Kaiso No 31 December 28, 1999

With the end of the millenium, many calypso activities are afoot along with Carnival 2000 coming up very soon. I am growing very excited and can't wait to hear the latest songs!

Calypso on the Net

More calypso can be heard on the net all the time. At present none of the Trinidad radio stations are net casting. I wish they were as it would be a treat to be in Alaska and hear live broadcasts of the tents. However, a new venture has started up that will feature Trinidad music on the net. Check out: www.triniradio.com  They promise in a recent e -mail:
Between Christmas and the new year, tune in for 'A Century Of Calypso -the greatest hits of the last 100 years - we working round de clock to get some rare stuff from the '20s, '30s etc.'  And on January 1st 2000, it's 'Soca For The Third Millennium' - all the new releases!

The Charmer

The controversial leader of the Nation of Islam, Louis Farrakhan, was in the Fifties a leading calypso singer in the United States. Recently a new compact disc has been issued that collects all twelve of his recordings as the Charmer issued on Monogram label, The Charmer, Calypso Favorites 1953-1954, Bostrox Records 9908. The disc has been nicely re-mastered; it sports generally good notes and the complete lyrics to the songs, two photos of Farrakhan performing at the time.

Farrakhan was born Louis Eugene Walcott on May 11, 1933 in the Bronx and was raised in the West Indian community in the Roxbury section of Boston. His mother emigrated from St Kitts in the Twenties. His father was a Jamaican cab driver from New York but was not involved in his upbringing. His family moved to Boston in 1937. In high school he was both an honor roll student and track star. He also had shown musical talent from an early age, was an accomplished violinist and even performed on the Ted Mack Amateur Hour.

At age 16, he was started his calypso career by appearing in a nightclub in Boston as the Charmer. His mother came to watch him but disapproved of his more suggestive calypsos. According to biographer, Arthur Magida, he had been inspired by seeing the great New York calypso band of Gerald Clark (incorrectly identified by Magida as Joe Clark) at a fund raiser in Roxbury a year or two before. When it came time for college, he got a track scholarship and went to Winston Salem Teacher's College in North Carolina in the fall of 1950. He continued to play violin and organized his own calypso band and performed around the school. He performed a song reflecting his political concerns whose lyrics have not survived, America is No Democracy. He dropped out in the summer of 1953, returned to Boston and got married and became a professional calypso singer. The Charmer continued to appear in clubs for the next few years and it is during this period that these recordings were made.

The primary back up band for The Charmer at the time in the studio and in nightclubs was a band of calypso musicians from the Virgin Islands; Johnny McCleverty's Calypso Boys, who were based in New York at the time. This band later was joined by Johnny's brother Carl McCleverty and be called the Fabulous McClevertys. They were a popular act in nightclubs during the Calypso Craze and recorded an album on Verve. Their most memorable song was the entertaining, Don't Blame It On Elvis (For Shaking His Pelvis).

The Monogram label is not well known today and the history of the label is sketchy at best. It was run by Manuel W Warner and started in the late Forties and continued into the late Fifties. Monogram and its sister labels, Paragon and Ritmo had the most extensive catalog of calypso released in the United States in the Fifties. They featured recordings by some of the most popular United States based calypso artists like: Duke of Iron, MacBeth the Great, Trinidad legends like Lion and Kitchener leased from British labels, steelbands, as well as calypso recordings from Jamacia, the Bahamas, and even Panama. While a smattering of these recordings had been reissued in the Sixties or Seventies on budget calypso collections on the Request Sounds of the Caribbean label, this is the first CD to reissue any that I am aware.

The twelve selections feature a fascinating mix of the popular Trinidad calypsos and original compositions. The popular like Ugly Woman, Brown Skin Girl, Mary Ann, Hold ĎEm Joe and Donít Let Me Mama Know. To popular calypsos, the Charmer often added a distinctive twist to the lyrics.

Donít Leí Me Mother Know had been recorded in 1935 by the Kiskadee Trio (Atilla, Beginner, and Tiger) in the second expedition of calypsonians to New York. Its famous chorus gets changed. The original goes:

Take me Take me
I am feeliní lonely
Take me down to Los Iros
But doní leí me mother know
The geographic reference to the beach at Los Iros in Trinidad gets translated to ďloverís roadĒ in Charmerís version and the beach in the song is now Rockaway Beach rather than the one in Los Iros. This song was one that was quite popular in the Fifties. Versions of the song were recorded during the 1957 Calypso Craze by both the Duke of Iron and Trinidadian born jazz pianist Hazel Scott under the title, Take Me, Take Me.

Similarly, Zombie Jamboree which had been a hit for Lord Intruder for 1953 Carnival in Trinidad gets a similar locale transfer from a Trinidad cemetery to Woodlawn cemetery in New York. More on this fascinating composition in a future newsletter.

