Various Artists: Honest Jon’s Records Marvellous Boy: Calypso from West Africa

[Honest Jon's; 2009]

Styles: calypso, highlife, afro-cuban, kaiso, soca, colonial dance
Others: Lord Kitchener, Young Tiger, Lord Beginner, Mighty Sparrow

West Africa, for the geographically unlearned, is that selfsame region of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. The Gold Coast, the Ivory Coast, the Slave Coast: these names offer essential clues to the utility of these regions for the Europeans, mostly French and British, who ruled the area until the late ’50s and ’60s. Our interest here is in the British colonies: Nigeria, Sierra Leone, and Ghana, known as the Gold Coast before independence was granted in the ’50s. Explorers anxious to exploit the material wealth offered by the region encountered a myriad of barriers, including disease, impassable and unfriendly jungles, unnavigable rivers, and hostility from the much less than grateful local population. Economic instability was rampant, and the region’s indigenous peoples struggled to adjust to the pressures of a burgeoning global capitalist empire that brought development and ruin to the area.

Beneath the political turmoil and mercantile economic exchanges, cultural exchanges were occurring as well. Enter calypso, a musical genre that originated in Trinidad in the 1910s. Calypso is a syncretic musical form that blended the loud brassy sound of African colonial dance bands with the hedonistic free-wheeling ramshackle feel of Caribbean creole. Simmer with some African rhythms and a subtle political subtext, and you have the high-energy, fun-sounding music popular in such ridiculous contexts as the dinner party scene from Beetlejuice.

In fact, it’s too bad that Harry Belafonte has become the world-wide ambassador of calypso, since there is a much richer musical history underlying this genre that eclipses its use as a convenient party backdrop. Think about it: will we be saying the same thing about gangsta booty rap, drinking 40s, and having casual sex in 80 years? Will your kids be sick of your old party records the same way you think calypso is something lame yuppies play when they need to forget their mediocre lives?

In the 1940s and 1950s, there were plenty of Africans traveling back and forth from areas like Picadilly in London, picking up musical ideas that had traveled (trans-ponded) from French-influenced areas in the West Indies. Guy Warren of the Tempos Band recalls traveling to London and playing alongside Kenny Graham’s Afro Cubists. He picked up calypso records and brought them back to Nigeria, where the highlife sound was already cemented. These kinds of influences made inestimable impacts of the development of new sounds.

On Honest Jon’s newest compilation, Marvellous Boy: Calypso From West Africa, we are deceived from the get-go. This is not truly a calypso comp; rather, it is a compilation of music hybridized from Afro-Cuban rhythm, French swing jazz, Igbo highlife, and colonial dance bands. Calypso is a convenient trope with which to label the overall feel of the album, but if you compare the gentle strumming on Ebenezer Calender’s “Fire Fire Fire” with the electric guitar, rocking trumpet, and distinctly Afro-Cuban drum sounds of “Bere Bote,” you get an idea of the breadth of this album’s reach. Calender’s recordings are the earliest on this comp, and comparing them with the later songs like those of Mayor’s Dance Band helps show the evolution of calypso in West Africa.

Marvellous Boy is meant to be the West African counterpart to the absolutely essential London Is the Place for Me series, which documents the calypso/soca scene of London during a similar period. By the ’60s, soul, funk, and R&B would begin to percolate through the musical minds of Nigeria, Ghana, Sierra Leone — minds like that of Fela Kuti. Calypso and highlife would slowly lose prominence until the Afro-beat/funk craze of the ’70s dominated. Taken in this context, Marvellous Boy is an excellent resource for those seeking to understand the precursor to Nigeria’s and Ghana’s post-British Empire music scenes. I abhor compilations like those purveyed by Putumayo, with their overtly elitist production values and slick sound. I’ll take the scratch of a 78 and a tuba beat over Putumayo Presents…, no questions asked. Indeed, this comp is brilliant for no reason other than that it captures in ethnographic precision a seminal period of West African music history. Something this raw and real stands as a true resource, exciting my ears in ways that the modern reproduction of the ’50s feel cannot.

The thought that this music only appeals to middle-class “most drunk at the cocktail party” entrants ignores the idea that it might actually be good for you to listen to an album as time/site-specific as this compilation. Repeated and careful listens are an excellent way for the uninitiated to begin training their ear to discern and enjoy the subtle differences of “world music” styles. Half of the effort that it might take to enjoy this album on a higher level can be accomplished by journeying to the Honest Jon’s site and reading their excellent expanded album write-up. I did my best not to reproduce the effort they put into telling the story of the bands and musicians that make up this compilation, and thereby leave it to you to discover the intriguing stories contained therein. Plus, there you can preview the tracks and feel yourself getting inebriated in a Sierra Leone nightclub. It’s much less expensive than traveling to Freetown, and if you hover in mid-air and dance like Winona Rider, that’s your prerogative. Ebenezer Calender wouldn’t judge.

1. Famous Scrubbs - Poor Freetown Boy
2. Bobby Benson And His Combo - Taxi Driver (I Don't Care)
3. Chris Ajilo And His Cubanos - Ariwo
4. Roy Chicago - Olubunmi
5. Mayor's Dance Band - Bere Bote
6. Steven Amechi And His Empire Rhythm Skies - Nylon Dress
7. Ebenezer Calender And His Maringer Band - Fire Fire Fire
8. Famous Scrubbbs - Scrubbs Na Marvellous Boy
9. Godwin Omabuwa And His Sound Makers - Dick Tiger's Victory
10. Rolling Stone And His Traditional Aces - Igha Suo Gamwen
11. E.T. Mensah And His Tempos Band - The Tree And The Monkey
12. Bobby Benson And His Jam Session Orchestra - Calypso Minor One
13. Ebenezer Calender And His Maringer Band - Cost Of Living Nar Freetown
14. Ebenezer Calender And His Maringer Band - Me Nar Poor Old Man Nor Do Me So
15. Bobby Benson And His Combo - Gentleman Bobby
16. Victor Olaiya - Yabomisa Sawale
17. The Rhythm Aces - Mami
18. Ebenezer Calender And His Maringer Band - Arria Baby

Most Read