Archive for the ‘Caribbean’ Category

Patrick Jones Tells the History of Calypso in Trinidad

November 12, 2015

LP-CoverPatrick Jones at age 71 Image from Cook Records 5016

Text by Caldwell Taylor from

Patrick (“Chinee Patrick”) Jones (1876-1965), pyrotechnician, political gadfly, human rights campaigner, anti-colonialist, Carnival band-leader and raconteur extraordinaire, is an unsung master of calypso.

He was a leading exponent of calypso‘s oratorical style, a form that characteristically contained four eight-line stanzas sung in the minor key. The oratorical was essayistic, expository and florid and it is no wonder that it was favored by calypso’s “connoisseurs of words”, including “Executor”, “Atilla the Hun,“ Growling Tiger” and “Pretender”. Echoes of the oratorical can be heard today in “Chalkdust”, “Valentino”, “Black Wizard”,  “Scholar”, and a Barbadian-Canadian bard  named “Structure”.

“Chinee Patrick” emerged in the first decade  of the twentieth century and in his heyday he did battle against songsters like “Fijonel”, “Executor” ,and “Chieftain Douglas”. In a 1956 interview with American folklorist Emory Cook,  Chinee Patrick recounted a 1920s lyrical “war”  against Lord Executor, then regarded as the preeminent extemporizer (“extempo artist) in the land and the true successor to “the greatest extempo calypsonian of all time”, the “Senior Inventor” (Henry Forbes).

Patrick Alexander Jones was born in Port of Spain, to a Chinese shopkeeper father and mixed (Euro-African) mother. Patrick’s father was a scion of
the Chen family, whose Chinese ancestors were known for their radical nationalist politics. Indeed, Patrick’s father and his father’s brother were both sent to the West Indies as indentured laborers, exile being punishment for the brothers’ radical  politics.

The following audio excerpts are from Emory Cook’s 1956 interview of Patrick Jones, released on “Calypso Lore and Legend”

Canute Caliste

November 4, 2015

A breakaway performed by Canute Caliste, violin, and group, recorded July 30, 1962 by Alan Lomax


Few internationally celebrated artists can have spent their lives working in humbler surroundings than the naive painter Canute Caliste, whose studio was a lean-to shack in the backyard of his wooden house on the tiny Caribbean island of Carriacou, off the coast of Grenada.

Surrounded by chickens and other farmyard animals, Caliste, who has died aged 91, produced fascinating, quirky paintings of island life that attracted a wide fan base in Europe and the United States, where art collectors embraced him as a charming and idiosyncratic painter in the primitive style.

Frequently as eccentric as the paintings he produced, Caliste had a sign at the end of his garden path in the village of L’Esterre that read: “This way to the great artist.” He may not quite have warranted that epithet, but, for many, his awkwardly painted figures and reportage style conveyed the charm and traditions of the Caribbean in much the same way that Lowry encapsulated industrial northern England. His paintings of fishing boats, cricket matches, carnival dances and domestic rows usually displayed a good deal of humour and no particular concern for accuracy – though a devout Roman Catholic, for instance, his painting of the Last Supper depicted 15 disciples.

Working mainly with acrylics on hardboard, Caliste could knock out 20 paintings in a day in his prime, and would run out of supplies almost as soon as he got hold of them. Though he had many other interests – and he was an accomplished musician – he lived to paint, and did so for most of his life.

Caliste claimed to have been inspired to begin painting seriously at the age of nine, when he was told by a vision of a mermaid that, if he followed the Bible, he could achieve anything he wanted. After that, mermaids appeared as a constant theme in his work, but his main preoccupation was the everyday scenes of Carriacou, an island 13 miles square, 23 miles north-east of Grenada.

Though he initially painted purely for his own enjoyment while making a living as a boatbuilder and fisherman, Caliste’s talent was spotted in the late 1950s by a local nun, Sister Trudy, who sold some of his works in a gift shop she ran. As tourism to the island increased in the 1960s, Caliste, by now well into his 40s, began to pick up word-of-mouth trade as visiting “yachties” trekked up the hill to his studio from the nearby harbour – or came by taxi from the island’s capital, Hillsborough – to buy souvenir paintings at a few dollars a time.

When an American, Jim Rudin, arrived in Grenada from New York in 1966 to open the Yellow Piou art gallery in St Georges, a friend of Caliste brought over a selection of his paintings from Carriacou, and Rudin liked what he saw. He exhibited Caliste’s work for the next 20 years, selling in decent quantities. Indeed, it was Rudin who suggested, in the 1970s, that Caliste write short commentaries at the bottom of his paintings to indicate what they were depicting. Caliste took to the idea, and his scribbled jottings, full of spelling mistakes and bad syntax – “Lovers coartin”, “general hurspetal in Grenada” – became one of his endearing trademarks.

Also in the early 1970s, the US-based anthropologist Donald Hill brought Caliste to further attention by including him in a doctoral thesis on Carriacou and buying up large amounts of his paintings, some of which he gave to Smith College in New York.

But Caliste’s big break came in the late 1980s, when another American, Lora Berg, who lived in Barbados and worked in the US embassy there, visited Grenada and happened to see his paintings. She asked to meet Caliste and decided to produce a coffee-table book, The Mermaid Wakes, showcasing his work. Published in 1989, the book brought Caliste to much wider attention, and almost immediately his work was in greater demand. Art lovers from the US and Europe began ringing Rudin to commission Caliste to produce works similar to those in the book, and his paintings even found their way into the collections of George Bush senior and the Queen.

As he became more renowned, Caliste was visited by foreign journalists and began appearing habitually in magazine articles and travel literature. The Grenada tourist board latched on to him as a marketing vehicle for Carriacou, and he was exhibited at venues around the world, including the Research Institute in New York, the OAS Museum in Washington DC and the Pedro De Osma Museum in Lima, Peru.

His paintings – always signed “Mr Canute Caliste” – were so unusual that they rarely failed to elicit a reaction, positive or negative. “People used to walk into my gallery and their eyes would nearly always fall on his work,” said Rudin. “Then they’d either say they were the best things I had in the gallery or ask me how I could exhibit such junk.” None the less, Caliste’s work generally met with puzzlement in the West Indies, where the general reaction was: “My child could do that”.

In terms of quality, Caliste’s golden era was probably in the 1980s, when he also painted some large works on canvas. In his latter days, the quality declined as his sight faded, and although he could still produce good work into his 80s when he put his mind to it, he fell into the habit of reproducing versions of scenes he had done before, rather than painting something new.

Relative to the average income in Carriacou, Caliste made a lot of money from his art, but most of it went on supporting his 22 children (predominantly by two women) and around 100 grandchildren. Even before the death of his wife Vonice – and well into his 80s – he was fond of keeping much younger girlfriends, and would be happy to supply them with various material needs.

As a result, he still lived in the same humble house, with its outdoor oven, that he had built for himself as a young man. He often said it was providing for his children that was the motivating factor behind his prodigious work rate.

Caliste’s lifestyle barely changed; he rarely left Carriacou, apart from a couple of funded trips to the US or to attend an occasional official function in Grenada as a VIP, and he produced many of his documentary-style paintings – such as those on the Grenadian revolution of 1979 – from television images and his imagination.

A quietly spoken but open and friendly man, he was slim and energetic throughout his life, and generous to a fault. If a visitor happened to make a personal trip to his studio, they were likely to come away with an armful of paintings bought for well below their market value. Even Caliste’s more mundane works sold for around $300-$400 and his better ones could fetch in excess of $2,500. But in person, he would happily sell at $10 a time, often throwing a second in free.

In Grenada and Carriacou, Caliste was more widely respected as a fiddle player who specialised in playing music in the endangered quadrille dance style. He performed at weddings and boat launches well into old age, and even featured as the star turn on at least two CDs of Carriacou music marketed around the world. What he lacked in technique he made up for with his dedication to retaining the old culture of Carriacou, which is known for its especially strong African tradition. As a result, the islanders called him, reverentially, “Old Head”.

