Few people think of calypso as anything but the harmless, seasons-in-the-sun music of yearning and sailing over the ocean that Harry Belafonte popularized in the Fifties. He was being rather selective in his interpretation, apparently, since this record shows how calypso music has had a long and vibrant tradition as a music of protest, social documentation, parody, and political commentary. There are no banana boats on this record. This is a document of a people asserting a voice and speaking their mind, not simply providing "entertainment." It is an act of witness, not bemusement.
What drew me to it at first was actually not the genre or the topical concerns on the record, but the striking list of pseudonyms used by the singers: Atilla the Hun; The Caresser; The Executor; The Growler; King Radio; Lord Beginner. I was reminded of the pseudonyms adopted by everyone from punk rockers to gangster rappers, and decided to take a listen. Inside, as it turned out, was quite a story.
Trinidad in the Thirties was still a British colony, and with the worldwide depression in full swing the British colonial leash was turning into a stifling choker. The sugar-and-cocoa economy of the island soon gave way to oil—and that meant even more wretched working conditions for a populace that was un-unionized. Uriah Butler, one of the leaders of political reform in the colony, struggled with police and citizens alike to bring a better distribution of wealth and power to the population. Worse, the rumblings of World War II were growing louder: Mussolini's invasion of Guyana had gone down without so much as a whisper from the international press, and now Trinidad feared that the British would sacrifice them like so many chess pieces if it came to that.
During this time, a great many calypso singers went to New York to record many songs that documented the times, both good and bad, and to spread the word about what was happening in Trinidad to a world that was more often than not indifferent to their plight. Over twenty of their tracks are preserved here, digitally remastered and enhanced, with sprightly musicianship and startlingly biting lyrics:
They said through the evidence they had
That the riot started at Fyzabad
By the hooligan element under their leader
A fanatic Negro called Butler
Who uttered speeches inflammatory
And caused disorder in this colony
The only time they found the police was wrong
Was when they stayed too long to shoot the people down.
A peculiar thing of this Commission
In their ninety-two lines of dissertation
Is there is no talk of exploitation of the worker
And his tragic condition
Read through the pages, there is no mention
Of capitalistic oppression
Which leads one to entertain a thought
And wonder if it's a one-sided report.
The frankness and anger in many of the lyrics caused a number of these records to be censored, either in individual lines or in toto, and many of them were never issued in Trinidad per se. The delivery and meter are startling, for people who're weaned on the one-two sledgehammer of rock music; words flow easily from one line to the next, and the compositions themselves are often full of surprising changes. This is not just great protest music, but great music, period.
Dick Spottswood, the compiler of the disc, did his homework and has written detailed essays for the collection as a whole as well as each song (where an explanation was needed). The whole thing is clearly a labor of love, and belongs in the same category as the astonishing Powerhouse for God (not available on CD as of this writing). Where most albums are about history, this album is history.
New York City
Other Lives Of The Mind