Bobby Benson and his Combs - "Taxi Driver (I Don't Care)" (Marvellous Boy: Calypso From West Africa)
Perhaps best known as the specialty of Harry Belafonte and the background music to every Caribbean night your parents have ever hosted on their back porch, calypso’s deeply rooted cultural and political history was buried as listeners slowly moved further from the sugar plantations of Trinidad and closer to “Beetlejuice.” An evolution from West African kaiso, calypso grew in popularity following British abolition of slavery in 1834. The “Golden Age” of the style commenced around a century later in 1914 when the first recordings emerged. Early political acts such as Lovey’s String Band and Attila the Hun in the 1920s and ’30s paved the way for a more innocuous Harry Belafonte in the ’50s. It took over 150 years for calypso to undergo the transformation from a vital news source for slaves to default beach party mood music, but the latter reputation threatened to marginalize its original intent.
For the past couple of years, calypso’s plot has taken another twist. Long derided as fun but unfulfilling, a handful of compilations have attempted to reassess the worth of the music and the messages behind it in relation to what was happening in the Caribbean at the time. Honest Jon’s spearheaded this revival with the London is the Place for Me: Trinidadian Calypso in London, 1950-56 compilation in 2003. Others followed in a similar vein, exploring the relationship between the musicians, their audiences, their subject matter, and their geography. What makes the latest Honest Jon’s compilation, Marvellous Boy: Calypso From West Africa, that much more remarkable is how it exists in a sort of vacuum: Unlike other compilations documenting Caribbean immigrants and their feelings on home and living abroad, these songs speak to their audiences about Africa alone rather than Africa’s relationship to the Caribbean.
Cursory listens don’t give it away. Famous Scrubbs kicks off the compilation with one of the earliest African calypso recordings in “Freetown Boy.” Though kaiso’s mutant migration back across the Atlantic landed first in Sierra Leone in the ’40s, it didn’t take long for the infectiously upbeat music to make its way along the coast, and Bobby Benson’s “Taxi Driver (I Don’t Care)” appropriately follows Famous Scrubbs in the tracklisting as the first West African calypso “hit.” Considering most of these songs first emerged as poorly pressed 78s, the sound quality after decades of weathering is surprisingly strong: Brass playing and additional percussion touches to a song like Benson’s “Gentleman Bobby” or Steven Amechi and his Empire’s “Nylon Dress” are easy to hear even when the production may not be crystalline. Discerning the language is a challenge (logical, considering calypso was conceived in a linguistic hotbed that included Creole dialects, French, Spanish, and English), but the influences on what had been kaiso are clear. Jazz tinges in the music of Chris Ajilo and his Cubanos; the Afrobeat and highlife influence in Victor Olaiya; the folk strums of Ebenezer Calendar and his Mari.
Even still, the remarkable thing about West African calypso on Marvellous Boy is how these artists never directly speak of the music’s source. It’s almost tempting to read this as a subtle snub in acknowledgment of calypso’s own foundations in kaiso, but that’s likely reading too much into it. There’s no big talk of Caribbean immigration issues or burgeoning nationalism or the decline of the British Empire. Songs about taxi drivers and fashion trends and boxing matches emphasize the small picture, the mundanity of everyday life in Lagos. Ironically, this may be calypso’s latest twist: Despite an attempt at contextualizing it in the grander picture, the music here on Marvellous Boy stubbornly refuses to celebrate anything beyond the everyday. Your parents will love it.