· Canute Caliste, artist, born April 16 1914; died November 20 2005

Calypso Roots

June 18, 2015

The Ragtime Skedaddlers

June 2, 2015

from and

The Latest Popular Mandolin and Guitar Music, by The Ragtime Skedaddlers (

A hundred years ago, ragtime was America’s original popular music, a blend of African-American folk roots with marches and old-world dances. While usually played today as a solo piano music, in their time rags, cakewalks, and marches were often played by string bands consisting of mandolins, banjos, and guitars. Using arrangements published during the ragtime era, the Ragtime Skedaddlers continue the tradition of ragtime string bands.

Unlike other “traditional” groups who take their inspiration from various notions of New Orleans jazz or Chicago jazz, the Skedaddlers go back to a time when string ragtime, light-hearted yet propulsive, was America’s true popular music.  This trio doesn’t speed up or approach the music with either clownish levity or undue scholarly seriousness.

Rather, they are old-fashioned melodists, creating sweet lines that arch and tumble over one another in mid-air. It is as if Dvorak had been transplanted to a Southern or Middle Western backyard picnic or country dance in 1895 and had immersed himself in sweet harmonies and dance-like motions. The Skedaddlers are entrancing on their own, and a delightful change from the often heavy ensembles so prevalent in occasions of this sort.

This CD has a lot going for it. The musicians are talented and well rehearsed. The playlist has a theme (arrangements for mandolin and guitar taken from early publications) and the recorded sound is very good. The liner notes are filled with interesting historical data and minutiae about the composers, the arrangers and the early publications themselves. Quality artwork is featured, including many old photographs. And to top it off, the music is lively and likeable.

The Ragtime Skedaddlers are mandolinists Dennis Pash and Nick Robinson and guitarist Dave Krinkel. With this disc and their previous release (Mandophone CD0901), they have produced perhaps the only high fidelity recordings devoted almost exclusively to these early arrangements of rags and cakewalks for mandolins and guitar.

We are treated to perennial favorites (Peacherine Rag, Eli Green’s Cake Walk, Apple Jack, Chicken Chowder), rare discoveries (A Florida Cracker, Mississippi Bubble, Shiftless Johnson) and other enjoyable selections. To break up the cakewalk theme and add a bit of variety, the Skedaddlers have also included a Brazilian choro (Dengozo), an Indian intermezzo (Silver Heels) and an habañera (Cuban Belles).

Chanteys and Anthems

May 30, 2015


by Nathan Luna (

Bahamas 1935 – Chanteys and Anthems from Andros and Cat Island (Rounder 1822)

The sweetness of a voice rings out over a deep bass and extraneous fuzz in Round the Bay of Mexico, one of the more charming chanteys heard on Bahamas 1935.  The song is led by Henry Lundy, and bassed by David “Pappie” Pryor.  This song and most of the music found on this CD are products of the sponging days in the Bahamas when sponging crews would spend weeks at a time on the water in small sailboats.  It is primarily group vocal music and contains echoes of many other African-American and Afro-Caribbean vocal group forms, including spirituals, quartet singing, and work songs.

The characteristic style of singing found on most of the songs is known as rhyming.  A lead singer, or rhymer, usually begins the song by establishing the melody.  This melody is then taken up by a group of singers, or sometimes a single bass singer, which utilize multiple tempos, tonal levels, and rhythmic patterns to create a complex song structure over which the lead singer or rhymer can continue to improvise new lyrics or rhymes.

The effect is not far from quartet singing, though the multiple rhythms and tempos make for a generally more complex song style.  Apparently this complex style of singing found its heyday in the early 1900’s when spongers were plentiful and sharply declined with the failure of the sponge industry in the late 1930s.

Lomax, who recorded in 1935, appears to have arrived just before this decline and fortuitously so, in my opinion, for one thing that impressed me about these early recordings was the breadth of rhyming that could be heard when compared to later recordings of Bahamian rhyming, those found on the Rounder release ‘Kneelin Down Inside the Gate’, for instance.

Lomax, in an essay included in the booklet notes, proposes that the particular style of singing employed in Bahamian rhyming music stems from the Bahamian sponger’s connection to the sea.  He writes: “The distinctive effect of multiple tempos [found in the music] …  flows …  from the marriage of Bahamians to the sea and small sailboats.

A sailboat moving through the sea before a good wind moves in several tempos: the lift, plunge and roll of the vessel through the water, and the forward motion of the boat itself, which increases imperceptibly and with an effect of mounting thrill as sails are trimmed and as the breeze picks up.  Other rhythms can be heard in the rapid slatting of ropes against the sail, the slow creaking of the mast and the blocks, and the slide of water along the side and perhaps against the deck.” (more…)

Peter Was a Fisherman

May 23, 2015



Peter was a Fisherman (Rounder CD 1114)

Melville and Frances Herskovits recorded the selections included on Peter was a Fisherman, in 1939 in a village in Trinidad.  The 34 tracks on the CD include a number of song styles ranging from primarily African songs sung in Yoruba to Creole/European quadrille and reel songs.  The range of songs recorded helped Herskovits to theorize a spectrum of African influence in American music, from music with high African content (usually religious music) to music with only trace African content (usually European forms with some African rhythmic sensibilities).

Listening to this collection of songs, I got the feeling that Herskovits was more interested in how the elements of the music fit into his ideas of African retention in the New World than in the experience of the music itself.  While a number of the songs are pleasing to listen to and most are fascinating examples of early Trinidadian musical traditions, I found the songs lacked the energy, the vibrancy, of those found on the Lomax CDs.

This may in part be due to the poor nature of the recording equipment Herskovits used, but I wonder if there isn’t some other explanation for the monotonous and sparse sound of much of the CD.  Perhaps the musicians felt uncomfortable performing for this foreign couple, or in front of a microphone?  Perhaps Herskovits hoped to isolate certain themes in the music and therefore insisted on a simple presentation?  Who can say?

Five of the more historically important songs on the CD are sung in Yoruba by Margaret Buckley, a 70 year old woman who was the daughter of Yoruba speaking parents.  While these songs are undoubtedly interesting, particularly to linguists, the use of Buckley’s son as a single backup drummer results in the loss of much of the rhythmic complexity that might otherwise have been present if the normal three drum orchestra found in most Yoruba music had been used.

Some life can be heard in the sankeys of the Spiritual Baptists, or Shouters, who are the resident Black Protestants of Trinidad.  Sankeys begin as European style hymns and then transition to an African-American musical style know as ‘trumping’, which is a series of rhythmic groans and shouts – hence the name ‘Shouters’ – that can lead to spirit possession.

The Creole/European music forms, which include a number of reels, quadrilles, and carnival songs, seem to survive the poor technical quality of the recordings a bit better than the forms with greater African content, perhaps because they depended less on drums or large groups of voices, which tended to distort the sound.  Ine Ine Katuke, sung in the untranslatable ‘Wild Indian’ tongue, and When Me Baby Born, O are both nice examples of these Creole forms.

Calypso Dreams

May 1, 2015


The feature-length documentary film Calypso Dreams chronicles the fascinating spirit and traditions of Calypso music in the island country of Trinidad and Tobago, dating back to its complex Afro-Caribbean roots in the 18th and 19th centuries.

With narrative commentary by the popular Caribbean musician David Rudder, the film captures riveting, contemporary performances by a host of legendary Calypso performers with colorful “sobriquets,” including the Mighty Sparrow, Calypso Rose, Lord Superior, Black Stalin, Mighty Bomber, Lord Blakie, Singing Sandra and Mighty Terror, and pays homage to recently deceased Calypsonians, including Lord Kitchener and Lord Pretender.

The film also includes a rare and exclusive interview with Harry Belafonte on the issue of his early involvement with Calypso and his complex relationship with Lord Melody in the 1950s and early ’60s. Using a rich array of archival footage and photographs, Calypso Dreams illustrates how the music was corrupted and homogenized by the American music industry in the 1940s and 1950s, only to survive and, ultimately, thrive in international anonymity.

