Caribbean Voyage: Trinidad Carnival Roots

Various Artists

Rounder 1725

Jean Eustache Stoute: Patizan-Mwen I Las; Ay Sí Ay No [1]; Ay Sí Ay No [2]; Maypole Interview. Matthew Thomas & Kalenda Band: Regimen Mwen de Leon Mama; Sewe Wangala; Fire Brigade Water the Road; Israel on the Road, He Coming; Matthew Thomas & J D Elder: Kalenda Interview [1]; Kalenda Interview [2]. Vasco de Freitas & Tamboo Bamboo Band: Congo Bara; Fire Brigade Water the Road; Vasco de Freitas: Rollo the Ganja; Vasco de Freitas & Alan Lomax, J D Elder: Midnight Robber. Alfred Codallo’s Orchestra: Castilian; Ram Goat Baptism. Sotario Gomez Orchestra: Pasillo; Maysotis [2]. Alan Lomax & Cocorite Band: Hosein Description, St. James [1]; Alan Lomax: Hosein Description, St. James [2]. Cocorite Band: Hosein Drums, St. James. Rawlingson Hector: Sergeant, Give Me the Day Today; Rawlingson Hector: Call Ellen For Me. Pedro Segundo Dolaballie & Group: Maysotis [1]. Growling Tiger, Lord Iere, & Indian Prince: War. Mickey Bentic & Group: We Yo Ka Monte, Sewei.

As John Cowley points out in the extensive accompanying booklet, the spring of 1962 was a good time to be recording folk music in Trinidad, for independence was coming later that year, and there was consequently a mood of celebration, and enthusiasm for the local cultures whose musical aspects Alan Lomax was intending to document.  Cover pictureThe assistance of Dr J D Elder, from Tobago, was invaluable, for Elder had been documenting Trinidadian folklore since the early fifties, and his knowledge of the local music, and where the best musicians were to be found, made the month of fieldwork productive, wide-ranging, and of very high quality.  Cowley implies that the selection on this superb disc, which is designed to illustrate the traditions that contributed to the development of the Trinidad carnival, still leaves out a good deal of material, and it can only be hoped that more recordings from this instalment of Lomax’s Caribbean trip will eventually appear.

Anyone with an interest in Trinidadian music is surely going to buy this CD, so I don’t propose either to summarise the notes’ discussion of Carnival, or to describe the subtle and ingenious way in which the running order interweaves different aspects of the music of the island.  (I will, however, applaud Rounder for including the thing whose absence I so often lament–a map of the recording locations.)  Rather, I want to stress the way that the music on the disc illustrates the sheer richness and diversity of Trinidadian culture, which has taken in and synthesised linguistic, religious and musical elements from Spain, France, Britain, India and, of course, Africa.

The resultant creole cultures (not a single culture, given the way that different elements predominate from place to place and at different times) were not created without tensions, variously between colonial rulers and local people, between capital and labour (not necessarily synonymous with the foregoing), and between Trinidadians of different races.  Most cultural activities by Trinidadians of Indian and African ancestry do not overlap; Lomax was fortunate to find an exception in St.  James, Port-of-Spain, where there was some Afro-Trinidadian participation in the Muslim festival of Muharram (called Hosein in Trinidad).  play Sound ClipThe Cocorite Band - two bass drums, two kettle drums and a cymbal - included an Afro-Trinidadian, playing a drum called ‘Old Queenie’ which, as Lomax observes, ‘probably [gives the band] its hot lick.’ (sound clip)  Incidentally, Lomax manages to drop a startling brick when interviewing the musicians, by asking, "Everybody in the band is a Hindu, are they?"  This at a festival commemorating the martyrdom of the Prophet’s grandsons!

The Cocorite Band is one of several percussion ensembles featured; most extensively heard is the kalenda band led by the old stick fighter and chantwell Matthew Thomas; the band’s four barrel drums, and call-and-response vocals, are powerful and obvious evidence of the African descent of the stick-fighting songs (although I was intrigued to read, in J D Elder’s short history of calypso, included in the booklet, that the rural stick fighting tournaments were ‘organised by the Portuguese shopkeepers and publicans.’) The second of Elder’s interviews with Thomas gives some startling insights into the violence, and the deviant status, of the stick-fighters’ lives.  Prison and early death were expected fates in the old days, and the blood hole, which Thomas is clearly reluctant to talk about, was used for the collective draining of wounds, in a ritual of blood brotherhood.

JDE: What kind of damage stick men could make?
MT: Plenty, plenty damage…They could beat people.  Bust your head.  Do all kinds of miracles .…
JDE: Tell me what you remember.  What they used to do with the blood hole .…
MT: Well, when you get cut…you have to go there in the blood hole and drain the blood.
In 1884, drumming during Carnival parades was prohibited, and a remarkable substitute was developed, in the shape of the tamboo bamboo band, in which bamboo tubes of different lengths are struck vertically on the ground, thus creating a pitched percussion ensemble, augmented by tapping the tubes with sticks, and by bottles beaten with spoons.  play Sound ClipThe result is an extraordinary texture and timbre, which on first hearing, made me think of a minimalist gamelan.  This extract is from one of two versions of Fire Brigade Water the Road, an important song of defiance of authority, for the Fire Brigade’s hoses were used for crowd control during stick fights. (sound clip)

