Goodnight Ladies And Gents
Lionel Belasco(Rounder Records CD 1138)
A review written for the Folk & Acoustic Music Exchange
The 1999 Rounder Records release of the CD, Lionel Belasco - Goodnight Ladies And Gents is being received with much gratitude and pleasure by aficionados of calypso and other late 19th to early 20th century Caribbean music. This is because it is the first, full-length CD exclusively dedicated to featuring some of the pioneering works by the legendary pianist, composer and bandleader, Lionel Belasco. Belasco or "Lanky", as his friends called him, was born in Port of Spain, Trinidad in 1881. Both his parents were musicians and Belasco himself was a child prodigy who played the piano and began composing at the age of 12. According to historian Sue-Anne Gomes in The Book of Trinidad, "By the time he was 16 he had written four hundred ballads, pastiches, waltzes, calypsos, sambas and rumbas and was also the leader of his own band."
Although he was classically trained, Belasco revelled in Afro-Trinidadian musical traditions like calypso, kalinda, parang and bele that were popular especially among rural folk in Trinidad. During an interview in the twilight of his life, he reminisced how after playing Beethoven and "all the heavy things", he would often steal away to the countryside to enjoy the "ceremonies and shangos ...done by the Yorubas, the African tribe that is chiefly in Trinidad from Nigeria." Trinidadian society is composed of descendants from Africa, Asia, Europe and the Middle East. Belasco incorporated all of the rich and varied aspects of this cosmopolitan mix to create his rhythmic and delightfully lyrical compositions. Belasco also had strong familial ties to neighboring Venezuela. Due to his frequent visits there, along with the sizable Venezuelan presence in Trinidad, he developed a deep fondness for that South American country's folk music. He composed so prolificly in that genre, that today many of his waltzes and joropos are still performed by Venezuelan artists and symphony orchestras.
As an extremely successful bandleader and soloist, Belasco toured and recorded extensively throughout the Caribbean, North and South America and Europe. It is also said that he was the first black solo instrumentalist to be recorded. The list of his appearances included Carnegie Hall, national broadcasting chains, and several motion pictures by Paramount and Columbia Pictures. Needless to say, his influence on generations of West Indian musicians was immense. Belasco was the first person to bring West Indian and many forms of South American music to sizable audiences outside of those territories. One of Belasco's earliest compositions entitled, L'annee Passee was recorded by The Andrew Sisters as Rum and Coca Cola in the early 1940s. That song eventually became a worldwide hit. The remarkable Lionel Belasco died in 1967 at the age of 85 in New York City.
The CD contains 27 songs. Most of them are Belasco's compositions but some are tunes belonging to other artists and the folk tradition. Ten of the tracks have vocals sung by the famous calypsonian known as, Houdini; this includes the title track, Good-Night Ladies and Gents. There are also a couple of snippets of recorded interviews with Belasco about his life as a young, upcoming musician in Trinidad. A 23-second long piece called, Standing Up Behind the Bridge has Belasco singing (a very rare treat) in a mixture of English and French patois while accompanying himself on piano. Belasco the musician is featured on all selections, either performing piano solos as on, Go Away Gal or as a member of his ensemble.
Belasco's Venezuelan waltzes contain some of the prettiest, most charming melodies to be heard anywhere. Such songs with titles like, Maysotis, Carmencita, Miranda, Venezuela and Roses of Caracas Waltz account for almost half of the CD's selections. The close relationship between early Trinidadian calypso and Venezuelan folk music is clearly revealed in the instrumental lineup on most of these recordings. Except for the few solo piano tracks, the various Belasco orchestras showcased here often comprise: piano, guitar, cuatro (small, four-stringed guitar), bass, violin, flute or clarinet and maracas. In most cases, it is either the violin or the clarinet which plays the melody.
As is typical of calypso, many of the songs recall incidents, places and characters that may be of either local or international significance. Songs like, Treasury Fire refer to an incident in 1932 when a fire destroyed the Treasury building in Port of Spain. Another composition, Panama Paseo No. 1 commemorates the completion of the Panama Canal, and Prohibition Paseo addresses the famous U.S. Constitutional amendment that once banned the production and sale of alcoholic beverages.
Considering the fact that most of these recordings were made in the 1930's ...even going back as early as 1914, the audio quality is surprisingly clear. It is easy to hear all the instruments being played very distinctly. The producers should be complimented for their fantastic remastering efforts. Mention must be made too of the abundant, impeccably-researched and brilliantly-written CD liner notes. My only disappointment with this collection is that it did not contain three of Belasco's most enduring compositions which also happen to be my personal favorites namely, Juliana, Luna de Maracaibo and Miraflores. Perhaps, the producers were unable to locate original Belasco recordings of these tunes. However, we can at least take comfort in the fact that countless, present-day artists continue to record these particular pieces, including such luminaries as the London National Philharmonic Orchestra.
The efforts of Rounder Records and the many individuals responsible for making this singular collection available deserve to be lauded. It is through such visionary endeavors that the beautiful music of Lionel Belasco will gain wider exposure and continue to charm future generations.
Edited by David Schultz