As with The Buena Vista Social Club, Calypso Dreams provides a cultural rediscovery—in this case, of a musical tradition that has been bypassed by the mainstream for decades. It is a celebration not only of the music of Calypso, but of the intense sense of community it engenders in Trinidad and Tobago, and of the art form’s dynamic social and political roots, which sustain it.

Big Bamboo

March 18, 2015

Early Caribbean Dance Tunes

February 25, 2015


Mandolin Tab for Ten Early Caribbean Dance Tunes – Paseos, Meringues and more

In honor of an upcoming trip to the Spanish Virgin Island of Culebra in Puerto Rico, I’ve assembled ten Afro-Caribbean string band tunes from the recordings of the now defunct Etcetera String Band (Bonne Humeur) and Kansas City based The Rhythmia to work on while there.  Both bands have a knack for uncovering obscure tunes from Haiti, Trinidad, Louisiana, the Virgin Islands, Martinique and Venezuela.

Many of these tunes date back to the 1800’s and share similarities to common fiddle tunes and rags, while still retaining a distinctly “island” feel that helps tag them as being from the Caribbean.  Guitarist Kevin Sanders – a member of both the Etcetera String Band and The Rhythmia – helped me obtain a copy of the out of print Bonne Humeur CD last year which is definitely worth seeking out if you’re interested in this type of music.  All transcriptions posted here were done by Nick DiSebastian.  Here’s a YouTube playlist where some of these tunes can be heard.

This is a collection of dance music as played during the late 19th century and early 20th century in Louisiana, Haiti, Trinidad, Martinique and Virgin Islands. The music represents a blending of European and African music, contains elements later found in ragtime, and is essential to anyone interested in exploring the murky world of “pre-jazz” or examining the fascinating links between the musics of New Orleans and the Caribbean.

Mother and Wife

October 6, 2014

Kneelin’ Down Inside the Gate

September 29, 2014


Kneelin’ Down Inside the Gate: The Great Rhyming Singers of the Bahamas (Rounder CD)

from and liner notes by Jody Stecher:
When these recording were made in 1965 in Nassau, the Bahamas, these singers — including Joseph Spence, the Pinder Family and Frederick McQueen — were at the height of their powers. Coming from Nassau and the Andros, Abaco and Mores Islands, most of these singers were already over sixty years old when they recorded the lovely spirituals, anthems, rhyming songs and ballads heard here.

Today, this powerful and complex music has virtually disappeared, making the release of these recordings all the more invaluable and historically important. Kneelin’ Down Inside the Gate was recorded by Peter K. Siegel and Jody Stecher, the team responsible for the Elektra/Nonesuch label’s two volume series titled The Real Bahamas.

The first volume, issued in 1966, is a beloved and influential album, cherished and absorbed by countless musicians — such as Ry Cooder and Taj Mahal — and was the source for the Incredible String Band’s “I Bid You Goodnight,” a song that was the heartbreaking, joyous finale of live shows throughout their career. Except for three tracks recorded in 1965, the tracks recorded here come from the same legendary field trip that produced The Real Bahamas, and have never been issued before.

Rhyming is a uniquely Bahamian way of developing a song.  A singer intones verses, “rhymes,” over a repeating time cycle created by the words, rhythms, and harmonies of bass and treble support singers.

Joseph Spence’s “What a Beautiful Home” was recorded in Peter Siegel’s home in NYC a month before we journeyed to the Bahamas.  It captures Spence in a tender and reflective mood.  For me, it recalls his personal sweetness and the first words he spoke to me: “You like banana?”


Calypso Craze (Bear Family Box Set)

September 20, 2014



Calypso Craze (6-CD / 1-DVD boxed set (LP-size) with 176-page hardcover book, 173 tracks. Total playing time approx. 484 mns. – DVD: 14 chapters, c. 86 minutes)

From late 1956 through mid-1957, calypso was everywhere: not just on the Hit Parade, but on the dance floor and the TV, in movie theaters and magazines, in college student unions and high school glee clubs. There were calypso card games, clothing lines, and children’s toys. Calypso was the stuff of commercials and comedy routines, news reports and detective novels.

Nightclubs across the country hastily tacked up fishnets and palm fronds and remade themselves as calypso rooms. Singers donned straw hats and tattered trousers and affected mock-West Indian ‘ahk-cents.’ And it was Harry Belafonte – not Elvis Presley – who with his 1956 album ‘Calypso’ had the first million-selling LP in the history of the record industry. No wonder reporters and marketers joined the trade journals and fanzines in declaring a ‘Calypso Craze.’ In fact, by the time ‘Variety’ announced “Hot Trend: Trinidado Tunes” (on the cover of its December 26, 1956 issue), the Craze was already well underway.

How calypso came from Trinidad to America and found such celebrity, vying seriously (if only fleetingly) with rock ‘n’ roll for the affections of the nation’s youth, is one of the stranger tales of modern popular music. This collection offers an overview of calypso’s slow rise, heady prominence, and precipitous fall in America and beyond in the period surrounding the Calypso Craze of 1956-57.

•    Trinidadian calypsonians Lion, Atilla, Radio, and Caresser; Beginner, Invader, and Kitchener; Terror, Cristo and Panther
•    Trinidadian expatriates Wilmoth Houdini, Duke of Iron, Sir Lancelot, and MacBeth the Great
•    Other West Indians (and Bermudians) such as Lloyd Thomas, Lord Flea, Lord Foodoos, Mighty Zebra, The Talbot Brothers, Sidney Bean, Hubert Smith, Blind Blake, Enid Mosier, The Eloise Trio, Edric Connor, George Browne, and Frank Holder
•    Folksingers The Tarriers, Terry Gilkyson and The Easy Riders, Stan Wilson, and The Kingston Trio

Bonus DVD:
•    Unseen in over 55 years – a ‘Calypso Craze’ feature-length film never before issued on video or broadcast on television: ‘Calypso Joe’ (Allied Artists, 1957), starring Herb Jeffries and Angie Dickinson, and featuring Duke of Iron and The Easy Riders
•    Four short ‘soundies’ from the 1940s and 50s, with Sam Manning and ‘Belle Rosette’ (Beryl McBurnie), Broadway and big-band singer Gracie Barrie covering Stone Cold Dead In The Market, and Lord Cristo and the March Of Dimes Quartet

Mento, Not Calypso

September 9, 2014


mNOTcSmallMento, Not Calypso: the Original Sound of Jamaica (2 cds, Fantastic Voyage)

Though often erroneously regarded as simply a variation of Calypso, Jamaican Mento is a distinct musical style that developed independently from its similarly styled Trinidadian cousin. The genre remained Jamaica’s most popular form of indigenous music from the post war years up until the development of Shuffle Blues and its immediate successor, Ska, in the early sixties.

The distinctive sound produced by early exponents of the style was a result of the combination of vocals, banjo, acoustic guitar, hand percussion and a rumba box, all frequently enhanced by homemade saxophone, clarinet or bamboo flute.

Mento, Not Calypso! features some of the earliest recordings in the genre, dubbed directly from the original Jamaican 78s, with many featuring on CD for the first time. Compiled by Mento aficionado, Mike Murphy, the 2CD set is unquestionably the most definitive collection of the style yet to see issue and as such will appeal to those seeking to discover the origins of modern Jamaican music as well as the less discerning buyer simply wishing to enhance their summer barbecue!

The Guitar of Joseph Spence: DVD

September 7, 2014

spence dvdfrom
The Guitar Stylings of Joseph Spence (DVD)

To order online, go to the Guitar Workshop site.
For related music, check out my Bahamian Blind Blake page.

I saw Joseph Spence only once, when I was 12 years old, in a concert at

Harvard University with the Texas guitarist Mance Lipscomb. I can’t say I

remember very much about that particular concert, but I have been listening

to his music as long as I can remember, and he has always been one of my

favorite musicians.


I worked out one of his arrangements for the first time in the late 1970s,

among the first pieces I ever tried to learn note for note off a recording.

