Tuesday, June 25, 2013

I Had to Leave a Little Girl in Kingston Town

Lord Invader
An occasional epistle from singer/songwriter, Phil Corfield.

This was the first line in a song, to capture me. Who was the little girl and why was she being left in Kingston Town? I felt sad. I couldn't work it out. The voice that sang these words was so beautiful. Was the girl his little girl, or was she someone he was looking after? Where was Kingston? I hadn't heard of such a place and I hadn't heard anybody who sounded like the man in this song. Harry Belafonte, 'The King Of Calypso', was born in 1927 in Harlem, New York. His mother was of Jamaican descent and his father came from Martinique, another island in the Caribbean. Between 1932 and 1940 the boy lived with his grandmother in Jamaica. In 1957 RCA Victor released Harry's album 'Calypso'. That was the year I first heard 'Jamaica Farewell'. I was six and I heard it on the radio.

'Calypso' was the first album in America to sell a million copies in a year and the first million seller in England. Calypso music developed in Trinidad in the 17th. century, combining African rhythms brought to the island by slaves and probably French medieval rhythms and harmonies. The slaves, separated from their families and banned from speaking to one another, used Calypso songs to communicate with one another and mock their slave-masters. Calypso has a long history as protest music and also speaks of sex scandals, gossip, local news, bravado and was used to insult other practitioners of Calypso music. Rap and Hip Hop, which came about 350 years later, cover the same ground. 

However the music on Belafonte's album 'Calypso' is not Calypso, it's Jamaican 'Mento'. Calypso was popular in America from about 1912, way before Mento. 'The Andrews Sisters' had a hit with the Calypso song 'Rum and Coca Cola' in 1944. This song was stolen from a Trinidadian calling himself Lord Invader (Rupert Grant) . Lord Invader brought a legal case in New York in an attempt to reclaim his song. He didn't get his copyright back but after seven years he received compensation. When Harry's first album was released the album was promoted as Calypso because Calypso was already commercially popular and therefore easier to sell. Mento is a style of Jamaican folk music typically played with acoustic guitar, hand drums, banjo and rhumba box ( you can sit on this box and play it with your hands to produce bass). The music was brought to Jamaica by African slaves and was influenced by the European songs slaves were required to play to their masters on European instruments. Usually written in a humorous style, the music often commented on poverty, poor housing and sex. Mento influenced Ska and Reggae. The Jamaican musician Lee Scratch Perry's 1976 Dub album 'Super Ape' includes pure Mento influences

Back in 1957 in Narrabeen (Sydney), my family was visiting a friends place. She lived in a house made of concrete. The rooms had thick, blue painted walls, unadorned, cave-like and in the day full of sunlight. The balcony overlooking Narrabeen Lagoon was also solid concrete. On a warm summers night looking over the water listening to 'Jamaica Farewell', Narrabeen became Jamaica.
Phil Corfield.