Just in time for Notting Hill carnival. I’ve only been in London at the same time as that famous celebration once. I caught some of the steel band showcase with a good friend on the Friday before the real festivities get underway, and then it proceeded to rain all weekend, and I found myself doing other things. I keep hearing it’s not the same as it used to be, but I hope to make it back someday anyway. There’s a lot of history in that celebration. In the meantime, I made this mix for our mutual edification. I do hope you enjoy it in good health.
Ray Silvester and his Orchestra – Funk Calypso
Maestro – Reveller
Beckett – Oppression
Duke – Is It Groovy Now?
Singing Francine – She
Sparrow – Play You Mas
Shadow – Carnival Is Fete
Crazy – Back To Pan
Lord Kitchener – Dog Bite You (1978)
Lord Kitchener – Body Argument (1965)
Ben Bowers & Bertie King’s Royal Jamaicans – Man Smart, Woman Smarter
Mixed at Eras Recording Studio, 226 East 50th Street, N.Y., N.Y.
Vinyl; Pro-Ject RM-5SE with Audio Tecnica AT440-MLa cartridge; Speedbox power supply); Creek Audio OBH-15; M-Audio Audiophile 192 Soundcard ; Adobe Audition at 32-bit float 96khz; clicks and pops removed with Adobe Audition 3.0; resampled using iZotope RX 2 Advanced SRC and dithered with MBIT+ for 16-bit. Converted to FLAC in either Trader’s Little Helper or dBPoweramp. Tags done with Foobar 2000 and Tag and Rename.
Welcome to our first blog post of 2016! My enthusiasm for tending to this blog has slackened once again, but this time it has nothing to do with my dear readership or the “blogosphere” in general and everything to do with the dour notes that ended my 2015. So why not start the blog-year with something (not completely) different?
I will leave it for another post to say more about my slowly gestating interest in calypso and soca music. But along with finding random interesting stuff at record shop digs or on the virtual stacks of the internet, over a year ago I asked a good friend with good connections among record dealers and traders to “hook me up” with a stack of such titles, because I assumed his city must be drowning in the stuff. I went home with a bunch of cool music that day but this is the first title I have gotten around to sharing here.
I don’t know a lot about keyboardist Ed Watson and his band Brass Circle, so any calypsonians out there feel free to write in with comments. About six months after getting this record, I stumbled on another one from 1982 in which the liner notes state that he had kept a group together for 20 years, so therefore he got his start in the early 1960s. A few enthusiastic calypso/soca/kaiso YouTubers have uploaded a bunch of his material spanning the mid 70s to the 90s. Although I can only assume lots of musicians came and went in this band, the sound on this record is definitely a group that has spent a lot of time in live performance. It’s from the transitional period when cheesy synth patches were just beginning to proliferate, but there is enough leanness to the overall sound – including lots of electric piano and guitar – that I actually find the keyboards glorious.
[EDIT: I’ve always thought of my blog as a learning process, in public, so I’m only slightly chagrined that I didn’t know Mr. Ed Watson was the arranger of the famous monster hit for Lord Kitsch, Sugar Bum Bum. I’m adding this here but I expect that my next Ed Watson post will have more information about the man’s legacy as I live and learn]
The four original tunes here are skin-tight smoking soca. Punchy horns, rippling rhythm guitars, and that bass drum that hits you in the diaphragm like you’ve been kicked by a startled horse who keeps perfect time.
Unfortunately, those are only half the tracks.
The tightly animated originals are interspersed with some cover songs of contemporary soul hits. And unlike with reggae artists, where a singer would reinterpret an American soul tune backed by a clever arrangement, there is no attempt here to turn these songs ‘soca’: they are pretty much played as straight covers, with the exception of the bouncy faux-reggae lilt given to “Sail On”. A couple of them are instrumental or only feature vocals on the chorus. They remind me of something you’d expect to hear a wedding band play: they’re not bad, but they are also nothing special. In fact a more apropos analogy would be a cruise ship or hotel band, and I think there might be actual historical considerations here (as opposed to just talking out my ass). Many a steel band and calypso singer made their bread and butter playing in hotels or on cruise ships for tourists. It wouldn’t be unrealistic to speculate that Ed Watson paid the bills that way at least some of the time. The kind of repertoire on display here – spirited originals alternating with familiar hits of the day – would not be out of place on the tourist circuit. We can be glad at least that Mr. Watson had good taste in his song selection: Larry Graham, The Commodores, and The Manhattans are the chosen purveyors of 1980 chart happiness. I can’t quite fathom the reason why none of these covers have a lead vocal, as singer Errol Asche seems more than capable of giving these tunes a worthy spin. Instead, they come off as a bit like karaoke backing tracks.