I can’t say I got very close to his fingering, but I came pretty close to the

rhythm, and that was what first fascinated me about his playing. I was

used to the straightforward rhythms of ragtime-blues, and Spence opened

up new possibilities that would eventually lead me to the Congo and lessons

from players like Jean-Bosco Mwenda and Edouard Masengo.


Over the next thirty years I learned about a dozen of his pieces, but it was

only after Ernie Hawkins put me in touch with Stefan Grossman and Stefan

agreed to do this video that I really buckled down and tried to get the pieces

right. The last three years have involved months of intensive woodshedding,

as well as many long conversations with Guy Droussart. (more…)

The Spring of Sixty-Five

August 21, 2014


Joseph Spence & The Pinder Family – The Spring of Sixty-Five (Rounder CD)


These recordings come from two separate occasions. Six tracks were recorded in New York City during Joseph Spence’s first tour of the U.S., and prominently feature Spence’s guitar and vocals, with harmonies and occasional lead vocals from his sister Edith Pinder. The other seven selections were recorded at the same sessions that yielded the Nonesuch Real Bahamas album, recorded in the backyard of the Pinder family, with Spence accompanied by incredible vocals from the Pinder family, Edith, Raymond, and Geneva.

Their vocals have the same rough-hewn rightness as Spence’s guitar, and the voices intertwine and create spontaneous counterpoint like some sort of coarse Bahamian vocal Dixieland ensemble. Or, as Jody Stecher says in the liner notes, “When the Pinders sing ‘When Jesus Calls Again’ they remind me of a big old living pump organ, complete with leaks and squeaks, and completely irresistible.”

– The Nassau Guardian:“Joseph Spence: The Unforgotten Legend”

Spence, as he was endearingly called by his siblings, his wife and inevitably everyone who came to know him, was raised with his sister and four half-brothers. In his youth, the Out Islands were still largely unpopulated, this meant that there was no access to mainland music. The influences that Joseph Spence did absorb came in the form of Baptist anthems, rhyming spirituals, Tin Pan alley songs, Trinidadian calypso, children’s songs and even Christmas carols. The ingenious guitarist broke new ground finding ways to combine and derive these musical genres into a format that better suited his own voice.The gifted Androsian was most heavily influenced while still in his teens, during a stint as a sponge hooker. Spence would take his guitar with him on these trips. The men whom he accompanied would often spend months at a time out in the “Mud” – the shallow waters where natural sponges were often found and harvested. The choral style developed on the Out Islands known as “rhyming” emerged when spongers were unable to return back to port in time for Sunday fellowship. Instead, they took bible verses, a few basic chords as well as an innate sense of rhythm adaptability and sang out their own service and prayers on the boats, utilisng a call and response format. Spence took hold of the approach and transformed it into something of his own creation. The teenager left the sponge industry one year before the great sponge blight in 1938, which wiped out 90 percent of the Bahamas’ sponge population.

The very first time that Charters heard Joseph Spence playing he was sitting on a wall at a construction site. Charters is said to have checked behind the wall for another guitarist, so layered and rich was Spence’s finger picking approach.

Some years later, in 1964, Fritz Richmond of the Jim Kweskin Jug Band visited the islands on behalf of Vanguard Records as a sort of fact finding trip to see if Joseph Spence was still around. Upon locating the elusive Spence, Richmond sent a a telegram back to the record company saying, “Spence lives. Bring 12 sets of metal bronze strings and a tape recorder.”


Masters of Mento

August 19, 2014

Chin’s Calypso Sextet


On  June 27, 2014, Ivan Chin, a remarkable figure in the history of Jamaican music, passed of pneumonia at the age of 90.   Chin’s Calypso Sextet is one of the most prolific and most fondly remembered mento acts of the golden age [1950s]. Chin’s was consistently a strictly rural mento band, with lead singer Alerth Bedasse’s mento voice and an instrumental line up of bamboo instruments, banjo, acoustic guitar and rumba box. The band was named for producer Ivan Chin rather than for any of it’s musicians.

Ivan Chin: The band consisted of a rumba box, a bamboo saxophone, a bamboo Flute, a banjo, a guitar, a floor bass guitar with four strings, a maracas and two heavy sticks called clave, which they knock together. All the instruments were made in Jamaica with local wood, bamboo and other things.

Although a handful of Chin’s tracks have appeared on compilations, most have never been compiled, and many of the original 78s are incredibly rare, even by mento standards. Most of these tracks have not been available since their initial release on 78 RPM singles in the 1950s. Many of these singles were limited to just one pressing of 400 copies, making them ultra scarce, even by mento standards. Some of these recordings were never pressed to vinyl at all, being released for the first time in any form almost 50 years after they were recorded.

In 2004 Ivan Chin began to (re)issue Chin’s Calypso Sextet, personally handling all aspects of this project. Ivan even provided his personal recollections that shed more light on this seminal golden age mento and label act than has been available before.

These CDs, though made by Ivan Chin, are being marketed by CD Baby.  The CDs collect nearly all of the 84 released Chin’s tracks, plus some that were never released. There is not a bad song in the bunch and the music, vocals and lyrical content are nicely varied. This is hard-core rural mento. The melodies are strong and catchy and the playing is excellent, as almost all the tracks have little jams between banjo, bamboo sax and/or flute.


Steel Band and Buck Dance

June 14, 2014

“West Indies: An Island Carnival”

June 5, 2014


West Indies: An Island Carnival (Nonesuch 972091-2), recorded 1969-71

Reviewed by  Tracey Hughes (“Old Time Music of the Americas”):

As Daniel Sheehy writes in the notes to this CD, “In Port of Spain, Trinidad,… you can sit in a little shop owned by a Chinese eating East Indian food served by a man whose mother’s father was African, mother’s mother Indian,  father’s father Irish, and father’s mother Lebanese… The same musician…may happily whistle the latest calypso hit while on his way to a religious feast where he will sing songs in Yoruba to [African deity] Shango, after having played jigs and reels in a dance band the night before.”

The many musical influences in this collection merge seamlessly to provide a joyous introduction to traditional Caribbean music that still stands up as the best, 30 years since its initial release.  Some highlights:

From Dominica, the Jing Ping Band pounds out a polyrhythmic merengue on button accordion, tambourine, guiro (scraper), and boom boom (bamboo-cane “tuba”).  This multi-layered style of dance tune, common all over the Caribbean, is traditionally delivered without guitar or string accompaniment of any kind, drawing your ear into the complex interplay between the three rhythm instruments and the irregular bass notes of the accordion.

“Masouc” (mazurka)  is a lovely example of a Caribbean fiddle tune, played by fiddler Julius Alfred on a Saturday evening with his band in the village of Soufriere, St. Lucia. The string band consists of fiddle, guitar, cuatro (4-stringed guitar), and shak shak (metal cylinder full of pebbles).  All over the Lesser Antilles string bands play tunes originally learned at plantation owners’ festivities for quadrilles, polkas, and waltzes.

The Spiritual Baptists, or Shouters, a Trinidadian sect, use no conventional instruments, “but the congregation clap their hands, stamp their feet, strike benches and chairs and make rhythmical sounds with their voices.'”  In their beautiful hymn, “Jesus Going to Prepare a Mansion for Me,” congregants gradually leave singing behind and break into pure hocketing and other improvised spontaneous rhythmic vocal effects in a dense outpouring of communal exhuberance.

“Mr. Walker” is played by a cocoa-lute duo from Grenada.  The cocoa-lute is a musical bow, played with one end held in the mouth, and a plucked a single string.  “Good Morning, Mr. Walker” was a huge calypso hit for the legendary Trinidadian calypsonian Mighty Sparrow, and later popularized by Bahamanian guitarist Joseph Spence.  Here, played on a single-stringed African instrument, it has been reclaimed by folk tradition, and played  with enough syncopation and drive to propel a hall full of dancers.

Sheehy: “For over half a millennium, the region has been host to a continuous flow of human migration that has left in its wake a kaleidoscope of cultural hybrids,”  and some of the most infectious music you will ever hear.  This anthology, still in print, is a highly recommended introduction.

