Old, Gold and Still Bold

The Rough Guide to Calypso Gold
The Rough Guide to Calypso Gold (World Music Network RGNET 1213, 2008)

I was okay with calypso morphing into soca back in the ‘80s, but in subsequent years the music got too hyper-charged (and mixed up with stuff like rap) for my ears. Maybe there’s been some improvement, but I’m admittedly out of touch and don’t know. So it’s refreshing to hear a compilation of good, early calypso of the sort that flowed from Trinidad to the world beginning in the early 20th century. Some of the most enduring songs of the genre- “Scandal in the Family,” “Rum and Coca Cola,” “Ugly Woman,” “Man Smart Woman Smarter” and so on –are here, sung in stinging, mainly lo-fi style.

All the social/political commentary, sexual innuendo, folkloric charm, true-life tales and island patter that gave calypso a jump on the “world” music boom which came far later is heard in the cheeky artistry of Lord Kitchener, Lion, Atilla, Calypso Rose, Houdini and many others. Do these songs sound dated? Hell, yes. Some are even downright kitschy and least one (the instrumental “Old Lady Old Lady”) is so roughly recorded that you can’t tell if the beat is coming from strings or percussion. Yet many remain among the cleverest pieces of music ever.

The combination of Western and Afro-Caribbean rhythms and melodies, coupled with phrasing and wordplay that was about as close to exotic as many mainstream listeners were willing to get, gave a lot of these tracks a potency that’s still evident the better part of a century later. This disc may get you swinging your hips, grinning and shaking your head, straining to catch all the nuances or doing some combination of all three, but it’ll have you under its old time spell for sure.

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