Thursday, May 31, 2007

Sir Galba

Small Island Pride, King (Mighty) Sparrow, Sir Galba (mid-1950s)

London-based Kate Blenman is great-grand niece of Sir Galba, a Trinidad calypsonian who reigned briefly in the late 1940s and early 1950s, but led a troubled life. Kate discovered one of his songs on a Muriel's Treasure playlist, and wrote that despite years of searching, she had never been able to find any of Galba's music. She explained about her great-grand uncle:

Most of the information I have was obtained from Ray Funk, a kaiso researcher. Galba's real name was George Brindsley McSween, and he made his recording debut in 1946 with "Hooligan Hide Yourself" and "Put the Knife on the Shelf." In 1949 he recorded "Calypsonian from Toco" and "Residents of Nowhere Square." He was crowned Calypso King of 1952 at the Young Brigade with "Man in the Garden Hiding" out of the Victory tent. That same year he stabbed someone in a nightclub. He sang "I Don't Want Any Women Police in Trinidad" and won second place in an intercolonial calypso contest for Princess Margaret in 1955, singing "The Queen at Montego Bay." He also recorded three singles for the Sagomes label. He died September 18, 1957, at the age of 38, by committing suicide after stabbing his girlfriend.

"Too Many Fires" is the only recording I've heard by Galba. An mp3 transfer from an original 78 (Sagomes 138-27) was provided by friend and Optigan savant Pea Hicks, who does all manner of audio restoration. It can be heard here (about 20 seconds in).

Update (5 May 09): Hear Sir Galba's "Bajan Diplomat," a Vitadisc 45 courtesy listener John Hill (with thanks to Don Brockway for the mp3 conversion).

Friday, May 25, 2007

It's The Rhythm We Want

It's pricey—anywhere from $196.06 to $305.99. Lifting it could dislocate your vertebrae. In today's media-saturated, sensory overloaded world, no one will have time to absorb it all.

But you must buy it. Now.

West Indian Rhythm, released in 2006 by the obsessives at Bear Family Records, is one of the best collections of classic calypso ever commercially released. Hyperbole? Forget it — there's nothing comparatively close. You want deep cuts? Start here.

The historic collection contains all but one of the 268 performances recorded by New York engineers of Decca Records on field trips to Trinidad in 1938, '39, and '40. (Yes, one track is AWOL. Don't think the producers of this album didn't search exhaustively for it.)

Besides ten CDs of music — 267 rare recordings, impeccably remastered — West Indian Rhythm comes packaged with a 316-page hardcover book that contains so much essential and authoritative information, is so beautifully designed and so dedicatedly researched, that it's a bargain at any price. Colorfully written essays chronicle the history of the genre and the artists who developed it. There's a glossary of calypso terms; lyrics transcribed for every track; photos; hundreds of illustrations; news clippings; bios of the singers and entrepreneurs; discographies. The CDs include a dozen or so previously unreleased — that is, censored — songs. The only thing they didn't include is a bottle of rum.

All performances were recorded in one take. Decca didn't return in 1941 or thereafter, so you've got the history of pre-World War II Trinidad calypso preserved in amber. Legends like Atilla the Hun, Cyril Monrose, Lord Invader, Tiger, Lion, Growler, and King Radio. Forgotten footnotes like Codallo's Top Hatters, Joe Coggins, and Lord Ziegfield. A dozen songs about Hitler, and countless syncopated chronicles of unfaithful wives, drunken louts, lecherous old men, and municipal scandals.

If you needed any further convincing about the integrity of this package, the name Dick Spottswood appears prominently in the credits as Reissue Co-Producer. 'Nuff said.

"These compelling performances personify calypso at its best," writes Spottswood. "Mostly sung in English, they represent a sophisticated world-view unique to the small population of a remote Caribbean island. Popular music in England and North America at the time was largely escapist, designed for social dancing and romantic fantasy. Calypso ignored those tendencies, replacing romanticism with scepticism, and mindlessness with content. The calypso chantwell [singing storyteller] observed events at home and abroad with informed incredulity, readily pronouncing humorous judgments that nonetheless ranged from troubled acceptance to outright contempt."

Be good to yourself. Splurge. It will take you a year to get through this box and you'll continue listening for the rest of your life.

Center photo L to R: King Radio, Beginner, Executor, Tiger, 1939
Bottom photo L to R: Lord Invader, the Growler, Atilla the Hun, Lion, February 1943

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Wilmoth Houdini on 365 Days Project

Two Wilmoth Houdini mp3s are available for free download from The 365 Days Project, hosted by WFMU. The tracks, "He Dead, He Gone Already" and "Moan, People, Moan," were posted by Bob Purse, who adds a colorful encomium to the great Houdini.

Aside from having a really cool name ..., he had a vocal style which gives me chills, featuring a wicked vibrato, and an intensity on held notes which expresses as much emotion as just about any singer I can name.

These recordings, which are not available on commercial CD, were transferred from the 1958 vinyl LP Calypso Capers. They were likely recorded in New York in the late 1930s or early 1940s.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Let's Go Calypso (Somerset)

Features King Scratch and the Bay Street Boys, ca. late 1950s. "These two acts," the brief liner notes attest, "have long been favorites in the islands and many a tourist has felt the gay and carefree spell they cast with the charm of their readings and infectious Calypso rhythms. This is as much a part of the islands as the palm trees or lovely beaches." Despite a preponderance of cruiseship standards (e.g., "Marianne," "Sly Mongoose," "Jamaica Farewell," "Donkey Wants Water"), the performances are refreshingly "native" and highlighted by raucous percussion. Meaning, these recordings were not prettied up for export. Is good.

Fabulous cover illustration, unsigned, uncredited.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Calypso Mania

Cover illustration by Demilio from the Richmond Records LP Calypso Mania by Edmundo Ros, as discovered by Ernie, who collects the artist's work.

Friday, May 11, 2007

"It please one and all"

I gave my woman a rubber plant
She says, "That sure is elegant
I hate for it to go to waste,
but it's much too soft to suit my taste"

I gave my woman a coconut
She said, "My friend, that is OK but
You know it is no good for me
What good is the nut without the tree?"

I gave my woman some sugar cane
"Sweets for the sweet" I did explain
She handed it back to my surprise
She liked the flavor but not the size

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Calypsos From Jamaica (Times Store)

Which is to say, Mento, an indigenous Jamaican style marketed abroad as calypso. The forms share many characteristics, both being African/European fusions filtered through Caribbean culture, and their audiences overlap. Like one, you'll probably like the other—unless you're some kind of weird contrarian.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

The Enchanted Steel Band (Cook)

I had to "ream" this LP, because the center spindle hole was off-center, causing wobbly playback. Reaming is a highly technical process involving one blade of a double-lever scissors, positioned perpendicular to its opposite, and a rum-based cocktail, positioned less than arm's length from the work space. You carefully maneuver the blade in a back and forth carving motion to enlarge the hole and thus allow visual centering on the turntable. Each pass with the scissor is customarily followed by a sip of the cocktail.

Unfortunately, due to frequent applications of the liquid, the scissors slipped and I accidentally gouged an irrigation ditch through side A, rendering it unplayable. A priceless Cook LP, ruined. The cover survives.