Mighty Spoiler – Social Calypsonians

JW: I’m very happy to present another detailed and lively guest post this month. I’d like to introduce Pelle Holmgren of Sweden, a calypso admirer with a newly launched website, who reached out to me to suggest that he write something about material I had on the Sagomes label of Trinidad. Lo and behold, he really delivered. In his own words: “[I] fell in love with calypso after hearing Van Dyke Parks’ album “Discover America,” which begins with a few bars from an old calypso recording of Mighty Sparrow’s. Since that day I’ve immersed myself in calypso and its history. My dream is that all the fragile 78s and 45s, scattered among collectors all over the world, are reissued at some point in the not too far future.”

Theophilus Phillip was born March 23, 1926 in Princes Town, Trinidad, which was then under British colonial rule. He’s said to have been a clever boy and was early on attracted to the humor and creative wit of the calypsonians – the eloquent bards of the island. His father, a railway worker, wasn’t keen on the idea of his son pursuing a career in this field, it not being considered a very respectable one. The saga boys of calypso fame were known to be promiscuous party animals, flashy and boastful. Still, to earn one’s livelihood by singing calypso was difficult even for the top-ranking figures of the art form. Conditions changed in the forties, however. Thanks to the deployment of American troops during the war years, the island experienced an extraordinary influx of yankee dollars. By the end of the war, the entertainment business was in a better swing than ever.

Despite his father’s disowning him, young Theophilus left home for the capital in the mid-forties. He began his calypso career by singing in the House of Lords Tent on Edward Street. (A “tent” is a venue where calypsonians present their compositions to a money and attention paying audience.) He soon earned his nom de guerre, The Spoiler, because of his flair for writing on risqué subjects. In 1947, together with fellow calypsonians, among them Lord Kitchener, Small Island Pride, and Lord Melody, he helped establish the Young Brigade Tent that would foster a new, hot-blooded postwar generation of singers, who favored fantastical tales over reflections on politics and morality. The following year he won the annual Calypso King Competition, thereby becoming the Mighty Spoiler. The winning number was “Royal Wedding,” a song about the marriage of the 21-year-old future regent of England (she was the same age as Spoiler, incidentally). When Elizabeth was coronated in 1953, Spoiler won his second crown, reprising his 1948 winner as well as introducing what is perhaps his most famed composition, the hilarious “Bedbug.”

The song at hand was released the same year on the local Sagomes label. The label had its own recording studio in Port of Spain and was managed by Eduardo Sa Gomes, a music store owner and former agent for U.S.-based record companies such as Decca and RCA, who had recorded and issued an impressive number of Trinidadian calypsos during the previous decades. The track is a rare piece. It hasn’t surfaced on any reissues so far, nor been referred to in any books I’ve read on calypso history. Melodically, the general listener may find it somewhat simple and formulaic. The purported craziness of Allan Whittaker’s orchestra may seem to have been subdued a notch or two in this session. In fact, their honks and beats are barely audible, apart from in between verses. My guess is that this is not due to sloppy arrangement or amateurishness on the part of the engineer. Sure, the recording equipment was rather basic and the whole band had to share a single channel with Spoiler, but more importantly, when orchestras played with calypsonians they were in all essence backing bands. There was simply no tradition – and hardly enough grooves on the shellacs – to have a horn-man break away into a 10-plus-bars solo. So the audience wasn’t expecting any of that. What they did expect, though, was fresh, funny lyrics and a good story. Thanks to the balance chosen between singer and orchestra, Spoiler’s words are fully decipherable and enjoyable, even to a foreign ear (at least a calypso-friendly one, as mine) 63 years later. So let’s have a listen to the first two verses of “Social Calypsonians”:

 

I was riding my scooter in St. Ann’s
met up with some social calypsonians

/repeat/

I heard they announce the Mighty Zandoli
who was going to sing them ‘Miss Netty Netty’

Well, is that night Spoiler got to know
how white people does render dey calypso

And he started:
“Ne-thee, Ne-thee,
“I said to give me the article you has in your abdomen,
“Give me the article you has in your abdomen,
“The doctor said it’s a bottle of marmalade”

 

Repetition of the first lines of the first verse was a well-established custom in calypso that has held sway to this day. A plausible theory holds that this was a strategy developed in order not to let the opening words get lost to a more or less unruly live audience.

The venue in St. Ann’s might possibly be the posh Hotel Normandie, which used to cater to an American crowd. That evening, the stage was apparently populated by “white people”, by which Spoiler meant “not of Creole descent,” like most of the prominent Trinidadian singers. The term “social calypsonians” might be a way for Spoiler to say he didn’t consider them to be true calypsonians – who were supposed to write and sing their own material – but rather entertainers, calypso singers, who sang already well-known calypsos to please the crowd.

