After reviewing Lord Invader's Calypso in New York, I was excited to dig deeper into the genre of Calypso. Not the party music that is played in beach-themed bars and Tim Burton movies, but the music that Lord Pretender calls "true true calypso."
Needless to say, I was a bit disappointed when Lord Pretender's "Never Ever Worry" sets the tone for an album that parties a lot and worries very little.
One reason Lord Invader was so exciting to me was his acknowledgment that sometimes we need to worry about things. As an American whose exposure to calypso has been limited to the feelgood escapism of island fantasies, I want to hear about the 11 months of the year when Trinidad & Tobago aren't celebrating Carnival. Do people work? Do they get into fights? Do their parents die? Do they run out of money and beat up their wives and abandon their children? Lord Invader sang about those things, but only a few of the artists on The Rough Guide to Calypso and Soca follow his lead.
But maybe that's the point of Pretender's statement, "wherever you turn, somebody suffering more than you." Maybe calypso, and the more modern offshoots of soca and rapso, are the way that Trinidadians deal with the harsh realities of their day-to-day lives. Maybe they cope with their worries by throwing a party. It's not such a bad thing to do.
This is fun music that will liven up a party. The songs blend into an optimistic sheen of background noise, but there are a few standouts: "Cyar Take Dat" by Brother Resistance (a key innovator in the style of music called rapso) is a dark and socially conscious track that seems heavily influenced by both roots reggae and dancehall; "Jouvert" by Hunter & Laventille Rhythm Section reminds me of Fela Kuti; and "Mud Madness" by 3 Canal is filled with the kind of excitement that can inspire people to go crazy in the streets.
Given that calypso seems to be a male-dominated genre, it's a shame that the three female-fronted tracks are the most generic and flawed songs on this collection. Sharlene Boodram's "Joe Le Taxi" is the kind of third-rate dance-pop that mediocre record labels try to foist upon unsuspecting listeners every summer. Square One's "Controller/Feelin De Vibes" is clearly influenced by house and dancehall, but it fails to capture the very things that make those genres so special. Singing Sandra's contribution is by far the best of the three, but "Voices from the Ghetto" is as melodramatic and overwrought as Kanye West's "Diamonds from Sierra Leone." Of course, being melodramatic and overwrought doesn't necessarily lessen the social statement, and sometimes the only way to get listeners to pay attention is to beat them over the head with your message.
One of the best things about compilations that come from labels like Smithsonian Folkways or Rounder is the care and knowledge that go into the liner notes. If the booklet in Calypso & Soca is typical of Rough Guide releases, I'm not going out of my way to get any more of them. There's a half-page overview of the musical genre, followed by a paragraph on each artist (all of which sound like they were written by a publicist rather than a music lover), followed by the name of the album from which each song came, followed by five pages of advertisements. I read the entire booklet, and I learned nothing of value.
Listen if you like: World music, island-themed parties, island-themed parties where people play world music.
If it were food, it'd be: rum and Coke at a Friday night party.