Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Words to Dance To

Trinidad's literary preeminence isn't merely Caribbean. It's worldwide. What other 20th-century nation of a million souls can claim a V.S. Naipaul, a Derek Walcott, and a C.L.R. James? Senegal--which comes close with Sembene Ousmane, Léopold Senghor, and the ringer, Cheikh Anta Diop (I'll take Walter Rodney myself)--is six times as big; the former Czechoslovakia (Kafka, Kundera, Roman Jakobson) is double that. But Trinidad's way with words costs its culture elsewhere. Putting steel drums aside as the local oddity they'll always be, the island's music is calypso, the African diaspora's most logocentric genre. Song on the folk-pop cusp invariably emphasizes lyrics, and from Nigeria's Tiv (see Charles Keil's Tiv Song) to India's Braj (see Peter Manuel's Cassette Culture) it remains text-oriented in sizable yet little-known language cultures all over the world. But calypso is in English, a lingua franca. Its tradition is recent, syncretic, multicultural, multidetermined--international. And little-known it ain't--on ground prepared by Rudy Vallee and the Andrews Sisters, Harry Belafonte briefly turned it into a next big thing. Nevertheless, it was Cuban clave that swept Africa and the Caribbean diaspora in the '50s, Jamaican skank that became the beat of the Third World's militantly dispossessed.

Cuban cosmopolitanism was disseminated by far-flung sailors and entertainers, Jamaican neoprimitivism via rock and roll electronics and hype. But in both cases the selling point, the true lingua franca, was rhythm. I don't doubt that Trinidad has its its own rhythm; Daisann McLane, who I hope writes her calypso book soon, tells me it's so specific that even singers from nearby islands have trouble getting it right. The temptation is to turn that around and wonder whether it's too specific to travel. But the impossibility of replicating someone else's beat never stops sensationalists from trying--off-islanders from the Bellamy Brothers to Alpha Blondy have tripped all over themselves trying to skank and gotten somewhere while they were falling down. So we're left with the raw fact that neither calypso nor soca has exported especially well. Blame this on capitalism if you want. No one will ever know whether Trinidad, given Cuba's size and shipping industry and proximity to the U.S. or blessed with a Chris Blackwell hawking a Bob Marley, might not have made calypso happen. Nevertheless, it's my suspicion that the reason is the music itself--music in thrall to words.

That's partly because this music has never quite put its hooks into me. Still, as a word man, I've always been for it in theory, and a decade ago, shortly after I'd read James's Beyond a Boundary and Naipaul's Miguel Street, I learned to love Sparrow and Black Stalin. But my simultaneous discovery that I could do without Arrow and Explainer and David Rudder and the rest of the soca elite killed the record-hunting vim that a pursuit of Trindadian music requires. To this day the island's perpetually rudimentary recording industry produces soca mostly around carnival time, with much of it still cut in New York by labels that retail out of mom-and-pops and the trunks of calypsonians' cars. And despite my love for the More Sparrow More!! McLane found me, I never got around to my historical research. So I was delighted when Rounder's Calypso Carnival 1936-1941 arrived early last year, more delighted to find that the 25-song compilation had been preceded by the 16-song Calypso Pioneers 1912-1937 and the 20-song Calypso Breakaway 1927-1941, and happier than a kid at Mas when a series of soca releases and calypso reissues bearing Eddy Grant's Ice imprint were picked up by the long-suffering Washington reggae label RAS, grown healthy if not fat on dancehall capital.

One reason I got excited was the printed lyrics--crisply enunciated though it is, calypsonian patois is sometimes hard to follow. But even with a logocentric genre it's perverse to read first time through--music is meant to be heard. And the music of Calypso Carnival got me. Accustomed to soca's unslackening drive and cognizant of calypso's weakness for stock melody, I stupidly anticipated something tuneless and rigid and so was totally unprepared for the goofy dance bands that cavorted by instead. Most prominent were the New York-based Gerald Clark and His Caribbean Serenaders: guitar, trumpet, violin, clarinet, piano, bass, and usually cuatro, all uncredited except for guitarist Clark (the clarinetist definitely deserves better). The Port-of-Spain units usually feature more or different wind instruments, sometimes percussion. All share a loose, off-the-cuff, polyphonic sound/groove that occasionally evokes klezmer and may have parallels in other Latin American dance musics of the time, but is without Stateside counterparts I'm aware of. Calypso Breakaway's 1938 "Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen" is especially surreal.

