18 April 2013


Hey, what's this?

Hold Your Hand Madam Khan, Buy Me a Zeppelin, History of Man, Seven Skeletons Found in the YardRoses of Caracas, Juliana - how is it that such tunes have entered the repertoire of the young street bands in New Orleans?

The all-ladies band, formed in 2016 and now called The Shake 'Em Up Jazz Band, has the calypso Shame and Scandal in the Family in its repertoire and recorded on its first Album.

It seems that someone on the traditional jazz scene in New Orleans has been deeply affected since early 2014 by Trinidadian calypsos from the 1930s.

Traditional jazz bands have long enjoyed playing an occasional tune with a Latin rhythm - for variety. In the standard repertoire, there are Creole Song and Eh La BasRum and Coca Cola and Mama Inez, for example; and the minor key section of St. Louis Blues and a few tunes such as Isle of Capri lend themselves to a Latin beat.

But we have recently seen on YouTube that the bands have revived long-forgotten 1930s calypso numbers. There was the Superband (with Madeleine Reidy on vocal) playing Hold Your Hand Madam KhanClick here to view. Great fun.

Madeleine has kindly let me know about a wonderful website/blog from which anyone can obtain inspiration and material. She told me: Here's a music blog I found recently with tons of awesome old calypso (and many other Caribbean genres) recordings uploaded for free:
http://auraljoy.blogspot.com . 

The site is indeed tremendous and I pass on Maddy's recommendation to you.

My theory is that Madeleine is the principal force behind this percolation of Caribbean music into the repertoires of today's young bands in New Orleans.

In fact, one of the groups in which she plays is called Maddie and Her Calypso Friends. They recorded Seven Skeletons Found in the Yard - a calypso originally recorded in 1938 by Lord Executor (Philip Garcia). Watch this video (click here). Madeleine clearly makes a speciality of calypsos and has also been seen, for example, singing Buy Me a Zeppelin - another great number. You can hear Maddie performing this calypso by clicking here. She has memorised the words of plenty of verses for these songs - no mean feat.

And since 2014 Maddie has led an exciting 12-piece band called Steamboat Calypso. Like the great calypso performers of the 1930s (Lord Invader and Roaring Lion, for example), Maddie has given her musicians wonderful stage names - such as Lord Patches, The Duke of Hammers, Porkchop and (Shaye Cohn, no less) The Duchess of Sound. Madeleine has plans for them to make a CD soon. You can find a few videos of the band on YouTube.

The Lionel Belasco tunes Juliana and Roses of Caracas have been heard on the streets of New Orleans, played by Tuba Skinny. And The Rhythm Wizards included History of Man as one of the twelve tracks on their March 2015 CD. More recently we had Tuba Skinny (at the time sharing three players with The Rhythm Wizards) also playing History of Man in the street:
Click here to view.

The history of the calypso over the last 250 years is very complex. Many influences went into its creation, and in its turn it has  spawned music in various sub-genres. If you want to study the history of calypsos in depth, there is plenty to get you started in Wikipedia. But if you are happy with a few over-simple essentials I can offer you some observations.

The origins of Afro-Caribbean calypsos can be found in the music sung by the slaves of French planters in the Eighteenth Century, especially in Trinidad.

The early music had characteristic rhythms and harmonies.

The language of the lyrics moved over the years from a form of French creole to a greater intermingling of English.

The words were frequently subversive - expressing political satire.

In 1912, on a visit to New York, Lovey's String Band (twelve musicians, including piano, bass, flute, violins, etc. - quite an 'orchestra') made the first recording of a calypso - five years before the first jazz recording! You can hear their performance by clicking here.  The Lovey String Band and the pianist-composer Lionel Belasco were important names in the recording of the music over the next few years. To my ear, those early recordings seem to use one or two simple repetitive smooth melodic themes, played (for example on violin or clarinet) against a busy rhythmic - almost ragtime - background.
Lovey's String Band
Try sampling another very early calypso recording - this one a piano-and-violin duet (Lionel Belasco and Cyril Monrose) - by clicking here.

Calypsos flourished in the 1920s and 1930s, when the genre became firmly established. Their subject-matter was wide-ranging, but continued to contain much critical comment on politics and society, sometimes under the guise of double entendre. Entrepreneurial talent scouts fitted some of the best performers up with impressive stage names and sent them from the West Indies to record and find fame in New York. Principal among them were Roaring Lion (Rafael de Leon), Attila the Hun (Raymond Quevedo), Lord Invader (Rupert Westmore Grant - who composed Rum and Coca-Cola), Lord Kitchener (Aldwyn Roberts), Lord Caresser (Rufus Callender) and Wilmoth 'King' Houdini (Frederick Wilmoth Hendricks).
Lord Caresser (Rufus Callender)
Words were often witty and delivered in rapid-fire style (sometimes extemporised), and there were internal rhymes. You can hear Raymond Quevedo and his band performing Coffee Coffee by clicking here. It is hard to imagine anybody not enjoying this!

Note how, in structure, this calypso has much in common with the New Orleans 'Creole' standards Eh La Bas and L'Autre Can Can (a.k.a. Creole Song). But this is unsurprising: they are derived from similar African roots.

Born as late as 1934, Lord Tanamo (Joseph Gordon) sustained the tradition. Listen to his amusing Taller Than You Are (written and played by himself): CLICK HERE. I have not yet heard a New Orleans band play this song, but I am sure one of them will soon get round to it!

From the 1950s, 'toned-down', commercialised calypsos were very much in vogue. For example, there was The Banana Boat Song, made famous by Harry Belafonte. There were several films exploiting the craze - notably Island in the Sun. The use of steel drums became commonplace. (Ironically, the steel drums have generally been manufactured in European countries, such as Sweden and Switzerland.)

There have been hundreds of calypsos recorded and dozens of distinguished performers - far more than my brief survey implies.

But, as the repertoire of the Trinidadian band Codallo's Top Hatters Orchestra has been revived in New Orleans, it is worth mentioning that band in particular. In the 1930s they recorded History of Man and Hold Your Hand Madam Khan. And it was Lord Caresser (Rufus Callender) who wrote Exploiter (a.k.a. Buy Me a Zeppelin).