Caribbean culture is currently enjoying a resurgence of popularity in the UK. The island influence is seen in many facets of society – fashion, food, sport and of course music. As is often the case, coming into contact with the mainstream has stripped it down to the most recognisable of totems: Usain Bolt and Bob Marley, Rihanna and Reggae Reggae sauce. Luckily, a local lad has taken it upon himself to dig a little deeper, and shine a long-overdue light on the criminally underrated world of calypso music. Following in the footsteps of Latin and jazz pioneer DJ Gilles Peterson, respected dubstep producer The Bug and punk scholar Jon Savage, Wavertree’s own DANNY FITZGERALD has worked with seminal re-issue imprint Soul Jazz Records to collate a history of calypso through words and music, in a way that allows us to re-assess the genre and celebrate its impact from both a musical and a cultural standpoint.
As we settle down to chat in my living room – accompanied by a portable record player and a big stack of 7”s – Fitzgerald blows out his cheeks almost in disbelief as he searches for an answer to the question of how it all began: “It all started from an email I sent to Soul Jazz, pretty much on a whim. I’d been a fan of theirs for a while.” Over the past 20 years, Soul Jazz founder Stuart Baker has championed a mind-boggling number of genres across almost 300 LP and 7” releases. Wonders are plucked from all parts of the globe and distributed from his Soho office-cum-record-shop, appropriately named Sounds Of The Universe. Having brought Latin jazz and experimental German rock and electronic “Musik” to the attention of its expanding base of followers, one of the few gaps in the Soul Jazz armoury was a dedicated calypso album – and it was one that Fitzgerald hoped he could fill: “They’d touched on calypso with a release called Mirrors To The Soul, but that was mainly a pan-Caribbean compilation with a few calypso tracks on it. I just thought they could be interested in my collection. They got back to me inside half an hour.” Fitzgerald’s level of enthusiasm proved vital not just to getting the idea off the ground in the first place, but in sustaining it throughout an arduous fourteen-month project. “The first few months was spent sending them mix CDs,” Fitzgerald continues, “and they’d like one or two tracks from each. The initial proposal was to do two CDs of 20 tracks, so I was a bit worried it would take about five years!” Eventually two discs became one, as Baker helped him to think more about the everyman than the aficionado. “I was making a calypso fan’s calypso album, when what was needed was a sampler for the casual listener to dip into.”
More help for the uninitiated comes in the form of a comprehensive liner essay that expertly traces calypso’s timeline as its popularity expanded around the world. The genre’s history can be traced back to Trinidad, and represents the cross-pollination of European and African influences occurring throughout the region. It has also played an important part in the histories of many countries outside of the Caribbean such as France, Spain, Nigeria and Britain. The novelty image – cast in the 30s and 40s through the success of the likes of Harry Belafonte – is usually based around the jauntiness of the music and Caribbean patois’ unique rendering of the English language. In reality, there are often weighty lyrical subjects alongside the bawdy humour. Calypso laid the foundations of Caribbean music in Britain, in the wake of the migrations of the 1950s. Lord Kitchener – the ‘Grandmaster Of Calypso’ – and his peers articulated the struggles to acclimatise to their new surroundings in a way that was accessible to both his countrymen and their new hosts. This was social commentary rendered through music before Dylan or Baez.
The lyrical content is what first resonated with Fitzgerald, reminding him of the hip hop records that had dominated his stereo until that point. “Calypso is a massive influence on hip hop,” he insists. “All of its lyrical styles have their roots in what the calypso artists were doing. The boasting, the sex and drugs, the diss tracks, the crime stories, the social awareness – it’s all there.” A quick perusal of the tracklist – Pussy Galore, West Indians In England, Exchange No Robbery and Lift The Iron Curtain, as well as the album’s title Musical Poetry In The Caribbean – bears this out emphatically.
Fitzgerald’s reverence for the music seeps in to the warmth of the compilation: his is a pure enthusiasm, uncluttered by the cynicism that hinders most who choose to turn their passion into a career. Every point comes with an involuntary chuckle, and is illustrated perfectly with another record from the pile. “My collection was so big I just felt I had to do something with it,” is his modest response to enquiries regarding his motivation; however, this impressive record collection wasn’t entirely dormant beforehand. Fitzgerald has held a weekly DJ residency at both Tabac and Brooklyn Mixer for a number of years. His real motivation is a love of the music, not just for the wilfully obscure – which is a charge that some would no doubt throw at a white boy from Wavertree with an obsession for calypso music. This love is clear from the delight in his voice while discussing tales of trawling the internet in search of rare gems. After torturous deliberation he acclaims Mighty Dougla’s Exchange No Robbery as his favourite track on the album. “It’s probably not actually the best song on there, but I’m biased as he’s my favourite calypso singer. He’s got such a soft, crooning voice, and his lyrics are quite clever and really funny.” Within seconds, Dougla’s Dance Me Lover fills the room. “That’s one of the records that really got me going initially,” effuses Fitzgerald. “It made me think: ‘that’s it… this is what I’ll be collecting from now on.’ I went on holiday with a mixtape of some of my favourites, and just driving around with those tunes on made up my mind.”
Having spent the afternoon absorbing the smooth sounds coming from my speakers it’s easy to imagine coming to the same conclusion. The album’s most striking element is its scope, especially considering the narrow connotations calypso evokes. Each artist adds their own set of influences to the mix, be it the bossa nova of Lord Hummingbird, the jazz flavours of J.B. Williams or the pop sensibilities of Azie Lawrence.
In the opening paragraph of the liner essay, calypso is described as “one of the most exciting and enduring forms of musical expression to emerge from the beginning of the 20th Century.” After being completely taken in over these 31 pages and 19 tracks this is a statement that I can only agree with. In fact, so entertaining and compelling is the argument made by this compilation, I’d say that only the uninformed could refute this claim. Go on, give it a try. I dare you to disagree.
Calypso: Musical Poetry in the Caribbean 1955-69 is out now on Soul Jazz Records.
Head to bidolito.co.uk now to listen to an exclusive guest mix by Danny Fitzgerald, featuring some of his favourite calypso songs that didn’t make the final compilation.