Theodore Miller, Last Mento Fiddler?: 1922-2009

April 12, 2014



by Daniel Neely
Theodore Miller was born on August 1, 1922 in the Watson’s Hill area of Manchester, Jamaca, a rural district very close to the St. Elizabeth border.  The area he grew up in was full of mento bands.  Miller formed his first band in 1940 with two guitar players, his brother Alfred Miller and Allington Rhodes; the group played mainly at parties, booth, and quadrille dances.  It expanded in the 1950s and included, among others, Cleveland Salmon on rumba box.  In the 1960s, Mr. Miller and his band forged an important association with the Lititz community center, and through it began competing in the Popular & Mento Music competition in the National Festival for the Arts.

In 1967, his Lititz Mento Band placed first in what was their first year of competition.  Many competition successes followed–a bronze medal in 1969, silver medals in 1970-72 and gold again in 1973.  By the mid-1970s time it had become a Festival fixture and one of Jamaica’s most in-demand mento groups.  Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, it was a darling of the Jamaica Cultural Development Commission.  In recognition for its work in the “Preservation of Ancestral Rhythms” (an effort Miller led), the group received a Bronze Musgrave Medal from the Institute of Jamaica in 1998.

I interviewed Mr. Miller in 2002 and he took me to my first nine-night (it was in Santa Cruz).  The picture above is one I took of him playing that night–it was amazing experience.  I consider him one of the most important people I spoke with during my research.

Like Moses Booth (Rod Dennis Mento Band) and Vincent Pryce (Blue Glaze Mento Band), Mr. Miller was from the first generation of mento band leaders to be recognized by the post-independence Jamaican government for their contributions to Jamaican culture.  His passing represents a great loss.


Lititz PhotoSmall

 “Dance Music and Working Songs From Jamaica” by The Lititz Mento Band.

This CD was released in Germany in 1993 on GEMA.  Two video clips featuring  Lititz fiddler Theodore Miller can be seen on the Mento Video page. 

This amazing CD is available on iTunes.  Get it while you still can.  As far as we can tell, the Jamaican fiddle tradition is no longer.


“Mary Ann”

April 28, 2013

John Specker of Andover, VT plays Roaring Lion’s “Mary Ann”:

edited from Kaiso Newsletter No. 25 – July 14, 1999:

Mary Ann was composed by Roaring Lion (born Rafael de Leon, 22 February 1908 – 11 July 1999).   Roaring Lion was a  calypsonian from Trinidad whose 65-year career began in the early 1930s. Lion stated that he composed the song during an all day party on Carenage Beach on St Peter’s Day in 1941 but that it only came to light in 1945.

In Trinidad, Mary Ann was especially popular for VE and VJ Day celebrations where Carnival, which had been banned during the war years, was suddenly given free reign.  Mary Ann went on to become one of the most well known of all calypsos and the folk group Terry Gilkyson and the Easy Riders had a popular hit in the United States with their ‘adaption’ of it in 1957.

The Roaring Lion started appearing in the calypso tents in Port-of-Spain in the late Twenties, although the exact year is not clear. He was always impeccably dressed and known for his lion headed cane, he was a strong singer, and was recognized as a composer of all the major styles of calypso. Respected as an ‘experimentalist’ in calypso, he could write calypsos on any theme and while never crowned a calypso monarch, he was one of its greatest practitioners.   He was originally known as Lion Flaps but that was dropped as he found more success and he became Roaring Lion.

Jody Stecher and The Real Bahamas

April 21, 2013


The Real Bahamas (Nonesuch Records), recorded by Pete Siegel and Jody Stecher

by Jody Stecher (from liner notes):

We were strangers, conspicuously white-skinned, suspected of being Beatles (who had just been there filming Help!) or tax collectors. Peter Siegel was 21 years old; I had just turned 19. We had come to the Bahamas to record the spirituals and anthems of the region and, particularly, the distinctive Bahamian vocal style called “rhyming.”

On our first day in Nassau we began our search for the legendary singer and guitarist Joseph Spence. We asked everyone, and the response was uniform and predictable: “Sure mon, I know Spence”—until we arrived in his own neighborhood. Nobody knew of Spence, and a young woman standing in the doorway of a cottage sternly asked us why we were looking for him. When we said that we wanted to record Spence’s music she brightened and offered to take us to his house; gathering several small children from behind her long skirt, she escorted us next door.

Spence’s wife Louise seemed to be expecting us and served us conch fritters. In the corner was a black guitar leaning on a small amplifier bearing a sign: “Joseph Spence—The Voice from Heaven.” Spence himself came home, and after a tour of the banana trees in the back yard we set up a time to record him with his sister Edith and her family. This session was recorded in the yard of the home of Raymond and Edith Pinder, some distance away.

The yard was full of children and lush subtropical trees and plants. We began recording at dusk and, as the night deepened, more and more neighbors showed up. Edith’s husband, Raymond Pinder, sang bass, and their daughter Geneva sang the high parts (treble). With her strong and compelling voice, Edith sang lead most of the time. Joseph Spence would sing a part all his own, along with his unique guitar playing.

One song from that session, “I Bid You Goodnight,” became world-famous not long after Volume I of The Real Bahamas was released in 1966; the Incredible String Band and the Grateful Dead subsequently recorded the song, and it has also been used as the closing theme for several American radio stations.

The Reverend W.G. McPhee was very helpful in locating good singers and we recorded some of them at his home, including the Swain family and the legendary singer from Andros, Frederick McQueen, with his high-pitched, otherworldly voice and uncanny melodic sense. The Swain family—Shelton Swain, his son Ronald, and cousin Stanley—and George McKenzie were all from the island of Abaco. When still a boy, Shelton had learned his musical style in the sponge-fishing days from the great rhyming singer Peter Elliot; he recalled how Elliot took him on his knee after hearing him sing, saying, “Son, I could take you and run a nation.”

The Swains told us about a great singer, Bruce Green from Moores Island, and arranged a meeting with him. Mr. Green had with him two splendid younger singers, Clifton Green and Tweedie Gibson. The atmosphere of our hotel room, where this session was recorded, became elevated by the innate nobility and the pure, dignified presence of these three men.

We set out for Moores Island, hoping to find and record more rhyming singers but managed to get only as far as Marsh Harbor, on the island of Abaco. There we encountered Lyndall Albury, a singer of English ballads and folksongs. Marsh Harbor was founded by her ancestors, Loyalists to the English crown who had left the Carolina colony after their cause was defeated in the American Revolution. The layout of the village, style of the houses, the speech and bearing of the people were so much of another time and place that we felt ourselves bewitched and transported into a dream world far removed from 1965.

Bahamian Blind Blake

April 3, 2013


excerpt from Elijah Wald (

Blake Alphonso Higgs was the other Blind Blake–I assume his nom de guerre was in emulation of the blues guitarist, but it may just be coincidence. For many years he fronted the house band at the Royal Victoria Hotel in Nassau. His music was a unique mix of old island favorites, more recent calypso compositions and a quirky grab-bag of minstrel songs and ballads from the United States.

Minstrelsy was an especially important element of Blake’s work, evident both in his choice of the banjo and songs like “Watermelon Spoilin’ On the Vine,” “You Shall Be Free,” and “J.P. Morgan” (“My Name Is Morgan, But it Ain’t J.P.”).

Blake has none of the self-conscious dialect and overdone comedy that was typical of the minstrel genre, though, and his sidemen combined the jazzy guitar licks and harmonies of groups like the Ink Spots with West Indian rhythms, with the result that his recordings have an easy humor and swing that few musicians from any continent can match.

Of course, Blake also played lots of island songs, which he performs in a style that falls somewhere between the string-band calypso of Wilmouth Houdini and Jamaican mento, the slicker sound of tourist bands like the Bermuda Strollers, and the vocal group jive of American combos like the Cats and the Fiddle.

They range from folk ballads like “Run, Come See” to upbeat tourist favorites like “Conch Ain’t Got No Bone” and calypsos like “Love, Love Alone,” the comic saga of King Edward’s abdication to marry an American divorcee.

