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Roaring Lion: calypso medievalism

June 25, 2010

In his 1978 book Calypso: From France to Trinidad, Roaring Lion (otherwise Rafael de Leon) argues against the orthodoxy that Trinidad’s calypso music has its roots in African folk song. Rather, Lion insists that calypso is the result of medieval French troubadour songs finding their way, via Acadia and Creole Louisiana, down to the Caribbean. It’s a thought that depends on quite a thrilling mental leap, a massive crossing of time and geographical space – and a touch of eccentricity, in the best sense of the word. Lion is completely in earnest when he labels the fifteen-century French poet Francois Villon a calypsonian. To anyone familiar with Lion’s music, this sort of eccentricity should be expected.

Roaring Lion was perhaps the most celebrated of the calypsonians of the 30s, and an important contributor to calypso’s breaking into the consciousness of American and British audiences. The calypsonians of the 30s were cocky, opinionated, dandyish – a true calypsonian was willing to discourse on any given subject, and in that respect Lion did better than most, displaying something of an eclectic genius. It’s quite fitting, then, that his book is peculiarly resolute both in its conception and execution.

Lion isn’t all that concerned with the sound of calypso, and his argument has little to do with rhythm, arrangement or other musicological considerations. Rather, he’s concerned with the calypso lyric, to the extent that he repeatedly insists that only the author of a song can be accurately called the “calypsonian”; the band playing the song are just an accompaniment. Calypso, then, is a matter of individual authorship, and Lion perfected the singular voice of the calypsonian, writing and singing about a range of subjects (historical, topical, social, only occasionally directly personal) with what must sound to us in our equivocating, ironizing age like an almost exotic, alien decisiveness. Of course calypso songs are often funny and sometimes a bit smutty, but there’s also a tendency towards studiousness, apparently in earnest.

Lion’s book is also a personal memoir, illustrated here and there by images with strangely-written captions such as the one accompanying a picture of a performance for Pope John Paul II: “Lion sings his way into the hearts of the Pope whose interest in the song was obvious.” Or, the weirdly redundant caption to the equally redundant photograph of some stars: “Astronomy, a fascinating, but bewildering scientific study.” This mix of personal pride and matter-of-factness is an extension of how Lion (and many more calypsonians beside) approached songwriting. Here are the opening lines from a later Lion song, in which he has his best instructive voice on:

I’ll tell you a story you do not know
It’s about carnival and calypso.

Not all that different from the semi-formal openings to folk songs, perhaps. But here’s Lion enthusing instructively about Bing Crosby, in a somewhat encyclopedic manner.

Bing has a most interesting personality, beloved universally
… Pipe smoking is his hobby.
He has a queer eccentricity – he takes off his hat very infrequently.

And he’s Lord Kitchener, whose turn of phrase is at times almost academic:

When speaking of good football,
You can never beat Manchester at all.

Here, Lion sends a report home, whilst visiting America:

I know you are expecting something will be said by me
About the sweet land of liberty.

The concern with authorship and the singular voice is obviously related to the central argument of Lion’s book, which extricates calypso from its supposed roots in African folk culture and the communality of a collective voice. The argument that Lion persists with both delights and troubles me. I can’t help but wonder what’s at stake in Lion’s eagerness to claim European rather than African heritage on behalf of calypso and, by extension, himself as an artist. The French troubadours are not evoked as anonymous folk artists, but (quite correctly) as aristocrats and courtiers. Lion gives a portrait of the troubadours from whom calypsonians are descended:

The social status and influence of the troubadours need no further proof than the fact that the first known troubadour was William IX, Count of Poitiers and Duke of Aquitaine (1071-1127)

The troudadour was a polished artiste and a refined poet. He refrained from prostituting his “art” by making a business of it; he left it to the musician or jongleur who roamed the country singing and acting for reward. Yet, he also sang, but never accompanied himself; he employed the Jongleur to do that.

This concern with status is present in the origins of calypso, which had its beginnings in the calypso tents at carnivals where performance was a matter of competition. The titles worn by Calypsonians – Lord Invader, King Radio, Lord Melody, and so on – are titles that were won on merit, but worn thereafter with an air of nobility. When Roaring Lion and Atilla the Hun were invited to America to record and perform on radio, they celebrated the fact on a song called ‘The Guests of Rudy Vallee’:

We’re going to make a wonderful gramophone record,
Living just like West Indian lords.

Now, in our own age, in my own country – Simon Cowell squats grimly, a solid manifestation of the neoliberal spirit that was perhaps always latent in popular music, acting quite openly on the implication that “pop” means “popularity contest”, in which the very blandest are rewarded and anything textured with a grain of the unusual is threatened with extinction from our pop-cultural landscape. Can the calypsonians – witty, political, critical, forthright, funny, not to mention musically eclectic – really be complicit in this state of affairs? Lion, in fairness, stresses that the troubadour (and by extension the calypsonian) did not “make a business” of his art, and indeed there is nothing apparently industrial about calypso. The elevated status aspired to by the Lords and Kings of calypso, I would argue, is a more personal matter. What’s more, the emphasis on singularity attempts to disguise, but also in a perverse way reinforce the collective nature of calypso. The singer (never, as Lion stresses, accompanying himself) may be a lord before a backing band of mere jongleurs, but that same singer might well find himself accompanying another lord in a later performance or recording session – most calypsonians were instrumentalists (for example, Lord Kitchener played the upright bass) who could and did play in bands for other singers. The gentility of the calypsonian, ultimately, is amongst friends and fellow-craftsmen – a folk gentility, if you will. And just as every carnival has a Queen, so each will have a King.

P.S. – The only Lion songs on youtube are from much later in his career, when calypso had become a bit too polished and poppy for my liking. Here, then is an mp3 I took the liberty of uploading: Roaring Lion salutes the Mills Brothers.

And here’s Lord Invader on reincarnation:

2 Comments leave one →
  1. February 8, 2011 11:15 am

    Hi. Nice post!
    I’ve been wanting to read de Leon’s book for some time now and thanks to your post I’ll be sure to pick it up as soon as possible. However – I’m very eager to find out what Kitchener tune you are quoting? (“When speaking of good football you can never beat Manchester at all”). And do you know if it’s been released on cd?

  2. February 8, 2011 12:32 pm

    Found it. Thanks anyway:-)

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