Hold ĎEm Joe is given a unique twist. This old calypso had been revived and had recently been featured as one of three songs that Harry Belafonte had featuring in the Broadway show in 1954, John Murray Andersonís Almanac. So perhaps in a bit of pique over Belafonteís success, Charmer sings about the donkey loose on Broadway and

I canít stand the donkey,
He driving me crazy
Why donít you ask Belafonte,
His donkey made him plenty money
One of the songs that is new is Stone Cold Woman composed by Samuel C Florman. Florman is not a calypso singer or even a West Indian. Indeed, he is a national known engineer and principal of a major construction company in New York. Florman had come to calypso lyric writing because he enjoyed writing poems and had been hired by Manny Warner to compose several calypso lyrics and this was one. But that was only a short lived hobby for him. His writing skills ended up being put to quite different use as he is much better known for a series of highly regarded books from Engineering and the Liberal Arts, The Existential Pleasures of Engineering, Blaming Technology, The Civilized Engineer, and most recently The Introspective Engineer.

The liner notes to the CD surmise that Farrakhan is the author of three selections, Is She Is, or Is She Ainít, Donít Touch Me Nylon, and Female Boxer and that is quite possible. The most interesting is the first of these three, a topical number on Christie Jorgensen, the subject of a series of sex change operations. While such transexual operations have since become more common, this was the first to receive high publicity.

George Jorgensen, a Bronx photographer had flown to Copenhagen for the operations and when they became known in December 1952 headlines in New York proclaimed, 'Ex-GI becomes Blonde Bombshell'. Jorgensen was suddenly a national scandal and a topic of much media scrutiny. All the publicity made her quite wealthy. Besides her photography and appearance on the lecture and talk show circuit, she appeared in nightclubs singing I Enjoy Being a Girl and Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered. Her story was exactly the type of material that came under the point of a calypsonianís pen.

Is She Is Or Is She Ainít

I am trying to find a solution,
About a certain person.
Trying to find a solution,
About a certain person.
With this modern surgery,
They changed him from he to she.

Chorus:
But behind that lipstick, rogue and paint,
I got to know is she is, or is she ainít?

I wonder what gave him
The idea and the spark
To leave this country, bound for Denmark.
He tried to live the life of a man,
But that was not in accord with natureís plan.
So he underwent this operation,
And came back home to shock the nation.

When he/she came back to this country
They made her a popular celebrity.
All the public sentiment,
She get a movie contract
And plenty engagement.
People came out of curiosity,
To see this amazing freak of the century.

When that lady walks across the stage
They call her the wonder of this modern age.
Now making plenty money,
Because of hormones and plastic surgery.
Drawing down twenty thousand a week
And not one listening to this record could get a peak.

The last song on the album is the instrumental, Trinidad Road March, features Charmer on violin trading licks with Gusatav Civil, guitarist for the McClevertys. The booklet notes to the CD have an unintentional inaccuracy. They incorrectly state that these are the complete recordings that Farrakhan made as the Charmer. There is at least one other, Tico 1070, New York Carnival /Rookoombay. There may be more. The Charmer had recorded at least demos in a local recording studio in Boston. However, the Charmerís career was short lived.

Farrakhan came to Chicago in February, 1955 as part of Calypso Follies show at the Blue Angel. While many night clubs would decide to change dťcor and feature calypso in 1957 with the Calypso Craze after Belafonte's million selling album, the only night club that declared an all calypso revue and had featured various calypsonians since the Fifties in the United States was the Blue Angel whose influence in bringing calypsonians to the US has not been documented. After the Charmer, the Blue Angel would feature first The Mighty Panther and then Lord Christo.

But it was not the Blue Angel that would serve as the important turning point for Wright but another event during his stay. While in Chicago, he attended a lecture by Elijah Mohammed, leader of the Nation of Islam. It would eventually lead in the next few years to his abandoning his career as a calypso singer and becoming a minister, Louis X, head of the Nation of Islam's Temple No 11 in Boston. From there, he would eventually become Louis Farrakhan and the leader of the Nation of Islam.

Even after becoming Louis X, he didn't entirely abandon calypso, issuing a few years later a political calypso on the church's A Muslim Sings label, A White Man's Heaven is a Black Man's Hell. It features Farrakhan's violin, his brother 'Alvan X' on piano and Gus Civil, the fine guitar player from the McClevertys. In 1984, Farrakhan released a twelve inch single, Let Us Unite and Benefits of Unity. I have been unable to locate a copy of it.

The Charmer compact disc can be ordered directly from the label's website, www.bostrox.com or by calling 888-229-2239.


Complete back issues of the Kaiso newsletter can now be found on the web at the excellent on-line world music journal, Musical Traditions. If you missed any, check them out at: http://www.mustrad.org.uk/articles/kaiso.htm

Keep those email messages and news coming to the cold and Frozen North.

Ray Funk - 6.11.99
POBox 72387, Fairbanks, AK 99707, rfunk@ptialaska.com

Part of Article MT044


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