The Growling Tiger of Calypso
While listening to an album as a music reviewer, a very significant portion of my attention is usually concentrated on salient qualities of the music for later documentation. I failed to maintain this analytical focus for the first three days of listening to this CD because I was enjoying the wonderful, rhythmic and engaging music so much. That music, which still carries away this reviewer so effortlessly, is the calypso of Trinidad and Tobago as performed by the late legendary Neville Marcano, better known by his sobriquet, The Growling Tiger.
NEVILLE MARCANO: THE GROWLING TIGER OF CALYPSO is the title of this CD, one of the releases in the Portraits series from The Alan Lomax Collection. The series focuses on highlighting and celebrating individual folk artists from around the world by reissuing some of their seminal recordings on 20-bit CD format. This very special project is the result of a joint venture between Rounder Records and the U.S. Library of Congress, repository of the field recordings of Alan Lomax, the renowned and visionary ethnomusicologist.
The Growling Tiger, born in Trinidad in 1915 was formerly an up-and-coming professional boxer who turned to composing and singing calypsos in 1934. It must be noted that this was during the era of the Great Depression in U.S. history. Trinidad & Tobago, along with the rest of the Caribbean, suffered the adverse socio-economic repercussions of the depression very acutely. Tiger, who always enjoyed singing popular American music from childhood had never before entertained the thought of a career in music. Now, as an unemployed teenager, impending starvation inspired an adventurous Tiger to throw his hat into the calypso ring. So musically gifted was Tiger, he achieved success and fame during his very first entry in a calypso competition that pitted him against the finest and most established calypsonians of that time.
Tiger went on to become a legend in calypso who toured extensively for decades throughout the Caribbean, North America and Europe. He recorded prolificly, most notably for Decca Records. In 1977, American calypso enthusiast, Steve Shapiro visited Trinidad and sought out Tiger who had long since retired and was presumed to be dead by most people. Shapiro prevailed upon Tiger to do a modern recording of some of his finest works in their original style. At sixty-four years of age, Tiger had lost none of his prowess and the resultant 1979 album titled, KNOCKDOWN CALYPSOS on the Rounder Records label later earned a Grammy nomination. Neville Marcano, the Growling Tiger of calypso died in Trinidad in 1993.
In 1962, Alan Lomax traveled to Trinidad specifically to record the semi-retired Tiger. A small ensemble of folk musicians who knew how to perform the older, traditional style of calypso music was assembled by Tiger for the occasion. The instrumentation included fiddle, guitar, cuatro (a small four-stringed guitar), flute, bass and percussion. It is against this sweet, earthy and acoustic backdrop that Tiger is presented on this very precious album.
The CD contains twelve tracks and comes with exceptionally informative liner notes including song lyrics. The Trinidad recordings of 1962 comprise ten of those songs. The remaining two are taken from a subsequent Lomax recording of Tiger during his appearance at the 1966 Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island. One of these two tracks, Getting Along With The Calypso Music, consists of a short discourse by Tiger on calypso - its origin, social functions, and aesthetic appeal. The other recording, Atomic Energy Calypso is a demonstration of "extempo" or extemporaneous singing. Considered by many to be the hallmark of a true calypsonian, extempo is an ability possessed by only a relative minority of singers in this artform. Here, Tiger gives a masterful unaccompanied extempo performance on topics ranging from the threat of nuclear warfare to the countenance of the film and sound crew surrounding him.
Notwithstanding the importance and entertainment which these two aforementioned tracks provided, I have to admit that the real fun for me came from listening to the ten songs from the 1962 session in Trinidad. The folk band is excellent. I was especially impressed by the nylon string guitar-playing of Paul Gervais. Gervais alternated rapid, single-note interweaving lines with harmonically sophisticated chording to enhance Tiger's vocal delivery. Violinist, Vivian Moses perfectly captured the essence of the long-passed golden age of calypso with his passionate and inspired fiddling. Support never flagged with the lovely bass work by Robert Charles and lively accompaniment by Randolph Phipps and Ralph Charles on cuatros. Accents provided by Eugene Brito on flute and Emmanuel Williams on percussion infused the session with a festive spirit. So impressed was Lomax with the band, that he also recorded one purely instrumental interpretation of a castillian or creole waltz called Rose of Caracas.
Tiger's expressive baritone voice brims with poignancy as he tackles topics spanning the gamut of human existence on songs such as, Money Is King, War, The Train Below and Senorita Panchita. One of the songs that I particularly enjoyed for its humorous lyrics and joyously infectious music was The Parrot. It tells the story, perhaps fictitiously, of Tiger being trapped under a bed after the surprise return of a husband whom Tiger and his bedmate had just cuckolded. Tiger's hopes for a safe and inconspicuous getaway are threatened by the caws of a pet parrot who alerts the suspicious husband to "search well all about" for the man who had come in but "ain't come back out".
Fellow calypsonians, Lord Iere, Lady Iere and Indian Prince drop in on the recording session and lend their talents to a recreation of the old-time calypso war where calypsonians would trade verses while utilizing wit, rhyme and invective to proclaim their superiority over their peers. Understandably, most of the singing is done extemporaneously.
Indeed, this whole CD has a very informal air about it. It was as if Tiger had invited a few of his friends over for a party and Lomax just happened to be there with his recording equipment. While listening, one feels compelled to break out the rum and Coca Cola and dance to this sweet music from Trinidad & Tobago. In Getting Along With The Calypso Music, Tiger said it best when he remarked, "this type of music is a pretty thing ...it's lovely. It touches your vein and comes through the bloodstream, just as if you are taking medicine." Without the slightest bit of reservation, I recommend this CD most highly.
Edited by David Schultz