There is also a Joseph Spence connection: Blake knew Spence and provided his contact information to Fritz Richmond when Richmond went to Nassau to record what became the Happy All the Time album, and there are several overlapping numbers in their repertoires–which means that people who want to know what Spence was singing can often find out by listening to the Blake versions.

Epilogue to the String Band Tradition

March 25, 2013

Screen shot 2013-02-17 at 8.13.58 PM

from notes to “Epilogue to the String Band Tradition: Grand Curucaye String Orchestra of Trinidad (COOK LP 05020, 1956), by Emory Cook:

In centuries past, the Spanish string orchestra used to be something of the size of the Grand Curucaye. Then it was less difficult to hold together groups of eight or ten players to form an orchestra. Today, in the country, they still play for dancing and religious festivals, but during the last fifty years the size of the band has diminished to four or five, mainly because of organizational difficulties found in the climate and temperament. The character, the flavor has deteriorated, and the music has begun to slip away into a folk limbo.

The one thing that the Spanish demand from their music is an interesting complexity of rhythm. Until this point is well understood, the obscurity, occasionally repetitive nature and sometimes total absence of melodic line may deceive the listener into classifying the music as esoteric or ethnic.

Plucked suing instruments have a rhythmic attack rather totally absent in the blown horn. For instance, in a superficial sense the cuatro is strictly for accompaniment  and chords, but the Spanish do not listen to it that way. To them it is a rhythm instrument, imparting its nuances through the tiny variations made within the strict beat.

So also is the cello, with its string slapping percussively on the base of the neck. Above all this, a clear melodic line would have been sung in the old days, floating, legato and lyrical over the busy maddening accompaniment. Especially this would be true of the serenals, she Vieje Croix, and the galeron (corruption of “galeon”–galleon), a sort of Spanish sea shantey dating back to the 16th century, sung by slaves manning galleons in the naval battles between the English and the Spanish in the straits between Trinidad and Tobago, where the Spanish suffered defeat.

It is possible by listening with extreme care to pick out or to imagine a variety of hauntingly beautiful melodies and countermelodies buried in the old music of the Grand Curucaye Orchestra.

Listen here.

The Day Is So Long and The Wages So Small

February 22, 2013


from and

The Day Is So Long and the Wages So Small by Samuel Charters (Marion Boyars Publishers)

The quest to record and preserve the last vestiges of a fast-disappearing musical culture is vividly rendered in this account of a summer on the Bahamian island of Andros. In 1958, when Charters and his future wife, Ann Danberg, then in their early 20s, made their trek to the island, Andros was a barren, swamp-ridden backwater, with fewer than a thousand inhabitants, almost all descendants of Bahamian slaves.

A budding music historian, Charters (author of “The Roots of the Blues”) had discovered a series of Alan Lomax’s Library of Congress recordings of Andros folk songs from the late 1930s, and was so intrigued by the music–a fusion of 18th-century anthems and African polyphony–that he decided to seek out the musicians and their songs.

The Charters’ “discovery” of Joseph Spence was both fortuitous and coincidental. Sailing from settlement to settlement along the coast on small, locally made fishing sloops, they hoped to find and record traditional Bahamian music that had not been influenced by either tourism or the popular calypso music of neighboring Trinidad.

Lugging a heavy, suitcase-sized tape recorder, and traveling on the tightest of budgets, he and Danberg finally made it to the tiny settlement of Fresh Creek. On the porch of their mosquito and crab-infested house there, they recorded the guitar music of Joseph Spence and the ballads and rhyming songs of John Roberts.

“When you go out into a new part of the world with a tape recorder to look for music you always dream that someday you might find a new performer who will be so unique and so exciting that their music will have an effect on anybody who hears it. One of the few times it ever happened to me was in our first few weeks in the Fresh Creek Settlement on Andros. We went out one day about noon…. Some men were working on the foundation of a new house, and as we came close to them we could hear guitar music. It was some of the most exuberant, spontaneous, and uninhibited guitar playing we had ever heard, but all we could see was a man in a faded shirt and rumpled khaki trousers sitting on a pile of bricks. I was so sure two guitarists were playing that I went along the path to look on the other side of the wall to see where the other man was sitting. We had just met Joseph Spence.”

Still, they were assured that their project wouldn’t be complete until they had heard the voice of the legendary singer, Frederick McQueen. Charters’s final chapters document their search for the elusive musician; he concludes with a rousing outdoor performance by McQueen. The elegiac, leisurely pace of this slim memoir evokes the moods and rhythms of a long-distant island summer.

Lomax’s Recordings Return to Haiti

December 21, 2012

This video is an except of a longer film showing Anna Lomax Wood returning in 2010 to one of the sites of Alan Lomax’s 1936-37 Haitian recordings, and playing the recordings for the villagers for the first time.


On December 21st, 1936, Alan Lomax sent a report to Herbert Putnam, the Librarian Of Congress, about his first impressions after arriving in Haiti.  This quote is published here…

“I have looked about enough to be sure this is the richest and most virgin field I have ever worked in. I hear fifteen or twenty different street cries from my hotel window each morning while I dress. The men sing satirical ballads as they load coffee on the docks. Among the upper-class families many of the old French ballads have been preserved. The meringue, the popular dance of polite society here, is quite unknown in America and has its roots in the intermingling of the Spanish and French folk-traditions.

The orchestras of the peasants play marches, bals, blues, meringues. Then mama and papa and kata tambours officiate at as many kinds of dances ⎯ the congo, the Vodou, and the mascaron. Then there seem to be innumerable cante-fables [oral tales punctuated by songs or rhymes performed by the audience]. Each of these categories comprise, so I am informed, literally hundreds of melodies ⎯ French, Spanish, African, mixtures of the three.

The radio and the sound movie and the phonograph record have made practically no cultural impression, so far as I can discover, except among the petit-bourgeois of the coastal cities. And American jazz is hardly known here except among the rich who have visited America. Composition, by which I mean folk composition, is still very active. So I think I can say that unless a piece of sky falls on my head, this trip will mean some beautiful records for the Library’s collection.”

10 CD box set of Alan Lomax’s 1936-37 Haitian recordings available here.

Screen shot 2012-12-04 at 6.39.18 PM


Lovey’s Original Trinidad String Band

December 12, 2012



Calypso Dawn: 1912 (Trinidad String Band): 1-CD Digipac (4-plated) with 32-page booklet, 24 tracks, playing time approx. 72 mns.

This is the story of an exciting discovery. The very first recorded examples of calypso music.

When researching aspects of the history of the Caribbean, American ethnologist Dick Spottswood unexpectedly uncovered an unknown musical treasure. From the depth of a library he fished out several flat cardboard boxes containing matrixes. The accompanying note said the recordings were made by a 12-piece jazz orchestra from Trinidad in 1912: Lovey’s Trinidad String Band.

          Who were these musicians We do not know much about them, and the internet doesn’t either. It is known, though that in May 1912 the dance band embarked on a tour to the United States of America as reported by the ‘Port-of-Spain Gazette’ a couple of days before their departure. The ensemble had been founded by violinist Lovey (real name: George R. Baillie) during the last decade of the 19th century. So by 1912 they were by no means unknown in their home country.
         We can’t say for certain which cities, festivals and ballrooms the Trinidad instrumentalists visited in the U.S.A. But this is clear: they stayed in New York City from late June into July 1912 where they recorded several songs of South American rhythms, first in the studio of the Victor Talking Machine Company, then at the Columbia Phonograph Company. In doing so, George R. Baillie and his men made musical history; they were the first to bring the sound of Calypso onto records.
        Recording technology back then was in its infancy and scratches and noise were common. So it’s amazing that the sound of these old, uniquely important recordings is actually pretty clear. They sound no worse than recordings from the ’40s or ’50s, says Richard Weize who has restored and issued many Calypso pearls from the early days of shellac records on his Bear Family Records label. For the restoration of these historic recordings he couldn’t have secured the services of a better man than mastering expert Chris Zwarg from True Sound.
          These completely restored masters should be of special relevance for the state of Trinidad and Tobago. Fifty years ago, in the summer of 1962, the islands finally became independent from Great Britain. The people celebrated carnival for a week, remembering and celebrating their own identity. Half a century earlier, Lovey’s Original Trinidad String Band had played a substantial role in developing and promoting the identity of the people of Trinidad and Tobago.


