Institute for Studies In American Music
Conservatory of Music, Brooklyn College of the City University of New York
NEWSLETTER


Volume XXXIII

 


No. 2      Spring 2004

Inside This Issue:

Documenting Calypso by Stephen Stuemple

Brooklyn’s Jazz Renaissance by Robin D.G. Kelley

Bolly’hood Re-mix by Kevin Miller

Johanna Beyer by Melissa J. de Graaf

Exploring Roots Music: Review by Charles K. Wolfe

Cage and Carter DVDs: Review by Anton Vishio

ISAM Matters

Home

 

 

Documenting Calypso in New York
and the Atlantic World
By Stephen Stuempfle

In early 2000 I received a telephone call in Miami from Judge Ray Funk of Alaska. Though in his professional life he holds court in Fairbanks and various Arctic villages, Funk is well-known to music researchers for his massive collection of African American gospel audio and visual materials. He has produced and/or written liner notes for numerous gospel reissues and was a major contributor to Wade in the Water: African American Sacred Music Traditions, a traveling exhibition organized by the Smithsonian Institution. I first met Funk in 1987, shortly before heading off to Trinidad to research steelbands. At the time, he was beginning to develop a collection of calypso materials that would eventually surpass the scope of his gospel archive. So it came as no real surprise that he would call to propose an exhibition focused on the 1950s “calypso craze” that swept across the United States and influenced many other countries.

    Funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities enabled the Historical Museum of Southern Florida to adopt Funk’s proposal and develop Calypso: A World Music, a project that encompasses a major online exhibition, a traveling exhibition, and related public conferences. At the core of the project is Funk’s in-depth calypso research and wide-ranging collection of sound recordings, songbooks and sheet music, movies and television shows, movie posters and lobby cards, photographs, and advertisements. Funk has collaborated with the museum on additional research and collecting, with guidance from an international advisory committee of calypso scholars. In essence, our objective has been to use visual materials to trace the dissemination of calypso from Trinidad across the Americas, Europe, and Africa from the 1930s to the 1960s. It was during this period that mass media, migration, military service, and tourism transformed calypso from a local musical tradition into a “world music.”

    Calypso, in fact, was one of the first popular music traditions from outside North America and Europe to be commercially recorded. In 1912 a Trinidadian band led by Lovey (George Bailey) traveled to New York to record for both ViPctor and Columbia. Two years later Victor representatives visited
Trinidad to record calypso and a variety of other local musical styles. During the 1910s and 1920s, American companies continued to record calypso in New York for distribution to Caribbean and Latin American markets. It was during the 1930s, however, that the recording and international dissemination of calypso intensified. In 1934 top Trinidadian calypsonians Atilla the Hun and the Roaring Lion recorded for the American Record Company in New York. According to Atilla, Rudy Vallee heard them sing and arranged their appearance on his NBC nationwide radio broadcast. The pair later wrote a calypso, “Guests of Rudy Vallee,” that celebrated this historic occasion. During the following years, Atilla and Lion traveled to New York for more recording sessions, as did Lord Executor, the Growling Tiger, and other leading calypsonians. By 1939 calypsonians were appearing at the Village Vanguard and enchanting New York club-goers. Meanwhile, calypso singers were performing at parties within the anglophone Caribbean community in Harlem. In a 1939 New Yorker article, Joseph Mitchell offers a detailed account of a late-night “picnic” thrown by the popular calypsonian Houdini in a hall on Lenox Avenue.1 Known as the “Calypso King of New York,” Houdini chronicled his observations of city life in songs such as those featured in a 1940 Decca album set titled Harlem Seen Through Calypso Eyes.

    Broader American awareness of calypso developed during World War II. Thousands of U.S. Army and Navy personnel were stationed in
Trinidad, where they became enamored of the music. The servicemen’s encounter with Trinidadian women was captured by Lord Invader in his calypso “Rum and Coca-Cola.” The Andrews Sisters’ recording of the song in 1944 became one of the top hits of the war era and, subsequently, sparked a major copyright battle in the courts.2 Following the war, U.S. record companies promoted new Trinidadian singers, including Sir Lancelot, the Duke of Iron, and Macbeth the Great. Although these artists had little or no experience in the calypso tents (halls) of Trinidad, they packaged calypso in a form that was more intelligible and appealing to American audiences.

    During the postwar years, calypso was embraced by the American folk music revival. Moe Asch recorded calypso singers for both his Disc and Folkways labels, while Alan Lomax produced Calypso at
Midnight in 1946 at New York’s Town Hall as part of People’s Songs’ Midnight Special folk music series. This concert featured performances by calypso singers Lord Invader, the Duke of Iron, and Macbeth the Great, interspersed with commentary by Lomax and the artists. Gerald Clark’s band, well-established in New York, provided the accompaniment.3 The following year, calypso reached Broadway in Caribbean Carnival, a show produced by Adolph Thenstead and directed by Trinidadian vaudevillian Sam Manning. Billed as the first “calypso musical,” it included a mix of drama, song, and dance from Trinidad, Haiti, and other parts of the Caribbean. Haitian American Josephine Premice appeared as one of the vocalists, while Trinidadian Pearl Primus’s dancing was a highlight of the production. Pan-Caribbean shows, featuring a variety of art forms, became a standard stage format in New York in the following years.

