Calypso has its roots in canboulay music brought to the Caribbean by African slaves, but the style is constantly being revitalised and reinterpreted. Charles de Ledesma traces its history and chooses his top ten albums.
Best of Arrow (Musicrama, 1999)
Montserrat’s best export, Arrow, reached international stardom with ‘Hot Hot Hot’ (1982), the biggest selling soca chant of all time, but he was more than a one-hit wonder. This album contains social commentary in ‘Bills’ and ‘More Fete’, honouring the culture of the carnival tent system. Arrow died of cancer aged 60 in 2010.
Roots Rock Soca (Rounder, 1991)
Trinidad’s answer to Jamaican heavyweights like Big Youth and U-Roy, the dreadlocked Rastafari sings of injustice and other social/cultural themes, typically over old-school arrangements including brass and percussion. This collection includes classics ‘Caribbean Unity’, ‘Black Man Music’ and ‘Burn Dem’, the last integrating calypso/soca with Latin elements.
Jumbie in the Jukebox (Cumbancha, 2013)
Anyone who feels pure calypso has slid in recent years needs to head for Belize where producer Ivan Duran is busy concocting a fresh tropical, calypso sound. The brainchild of singer and multi-instrumentalist Drew Gonsalves, Kobo Town offer a lyrically extraordinary outing here, covering subjects such as a re-examination of Trinidad’s dramatic history on ‘The Trial of Henry Marshall’ and caustic social commentary about the tourist experience on ‘Postcard Poverty’.
Doctor Bird (VP Records, 2011)
This double-disc Sparrow retrospective perfectly demonstrates the calypso king’s extemporising skills over fine horn work and African percussion. It includes Caribbean bedrocks such as ‘Mr Walker’ – he’s come ‘to meet your daughter’ – ‘Jean and Dinah’, which shot him to fame in 1956, and ‘Obeah Wedding’, with its glorious horn medley, rhythms and commanding vocal.
David Rudder & Charlie’s Roots
Haiti (WEA Corp, 1990)
While ‘Bahia Girl’ is the heartthrob singer Rudder’s most ravishing song, just about all his other classics are on Haiti. From the steel pan master-study ‘The Hammer’ to the biting social criticism of ‘Panama’ and on to the pan-island joy of ‘Rally Round the West Indies’, Rudder juxtaposes the bacchanalian heart of modern calypso with traditional, incisive, cultural observation.
Calypso Craze: 1956-57 and Beyond (Bear Family, 2014)
An overview of traditional calypso’s golden era when the style took the US by storm. This seven-CD selection covers familiar ground, such as Caresser’s ‘Edward the VIII’ and King Radio’s ‘Matilda’, but little gems surface, such as jazz icon Ella Fitzgerald’s version of ‘Stone Cold Dead in the Market’ and Harry Belafonte’s delicately delivered ‘Kalenda Rock’, with its verse steeped in 19th-century African folk memory.
London is the Place for Me, Vols 1-6 (Honest Jons, 2013)
When master calypsonian Lord Kitchener arrived in England in 1948 on the Empire Windrush he was singing ‘London is the Place for Me’. The classic song rightly opens this three double-CD project of UK-based kaiso singers and bands. The first CD is dominated by cuts by Beginner and Kitchener while the later CDs cover the interplay with jazz and swing.
Panama! 2 (Soundway, 2009)
Soundway’s Miles Cleret has done a great service in unearthing vintage 45s for the Panama! three-release series. The second disc was particularly outstanding as a showcase of the country’s music.
The Rough Guide to Calypso Gold (World Music Network, 2015)
This latest Rough Guide offering on music from Trinidad and Tobago is a true blue collection of classics from 1920-50s including Calypso Rose’s ‘Rum & Coca-Cola’, Lord Pretender’s ‘Human Race’ and Relator’s ‘Nora’ – all endlessly hummable, ageless, often hilarious Caribbean pop.
Virgin Islands: Quelbe & Calypso 1956-60 (Frémeaux & Associés, 2013)
he Virgin Islands’ quelbe – meaning ‘scratch’ – shows how calypso exists in quite pure form on other Caribbean islands. There is an infectious live feel to artists like The Mighty Zebra, Lloyd Prince Thomas and Bill Fleming. Listen out for The Fabulous McClevertys’ take on ‘Rookombay’, the story of an orisha ritual where the African deity Shango is invoked.