November 19, 2012

Dewey Balfa plays “Colinda”:

edited from “Colinda: Mysterious Origins of a Cajun Folksong,” by Shane Bernard and Julia Frederick (Journal of Folklore Research 29, 1992):

The Calinda dance survives in several Caribbean locations, including Haiti, Bequia, Carriacou, and  Trinidad.  The main characteristic of the Calinda, according to Mina Monroe (in “Bayou Ballads,” 1921) is stick-fighting, which corresponds to present-day descriptions of the dance in Trinidad.  In 1760, in a study of the French colonies in the Americas,  Thomas Jefferys called it “a sport brought from the coast of Guinea, and attended with gestures which are not entirely consistent with modesty, whence it is forbidden by the public laws of the islands.”

The Provencal troubadour Raimbault de Vaqueiras composed a mildly erotic medieval dance song entitled “Calenda Maya” about 1200 A.D. Romanian rustic Christmas carols, called Colinda, descended from the ancient Roman New Year festival called the Calendae, which persisted in Eastern Europe several centuries after the downfall of Rome.

All these folk traditions are associated with themes of fertility and regeneration.

Harold Courlander suggests that the Calinda could be “an African dance with an African name, or a European dance taken over in part and adapted by the slaves, or a European name attached to a number of dances traditional among slaves.”

Speculation aside, the Calinda originated in Guinea prior to the late-seventeenth century.  It traveled to the New World on slave ships and arrived as several dances or as a single dance that evolved into many related dances in the Caribbean and Louisiana.

Caribbean Quadrilles in Vermont

October 12, 2012

This was filmed on August 10, 2012, in Brookfield, Vermont, USA, by ethnographer Nathan Paine.

edited from PETER MANUEL: “Contradance and Quadrille Culture in the Caribbean”:

Today as before, quadrilles are played by a variety of characteristic ensembles, many of them assembling in an ad hoc, informal manner where precise instrumentation depends on availability of performers. Quadrille groups might include fiddle, clarinet, flute, concertina, and various percussion instruments, such as tambourine, triangle, and scraped jawbone of a horse.

Quadrille melodies, like those of Caribbean contradances, are predominantly European in character, although they may be enlivened by conventional improvised embellishments and syncopations, as when St. Lucian fiddlers alternate phrases (and often renditions of a given tune fragment) in binary and ternary meter. The structure of individual movements in a suite is often informal; Jocelyne Guilbault notes how a fiddler may construct a section by freely repeating or alternating two or three short tunes.

In some cases, the fiddler may seem to be playing melodic fragments rather than full-blown, eight-bar melodies. Quadrille tunes in Guadeloupe and Martinique often consist of arpeggiated ostinatos rather than song-like melodies or sectional passages.

The quadrille (kwadril)  is still performed by groups in Martinique and Guadeloupe, who alternate hosting balls incor-
porating enthusiasts of different generations and social backgrounds. Guilbault notes that the relatively old age of quadrille participants in St.Lucia does not necessarily indicate stagnation but rather reflects that many people take an interest in the genre only as they age.

Perhaps at an informal soirée in 1790 in Port-au-Prince one might encounter some local whites dancing a French-style contredanse to English jigs and reels provided by a fiddler and flautist serving on a visiting British merchant vessel; a local
Franco-Haitian fiddler then joins the musicians and later teaches the tunes to his own friends.

Outside the city, on a plantation in the nearby countryside, three musically inclined slaves from Dahomey, Yorubaland, and the Congo are playing together on some drums the local Dahomeyans have built; while their own traditional rhythms are all somewhat distinct from each other, they soon settle on one based around a pattern that is at least implicitly extant in the traditions of all three. Meanwhile, the trio, with their master’s encouragement, has also learned to approximate a few contredanses on the two fiddles and a tambourine available in the “big house.”

European Quadrilles in the Caribbean

October 11, 2012

edited from

Dos-a-dos, promenade votre partenaire…” The dance calls and partner swinging might be familiar to your average American folk dancer, but this is no Appalachian square dance. We are at a “Creole Ball” and both the music and dance – a heady mix of African rhythms and 19th century European dances known as Kwadril – come from the French West Indies.

Behind the traditional dances of the French West Indies is a tangled transatlantic cultural conversation. Most North American musical forms have their origins in the marriage between African rhythms and European melodies – country music, blues, jazz, rock, etc. French Caribbean music is similar and the dance traditions reflect this.

Starting as early as the 16th century, the urban European upper classes began to adopt and “refine” wild rural peasant dances, such as the “country dance” (contredance). By the 18th century, these had evolved into new forms, such as the Quadrille or other “square” dances, which quickly became all the rage in ballrooms throughout Europe. These dances made their way – along with French colonists – to the plantations of the Caribbean. Lost yet? It gets more confusing.

Over time, the contredance and quadrille were “Creolized” by African slaves, who initially adopted the dances to mock their masters. After the abolition of slavery in 1848, Afro-Caribbeans took the dances and music to whole new levels, adding a bit of tropical sultriness into the genteel and courtly dance patterns. Quadrille became Kwadril, and other new Caribbean styles emerged out of European dance forms. Yet the dances still kept some of the aristocratic trappings from Europe – curtsies, bows etc.

Jamaican Music Roadmap

October 9, 2012

This should clear up most of your questions.

Copyright 1999-2011

All rights reserved.

Jamaican Banjo

September 30, 2012

Nelson Chambers


Banjo plays a primary role in Jamaica’s national folk music known as mento – an indigenous fusion of the island’s African and European folk dance traditions.  Other forms of music, such as Cuban rumba and Trinidadian calypso, have also been and continue to be absorbed into the mento style – and vice versa.

Mento has a characteristic 3:3:2 rhythm in quadruple time with an emphasis on 4th beat in a bar of 4.  The songs are usually in major keys and key changes are not common.  Mento songs are secular and usually non-political in nature, however the lyrics are often humorous and surprisingly bawdy.  These are sung in both standard English and Jamaican patois.

4-string banjo is the main instrument in mento.  Usually this is a tenor banjo tuned in some kind of fifths tuning, although not always to concert pitch.  If a tenor is not available, musicians will use a 5-string banjo and take off the 5th string – either capoed up or tuned in a “uke” tuning (essentially making it a plectrum banjo).  The most common mento instruments used to accompany a banjo include guitar, maracas and a rhumba box (also known as a marimbula).

Due to its volume and sharp tone, the banjo’s role in mento is both rhythm and lead.  Banjo players are given “breaks” between verses to improvise arpeggio-based solos that harmonize with the primary chords and suggest the rhythm.  These lead melodies often vary between eighth notes and quarter-note triplets creating a polyrhythmic banjo phrasing over the choppy upstroke of the guitar strum.

One of the best and most influential mento banjo players was Moses Deans – an original member of The Jolly Boys, mento’s best known group.  Moses Deans can be heard on the Jolly Boys’ excellent late 80’s to early 90’s albums Pop ‘N’ Mento, Sunshine ‘N’ Water, and Beer Joint & Tailoring.  These recordings feature Allan Swymmer on lead vocals & bongo and a have a rustic, natural feel.  Moses Deans passed away around 1998.

Another notable mento banjoist was Nelson Chambers (October 10, 1944-November 14, 2010), co-founder of The Blue Glaze Mento Band.  Nelson Chambers’ Caribbean banjo licks can be heard on Stanley Beckford’s two essential mento albums – Plays Mento and Reggaemento from 2002 and 2004.  Nelson Chambers also performs on Blue Glaze’s outstanding new studio release “We Will Wait,” one of the best albums to come out in 2011 and the last recordings he would make before his death.