The French element in Trinidad’s culture is represented among the stick-fighting songs like Congo Bara and Patizan-Mwen I Las, the latter charmingly sung by Jean Eustache Stoute.  French music is also exemplified by the belair, We Yo Ka Monte, Sewei performed by an eleven voice mixed choir and three drummers from Plaisance, in the south east of the island.  The choir was formally trained, and it does show a little, but they are a great deal livelier and looser than most purpose built folklore ensembles.  play Sound ClipJean Eustache Stoute also contributes two brief versions of a Spanish Maypole song, Ay Sí, Ay No, despite being unable to understand the words, as she explains to Lomax after he has complimented her on the quality of her Spanish!  Here are all 17 seconds of the first version. (sound clip)

"Spanish is dying out now", Jean Stoute explained, even in her northern village, isolated by jungle and mountains; but Venezuelan string band music, which had featured on some of the earliest Trinidadian commercial recordings, was still being played in 1962, and played by master musicians.  The two string bands recorded by Lomax were both specially assembled for his visit, but they are so lively and assured that I take this to mean that they were constituted from the best musicians of their areas, not that they only played on special occasions, as representatives of a dying tradition.  Alfred Codallo’s Orchestra, from Santa Cruz, includes a flute, and is delightful listening, especially on Ram Goat Baptism, a paseo which the musicians identified as an instrumental version of a popular calypso commemorating a spot of clerical bestiality in the mangrove swamp.  The standout bands, though, are those from Lopinot, featuring the hot cuatro playing of Pedro Segundo Dollabalie and, on two tracks, the steamingly hot violin of Sotario Gomez.  The five and a half minute Pasillo is rightly described by Cowley as a tour-de-force; it’s one of those recordings (unissued until now, damn it!) that stands as a defining example of its genre, like Bill Monroe’s Blue Moon of Kentucky, Son House’s Preachin’ the Blues, or Margaret Barry’s She Moved Through the Fairplay Sound Clipplay Sound ClipIf Gomez hasn’t been listening to jazz fiddlers, I’d like to know where he got some of his ideas, and the rest of the band are no slouches, either.  Creole cross-fertilisation indeed, and it’s a privilege to be able to hear the complete performance; one extract can hardly give an adequate idea of Gomez’s endless inventiveness, and total command of his instrument, so I’m going to allow myself an unprecedented two. (2 sound clips)

And, finally, the English language, fashioned into a weapon of satire, insult, philosophy and sexual bravado by Trinidadians of African descent - mostly; Indian Prince, who appears on War, is one of a handful of East Indian calypsonians.  War is actually a surprising disappointment, despite the presence alongside the Prince and Lord Iere of the great Growling Tiger; all three of them seem verbally rather uninspired, and unable to decide whether to exchange insults, or to sing about the undesirability of the atomic bomb.  Better is Rawlingson Hector’s Call Ellen for Me, sung in both English and Creole French, although I’m not sure why the notes call it ‘spirited’, since it’s one of the most mournful minor key kaisos I’ve ever heard.

Best of all, though, is the entirely non-musical robber speech Rollo the Ganja, delivered by Vasco de Freitas, who leads a tamboo bamboo band elsewhere on the CD.  Robber speeches were recited at Carnival by masqueraders dressed as pulp magazine bad men, who would ‘hold up’ spectators for money, and attempt to outdo other robbers in rhetorical ostentation.  Lomax was looking for evidence of an underlying Creole culture on his Caribbean expedition, and de Freitas’ deadpan delivery, rapid fire rhymes, extravagant delight in long words, and surreal exaggerations resonate variously with calypso (see the extract below), toasting (both North American and Jamaican), rap, and the musings of the Texan folk poet and oil drum basher, George ‘Bongo Joe’ Coleman.  I used to think Coleman was unique, but I’m not so sure now.  There are differences, of course; Coleman was an improviser, and de Freitas is clearly performing a set text, which at over seven minutes long is, if nothing else, a remarkable feat of memory.  The important point, though, is that there are obvious common elements to the various ways that heightened speech is employed for effect in different parts of English-speaking black America.  Here’s are a couple of samples (and they are actually among the less fantastically elaborate sections!) of the crazed eloquence and cartoon violence that is the world of Rollo the Ganja, Son of the Morning Star.  I’ve laid them out as verse, since the rhythms, and the internal rhymes, seem to insist on it

In a picong during a calypso war, when your paltry verses are done,
with your dunce head I will have some fun.
I will give you rocks to eat for bread
and you will be numbered among the dead.
Your body will be going down the road,
but you spirit will remain under my control,
for whenever the death bell toll,
my flag unfurl for rebellion ...
At the age of one I started to see misery, that is when my mother was robbed from me.
At the age of two, I started to rob men, women and children too.
At the age of three, my […] was all free.
At the age of four, I entered into Lucifer’s door.
At the age of five, I started to rob babes from their mother arms and bury them alive.
At the age of six, I entered into the Bank of Monte Carlo.
At the age of seven, I made plan to destroy Earth and Heaven.
At the age of eight, my record were all straight.
At the age of nine, I entered into the worlds of crimes.
At the age of ten, I entered into the House of Parliament.
At the age of eleven, my great-grandmother fell down speechless and died,
that is when she heard of my miraculous conduct.
Then at the age of twelve, I kidnap the Bank of North and South America
and gain my battle in bullion.
That was the greatest rumour in manhunt history.
Fourteen thousand dollars were given for my capture dead or alive.
Ten thousand policemen died, nine thousand was injured.
Then policemen were afraid to follow my footstep to my graveyard,
for they know what lionhearted, cruel-minded, cold-blooded criminal I am.
I visited the house of death, but now I am standing here quite cool and calm.
But do you know what my intention is to do?
Use my revolver or dagger on you.
The idea of a robber speech was to make people hand over their money.  I hope that this review achieves the same end.

Chris Smith - 23.2.01

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