“You gabblous squabbler!”

The next gem to pop out of the great treasure trove which is archive.org, is one of the few recorded multi-person “calypso rap battles”, this one between Lord Invader, Mighty Growler and Mighty Destroyer. It was recorded in Port of Spain in late 1937 or early 1938, as can be deduced from Invader’s first lines.

Lord Melody passing around a plate for tips c.1955.

To be able to improvise on the spur of the moment was considered an essential skill for a calypsonian back in the days. Lord Executor was considered the master of the art of extempo in the Golden Age, and Lord Pretender and Growling Tiger were not far behind, by all acounts (recordings of the latter two exist, though sadly no example of Executor’s skills). When the West Indies began catering to an international crowd of tourists, this talent could be employed to win the nightclub goers’ hearts, as well as tips, as they became—or happily escaped becoming—targets of the calypsonian’s sarcastic attacks as he moved around the tables. A sort-of example of this kind of fun can be seen in this clip of Mighty Sparrow, even though this was, of course, an already recorded song, and a show pre-arranged for the cameras. A more authentic eight minute example can be heard on Sparrow’s 1962 live album (Wirl 1907).

Another way to show off his prowess was for the calypsonian to engage in a so called calypso war with other singers. Especially in the early days, his aim was to present himself as a “man-of-words”—the more high-sounding lexicon the better— and to “belittle and silence [his] opponent” (Clarence Charles, Calypso music: Identity and Social Influence: The Trinidadian Experience, 2016). And, not to forget, to give the audience a good laugh in the process. There is a whole lot to say about this fascinating tradition, how it hearkens back to West African griots, how it evolved in the Caribbean carnival context via stick fighting and the Pierrot Grenade character, how it relates to colonial hierarchy, etc. And not least the fascinating fact that American rappers picked up the art form many years later (check out Eminem as B-Rabbit in the 2002 movie 8 Mile, for instance). But we will leave that history for now.

Mighty Growler

As the recording at hand was done in a studio setting, this particular war was probably worked out beforehand, at least structure-wise. A competition was seldom or ever this short, but again, it had to fit on a 78 disc. Still, it gives us a good sense of the interplay between the singers and the sizes and shapes of their verbal missiles. Lord Invader imagines himself as Italian dictator Mussolini, who had invaded Ethiopia the year before. In his second verse, he launches a cannonade of polysyllabic invectives at Growler, who strikes back by refering to an Aesopian fable (without caring too much for the moral lesson of it). The way Growler changes his addressee from the second to third person demonstrates how grammatical correctness clearly was of less importance than the fearsomeness of the phrases in themselves. And then we have Destroyer, waiting in the shadows. (And tellingly, hardly any photos exist of the man; Donald Glasgow, as was his real name, died just five years later.) Destroyer gets the last verse, thereby effectively winning the war, the other contestants presumably silenced by creative fatigue, had it been a real competition. One can imagine how the three singers drew straws before the recording. And Destroyer’s grin when he got the longest one, allowing him to finish off the battle with a hammer’s strike of undisputed truth: “I am the Mighty Destroyer, the unbeaten conqueror!”

It is interesting to note how Invader would repeat many of his lines on later recordings. Apparently, some singers—well, surely most of them—amassed an arsenal of piquant stock phrases that could be tweaked for the occasion. 

Last but not least: a big round of applause to Roy Rollock and his orchestra, who really do their best to create a menacing, war-like atmosphere, egging the singers on with a pandemonium of furious soloing inbetween verses.

Enjoy! (best with headphones)

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