Errol Flynn and The Jolly Boys

September 24, 2012

edited from

Mento was the music of the Jamaican dancehalls before ska, rocksteady and reggae came along. A people’s music typically played in the countryside on acoustic–often homemade–instruments, it dates to the late 19th century. Its lyrics often dealt with rude or slack topics, or addressed the social issues of the day. Although often confused with calypso (largely because calling it “calypso” was a handy way of marketing it to tourists who didn’t know any better), it has a rawness and rhythmic feel that is uniquely Jamaican.

In winter of 1946, Hollywood star Errol Flynn purchased Navy Island for the princely sum of US$80,000. For the next decade that small swath of land, not even 100 yards from the beaches of Port Antonio, became the berthing place for Flynn’s yacht Zaca, and the staging point for his unending parties that is today the stuff of legend. The entertainment Flynn featured most often in those days was a small local group called the Navy Island Swamp Boys which consisted of Noel Lynch on guitar, Moses Deans on banjo and “Papa” Brown on rumba box. The mentos, calypsos and rumbas they played were the perfect soundtrack for Flynn and company’s bacchanalian excesses.

When this group broke up in 1955, Moses and Papa reformed the group with Derrick “Johnny” Henry on maracas & drum, Martell Brown on guitar, and David “Sonny” Martin on guitar. When Papa couldn’t make gigs, Allan Swymmer was brought in (he later became a permanent member). Legend tells us that Errol Flynn named this group “The Jolly Boys” after the vibe he caught from their playing. With Flynn’s imprimatur, the Jolly Boys music quickly defined mento and calypso entertainment in Port Antonio and set a high musical standard. (more…)

British Ballads in the Caribbean

August 21, 2012

Excerpt from John Storm Roberts’ notes to “Under the Coconut Tree  – Music from Grand Cayman and Tortola,” (Original Music, 1982)

“Though recent music from both islands is heavy in calypsos… the traditional styles of both Grand Cayman and Tortola are fairly unusual in that they contain many purely British survivals and no purely African ones… In the case of Grand Cayman, this is presumably explained by the fact that there were no plantations on the island and only a fairly small number of domestic slaves, so that the percentage of people of African descent was relatively low.

The very strong British strain in Tortolan music is more baffling. Not only did the island have sugar plantations, and therefore a high African population, but a kind of ex-slaves’ revolt shortly after Emancipation caused virtually all the British settlers to leave. For almost 100 years, Tortola remained a de facto independent black state, British in theory but hardly at all in practice. Yet we found far more British survivals in Tortola than in Grand Cayman.”

“The Butcher Boy,” sung by Melcena Smith And Elias Fazer (from Tortola):

Sweet and Dandy

August 16, 2012

Check out this beautiful rendition of “Sweet and Dandy” by the Blue Glaze Mento Band.

Theodore Miller: Mento Fiddler

August 13, 2012

Pimento and Hot Pepper

June 1, 2012

Pimento and Hot Pepper” is a documentary about mento music by Rick Elgood.  The following is from the Bilmon Productions site:

Mento music is a fusion of African and European musical traditions that began in Jamaica in the 19th century. Although widely played throughout the island for many years, it wasn’t until the early 1950s that the first mento recording appeared on a 78 RPM disc. This decade was mento’s golden age, as a variety of artists recorded mento songs in an assortment of rhythms and styles. It was the peak of mento’s creativity and popularity in Jamaica and the birth of Jamaica’s recording industry.

Interviews include commentary from leading political, cultural and musical personalities. Musical performances include a panorama of existing mento bands from all across Jamaica, some of which have been playing continuously for 45 yrs.

Calypso at Midnight

April 7, 2012


Learning that Town Hall (in NYC) could be rented cheaply after regular theater hours, Alan Lomax produced a late-night concert series called The Midnight Special, which was thematically organized as Blues At Midnight, Ballads At Midnight, etc., and sponsored by the People’s Songs Collective.  A live recording was made of “Calypso At Midnight,” a concert held at Town Hall on December 21, 1946. The calypso concert recordings, made at Lomax’s request and later found by chance in a closet by Bess Lomax Hawes, may be the only extant record of this series. “This concert is a fascinating document of an American presentation of Trinidadian calypso at a time when interest in the genre was spreading from New York City into the mainstream of popular music in the United States” (Donald R. Hill and John H. Cowley, Calypso At Midnight [Rounder 1840]).

This material (newly available online) from Alan Lomax’s independent archive (over 17,400 digital audio files), begun in 1946, which has been digitized and preserved by the Association for Cultural Equity, is distinct from the thousands of earlier recordings on acetate and aluminum discs he made from 1933 to 1942 under the auspices of the Library of Congress.  Attempts are being made, however, to digitize some of this rarer material, such as the Haitian recordings, and to make it available in the Sound Recordings catalog. Please check in periodically for updates.



Jolly Boys

December 8, 2011

The Jolly Boys, a trio of elderly Jamaican musicians who play a rollicking type of folk music nearly forgotten by time, are enjoying an unexpected revival after nearly 60 years of entertaining tourists on the island’s hotels.

Playing on acoustic, sometimes homemade instruments, the group’s forte is mento — a Jamaican dance music created by the descendants of African slaves in the late 19th century. It features banjo, maracas, a rough-hewn wooden box with metal prongs to pluck bass notes, and often bawdy lyrics.

For Albert Minott, the group’s 72-year-old guitarist and gravelly voiced frontman, preserving the once vibrant musical genre and expanding its possibilities is a lifelong mission.

“Over the years, mento has been locked down in a cooking pot by these guys with their big amplifiers, big soundboxes. So it’s been quietly cooking, simmering,” said the dapperly dressed Minott, his brown eyes brightening in his deeply lined face.

“But now,” he said, “we the Jolly Boys take off the pot cover, spoon out the mento and serve up the good taste to the young people who didn’t know it. Nobody else can do it.”

“We’d been down all those years. It was rough. The officials in Jamaica, they don’t step forward to the mento. I don’t see why they turn their back on it,” said Derrick “Johnny” Henry, the band’s “rumba box” player who has worked as a fisherman when gigs were scarce.

Joseph “Powda” Bennett, a veteran Jolly Boy who is a member of Jamaica’s Maroons, whose ancestors were slaves freed by the Spanish in the 17th century to repel invading British forces, said their recent international success has effectively made them the biggest Jamaican band around.

“Over the years, we’ve stayed in the hotels preserving this mento. It’s finally paying off now,” said the 73-year-old Bennett, who has played in various incarnations of the Jolly Boys group, which has had at least 18 members over the decades.

“There are places we go now that we didn’t expect that we would ever know. Places that as a boy you read about in a comic book — Russia, Germany, France, Spain, England. And now we go to all those places. Isn’t that wonderful? To do that at this age,” said Minott, grinning. “Our grandkids brag about it.”  (edited from David McFadden, Associated Press,

The Jolly Boys sing “Bitter Cassava Killed Joe Brown”:

The Sly Mongoose

October 2, 2011

For the Western MA Apocalypsonians:  Roaring Spider,  Mighty Rabbit, Growling Vole, and Biting Tick,  please check out Maharajah’s mighty calypso blog:

and Yoyo’s incomparable Caribbean (and more) blog at

Many treasures to be found there.

“Roosevelt in Trinidad,” by The Atilla:


September 5, 2011

For an exhaustive collection of resources related to traditional Jamaican string band music, see

The classic mento sound is the acoustic, informal, folksy rural style. Still sometimes referred to as country music in Jamaica, it’s easy to imagine farmers and their families celebrating harvest with a mento dance. Typical instruments included banjo, acoustic guitar, a home-made saxophone, clarinet or flute made from bamboo, a variety of hand percussion and a rumba box.  Fiddle was occasionally used.  (edited from
Listen to the the 4th tune in the medley below for an outstanding example  of Jamaican country  fiddling. The recording is “Quadrille Figures 1-2-3-4 No. 8,” by Chin’s Calypso Sextet (more of their music is available on iTunes and