Calypso Music

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I remember being fresh out of college and making my trip to Nashville, TN.  I was headed to spend the weekend hanging out with my friend Mat Britain and playing with his steel band for the weekend.  I didn’t know a lot about pan back then; I just new that I loved playing pan, listening to pan music, panorama, ANYTHING pan.  I had “the itch!”

Up to that point I had a good education in the world of pan.  I attended Western Illinois University, where Cliff Alexis was a major influence, as he made all of the instruments and would usually be there at least once a year to tune, help out with a concert, and occasionally give us some candid criticism!  :-)  Before I got there, Boogsie had been there as well as Leonard Moses.  While I was there, Tom Miller was a guest artist for a couple of years and Liam Teague (who was only 18 at the time) came in for a concert and turned our world upside down!!!

As my love and passion for the instrument grew, and my practice time increased, myself and a few friends started our own combo called “Caribe.”  We ended up playing quite a bit and had a regular gig that actually paid at a local upscale restaurant/lounge.  I remember listening over and over to Andy Narell’s recordings, Othello Molineaux, and any pan related recordings that I could get my hands on.

But something was still missing…

When I listened to ALL of the above mentioned pan players, I realized that there was something different; something separating them from the sound that I was getting.  Yes, some of it was definitely chops, but there was something much more organic and undefined, yet polished in what they were doing.  I remember being proud of a recording that we did as a steel band (still proud of it) and asking Tom Miller what he thought of my playing.  He had a lot of good things to say but one thing that always stuck in my head was the rhetorical question that he asked me: “How much calypso have you really listened to?”

As I got to know Mat Britain through meetings at various PASIC conventions and Days of Percussion, the chance came up for me to come to Nashville for a few days where I had a lesson with Mat and a weekend “immersion” in the world of pan through videos and recordings that he had in his collection.  Something very serious happened then, and I may not have even told Mat this to date.  He introduced me to a very influential recording (which is actually a compilation) that completely changed my outlook on the instrument: “16 Carnival Hits – Mighty Sparrow and Lord Kitchener.”  (1992 Ice Records)

Now, if you are a pan player, or a lover of Calypso music and you DON’T have this recording: stop reading this blog and immediately go online and find this recording, buy it, and listen to it at least 100 times…trust me you’ll be glad that you did.  These early recordings by two of the greatest Calypsonians ever are influential (in my opinion) in so many ways.  Not only have they set the standard, they are just jam packed with great melodies, harmonies, chord progressions, grooves, and are a veritable encyclopedia of how calypso should feel and sound.

This was it!!! This is what I had been searching for!  After listening to some of these recordings I was beginning to understand that playing pan wasn’t just about hitting notes…it was how you hit it, when you hit it, how you breathe, how you phrase.  Wow – I feel like I could write a whole book on just that topic alone.  The phrasing is so important!

You see, all music has the common theme that you have to start somewhere.  Everyone starts with the basics; scales, arpeggios, rhythms, etc.  You can’t really learn the blues by only listening to Blues Traveler…you can’t really learn to play jazz by only listening to Kenny G…you can’t really learn rock’n’roll by only listening to the Foo Fighters… You get my point.  Nothing against these artists; the point being is that you have to have a building block – you have to know your history!  You have to know the years of evolution that this music has went through to get where it is today.  Now, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to do something new, or innovative.  In fact, it should be encouraged.  However, it is my opinion that you’re not truly going to do something different unless you have some sort of foundation to build upon.

So my point, really, is that you should check out some old calypso recordings (which are sometimes hard to find) if you really want to know where all of this is coming from.  Pan players from Trinidad and the Caribbean have grown up immersed in this culture and music.  For someone like me – born in the heart of Illinois – it’s something that I have to search for and be immersed into.  I’m always on the hunt to find some great recordings.  I’m going to list some that I have in my collection that I really enjoy.  These are 5 recordings of old calypso music that have been really influential to me.  Keep in mind that I’m in no way saying that this is the DEFINITIVE list of recordings.  In fact, I’d love to hear about some new ones from you guys…  But if you’re not familiar with any of these, I encourage you to check them out:

1) 16 Carnival Hits by the Mighty Sparrow and Lord Kitchener (1992 Ice Records)

2) Lord Kitchener – Klassic Kitchener Vol’s 1, 2 and 3 (Ice Records)

– OK so maybe this list is seven recordings, as I recommend all three of these compilations

3) Calypso Calaloo – Rounder Records Compilation

– this is actually a companion disc to a great book called “Calypso Calaloo” which is a very detailed book about the history of Carnival and calypso music

4) Lionel Belasco – “Good Night Ladies and Gentlemen” (1999 Rounder Records)

5) Lord Invader – “Calypso in New York” (Smithsonian Folkway Recordings)

There are also some great recordings done by Alan Lomax (I believe they are called “Calypso after Midnight” and “After Dark”) that feature Lord Invader and other great calypsonians of days past.

I really feel that if you begin to listen to this music, you’ll really start to understand calypso a little more.  You don’t have to necessarily fall in love with it and listen to it constantly, but I think it’s important to understand it better.  I think that you’ll begin to notice some differences in the way you play your instrument in the future.


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One Response to "Calypso Music"
  1. 11/10/2010 21:53

    Paul G. Ross


    I’ve played so many gigs with people who say that they love playing calypso music and dig the style and yet I know they don’t listen to the recordings that you mentioned or even newer calypso/soca music. Therefore most American pan players don’t really have a good understanding of the style. I think this is very similar to when jobbing musicians play bossas. To me many musicians play bossas frequently and yet they are often played too heavy and without the nuance that the style calls for. I suppose the same could be said for almost any latin style. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been on gigs and the leader calls a cha cha and the bass player plays a bossa bass rhythm on the tune which takes it out of the style a bit. The point that you made so well is that we all need to keep returning to those basics of the style and listening to great recordings is key.

    All of the Ice Records recordings are fantastic. In addition to the 3 Kitch volumes I have the 4 Sparrow CDs and I also highly recommend the following three Ice Records recordings. 1. Lord Melody – “Precious Melodies,” 2. Mighty Terror – “Pan Poetry,” and 3. Roaring Lion – “Sacred 78s.” I’ve always liked that David Rudder uses a drummer more often than a drum machine.

    Another thing that I’d like to add is that musicians should listen in different ways. Since I’m a drummer I often listen to the drummer but I’d also recommend that pan players and drummer really get to know the tendencies of bass players and keyboardists. Ultimately we need to know the function of all the instrumentalists in a calypso band. I love to write and arrange music for steel band and that has made me look at music in a whole new way. Transcribing tunes from any style that you want to learn better will help you to play that style better. Try writing the exact rhythms that Bob Marley or even Sting use when they sing. It is sometimes very difficult to do but very educational.

    Paul Ross

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