Agony Shorthand

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Have had a hard time taking a firm position on calypso music until I heard this one, but I think I've arrived at a verdict. I'm in favor. My only previous exposure to it, other than hearing Harry Belafonte sing with a horrible fake Caribbean patois in "The Jungle Book", was a 1999 collection called "Fall Of Man: Calypsos On The Human Condition", which, like this CD, featured Trinidad-based storytellers spinning their yarns on old 78rpm records from the 1930s. Many of the players were the same as well (THE TIGER, ATILLA THE HUN, THE LION) leading me to conclude that, given Trinidad's size and likely microscopic "scene" in the 30s, those guys were pretty much it for top-notch calypso recording artists. Calypso's a funny sound. It resembles nothing so much as what I've come to know as cartoon music, given that, "Jungle Book" aside, the sounds seem to have adorned many a Warner Brothers cartoon set in exotic locales, perhaps one of those wacky racist ones where Bugs Bunny encounters a whooping group of African savages and they chuck spears at him before throwing him in a pot. Then again maybe I'm wrong, and the loopy horns and waltz-like "island" flourishes that characterize calypso music are just FUNNY sounding in and of themselves. But that's kept me from taking it completely seriously, because the music, combined with the wisecrackin', heavily-accented rhymers who tell these tall tales makes calypso sound more like a cool-sounding antique curiosity than something you'd really want to crank up at home.

Along comes my birthday and my pals DP & AFL, knowing I'm a fan of the pre-WWII age and looking to get the man who pretends he has everything something he definitely doesn't have, buy me this CD. It's an eye-opener. Trinidad went through one of the most volatile periods in its history during the 30s as they marched to independence -- you had labor struggles, government crackdowns on rabble-rousers and full-on riots in the streets. There to document it on 78s (usually when the government was too clueless to censor them) were the aforementioned, and a few others like THE CARESSER, THE GROWLER and THE TURDBURGLAR (all right, I made that last one up). These guys figured that come hell or high water, the story of Trinidad's underground patriots & rebels had to be told, so in this inimitable, loony style of theirs, proceeded to bust out these crazy rhymes. Special mention goes to my man ATILLA THE HUN for a couple of world-beaters on this collection: "Treasury Scandal" and "Where Was Butler?", subject matter notwithstanding, have the feel of a man using humor and lyrical cleverness to calculatedly mask a seething anger and frustration. And the music's especially carnival-like on these two numbers, though the basic structure of all of them is essentially the same. If I evaluate the music's immediacy and primal connection against other pre-WWII recorded forms like blues, hillbilly or European folk, it tumbles into a far lower tier. Conversely, if I look at it as an entertainingly odd product of its times and surroundings, it comes off pretty darn well.