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


Otis Fodder said...

Bear Family is amazing. I consider them the Taschen book press of music.

Daniel said...

We, at the ARChive of Contemporary Music, blogged about this set too (not knowing that you did before us) and came up with a similar opinion. This set is a "must have."