My friend the Honorable Ray Funk is a distinguished musicologist and also a popular figure in Trinidad where he goes annually to participate in Carnival. He has written widely on the traditions of Trinidadian music, even hosting a TV show there, and of course he gets dressed up for the costume part of the festivities, known as Mas. He was a big hit as a "Midnight Robber" which caused hilarity among his friends who know he is also a judge in the state of Alaska. Etienne Charles, who hails from Trinidad, studied trumpet at the prestigious Juilliard school in New York. On a trip home he was taken with Jab Molassie masquers, vengeful demons who spatter one another with blue paint as they cavort. It's a reaction to the centuries of cruelty practiced against slaves, some of whom were even boiled in molasses. He uses their biscuit-tin percussion and frantic yelling as the backing to his lead off piece on this compelling disc. Singular carnival characters like Dame Lorraine and Moko Jumbie are also feted in his lyrical playing. You'd think trumpeters would be keen to avoid straying into the Miles Davis sound, but Charles jumps right in even adding a distinctive Fender Rhodes electric piano (James Francies) to suggest the cool era Miles with Herbie Hancock on Bitches Brew. It's a pleasant jazz album, the irksome steel pan, so beloved of Hizzoner Funk, only intrudes late on.


Now for something completely different. Trinidad is famous for having created calypso music, a kind of troubadour newscast (which of course has traditions going back to pre-literate societies). In Trinidad it has become an historical form with Kaiso, a more rap-like entity, replacing it. But people remember Lord Kitchener, Roaring Lion, Arrow, Mighty Sparrow and other Calypsonians and, more importantly, still quote their lyrics. Kobo Town delivers the news in an updated style, with pointed references like "Three cheers America / I hear how allyuh catch a dictator / Gone down in a hole to catch a mouse / While a rat livin' large in the white house." The music is modern with thumping bass, dub effects, interjected guitar licks, but it has not succumbed to the excesses of modern Caribbean music and makes a wonderful counterpoint to the message. We're even treated to jawbone and bass clarinet in the spread of musical styles. The jumbie of the title is a spirit, like a bogeyman, who has inhabited the old records, and the singer/composer Drew Gonsalves cast a wide net for inspiration, including an adaptation of "The Dark Night of the Soul," by the 16th century Spanish mystic Juan de la Cruz. "The Trial of Henry Marshall" has a "Peanut Vendor" reference for those of you who collect them. The final cut "Tick tock goes the clock," is a mini-epic and is included "on the assumption that every album needs to finish off with a long-winded apocalyptic diatribe peppered with muted trombones and allusions to dead English poets. T S Eliot, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Derek Walcott, Linton Kwesi Johnson and the Book of Revelations crash together in the lines of this song." It's eclectic and the best kind of folk music: a fresh departure for an historic form.

IFETAYO (Soundway CD033P)

Not exactly a novelty, this is an unusual disc revived from 1976. It sounds like Afro Funk with a twist. The twist being that the band was from Trinidad and instead of being into James Brown and American soul and funk they were clearly listening to the motherland. In fact the lead singer, Oluko Imo went on to record with Fela and Egypt 80. Kalimba, steel pan and flute compensate for the lousy synth that sneaks in now and then and tries to date it. You can tell they are Trinidadian from a few of the calypso-like beats that pop up, adding an interesting flavor to their sound. The last cut "Umbala" is the stand out. The original LP was pretty short so there's an added bonus track "Imo."

(Directed by Geoffrey Dunn)

This is a documentary film about Calypso told in the Calypsonians' own words, with wonderful performance excerpts. From Lord Kitchener singing "London is the place for me" as he steps off the boat in 1952 to the global hit of "Hot Hot Hot" by Arrow in the 1980s, Calypso has been the pulse of Trinidad, the news, the scandal, the wit of a nation. Presented here are reminiscences, clips and performances by the legendary, the infamous and the obscure: the Mighty Sparrow, Lord Pretender, Black Stalin, Relator, Scrunter and many others. Some of the classic calypsos are performed by the duo Regeneration Now who are a delight to watch. Harry Belafonte is called to account for ripping off the music and defends himself rather pathetically by saying, It's true, I never could be a real Calypsonian, I never sang in the tents, etc, and further claims the title "King of Calypso" was thrust on him by a record company.

David Rudder, who is himself associated with Soca more than Calypso, provides commentary: "A Calypso is everyman's opinion," he says. The film shows the love of language and lyric, warm humour and risqué riposte that is the mark of the art form. For all that the world loves reggae, you don't hear (regular) people quoting reggae lyrics much, or commenting on them as relevant. People worship Bob Marley but what did he say? Other than "Redemption Song" his lyrics are puerile rubbish. Even he, himself, on his deathbed said "What is Jah Jah? -- It sounds like baby talk!" The Caribbean had the English education system until independence, so the Calypsonians depicted in this film had the benefit of loquacious and articulate teachers and words like "soubriquet," "extemporaneous" and "bachannalian," which are not part of everyday vocabulary in America, are commonly used in Port of Spain. Like the troubadour tradition of old Europe, Calypso lyrics tell the news even when it is old news. This film exudes joy and is the definitive account of this musical form.