    During the 1950s, fast and affordable airline travel contributed to a sharp increase in American tourism to the
Caribbean. By this point, Trinidad-style calypso had spread across the anglophone Caribbean and was providing a soundtrack for American tropical fantasies. Tourists enjoyed calypso in hotels and nightclubs and wanted to hear more on their return home. This general American interest in calypso paved the way for the “calypso craze” of 1956-1957, which was sparked by the release of Caribbean American Harry Belafonte’s Calypso (RCA Victor, 1956), the first single-artist album to sell over one million copies in entertainment history. Only two of the selections on the record were actually calypsos, but the entertainment industry frequently used the term “calypso” to refer to any type of anglophone Caribbean song. Meanwhile, record companies quickly released dozens of calypso singles and albums by artists ranging from the Duke of Iron and the Jamaican mento singer Lord Flea to Nat “King” Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, the Tarriers, and Stan Wilson. Record sales were so strong that the entertainment industry initially believed that the music would lead to the demise of rock and roll. New York publishers churned out calypso songbooks and sheet music, while Hollywood released three calypso-themed movies, including Bop Girl Goes Calypso (United Artists, 1957) with a plot that revolved around a contest between calypso and rock and roll.

    During the calypso craze, numerous nightclubs in cities across the
U.S. shifted to an all-calypso format. Among the best-known venues were the Calypso Room and Le Cupidon in New York, the Blue Angel in Chicago, and the Malayan Lounge in Miami. Typically, calypso clubs created an imaginary Caribbean atmosphere with fishnets, palm fronds, and other trappings. Performers often wore straw hats and striped and floral outfits, unlike the dress suits worn by calypsonians in Trinidad. Among the many artists who worked the clubs were Lord Flea, Calypso Eddie, the dance team of Scoogie Brown and Leo Ryers, and the singer Maya Angelou, before embarking on a literary career. In spring 1957 Angelou and Flea appeared in Caribbean Calypso Festival, a short-lived revue produced by Trinidadian dancer/painter Geoffrey Holder at Loew’s Metropolitan Theatre in Brooklyn. The show also featured Latin bandleader/percussionist Tito Puente and Lord Kitchener, a top Trinidadian calypsonian based in England.

    By the 1950s, England had developed its own vibrant calypso scene.4 In 1948 Lord Kitchener and his compatriot Lord Beginner arrived on the MV Empire Windrush, a ship that marked the advent of large-scale Caribbean migration to Britain. Kitchener and Beginner began recording in
London in 1950. In 1951 the Trinidad All Steel Percussion Orchestra traveled to the Festival of Britain, a major cultural showcase, and appeared at various other prestigious venues. In the course of the decade, other Caribbean migrants continued to record calypsos in England, and the music gained a presence at London nightclubs and private parties. During the late 1950s, Cy Grant, a Guyanese RAF veteran and actor, performed a calypso every night on BBC’s Tonight, a television news show. Though the overall popularization of calypso in Britain was less extensive than in the U.S., London nonetheless served as an important center of calypso creativity and international dissemination.

    During the postwar era, calypso artists and recordings also reached many other parts of the Atlantic world. In addition to its substantial influence on musical traditions in anglophone
Caribbean islands, calypso was performed in Caribbean immigrant communities in Venezuela, Aruba, Curaçao, Panama, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua. At the same time, calypso influenced kaseko music, both in Suriname and in the Netherlands. Calypso singers also appeared in France, Germany, and other European countries. Particularly creative expressions emerged in anglophone West Africa, where artists like Ghanaian E. T. Mensah and Sierra Leonean Ebenezer Calender blended calypso with highlife and other West African musical styles.

    The dissemination of calypso in the Atlantic world was a complex process that was shaped by imperial networks, migration patterns, commercial markets, diverse mass media, and international tourism. Though calypso faded during the late 1950s as a mass music in the
U.S., it remained a standard component of the repertoire of Caribbean hotel bands. Moreover, it continued to thrive as a popular music in Trinidad, other eastern Caribbean countries, and the Caribbean diaspora. Following the 1965 U.S. immigration reform act, Brooklyn emerged as a major center for calypso, with its own Caribbean recording companies and its massive Labor Day Carnival. Today, calypsonians perform on a Carnival circuit that extends from the Caribbean to diasporic communities in Brooklyn, Miami, Toronto, London, and other North American and
British cities.

    Exploration of these international dimensions of calypso is the goal of the exhibitions and conferences that comprise

Calypso: A World Music. The project will reinvigorate public interest in calypso history and generate new perspectives on how a musical tradition from a small country has had a far-reaching impact on Atlantic popular culture
.

—Historical Museum of Southern Florida

Notes

1 Joseph Mitchell, “A Reporter at Large: Houdini’s Picnic,” The New Yorker (6 May 1939): 61-71. For an overview of calypso in New York during this period, see Donald Hill, “‘I Am Happy Just to Be in This Sweet Land of Liberty:’ The New York City Calypso Craze of the 1930s and 1940s,” in Island Sounds in the Global City: Caribbean Popular Music and Identity in New York, ed. Ray Allen and Lois Wilcken (University of Illinois Press, 1998), 74-92.
2 For an account of this case, see Louis Nizer, My Life in Court (Doubleday & Company, 1961), 233-286.
3 A selection of Lord Invader’s Disc and Folkways recordings is available through the compilation Lord Invader: Calypso in New York (Smithsonian Folkways SFW CD 40454). The 1946 Town Hall concert is available on the CDs Calypso At Midnight! and Calypso After Midnight! (Rounder 11661-1840-2 and 11661-1841-2).
4 For a discussion of calypso in England, see John Cowley, “London is the Place: Caribbean Music in the Context of Empire 1900-60,” in Black Music in Britain: Essays on the Afro-Asian Contribution to Popular Music, ed. Paul Oliver (Open University Press, 1990), 58-76.