Smithsonian Folkways, which is more or less the US national record label, may be best known for championing artists across Americana roots music. But they also have a history of recording artists from around the world. With the boom in vinyl records, they’ve been reissuing a number of releases from their vast back catalog, some of which have been unavailable for decades.
One of them is a haphazard 1960 field recording of Tuareg women running through their repertoire of ancient desert songs. Another is Calypso Travels, a 1961 studio album by Lord Invader, one of the last recordings the Trinidadian legend ever made. His voice is a little ragged, but his deadpan sense of humor and often withering political sensibility are undiminished. Considering how, just like hip-hop, calypso has always reflected its era’s events, this is a real period piece.
There’s always been lots of cross-pollination going on down in the islands, which comes across immediately in the album’s opening track: Me One Alone has a striking Afro-Cuban feel, with call-and-response from the frontman and his band, slightly out-of-tune salsa-tinged piano, spare bass and conga and honking sax. He’s here to claim his title as king of calypso and once he gets the Americans involved (a seemingly very cynical way of looking at things), he’ll rule the island
Lieutenant Joe’s hit As Long As It Born in My House is bizarrely hilarious, a lilting litany of shotgun marriages and dubious patrimony. Likwise, the cheery Beautiful Belgic masks a cynical undercurrent of Cold War imperialist politics: remember, Trinidad only gained independence in 1962.
My Experience on the Rapper Band (i.e. Reeperbahn) is a funnier precursor to the Kinks’ Lola. Lord Invader shows off some surprisingly un-fractured German in Auf Wiedersehen and then examines the ongoing American Civil Rights struggle with the ironclad logic of Crisis in Arkansas. Finally, he drops the sarcasm: “I think you are afraid of the negroes’ intelligence.”
Lord Invader holds out hope for Fidel Castro with a sparse, biting cha-cha shout-out to him, then gives props to calypso contemporaries Mighty Sparrow and others in Carnival, a celebration of revelry at home and throughout the global Trini diaspora.
The drums rumble, the piano cuts loose more, and it seems like the bandleader is basically freestyling throughout Te We and Beeway, a couple of party joints. Lord Invader’s cynicism hits redline in Cat O’Nine Tails: if corporal punishment is legal in the colonies, then why not use it in the UK too? He follows that matter-of-factly with the anti-violence anthem Steel Band War and wraps up the record with Women Trying to Rule, a wry battle-of-the-sexes tale which extends to the British imperialist classes. Lots of good jokes but plenty of history here too.