What’s in a name? Would that which I call calypso by any other name sound as sweet? Sure. But these days, Juliet, the problem is the reverse. If my eye ever spots a poster on an electrical cabinet, promoting something like “Calypso Dance Night!”, I don’t bother to study the details—I’m pretty confident the DJs will spin the latest dancehall tracks, or RnB with some sort of tropical flavour, at best. That’s all cool, but it’s just not what I call calypso.
Not so, necessarily, if you stroll around the city of Montreal, Canada. If old school calypso is dying, people like Philippe Noël just might be the Intensive Care Unit that it needs. Philippe is one leg of DJ duo Canicule Tropicale, the other leg being the Hairy Hand—La Mano Peluda—civilly known as Clément Jehan. Their musical mission is to spread the hot and sweet vibe of vintage vinyls wherever they hook up their gear. They call their preferred style “tropical”, meaning any old sound out of Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, as long as it has got that certain swing—whatever that thing is.
Philippe Noël is one of the world’s most equipped connoiseurs of calypso music and passionate supporter of its waning legacy. I invited him for an email conversation, at the end of which Philippe sent me an exclusive mix of some of his hottest Trinidadian tracks.
I prefer to just use my real name as a DJ—I was never able to find a decent alias! I came up with the name Canicule Tropicale (“Tropical Heatwave” in French) back in 2010 for my first official event. That name speaks for itself.
Quick background check: Are you a full-time DJ?
No, I have a regular 9 to 5 job in sales. I like my job, I don’t think I could be a full-time DJ. I also prefer to keep it as a hobby, thus avoiding the need to make a living from it. Deejaying helps to pay for the records, but that’s about it. My wife also prefers this setup, haha!
How did you find your present-day taste in music?
It sort of began when I listened to the Glücklich compilations by Rainer Truby on Compost Records outta Germany, an electronic record label that introduced artists like Thievery Corporation and Kruder & Dorfmeister, who incorporated a lot of Brazilian sounds. Then these guys started to put out compilations of original Brazilian tracks from the 1960s and 1970s, like Sounds from the Verve Hi-Fi by Thievery Corp. It was then that I realized that a lot of the stuff I was really into those days (i.e. Latin/Brazilian flavored house and acid jazz) were mostly reprises of old 50s–70s songs, either remixed or edited or boosted with electronic elements. I just grew bored of that electronic stuff and started to really enjoy the organic instrumental elements of the vintage recordings. The rest is history.
How did you get started deejaying?
I’ve built a fairly big record collection over the years, starting in 2003. It mainly consists of records from Africa, South America and the Caribbean islands, all recorded in the 50s and up to the 80s. I started to deejay once I got familiar with dance parties like Toronto’s Turning Point and London’s Sofrito nights—crazy dancefloors cooking with music from all over the world, attracting hundreds of people. I just knew that Montreal needed this, too. So that’s when I decided to create my own tropical party. This was in September 2010, and it hasn’t stopped growing since. Our monthly events now attract about 300 to 400 dancers from all nationalities, aged between 18 to 60 plus, all sharing that positive vibe and thirst for unknown music to blow their minds.
I read that your Canicule project was “born out of pure love for rare recordings”. People in the outside world may find it strange that some of you DJs use so much time and money to get their hands on these rare records. What’s the importance of “rareness” in your opinion? Does the dancing audience care at all? Is it primarily a case of inhouse competition between fellow DJs?
That’s a very interesting question. Funnily enough, I never really took the time to ask our audience if they cared if the records being played are rare or not. The answer would probably be no, but to some, perhaps, this fact tells them that we work hard to find stuff that they cannot hear anywhere else, especially not at other events in Montreal. There are other great parties going on in the city, which also focus on old tropical music, but we have our own distinctive vibe and sound, because we select music from our personal record collections. And the fact that these tracks are not often available on reissues or compilations makes the events even more special, since I will be the only one around to be able to play it to them! We really aim to build a faithful crowd that trust our taste and will come to dance at our events because they know it’s like nothing else.
So, in this case of quite old records, does a rare track’s rareness outweigh problems of substandard audio fidelilty, lack of distinct percussive elements, scratches, etc? Take for instance Johnny Gomez Orchestra’s Gloria (second track in the mix) which shows some of these problems.
Rareness in itself is of no importance to me if the track is not a killer. But yes, even if the recording, mastering or condition of the actual record are not perfect, it can still sound decent on a good sound system. Johnny’s Gloria may not sound like a recent Soundway Records reissue, but being a 60+ years old record, it has that original vibe that only a needle can pick up—and I don’t mind crackles. It’s a very personal experience for me. It really makes me travel in time. I can feel the emotion that’s been hidden in the grooves for so many years. But that’s from a geeky collector’s perspective!
One reason why I don’t like to play reissues or compilations that much, is that the sound can sometimes be too boosted, digitally, making it hard to mix with original records. I prefer to adjust the club’s sound system and mixer too suit the old records.
When I first started to find Caribbean mixes on places like Mixcloud, I noticed that you DJs had a certain fondness for instrumentals in the minor key. Not suprisingly, these are the records that generate the highest bids on eBay. Do you see any correlation between the amount of people on the dancefloor and whether the melody is in the minor or major key?
This is going to sound a bit amateur, but I’m not really familiar with the minor and major keys. Haha, sorry!
You’re not a musician, I take it! Well, what about calypso songs, then? There are only a few tracks with vocals in your mix. Do you think such calypsoes are generally less danceable?
I enjoy vocal calypsoes, but only a few really blow my mind, comparing with instrumentals, which are often more uptempo, with more “swinging” arrangements. They were clearly made for dancing, while the vocal calypsoes always seem to put more stress on the calypsonian singing his story than on the melody that accompanies it. For me, it’s all about the horns, the guitars, the double-bass and, of course, the percussion. Actually, I tend to perceive the voice more like a musical instrument.
Okay, so for the first part of the mix: Which track stands out from the rest, in your ears?
It’s really hard to say. I can change my mind tomorrow! But at this very moment, I’d say Cecil Fitts’ Gazar Strip (at 31:40 into the mix). That version of Errol Ince’s original composition is simply a bliss for the ears. It has the incredible swinging sound that the Kay label provided during the late fifties and early sixties. If I had to choose a favorite record label, it would have to be Kay. In my opinion, the sound quality is superior to Cook’s, for instance.
By the way, have you ever been to Trinidad?
I visited many countries throughout my twenties and thirties—I am now 38—but never Trinidad. And yet calypso has become my favorite music genre, especially in the last few years. I really dig the big band period from the late 50s to the mid-60s. It’s hard to describe what they do to me, but the way these instruments swing together is simply pure magic! This mix is a good example.
It is indeed!
In the next post we will present the second part of Philippe’s fabulous mix.