“Calypso? You mean Harry Belafonte?”
No, I don’t. And I don’t mean the sea nymph that fell in love with Ulysses, nor the purple orchid. I mean the music composed and played in Trinidad, the motherland of calypso. Music that, alas, few people care about these days—including Trinidadians. Things were different once. Or rather: a little different, for a little while. In the States, popular interest in Caribbean music rose steeply during the so-called calypso craze in the late 1950s, much thanks to the aforementioned folk singer (who was as Trinidadian as Elvis was black, by the way). But in the competition against young, home-grown music like rock’n’roll, calypso soon fell short. Caribbean exotica stayed on as old folks’ cocktail party music, at best. In Trinidad, of course, the calypso scene continued to thrive, as it had done since the early 1900s. It’s just that few people outside the island took much notice.
Many listeners of today would quickly deem calypso music either too smooth, too rough, too strange or simply too old. There are all kinds of calypso, you see. Just as there are all kinds of listeners. And believe it or not: once in a while some dauntless musical explorer will get enough of a shock out of them old sounds that the only reasonable course is to begin delving into the sources, digging through record shops, books and web pages to learn more about that strange, smooth and rough music. This blog is my way of catering in some small way to that need.
Like Ulysses, I have been lured to stay on Calypso Island for about seven years now. Unlike the shipwrecked sailor, I’m beginning to doubt any divine intervention will ever set me free (I feel more related to the castaway on the left, in fact). Most of my favourite calypsonians—the kings, lords and mighties—had passed away even before my arrival. Still, they’re very much alive and kicking in my speakers and that makes my beachcombing days easier to endure.
Over on calypso island of the real world, I understand that calypsos are still being composed and competitions are still being held every year. Frankly, though, I’m not very up-to-date with what’s happening on the contemporary scene. Neither am I very fond of the synthesized productions that began to replace the orchestral accompaniments of calypso in the 1980s. (There are noteworthy exceptions, as we shall see.) For this blog, my focal depth will probably not reach beyond the late ’70s. This means I will primarily concern myself with what some people would call “old time calypso” or perhaps “vintage kaiso”. But to paraphrase Bob Dylan in one of his Theme Time Radio shows: why stick with new calypso when there’s so much more old calypso around to listen to? With this in mind, please forgive me if I sometimes refer to calypso in the past tense. Also, you will probably see me write “Trinidad” many times when I ought to have written “Trinidad and Tobago”. Sorry about that, too.
It easily becomes quite tedious—or at least time-consuming—to search for vintage calypso recordings in the digital domain or by rummaging through second hand shops. Most enthusiasts have turned to eBay, but since the market for recorded calypso was never very big to begin with, the prices for good copies of the most interesting records often skyrocket in the auctions races. Good for the sellers, but saddening for many, since very few people will actually get to hear these recordings. Ever. That is, if they’re not reissued at some point. So far, though, only a miserably low number of calypso recordings have been reissued, and only a few of these meet what I’d call decent audio standards.
So much more the reason to help promote the remains of an artform that just might be lost in obscurity if vinyl and shellac discs will keep getting damaged (they will), if ignorant and indifferent inheritors will keep throwing their deceased folks’ records in the trash (many will), and die-hard record collectors prefer to be buried in air-conditioned vaults along with their collections (some do, I’m afraid). All this while the major part of the record industry (what’s left of it) keeps overlooking the need for serious, well-organized reissue projects. Big ups to the British Honest Jon’s and the German Bear Family labels, whose first-rate compilations are notable exceptions to that last statement.
Even if I wouldn’t dare to compare my coming haphazard scribblings to the writings of renowned calypso researcher Ray Funk, I aim to work somewhere in the vein of his Kaiso Newsletters which ran from 1997 to 2004. (The articles can, luckily, still be found here.) By that I mean I hope to be able to present some real information and maybe a curious artefact now and then, in between many an impressionistic musing, dubious speculation and self-absorbed rant. Big ups to Shawn Randoo who kindly lets me use photos from his vast archive.
My hope for this blog is that by sharing my love for calypso, explaining how it speaks to me today, I will contribute in some tiny way to spurring the interest in its legacy.
If I don’t do it, somebody else… probably won’t.
// Lord Investor