In his notes to Trinidad Carnival Roots, musicologist J.D. Elder calls calypso "undoubtedly the national song of Trinidad and Tobago." Today that "national song" has all but gone the way of its nineteenth-century predecessor, kalenda. A collection of 1962 field recordings by Alan Lomax, Carnival Roots recalls the glory days long before the reign of rapso and soca, when calypso was synonymous with a national pride that looked forward to a pan-Caribbean West Indies Federation. The federation was a bust, but Lomax chose his moment well for documenting the musical culture of Trinidad, capturing maypole songs, Venezuelan castilians and pasillos, stick-fighting songs, and other now-defunct styles that collectively spawned calypso.
John Cowley's creative editing of Lomax's material beautifully isolates source elements. The romantic Venezuelan dances show the Spanish melodic influences. "Israel on the Road, He Coming," by Matthew Thomas and Kalenda Band, demonstrates African-West Indian rhythm and melody, while "Fire Brigade Water the Road," by Vasco de Freitas and Tamboo Bamboo Band, hits hard with what Lomax terms "a brand of polymetric music of which any African tribe would be proud." In "Midnight Robber" calypso's loquacious roots can be heard in the outrageously bragging speech derived from the first part of the Twentieth Century, when the chief of a stick-fighting gang would goad a rival to potentially mortal combat. Lomax was at the height of his command of portable recording equipment here, putting the listener at dead center of the music.
Gathered a few years earlier, Calypso Awakening found calypsonians afire in the late Fifties with postindependence fever. These field recordings by audiophile pioneer Emory Cox boast even better sound quality than Lomax's. "Saturday Night Blowout," by the jazz-influenced John Buddy Williams Band, shoots out sparks of raw energy on an instrumental jam at the Carib Theatre in Port of Spain as the audience shouts its acclamations at the horn section. Cox's favorite trick was pretending to turn off his machine after taping a couple of songs in order to capture the spontaneity that usually eludes formal recording sessions. That technique hits paydirt here. Other big pluses: a trio of cuts from a tough outfit known as Small Island Pride and Carnival recordings of Lord Melody and Mighty Sparrow, when both men were at their peak.
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You-are-there bits include Sparrow performing "Yankee Gone" (a song that would later strike gold as "Jean and Dinah"), recorded from the audience perspective over the patchy PA of a calypso tent; a witty verbal picong duel between Melody and Sparrow; a steel drummer patiently beating his pan into tune with a hammer as onlookers kibbutz; and steel-band paraders playing their own rendition of "Yankee Gone" as they pass. This last bit is vérité taping at its best. As the band fades out of hearing range, the crowd begins singing the lyrics, illustrating Sparrow's popular triumph. Or, more poignantly, signifying the all-too-sudden passing of the heyday of calypso.