University of Calypso

Published in the Trinidad Guardian on July 13, 2009
Posted at The Woodshed on July 05, 2009
University of Calypso, a new album by pannist Andy Narell and Lord Relator (Willard Harris) gets off to a rollicking start with Harris' 'Gavaskar', a witty anecdote about West Indian cricket that the singer clearly enjoys, adding an extra 'rrrr' as he rolls the Indian cricketers' names off.
It's a song that illustrates everything that's great about this new album. Harris and Narell are committed to delivering an authentic kaiso experience, replicating with a band of top tier musicians, a sound that essentially died in Trinidad and Tobago in the 1980's.

Today's calypsonians either pursue the dance music gold mine that's offered by soca, a few pursue the narrow sideline of music tailored for the steelband, and only a few more remain committed to the narrative storytelling style of topical music that's on display here.

In his Relator persona, Harris is better known now as a living archive of not just vintage calypso, but also a skilled mimic of the vocal styles of the calypsonians who performed them. He's used that skill to deliver hilarious sketches casting vintage calypsoes in the singing styles of popular pop singers and to lovingly parody the unique tics of popular calypsonians.

Wit among the improvisations
None of that is on this album, and that's just as well, since seeing Relator doing it as much fun as hearing it. The selections that Harris has chosen to work with here reflect his preference for funny calypsoes, both his own and overwhelmingly, the work of Lord Kitchener (Aldwyn Roberts), represented by six numbers out of the fifteen on the album.

Harris's reading of Kitchener's 'Love in the cemetery' a hilarious early work that demonstrates Roberts' underrated capacity to weave together a funny story with clever metre and lyric, quite apart from his later reputation for crafting intricate music for the steel orchestra.

Narell and his band provide solid, but almost invisibly respectful backing to Harris on most of these tracks, sounding for all the world like a particularly tight calypso session band from the fifties or sixties.
The band doesn't start to seriously rip until the first instrumental, 'Pan in harmony,' by Kitchener and only lets loose twice more on the album, on the other two pan focused numbers, Terror's 'Sugar for Pan' and 'Steelband Music,' also by Kitch.

A diffuse delight
On these numbers, the rich harmonies of the music, all from that unique sub-genre of calypso music known as the "pan tune" by steelband connoisseurs, offer the band an opportunity to stretch out and fill the music, with Paquito D'Rivera in particular offering challenging counterpoint to Narell's pan runs.
University of Calypso is a delight, if an ultimately unsatisfying one. This listener was left with a powerful sense of unfinished business as the album wrapped up with the delicate charm of Kitchener's 'My brother, your sister.'

The collaboration between Narell and Harris is, by turns, an engaging love letter to a style and approach to calypso music that's now almost exclusively found on scratchy vinyl albums, a revival of some almost forgotten but still very entertaining classics, an aide memoire of the greatness of Kitch's Calypso Revue and an exploration by a more than capable jazz band of the deep musical legacy of the genre.
Spread over fifteen songs, it tantalises at all these, but accomplishes none of them definitively. The hugely entertained listener is left to hope that University of Calypso is but the first semester of a course with great potential.

Band members
Paquito D'Rivera - clarinet, alto saxophone
Andy Narell - steel pan
Mark Walker - drums
Pedro Martinez - congas, bongos, timbales
Dario Eskenazi - piano
Gregory Jones - bass instrument, bass guitar
Inor Sotolongo - percussion
Marco Araya-Correa - cuatro
Relator - vocals, guitar

Track list
01 Gavaskar (Willard Harris)
02 Love in the cemetery (Aldwyn Roberts)
03 Food prices (Willard Harris)
04 Pan in harmony (Aldwyn Roberts)
05 Eating competition (Spider)
06 Steelband music (Aldwyn Roberts)
07 My pussin (Aldwyn Roberts)
08 Sugar for pan (Fitzgerald Henry)
09 Hold onto your man (Aldwyn Roberts)
10 Peddlars (Fitzroy Alexander)
11 Bottle and spoon (Willard Harris)
12 Take yuh meat out meh rice (Aldwyn Roberts)
13 Pan on Sesame Street (Willard Harris)
14 Ugly woman (Rafael De Leon)
15 My brother your sister (Aldwyn Roberts)
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