The Growling Tiger of Calypso
Rounder CD 1717
It seems to me that calypso, like early rap and other lyrical rhyming styles, has as much to do with the calypsonian as it does to do with the music that provides the backdrop for his/her rhymes and verses. It is the calypsonian's lyrical creativity and wit as well as presentation, more than any particular melody, that makes or breaks a calypso or a calypsonian. In order to survive, a calypsonian must separate himself/herself from the heavy competition, usually by developing a unique image or performance style. Calypsonians often become personalities, and not just musicians. It therefore seems appropriate that a calypsonian would be included in the Alan Lomax Portrait Series, a series designed to highlight an artist's genius or individuality, rather than just present a particular musical genre.
In The Growling Tiger of Calypso, Lomax selected one of great stars from calypso's international heyday of the 1930's, Neville Marcano. The liner notes help give us some idea of what made the Tiger unique. He grew up in a home where French patois was spoken and this is said to have influenced his rhyming and pronunciation of English lyrics. The notes also tell us that the Tiger was steeped in the various French, Spanish, and African traditions that permeated calypso and that these influences explain his affinity for old-style minor key calypsos. Finally, we learn that his more subdued and serious lifestyle led him to resist some of the more risque lyrics found in the calypsos of many contemporaries ... I happily note that transcriptions of the lyrics of each of the calypsos can be found in the liner notes, since, as I intimated earlier, the lyrics are of the utmost importance in Trinidadian calypso.
There are 12 tracks on The Growling Tiger of Calypso, but two are second versions of other tracks and one is an interview with Neville Marcano about the nature of calypso. Following the interview is an informal, at times impromptu, calypso criticizing the use of atomic energy, particularly its use in weapons, which sadly holds as much weight today as it did in the 1960s when this calypso was recorded. Those weapons are still out there!
The highlights of the CD are probably the alternate (second) versions of Senorita Panchita and War, as well as Bury Boula for Me, a calypso composed by the famous calypsonian Lord Executor. Senorita Panchita uses English and Spanish to tell the tale of a romantic and at times humorous encounter with a rich Venezuelan lady. War is an example of "competitive calypso," in which two or more calypsonians seek to alternately outdo each other in the impromptu composition of clever verses. There is a similar tradition, called controversias, in the Spanish Caribbean and Latin America, and this may reflect some of the Spanish influence in the Calypso. Bury Boula for Me is about a corrupt policeman and unlike the other calypsos on this CD, this one has a repeated chorus which I felt gave it a nice sing-a-long character. Two other selections, When I Dead, Bury Me Clothes and Rose of Caracas, are not strictly calypsos. When I Dead, Bury Me Clothes is a calypso version of a kalinda (stick fighting song) and Rose of Caracas is an instrumental Castillian dance tune. Both of these pieces provide us with a glimpse of folk styles that are at the roots of modern calypso.
While I must admit that Trinidadian calypso in large doses can sometimes seem monotonous to me, I found the sound and substance of this CD unique and engaging. Part of what makes it interesting is the back-up string band, a group of musicians from Lopinot Trinidad, learnéd in the Parang tradition brought over by settlers from Venezuela. Also, there is a gentle nature to Marcano's vocals that I found enjoyable, even if it seemed contrary to his popular tag as the 'Growling Tiger'.
All in all, this CD shows us what calypso does best: make important social commentary and protest, pass on local stories and news, make witty but boastful references about the calypsonian, and rhyme humorously about romantic trysts. I think those who enjoy early Trinidadian calypso will find this CD refreshing, while newcomers or even those who are less enthusiastic for the genre may find a surprising joyful moment or two.
Nathan Luna - 25.3.99
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