When most people think of calypso, the first person who comes to mind is Harry Belafonte and the first place that comes to mind is Jamaica. After all, it was Belafonte who ushered in the calypso craze of the ’50s, with such popular hits as “Day-O,” “Matilda,” “Mama Look a’ Boo-Boo” and “Jamaica Farewell.” In fact, his debut album, Calypso, was the first LP in history to sell more than a million copies.
Truth be told, however, Belafonte was a bit of a poser, as he was born and raised in Harlem and only stayed in Jamaica briefly, when his struggling, single mom sent him down there to live with his grandmother. But he dropped out of high school, and after a stint in the Navy, Belafonte ended up back in New York City, working as a janitor by day, trying to make it in Greenwich Village as a folk singer by night.
After his agent suggested that he stop imitating Burl Ives and come up with his own sound, what Belafonte came up with was a watered down version of kaiso, a relatively sophisticated sound with a rich tradition in its native Trinidad. The word “kaiso” was derived from a West African exclamation of approval, the functional audience equivalent of “Bravo!” Trinis turned kaiso into calypso, so the music Belafonte would one day be crowned “King” of actually emanated from an island in the Caribbean he’d never visited.
Where kaiso generally cleverly concealed subtle political statements about the social order into jaunty tunes ostensibly about everything from language to life to love, Belafonte’s readily digestible interpretation smoothed the rough edges off the genre and served up some relatively sanitized white bread variations on the theme. Though he took a little heat from calypso’s originators, Belafonte basically got away with passing off his watered-down versions of other people’s creations like “Momma Look at Boo-Boo” as his own.
Finally, in Calypso Dreams, a documentary that is as much a joyous celebration of the music as it is a belated testament to its legitimate greats, both dead and alive, we have a laudable effort to set the record straight. Directed by Michael Horne and Geoffrey Dunn, the movie pays tribute to the late Lord Kitchener via archival footage, while simultaneously providing impromptu performances and running commentary by dozens of living legends like the Mighty Sparrow, David Rudder, Calypso Rose, the Mighty Chalkdust, Lord Blakie, Brigo, Lord Pretender, Mighty Prowler and Lord Relator.
What a tre