The singer, Mighty Zandoli, is presenting his version of calypso giant Roaring Lion’s “Netty Netty,” which goes back to the mid-thirties. The song, with its original chorus of “Netty Netty, give me thing that you have in your belly,” was banned in 1937 under the so-called Dance Hall and Theatres Ordinance for obscenity. When shellacs of Decca’s recording reached the customs in Port of Spain that year, the whole lot was seized and allegedly dumped into the sea. So instead Zandoli, an honorable crowd-pleaser, sings “give me the article you has [sic] in your abdomen” which was a line actually suggested as more appropriate – by the Police Department. (Not suprisingly, it never caught on with the general public). In her study Socio-Cultural Change and the Language of Calypsos, linguist Lise Winer remarks that “while the suggested revision is more ‘English’ it does nothing to change or obscure the original referent.”

A zandoli, for those who haven’t seen one, is a Caribbean lizard. There have been at least two calypsonians (or “chantwells,” as they were called initially) to use this moniker. One sang in the 1870s and the other, Sylvester Anthony, almost a century later. The Mighty Zandoli of Spoiler’s song might well have been a purely fictional character. Of the other singers name-dropped, the only one I have found a reference to is Lord Trafalgar, but he seems mostly to have been active in the twenties and thirties.

After listening to the clownish Zandoli and his phony refrain, Spoiler is amused enough to decide to stay and check out the next singer on the program. Spoiler relates:

 

Well, I run and put down meh scooter
I say, well tonight I go dead with laughter
I heard they announce the Lord Elephant
So that make the Spoiler walk little more in front

The announcer said “Friends, this is calypso,
“The Lord Elephant will sing ‘Canaan Barrow'”
The calypsonian said “If you don’t mind,
“I would rather sing them ‘Jump in the Line'”

Then he started

“Jump in the line and wiggle your anatomy,
“Mother, advance to the front,
“Jump in the line and wiggle your anatomy”

 

“Canaan Barrow” was another hit calypso, sung by King Radio in1948 (some sources cite Lord Melody as the composer). Its popularity gained it the status of “road march,” meaning its refrain was played and chanted in the carnival processions that year.

Lord Elephant has changed his mind, however. He now wants to sing the 1946 road march “Jump in the Line,” often attributed to Lord Kitchener. Its refrain and variants of it have been used in so many versions around the Caribbean (and on Belafonte’s massive hit album Jump Up Calypso for that matter) that it almost seems to have been born right into – or out of – the public domain. The words following the title usually go, “shake [or rock/wag] your body in time.” But Elephant, or perhaps the police or the patrons of the venue, deems that line too unsophisticated for the respectable crowd. So Elephant employs his poetical skills and comes up with… a stylish alternative. Again, Spoiler falls to the ground in heaps of laughter. And on it goes. One after the other, the calypso copycats fail miserably with their ridiculous accents and vain attempts to sing “decent” enough to keep potential censors at peace. Spoiler sure did have a ball that night.

As within the world of pop and rock stardom, alcohol was an ingrained element in the calypso community. Social drinking in the calypso and carnival season easily turned social calypsonians into solitary rumshop frequenters off-season, and Spoiler was by all accounts one of them. Mighty Sparrow (by now the king of all calypso kings) said of Spoiler that he was “one of the greatest calypsonians ever and I have never seen him sober a day in my life.” Throughout the fifties, Spoiler went on to produce some of the most imaginative calypsos ever written: tales about cat brain transplants and twin brothers, sleepwalkers and stalking shadows, female police officers and magistrates trying themselves, cases of canny backwards talking and extremely bad spelling. But years of intensive drinking finally took its toll on the bard. Spoiler died at 34 years old, on Christmas Eve 1960. He was buried at the Woodbrook Cemetary in St. James.

He did, however, return in 1981, when Noble-prized author Derek Walcott let the “Hot Boy” lend Spoiler two weeks’ leave from Hell, where all calypsonians are bound to end up – if you take their own word for it. Spoiler consoled his fans that he was still heeding the call of his youth: “I decompose but I composing still.”

– Lord Investor

Mighty Spoiler – Social Calypsonians

Notes
Label: Sagomes
Issue Number: SG 159
Matrix Number: SG 170 B

4 thoughts on “Mighty Spoiler – Social Calypsonians

  1. This has to be one of the best blogs I’ve come across in a long time. There’s nothing like reading good long-form essays (or even deep short-form ones) on great music that has largely been forgotten.

    I’m actually a student of Mark Lewis’, who recommended your blog highly. I can see why!

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