various artists,
Calypso At Midnight,
Calypso After Midnight
(Rounder Records, 1999)

These two CDs from Rounder Records' Alan Lomax Collection together make up the complete recording of the Calypso At Midnight Town Hall concert given in New York City on Dec. 21, 1946. The concert was a sampling of many of the styles of calypso popular in Trinidad at the time, and was given as calypso was beginning to make its way into American popular music, offering the American audience an introduction into its variety. Both the recorded introductions, supplemented by the superb liner notes, help one to appreciate the different pieces by putting them into context.

One can clearly hear some of the same rhythms and harmonic styles that developed into early ska and reggae. The calypsonians included are Lord Invader, the Duke of Iron, Macbeth the Great, and Gerald Clark and his band.

All of the songs are interesting, so I'll mention only some of them individually.

Calypso At Midnight includes "Ugly Woman," a song (deemed "sexist" in the notes) which declares the superiority of ugly over pretty women as wives. It's interesting to compare this to the song on a similar theme popularized by the Kingston Trio many years later. "Do Lai Do" is a working song, and one of the few that is not sung in English. "Rum and Coca-Cola," written and performed here by Lord Invader, has an interesting history involving a stolen copyright, and was popularized by the Andrews Sisters. A personal favorite of mine is "Three Friends' Advice," in which the singer, plagued by bad luck. is advised to join the Baptists, become a voodoo priest, or -- as he finally decided -- learn to dance!

Calypso After Midnight is the second half of the show, and has a Mardi Gras theme. The drumming solo is stunning! There's a calypso drama included -- a very short one -- in which a woman chooses the better-off and nonviolent of her two suitors; these musical plays, in longer versions, were a popular entertainment in Trinidad. "Te Way" is a song that traditionally accompanied stick-fighting contests. I really liked it, as well as "Calypso War," in which singers brag about their own accomplishments and disparage each others' using improvisation and very creative insults! This song is a lot of fun. The final song, "God Made Us All," is a passionate protest against racism.

The sound quality is clearly dated -- thin and scratchy. The accompaniments suffer the most from this; the lead vocals generally come through quite well. While I admire and value the authenticity of this recording, it did make me wish for an option in which the fullness of the sound had been restored so I could hear the songs both as they were recorded and as they had originally been heard; the recording offers tantalizing glimpses into the full richness that sound must have been.

The liner notes, as I said above, are superb! Both albums contain the explanation of Alan Lomax's concerts and radio series featuring different styles of folk music, Steve Shapiro's fascinating foreword, and Donald R. Hill and John H. Cowley's Calypso At Midnight notes and information. All are well worth a reading. Each album then contains the complete text of both the introductions to the songs and the lyrics of the songs themselves, plus additional notes and comments on each track.

These albums will be of interest to those who like any kind of Caribbean music, including reggae or ska, and possibly even dance hall; it's fascinating to hear that some themes haven't changed at all. And they're not merely of historical interest; despite the quality of the sound, I've found myself humming the tunes for days. I'm happy to have them in my library, and think they would be a valuable addition to people interested in historical folk or Caribbean music.

[ by Amanda Fisher ]



Buy Calypso At Midnight from Amazon.com.

Buy Calypso After Midnight from Amazon.com.