various artists,
Calypso: Vintage Songs
from the Caribbean

(Putumayo, 2002)

Fifteen pieces of expressive calypso music fill this disc and a 31-page booklet offers a fantastic amount of information on the subject. Calypso appears to have originated in Trinidad but the term has come to mean, for many people, the music of the Bahamas, Jamaica, Trinidad and many other islands in the West Indies. The liner tells us there is a range of music that "shares a fundamental influence from Trinidadian calypso."

I expected to know some of the songs on this CD but only a couple of them were vaguely familiar -- "The Limbo Song" and "J.P. Morgan." Much music was commercialized in the 1950s and '60s in Britain and America, and the little islands of the West Indies were busy tourist destinations.

An interesting tidbit is how calypso was first "an oral newspaper and editorial page." Lyrics are very important in calypso and many contests occurred where calypso "kings" would compete against each other. They sparred over the issues of the day and often it became a competition to see who would be the most outrageous. That's why some of the artists on this CD had names like Lord Composer, King Sparrow, Lord Beginner, Lord Shorty and Mighty Panther. They would reign in the music for a year or so, sometimes longer.

The tracks on this sampler are taken from recordings from the '50s and '60s, and some are quite hilarious. Some cuts are pretty raw and ribald, and others are very smooth and mellifluous. Calypso Mama sings "Yes, Yes, Yes" and George Symonette sings "Touch Me Tomato." It takes little imagination to catch the double-entendres and sexual innuendos expressed in these two songs. I liked the fun, upbeat melodies.

One problem with this recording is the range of music it covers. The CD offers music tracks that include Jamaican mento, calypso-jazz, swing-time rag, Jamaican patois and West-African influences. For the most part it's light-hearted music with simple lyrics. But the brevity and simplicity of the lyrics became heavy and tiring after listening for a while.

It wasn't a comfortable listen, either. Something is missing to tie the tracks together and I don't know what it is. A clue may lie in this statement in the liner notes: "Caribbean artists blended local folk styles and instrumentation with the swing of jazz and the soul of blues to create a unique sound," one that was popular at the time for recording purposes, but much of it without classic staying power. I feel that the field was so wide open, some artists followed the real traditional sound, while others took from the American influences, and others African influences. It is true, however, that each artist on this CD has a strong individual style and if you can find the style you prefer you'd have something worth listening to. I think this should have been two CDs, one with the more traditional sound and the second with the ballroom-jazz sound.

Overall, I found the information about the artists and the music much easier to absorb than the music.

- Rambles
written by Virginia MacIsaac
published 7 April 2003

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