If your conception of calypso is rooted in the sanitized version of "The Banana Boat Song" that hit the charts back in the ’50s, then this album is bound to be a wake-up call. Calypso music, as in any music of the underclass — be it blues, rebetica or rai — originally dealt with gut-level human interactions.
Behind a seemingly happy-go-lucky beat, calypso kings such as Attila the Hun, Lord Beginner and King Radio told tales that their Trinidadian audience could relate to. There were man-woman stories about sex, love and cheating, mixed in with standard paeans to mother, unhappy riffs on politics, complaints about taxes and colorful gossip about murderers and thieves. In short, nothing that ain’t been talked about in other cultures and times.
What makes this all different, however, are the same things that make all forms of popular music vary from the highbrow arts: culture and its incestuous relationship with language. Slang and its cousin, patois, enrich the possibilities of commentary, but they only do it for people aware of code phrases and how they relate to a shared vision of everyday life.
This new Rounder collection uses vintage recordings by some of Trinidad’s most famous calypsonians to illustrate life in the Caribbean between the World Wars. Since all of the singers are men, the resulting songs eliminate the feminine perspective even as they reflect traditional male-female roles within the community that formed the vocalists.
All this academic-sounding jabber doesn’t really reflect the sheer joy of living that infects much of this material. Laughter, self-effacing and otherwise, is the unconscious goal of these artists. Skirting the line of ribaldry, they tell how "Women Will Rule the World" (Attila the Hun) or rumors fly when told by "Malicious Neighbors" (The Lion).
Rounder is releasing a lot of fine albums documenting the growth and development of calypso music, from the early years of the 20th century right on up to its close, and this is another excellent entry in what promises to be an important series.