The First Recorded Vocal Calypso: Iron Duke in the Land
Two years after the first instrumental calypsos were recorded in the Big Apple, sound engineers from the Victor Talking Machine Company (the forerunner to RCA records) located in Camden, N.J. sailed to Trinidad in 1914 with the intention of recording a full repertoire of the island’s indigenous music. The cosmopolitan population of the larger island of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago is reflected in various cultural expressions but especially through its music: the earliest recordings done in Trinidad included Spanish language parang (a seasonal music heard in the months leading up to Christmas, rooted in traditions from nearby Venezuela), Hindi language east Indian music, from the descendants of indentured servants brought to the island from India in 1845, and the clangorous rhythms made from striking metal objects with sticks or an open hand, the forerunner to the island’s world renowned steel bands. Of all of the homegrown
styles heard in these early recordings, calypso would prove to be the most commercially viable.
Several vocal calypsos were recorded during Victor’s initial session in Trinidad with “Iron Duke in the Land” by Henry Julian a.k.a. Julian Whiterose, widely regarded as the very first. Whiterose was a chantuelle, the lead vocalist of the Whiterose masquerade band who made the transition to (calypso) tent singer. By the early 1900s English words began replacing French patois in calypso; “Iron Duke In The Land”, a charmingly boastful declaration, was sung predominantly in English, accented with an occasional patois expression; Whiterose’s vocals were supported by a lively, somewhat jagged chorus of background singers epitomizing the chantuelle’s African derived call and response oral tradition. Just like the instrumentation heard in the 1912 recordings done in New York City by Lovey’s String Band (which included violins, upright bass, cuarto, guitar, flute) the initial recordings in Trinidad provided a link between late 19th/early 20th century dance music such as the English waltz, the Spanish paseo, and strains of American ragtime intertwined with calypso’s embryonic aural identity.
Whiterose recorded additional calypsos for Victor including “Bayonet Charge by the Laws of the Iron Duke” and the French patois calypso “Belle Marie Coolie”; “Iron Duke in the Land” is thought to be the only single from that historic session to have survived the past 101 years.
While in Trinidad Victor also recorded calindas, songs that accompany the ritual of stick fighting, sung by Jules Sims. Piano solos by Lionel Belasco were also part of this pioneering endeavor, the first of its kind for the English speaking Caribbean.
The same year the U.K. based Columbia Graphaphone company ventured to Trinidad and conducted would be the final recording session for Lovey’s String Band: Lovey (George Bailey) passed away in the 1920s.