Calypso is often cited as the first genre to sell over a million copies: Harry Belafonte’s “Calypso” album released on RCA Records in 1956 holds that distinction. But the New York born, Jamaica raised Belafonte wasn’t an authentic calypsonian, a controversial issue addressed by Belafonte and others in the brilliant 2004 documentary “Calypso Dreams”. Belafonte’s “Calypso” was released more than 40 years after the very first calypso records were made-in New York City-but calypso’s lineage goes back much further, as the organically developed original soundtrack for the world’s ultimate street party, carnival in the southern Caribbean island of Trinidad.
The result of some 300 years of cultural interactions between African, Spanish, French and English traditions, Trinidad carnival’s celebrations are rooted in the elaborate masquerade balls staged prior to the Catholic Lenten season by wealthy French landowners and their slaves. Under the slave master’s restrictive eye, the Africans were permitted their own celebrations, referred to as jammette (in Trini vernacular jammette means outside the circle of respectability) carnival, which featured chanting, drumming, dancing and masquerading as African folkloric characters or as mockeries of their colonial subjugators.
Following the 1838 Abolition of Slavery, the rituals of the freed slaves permanently altered the identity of the staid French celebrations. The call and response vocals of the chantuelle (French Creole for singer) led bands of masqueraders in stick fighting and cane burning rites. String instruments were added to the satirical and oftentimes risqué French Creole jammette songs, which became known as calypso. By the early 1900s, English language lyrics had been incorporated into calypso, which was now performed in makeshift structures called tents, which, to this day remain annual carnival attractions.
In May 1912, five years before the first jazz recordings were made, Lovey’s String Band traveled from Port of Spain, Trinidad, to New York City with the specific intention of making records. Founded sometime in the 1890s by Lovey (b. George Bailey or Baillie), a violinist, Lovey’s String Band was reportedly Trinidad’s most popular act of the era performing a broad selection of dance music usually at elite dances or fancy masquerade balls.
According to a report in the Port of Spain Gazette, Lovey’s String Band departed Trinidad in May 1912 and seemingly spent most of June and early July in New York City where they recorded several sides, all instrumentals, for the Victor Talking Machine Company and the Columbia Phonograph Company. Many of these instrumentals had Spanish titles including “Manuelita”, “Cavel Blanco”, “666 Trinidad Paseo”, “Oil Fields-Trinidad Paseo” and “Mary Jane (Mari-juana)”(marijuana was still legal in the U.S. at the time of this recording, although by 1914 its usage would be restricted in several states, including New York, a precursor to the plant’s illegal status at the federal level in 1937). The Spanish influence, especially from nearby Venezuela, on Trinidad’s string music as heard in Lovey’s recordings, presented multi cultural marketing strategies for Victor and Columbia Records.
Ninety years after these sessions took place, in 2002, American ethnologist Dick Spottswood unexpectedly came across Lovey’s recording of “Mango Vert” (adapted from a traditional Trinidadian folk melody) for Columbia. Spottswood’s discovery led to the National Recording Board of the Library of Congress selecting “Mango Vert” for preservation, in perpetuity, in the United States’ inaugural “Top 50″ list of recordings.
While the 1912 recordings by Lovey’s String Band bear little resemblance to the calypsos that would be recorded throughout the 1930s and 40s, which ushered in the first calypso craze in the United States, these recordings remain significant in bringing exposure to calypso beyond Trinidad’s shores, while authenticating its status as the first recorded music of the English speaking Caribbean.
By Patricia Meschino