Calypso Craze: 1956–57 and Beyond Various artists
With Trinidad Carnival upon us, we need to be reminded that modern soca music had a precursor of sunny calypso music that was the rage in America before rock and roll took hold. Indefatigable calypso researcher Ray Funk and collaborator Michael Eldridge have compiled six CDs and one DVD of music, film, and facts to recreate the zeitgeist of the late 1950s, when calypso’s slow growth in the US was upended by Elvis, Little Richard, et al — and the rest, as they say, is history. That “fad from Trinidad” was a ubiquitous presence in the months after Harry Belafonte released his Calypso LP in 1956. Caribbean-ness was a badge for entrée into a milieu where jazz greats like Ella Fitzgerald and Nat “King” Cole were singing calypsos, and expat Trini calypsonians including the Duke of Iron and MacBeth the Great were headlining jazz clubs. It’s all here in this box set of nostalgia, novelty, and neverending fascination.
Oui Ma Chérie! Andy Narell
Trinidadians are notoriously protective of their national instrument, the steel pan — so much so that when iconoclastic American pannist Andy Narell releases a new CD, the chauvinistic hubris echoing among local voices can and does sting. Narell’s riposte in this instance is an album of five long musical interludes, a balance of originals and Trinidad song that defines broader genre options for the steel pan. Jazz dissonance and tropical rhythms that suggest the wider Caribbean outside of Trinidad move the body of music for the instrument several steps ahead. Narell singlehandedly plays all the parts of a small steel orchestra to capture with near sonic perfection the timbre of the modern steelband, and blends it with solo guitar and trumpet to imagine newer possibilities. After eighteen previous albums, it’s clear that the sound born of “the audacity of the creole imagination” in Trinidad is now global, and this album is apt proof of Narell’s significance.
Brace Bunji Garlin
Soca music’s new paladin in the global marketplace, Bunji Garlin, continues to ride the wave of success that began with Differentology in 2013/4. For Carnival 2015, he tests locals’ penchant for dancing to an EDM pulse in the parties and on the road with this track produced by Trinidadian electro whiz-kid iM4RiO, and mixed by Brooklyn remixer Richie Beretta. Incorporating “moombahton” — a fusion genre of house music and reggaeton slowed to 110 beats per minute — to add to Garlin’s recent already edgy musical adventures, the track is a bed for the lyrical magic that is Bunji in full flight, spitting rhymes and juggling couplets that put a smile on your face and a pivot in your hip. “Somebody brought Johnny Walker in a basket, decide they wanna put me to lie down in a casket, decide they wanna blow my head like is a gasket . . .” Everybody brace, because this party’s on.
Just Wanna Jam Kes
The regional nature of modern soca allows for Trinidadian superstar Kes (Kees Dieffenthaler) to work with Barbadian producers Studio B to put out this track that debuted at the 2014 Barbados Crop Over, and is now decidedly energising Trinidad Carnival 2015. After that, the world is his oyster. The tune embraces the island pop leanings forever present in Kes’s music, and happily chugs along with a steady rhythm clip that drives this party anthem to a zenith of oddball fun. “And anytime ah catchin’ de feelin’ / Ah down till ah touchin’ de ceilin’ / And if yuh watch me crazy / I doh give ah damn!” Kes is one of the few soca singers whose pitch and tone can make the ordinary seem sexy. With a minimum of effort, this tune does damage to the idea that soca is simply a background soundtrack to a party. It’s a major sing-along jam too!
Reviews by Nigel A. Campbell