spoiler, the band was, quite simply, recorded as they played along to the old reels. The new and old tracks were then amalgamated on to a stereo master, resulting in what is surely the first—perhaps the only—example of a “full orchestral overdub” in calypso music. I’m not sure, but it might actually be the first time this idea was tried in music production ever. Please inform us if you’re in the know. And have a listen while you read on:

As far as I can tell, the added instruments are shak-shak (Antillean maracas), bottle-and-spoon, double bass and cuatro (played by Syl Dopson, mostly known for his skills on the clarinet). In spite of some goofy production decisions—especially in terms of volume balance between the new and the old instruments—the result is pretty amazing, not least considering that they only had non-remixable mono tracks of the old recordings to work with. There is clearly a more pronounced rhythmic punch compared to the original and the tonal qualities of the fifties and seventies on the whole marry nicely with Spoiler’s vocals. The old software is nicely ported to the standards of the newer hardware, as one would say today (albeit in a slightly different context).

Spoiler had been dead more than ten years when this record was conceived. By then, his name had perhaps begun to sink into oblivion. I’m just taking a guess here, but maybe ‘Buddy’ or some producer at Recording Artist felt it was time to halt that trend, taking the opportunity to “update” the production to cater to younger listeners’ presumed demand for a “fresh sound”. Or maybe it was the other way around: Spoiler’s rare records being in such great request that his fans were calling for a compilation album. (Judging by how rarely the album pops up on eBay, the latter speculation seems less likely.)

Fittingly enough, the first track of The Bed Bug album has Mighty Bomber singing about how he “bounce up Spoiler” in a dream, having a nice chat with his old friend and mentor “on a tombstone in Mucurapo”. (An earlier version of the song was recorded in 1964, three years after Spoiler’s untimely death on Christmas Eve 1960). Perhaps it was Bomber’s dream that planted the seed for the idea of bringing the now immortal Spoiler back to the living some years later.

Let’s hope there are more dreamers out there at this very moment, planting similar seeds of resurrection.

Addendum, May 2017:
Cyril Diaz Orchestra’s mighty 1958 version of “Tabu” is probably considered an essential in the starter kit of any “tropical” dee-jay. So I wasn’t too surprised finding this trip-hopped remix the other day:

Addendum, June 2017:
When you start looking around… you’ll find guys like Spilios Palov turning Duke of Iron’s “Loving Woman Is Waste of Time” into electronic reggae with staccato guitars and spacey sound effects. In order to extract Duke’s voice from the rest of the music, Palov has obviously reduced the bandwidth of the original track, making the voice sound like sung over a telephone line reaching back to 1952 when the song was recorded.

And here’s nearly a full HOUR of remixes of songs by Duke of Iron, Harry Belafonte, Calypso Rose, Lord Flea, King Timothy and others (some original versions as well). Remixer TonyNutopia dedicates the remixes to his late father who introduced him to calypso.

3 thoughts on “Pimped-up Calypso: Case Studies

  1. Dear Pelle,

    Brilliant blog, fascinating post! (I was led to it via your guest post at excavated shellac.)

    I admire your erudition and your prose style, and I share your fantasy of getting all those collectors to band together to make their treasures accessible to the world. (Maybe box.com is the temporary answer?)

    As for danceable updates of these old sounds: you must know of the Toronto-based band Kobo Town? Drew Gonsalves’s heart is definitely in the right place.


    I’m looking forward to reading your work more regularly.

    • Yes, I know Kobo Town’s music. They’re amazing. Gonsalves brings freshness into calypso without letting go of its roots. The peaceful clash of cultures is the way forward, in all possible respects.

      Thank you for your kind words. Blogs like yours are my inspiration.

  2. Pingback: Post-Caribana Miscellany « Working for the Yankee Dollar

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