Okay, let me revise something I said earlier, about these covers being “not bad”: the version of Larry Graham’s “One In A Million You” is just downright awful, with a spiritless saxophone playing the vocal melody. It’s not my favorite Larry Graham cut anyway, but there’s no excusing this dreary rendition. I suppose these tracks were what the band played when it deemed it time to initiate an intimate slow dance, seeing as soca is seemingly inimical to slow couples-dancing. If your tongue is halfway down your partner’s throat I guess it doesn’t matter much how the music sounds or if the sax is slightly out of tune.
The other two covers are better, especially The Manhattans “Shining Star”, which really makes you want to sing along (hey the mic is wide open, go for it!). But rather than share a clip for one of the covers on this album, I’ll share one from another of his records to prove without question that the formula can work. In the clip below, witness what – as my friend Bertha Butt has proclaimed – may be the best version of “Feelings” ever recorded.
Seriously, I just love everything about the instrumentation, production, and arrangement. I want it played at my funeral in lieu of a eulogy. Pop culture historians are free to argue the point, but I contend that for a time in the 1980s and 90s, singing a few lines of “Feelings” was the pre-internet equivalent of being “Rick Rolled”. AND did you know the original singer of the tune, Morris Albert, was a Brazilian whose real name was Maurício Alberto? So there, don’t let it be said that my first blog post of 2016 had no Brazilian content.
The other record I have, 1982’s “Dat Is Soca”, is a more solid listen that won’t have you reaching for your ‘skip’ button as often as this one. With any luck I’ll post it some time.
Since I recently took a long break from blogging after being called an imperialist gringo pig spreading misinformation about cultures and countries that aren’t mine. So it may be a while before I begin posting lengthy pontifications again about whatever records happen to be tickling my earhole on any given week. Let me be perfectly clear that I am not from Trinidad andTobago, Barbados, Brooklyn or the Bronx and can make no pretense of authority on this music. In fact I only started collecting it a few years back. I could extrapolate on how I am interested in the ludic, carnivalesque aspects of it from a cross-cultural perspective, its place in the black musical diaspora and Caribbean history and sugar production, it’s cutting and off-color humor…
Or I could just stay that I’m drawn to it because it’s groovy.
This blog is about the discovery of music. Sometimes for you and sometimes for me as well. I started this blog in 2008 as just a fun way to kill some time when I was ‘between jobs’, so to speak, and while it has grown into something else I still like to think I’m approaching it the same way, as a genial way of sharing music about which I’m interested and usually at least a little enthusiastic, and about which I try to be informed to some degree. I have no problem with somebody chipping in to the conversation to drop some knowledge about an artist or a genre or a supporting musician if you’re inspired to do so, and if I’m mistaken about something, I’m generally happy to be enlightened. But if you come here to one-up anybody, to talk down or diminish with your conspicuous hipness, well then fuck you and the sanctimonious horse you road in on. Especially if you’re just here to spout some cultural nationalist horseshit about how foreigners can never understand your music and they should all stop listening / enjoying / talking about it. And especially when you haven’t even read the whole post I’ve written and just want a soapbox for your insensate hostility. The minute you open your mouth and that sort of drivel comes out, you’ve proven yourself an idiot.
And take note, because that’s about the only time you’ll hear me say that. I may be opinionated about some of the records I post, and sometimes curmudgeonly in my tastes, but I will never call someone an idiot for not agreeing with me about whether a song, record, or artist is good or great or awful. (OK, so if I’m completely honest with myself, this has sort of happened at least once in 6 years that I can remember. It involved somebody who was repeatedly slagging off Tim Maia because they “hated that disco stuff.” Perhaps I would be more diplomatic in my snark today than I was then..) Some of you will surely say I ought to have a thicker skin, and you wouldn’t be the first to say so. But sometimes I think it’s a rhinoceros typing in front of a computer on the other end, which would explain all the typos. To stop blogging on account of a handful of clueless asshats might have seemed unfair to the “fans” of this blog, and I know that those fans do exist. Guys and gals, sorry about the unexpected break. But you know, I’ve quit salaried jobs with good benefits and a pension and given less notice than I did for this blog. Maybe that impulsive attitude accounts for some of the mess in my life, but I have no qualms about moving on to something more interesting when things become a drag and harsh my mellow. So now before I go to play my bongos on the beach, let me tell you about this great calypso record I found.