Melodies repeat, oh yes they do. The most fetching adorns Sam Manning's "Lieutenant Julian," Wilmoth Houdini's "War Declaration," the Executor's "My Reply to Houdini," Lord Executor's "Seven Skeletons in the Yard," Lord Executor's "How I Spent My Time at the Hospital," Codallo's Top Hat Orchestra's "I Want To Build a Bungalow," Lion's "I Am Going To Buy a Bungalow," Lion's "Vitalogy," Lion and Atilla the Hun's "Guests of Rudy Vallee," King Radio's "Neighbor," King Radio's "Old Men Come Back Again," and King Radio's "It's the Rhythm We Want," among others. But as often happens in the great blues tune families, tempo and phrasing provide more decisive variety than slight shifts in note value. With all those players doing their things, arrangement also counts for a lot. And only after all that has sunk in do the lyrics begin to signify. The songs above show real topical range: "Lieutenant Julian" was a black aviator, "Neighbor" fingers a sex offender, "Seven Skeletons in the Yard" lists Christmas horrors, "Vitalogy" takes off on Latinate medical language. But many are boasts or good-time escapes, and none is as well-turned as Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer, Beyond a Boundary, or Miguel Street. At this distance the import of the words is atmospheric: concreteness, morality, and wit to ground the bacchanal.

United by shared bands and blurred by time, with Dick Spottswood's notes adding context, the Rounder records go down smoothly for multiple-artist compilations. Breakaway is the strongest, Carnival the happiest, Pioneers the most surprising. (What would Vernon and Irene Castle have made of the quick-stepping 1912 danzón by Lovey's Band? Probably more money.) Whole albums of Executor or Lion or Atilla might flesh out the personal visions barely discernible here. But I find it hard to imagine any of these classic calypsonians eclipsing the Mighty Sparrow. Born in Grenada in 1935, based in St. Croix and Jamaica (Queens--please) as well as Trinidad, unable to find broad U.S. distribution for his music even when he records it here, Sparrow has been the King of Calypso since 1956, when he swept Carnival with the glorious "Jean and Dinah," which some claim he didn't write. As is clear on Ice's 1993 Dancing Shoes, he's not above pumping out generic soca dreck ("Poom Poom Shorts" is no "Take a Look at Those Cakes"); as is clear on BLS's 1992 (?) We Could Make It Easy if We Try (where soccer, black pride, a contemporary Trinidadian revolutionary, and the perfidy of Jamaicans brighten the dreck), he's not limited to it. Either way he remains a presence.

McLane, who is definitely an admirer, feels Sparrow's most miraculous talent is his ability to maintain his credibility as a calypsonian in gossip-crazy Trinidad; pointing out that his vocal production strays far from the African model, she conceives him as a superstar synthesizer, something like Frank Sinatra. Much less an aficionado and more a pop fan, I'm comfortable responding to the portion of his image I have a bead on, and don't care whether he wrote every one of his lyrics any more than I do with Hank Williams. I just love his records. Grant's credentials as soca savior are called into question by his own dreadful Soca Baptism, and so far Ice's Sparrow collections have been frustratingly casual; although the crib sheets are welcome, there's no annotation or discography to make sense of sequencing I can only assume is roughly chronological. Yet Volume One is very nearly my favorite album of 1993: 13 varied songs that slip only slightly with "Calypso Twist," the first of Sparrow's many unflappable attempts to keep up with the times. The best of these lyrics stand with anyone's. Tops for me is "Congo Man," a wildly perverse piss-take on African roots, interracial revenge, interracial sex, male-female relations, and cannibalism. The education satire "Dan Is the Man (In the Van)" is just as funny. Sparrow's career as a sympathetic critic of democratic socialism begins with "Our Model Nation" and "Federation." And while Yank-lover putdowns like "Jean and Dinah," "Jack Palance," and "Don't Go Joe" incur understandable feminist dismay, their theme is the pain of imperialism, not the treachery of woman.

Volume Two, Volume Three, and 16 Carnival Hits (shared with his rival Lord Kitchener) are less consistent and still worth owning, and my limited listening and reading (especially in Keith Q. Warner's invaluable if logocentric Kaiso! The Trinidad Calypso) convince me that, dreck notwithstanding, there's a goldmine left in an oeuvre said to comprise an album a year--an oeuvre whose most profound effect on the genre hasn't been verbal. Sparrow's urge to match every new lyric with a new tune remapped the territory, and his vocal production--distinctly international even if likely-seeming analogies from Joe Williams to Tabu Ley don't come near the expostulatory musicality he gets out of his assured, incisive, good-humored light baritone--made Arrow and Explainer possible. No wonder the King of Calypso consented to relabel himself a soca man--it was his musical innovations that enabled calypso to devolve into a minor pop dance genre.

And while I'm never comfortable with charges of aesthetic decadence, here I make an exception. For the fourth or fifth time in 10 years, I've attended faithfully to the compilation at hand--in this case Ice's Soca Carnival 93--and found it no more diverting than the average techno comp. Great dance anthologies always convey a stylistic commitment so deep you can feel it even if the rhythm isn't in your bones, and with its literary heritage reduced to so much "Roll Your Abdomen" and "Wine on a Bumsee," soca is forced to rely on a beat that didn't export big-time in its heyday. But whether you pray soca falls so flat that the Trinidadian songsters who honor their heritage in theory will have to return to it in practice, or wish the music a dancehall-scale breakthrough that could finance calypso's canonization, be grateful a small portion of the heritage has finally come our way.

Village Voice, Feb. 1, 1994