Socialist Worker

Calypso in London: bittersweet sounds of rebellion

by Hassan Mahamdallie
Issue No. 1811

IN 1948 a young black man from Trinidad, Alwyn Roberts, was sitting on the deck of an old troop carrier which had been converted to civilian use. The ship was four days from England. Alwyn started to compose a tune. Although unknown in Britain, he was well known in the calypso tents of Trinidad as Lord Kitchener.

The lyrics to what became a famous song reveal the sense of anticipation that gripped the passengers on their voyage to the 'mother country':

London is the place for me
London that lovely city
You can go to France or America,
India, Asia or Africa
But you must come back to London city.

'London is the Place for Me' is the title track of a little gem of a CD that has restored 20 songs written by Trinidadian calypsonians living in London after the Second World War. The CD is a musical, social and historical document of the experience of those early West Indian settlers.

It covers the period that started with the high hopes of a new life in London, and closed with the Notting Hill race riots a decade later. Many young West Indians, working as manual labourers during the day, congregated in the jazz and dance clubs of the West End by night.

And they brought their musical traditions with them. Calypso has rebellious roots in the time of slavery and colonialism. It is a mixture of African, French and Spanish music, which developed as a musical expression of the yearning for freedom from oppression. During the 20th century calypso also became a political vehicle by which singers commented on 'issues of the day'.

So Lord Beginner's 'Mix Up Matrimony' talks about the high number of relationships between black and white and expresses the hope that this will eventually break down prejudice. Kitchener's 'Birth of Ghana' celebrates the first British colony to gain its independence after the Second World War. There are some wonderful songs on this CD. Two of my favourites are not particularly political.

They are 'Kitch's Bebop Calypso' that praises the jazz greats of the day for bringing a new ingredient to calypso, and the powerful 'Kitch in the Jungle'. The collection is bittersweet. 'If You're Not White You're Black' criticises light-skinned black people for looking down on their darker compatriots. And in 'Sweet Jamaica' Kitchener, who started out praising London, wishes he was back in the West Indies.

London is the Place for Me: Trinidadian Calypso in London 1950-1956 is available in all big record stores.

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Article information

Sat 3 Aug 2002, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1811
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