Then & Now
1974 Camille Records LP-9039
1. So Sweet
2. Old Youth
5. Stella (Jump Up Records, JU-527)
6. Sugar (National Records 101)
7. Itch (Dem Boys Records DB-101, CAB records 107)
8. Garrot Bounce (previously on an LP by National Recording Company N.R.C. 01-1, and most likely as an early-60s single too) 9. He And She (1960s recording, I can’t find release info)
Produced by Camille E. Hodge
Photography – Woodie Wilson Cover design – Murray Sincoff
Flabbergasted rip. Vinyl; Pro-Ject RM-5SE turntable (with Sumiko Blue Point 2 cartridge, Speedbox power supply); Creek Audio OBH-15; M-Audio Audiophile 192 Soundcard ; Adobe Audition at 32-bit float 96khz; Click Repair; individual clicks and pops taken out with Adobe Audition 3.0 – dithered and resampled using iZotope RX Advanced (for 16-bit). Tags done with Foobar 2000 and Tag and Rename.
All the tracks on side 2 are monoaural recordings, collected from various singles on different labels. I did a stereo to mono fold-down on this side of the record.
One of the great calypsonians here, Lord Nelson aka Roberto Nelson aka Nelo, always brings the bounce. From what I can tell, this album is one side’s worth of “new” material, and a second side comprised of songs previously released as 7″ singles. The album should really be called “Now and Then”, because the first side is stuff that definitely hails from the early 70s, with little wah-wah guitar licks and somewhat funky arrangements, while Side Two shows more of the huge jazz influence in early 60s calypso. Lord Nelson had made records for the Camille label in New York since the mid-60s, most notably with Milo & The Kings on “Dove and Pigeon.” But these tracks are a bit earlier, and had all been released on labels like Dem Boys Records, Stateside, and National Recording Company. These labels were all based either in Trinidad and Tobago or in the UK. The LP’s failure to explain any of this possibly means the recordings weren’t being licensed through the proper channels, but presumably since Nelson was putting out full LPs on Camille in the mid-70s, this was fine with him. I guess that puts this album in the long tradition of “we don’t have enough new material for a full album, so lets scrape together some old chestnuts with those couple of new tracks you have.” Like a lot of genres, calypso was more of a singles market until the 70s anyway. Although the difference between the two album sides is definitely noticeable, the end result is less of a patchwork than it sounds and really a very enjoyable listen. As I said above (c.f.”rant”), I’m sort of new to collecting this stuff, but a lot of 70s calypso LPs seem to have a few really strong tunes or maybe even a fistful, but also some filler. Whereas previously there would be a surge in singles released for every carnival, now artists were putting out full LPs. This one, though, is all killer. It’s got a lot of really clever and funny stuff on it. Calypso is famous for its unsubtle double entendre, but Nelson excells at weaving narratives, like the wonderful “Immigration” which basically describes the results of someone jokingly shouting that word on a boat full of West Indians on the Hudson River, with an aftermath the equivalent of the proverbial “shouting FIRE in a crowded theater” scenario. This was a different time in the United States, when wry jokes and colorful stories could be told about flouting immigration laws, long before the massive deportations, draconian laws, and creepy wall-building of today.
“Garrot Bounce” is one of Nelo’s signature tunes. I’m confused about the provenance of this recording. I’ll presume it is the same version that appears on an N.R.C. long-player of the same name released in 1965. But there is a 1969 version on Youtube that is about six minutes long, the second half of which is one big jam. It appears to actually be the A and B sides of the 45 edited together flawlessly by the uploader. For the A side it cold almost be the same recording as this one (except in stereo). Anybody want to play spot the difference? Ain’t nobody got time for that. The backing group is Milo & The Kings and I suppose they had played this crowd-pleaser thousands of times, so an essentially note-for-note rendition shouldn’t surprise me. But flip the 45 over, and the song breaks down into this monster jam. I almost wish I hadn’t heard it, because the original is fantastic, but this version with an instrumental bridge has blown my mind. Anyway, check it out as it will give you a taste of Lord Nelson, but don’t get too excited about the awesome jam at the end because it’s not on it. I don’t see the 1965 version up on the ‘Tube (there is even a version up there falsely attributed to Nelson that is totally not him).
So, the first side of the “Then And Now” LP is cool and should titillate the soca fans out there and for people like myself who enjoy anything from the early 70s regardless of the genre, but the real gold here is on Side Two. “Stella” is another classic and wonderfully silly, not quite wacky enough to get played by Dr. Demento but it’s pretty funny. “He and She” manages to get in some observations on gender double-standards alongside some good jokes about ugly babies, and “Itch” is probably about VD.