LONDON IS THE PLACE FOR ME: TRINIDADIAN CALYPSO IN LONDON, 1950-1956 (Honest Jon's) Rating: NNNNN Rating: NNNNN
if you want to hear the realnews and gossip in Trinidad, you don't listen to the radio or pick up a paper. You see your local calypso singer.A good 40 years before Chuck D labelled hiphop "the Black CNN," calypsonians were using music to document life in their communities. Equal parts town crier and stand-up comedian, the best calypsonians could distill the essence of a massive story -- a hurricane, election or a controversial cricket victory -- into a couple of hilarious, hard-biting minutes.
This applied in Trinidad, but also throughout the world, wherever large pockets of Trinidadians might settle. Calypso is at the root of the contemporary, high-octane soca you'll hear blasting around town this weekend, and has retained its social commentary. One of this year's most popular calypso jams is called Osama Say.
This excellent collection, London Is The Place For Me, shows the evolution of calypso in England during the early 50s, as the first wave of Caribbean immigrants landed. Culled from scratchy 45s and swinging big-band sessions, the set traces the roots of hiphop through the singsong commentaries of calypsonians like Lord Kitchener, Lord Beginner and the Lion, who were adjusting to life outside the Caribbean and commenting on events like the Queen's coronation.
The unqualified star of the set is the legendary Lord Kitchener, who chronicled global events like the creation of Ghana but was at his best talking about social issues, however minor.
The track My Landlady tackles a rent collector who can't provide hot water but still wants her cash on time. Underground Train is an ode to the joys of subway travel, while If You're Not White, You're Black deals with the fierce racism Kitch encountered when he stepped off the boat.
Kitchener can also lay claim to being among the first gangsta rappers, dealing with explicit bump-and-grind issues on Saxophone No. 2, a clever double entendre about a woman who "won't stop blowing his saxophone."
The other calypsonians documented here are no less salacious or hard-hitting. Lord Beginner's Mix Up Matrimony tackles the rise of mixed marriages in Britain, and his Victory Test Match documents the legendary West Indies cricket win over England. Young Tiger talks about watching the Queen in I Was There (At The Coronation), while a homesick Mighty Terror laments that there's No Carnival In Britain.
The stately, percussion-heavy rhythms on London Is The Place For Me slide between light rumbas, elegant swing and rootsy proto-ska, but the spotlight here is firmly on the lyrics. Crucial Caribana listening.