I thought I hated calypso. I've heard Harry Belafonte's "Day-O" and The Beach Boys' "Sloop John B." and John Denver's "Calypso," and I don't like any of them.
But now that I've heard Lord Invader (aka Rupert Grant), I realize that disliking calypso because of those songs would be like disliking rock because of "Yakety Yak."
Lord Invader was amazing. His music was powerful and political, literate and lyrical. His music was funny and sexy and spiritual and violent and sad and proud and... and it was alive.
All of this, and every song is a story. Some are fun and silly, others are dark and troubling, but they all make for fascinating listening.
There are a lot of similarities between Lord Invader and the best hip-hop from the past 25 years. First of all, there's the same sense of oneupmanship. The album is filled with Lord Invader's boasts of superiority: In "Ten Thousand to Bar Me One," Invader equates singing to stick-fighting, and he tells his rivals, "Duke of Iron must surrender, Houdini it is fire and slaughter ... tomorrow is blood in the gutter, I mean to commit manslaughter." It's violent imagery, and it's a powerful metaphor for his musical superiority.
Big egos and boasting cannot make a vital album, though, as any hip-hop fan can tell you. There has to be some substance. At various moments throughout Calypso in New York, Lord Invader is political, spiritual, social, commercial, sexual, comical, and even humble (Invader loses singing battles in "Sly Mongoose" and "My Intention is War," while "My Experience on the Reperbahn" portrays his surprise at a German whore with some unexpected... uh... parts).
The music on Calypso in New York is definitely calypso. There are lots of steel drums and Caribbean rhythms, but don't let that scare you away. This is much closer to early reggae and ska than it is to the whitewashed, sterile garbage that has been presented to American audiences for the past 50 years. Most of the music sounds festive and joyous on the surface, but a good amount of the subject matter is very serious. There are only a few songs on the disc that leave me completely cold, and they are grossly outweighed by the tracks that are filled with passion and fire.
One thing that is especially notable is the richness of the lyrics. "My Intention Is War" is a (presumably improvised) lyrical battle between Lord Invader and Mighty Dictator. Invader busts out with lines like, "Dictator, you insolent boobie, delirious mule, audacious slum monger you're out of rule ... you gabilous squabbler illiterate ape, now you are in a terrible scrape." At the end of the song, after Invader has lost (which I don't understand, because his opening verse is awesome), Dictator offers a gracious, "Now Invader, you too are really great, and my statement no one can adjudicate, put your hand in mine, let our friendship remain sublime." This is great stuff, both musically and lyrically.
It's pretty much a given that anything from Smithsonian Folkways will have fantastic liner notes, and this is no exception. Prior to checking this out from EPFL, I knew nothing about calypso. Now, I know the names of a handful of the genre's greatest artists, I have a high-level understanding of its history, and I've got a half-dozen CDs on order from Ebay. There are only two flaws in the packaging that I can spot: 1) Not enough photos, and 2) The song title "Auf Wiedersehen" is misspelled, but that may be how the song is copyrighted, so I think I can forgive them for the typo. Anyway, the song more than makes up for the typo with the line "Hear them jivin' meine lieber, das ist screamer, which mean that I'm a good love-maker."
Listen if you like: reggae, hip-hop, or folk music. It's a must-hear if you like steel drums.
If it were food, it'd be: A plate of curry chicken, a bowl of callaloo, some plantains, and a few sugar cookies. And a rum and Pepsi-Cola of course.