Editorial from Trinidad Express, 25 March 2009

Pan and Calypso for President Obama

As I drive through the snow in Alaska, I am thinking back to what a great time I had at Carnival in Trinidad last month, where daily I got to hear some of the best music in the world, calypso, rapso and pan, loads of it, night after night. There was so much going on and there were so many difficult choices that whenever I'm in Trinidad for Carnival I wish cloning was possible so I could be in every pan yard, calypso tent, mas camp and competition.

Now in the midst of post-Carnival depression, as the excitement builds for President Obama's visit to Trinidad next month, I can't help but wonder if he is going to experience any of the joy I did. Will he get to hear any calypso or pan among all the official functions and endless meetings?

What better piece for him to hear to reflect his own success than Edwin Pouchet and Alvin Daniel's Panorama winner for Silver Stars celebrating "there can be only one winner" who is indeed "First in Deh Line". President Obama's inaugural poem, Elizabeth Alexander's "Praise Song for the Day," had the, by now, famous reference to pan:

Someone is trying to make music somewhere,
with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum,
with cello, boom box, harmonica, voice.

I have had the idea ever since that there should be a competition for the best composition that uses that unique instrumentation, with the winner performing for the Summit of the Americas in honor of President Obama's inauguration. I really hope he gets to hear even a few of the many calypsos that are a celebration of his achievement. There were so many calypsos this last year on Obama that I am sure I didn't get to hear all of them. I told anyone who would listen that there should be a CD of Obama calypsos available and given out to all those coming to the summit. Mighty Sparrow's "Barack the Magnificent" was one of the greatest rallying songs during the campaign and the various Youtube versions have been played an amazing 300,000 times.

I happened to be in Trinidad in November at the time of the election and witnessed Trinidad's euphoria with the results. Then, within days, I got to hear Sparrow sing "Barack the Magnificent" live one evening during the week of Silver Star's 60th anniversary celebrations. It had a special meaning to hear him do it live just days after the promise of the song had become a reality. Other fine calypsos on the president came out during the campaign, including Rootsman's gentle, groovy "Calypso for Obama" and Brother Mudada's vibrant "Obamamania". Canada's calypso monarch Macomere Fifi won with her tribute to Obama last August in Toronto. Extempo genius Gypsy, who went up to Brooklyn and Queens this past fall to campaign for the President, transformed his monarch winning calypso "Little Black Boy", whose message of "go to school and learn", has no better example than the 44th president:

So right now I want you to know
Something going on here that you have to follow
A little fella who was born in Hawaii
And right now he is going to rule this country
America will have its own Black president

(The performance at an Everybody's concert in Brooklyn is also on Youtube.) Of course, when the election got close, everyone could predict his likely success. But think back to 2000 when Crazy sang Winsford DeVine's "In Time to Come", with its batch of unlikely predictions. None seemed more improbable than his bold assertion, "In time to come America will have a Black president". May President Obama know that calypsonians not only supported his campaign but predicted his victory years ago! Certainly there were songs from throughout the region from Jamaica's Cocoa Tea and Antigua's Ajamu with his "Rally Round Obama". But no music form has embraced Obama with more enthusiasm then calypso.

Besides the campaign calypsos, there were the Trinidad songs celebrating the election itself. Before the calypso season, Eric Powder had his sweet "Presidential Parang". The calypso tents and competitions were full of Barack songs -- Twiggy won Calypso Queen and made it to the Dimanche Gras final with "One for Obama", a spectacular tribute to both Obama and Miriam Makeba, who died just days after the election. The song was written by "GB", who also wrote "Obama the First", which Sugar Aloes did magnificently and took to the Savannah. Then there was Chalkdust's fascinating "Lament for the Dead" which deplored the sad reign of murder in Trinidad and its unexpected consequence of depriving the victims of living through this momentous occasion.

Perhaps there will be calypsos written to celebrate the president's visit to Trinidad. Atilla's "Roosevelt in Trinidad" celebrated FDR's brief stops in Trinidad in 1936 and boldly proclaimed: "When Roosevelt came to the Land of the Hummingbird, shouts of welcome were heard." Hopefully President Obama can expect such a warm welcome, as Atilla sang:

We are privileged to see the democratic president of the great republic
With his charming and genial personality and his wonderful urbanity
We were struck by his modest style
And we were intrigued by the famous Roosevelt smile
No wonder why everybody was glad to welcome Roosevelt to Trinidad.

While there is too much culture and too little time for President Obama to experience it all during his short stay, somehow he needs to hear an up close bit of pan, a taste of tassa and learn that calypso music has been shouting his praises in song for months from Canada to the Caribbean.

[Ray Funk is a fellow of the Academy at UTT and also a trial court judge in Alaska.]