Revisited - The 1953 Dial Records of Carnival Music in Trinidad - UpClose!

A paper delivered at the annual meetings of The American Folklore Society Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on October 17, 1996

Dr. Donald R. Hill, Professor of Africana/Latino Studies and Anthropology

SUNY - Oneonta, NY 13820

Republished with the expressed permission of the author

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There were probably more calypsonians being recorded in the 1945-1955 period than in the previous decade. The difference was that the initiative was divided between several small ventures, and the overall distribution of calypsoes was substantially smaller than during the Decca years. This is why it is today easier to find the calypsoes of the thirties than those of the late forties to mid-fifties; particularly those which were recorded and distributed in Trinidad...

FUNLAND STEEL BAND You Gonna Jump Up? - Dial Records

Future researchers of the Calypso will, no doubt, seek to fill this substantial gap in our knowledge; a gap that has created the false impression that there was a break in the continuity of the Calypso tradition.... (Gordon Rohlehr, Calypso & Society in Pre-Independence Trinidad, self-published in Trinidad, 1990, Pg. 524.)

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Global - When Aubrey “Bolo” Christopher, of Christopher Brothers Cycle and Radio Services, 7 Nelson Street, Port of Spain, Trinidad, met with Ross Russell, President and sole owner of Dial Records of New York, to record calypsos, steelband music, and other Carnival and religious music in late February and early March 1953, they ushered in a new era in the commercialization of Trinidad’s Carnival music. [1] The Dial 10” long playing albums were the first LPs recorded in Trinidad. They were marketed in the United States where a steady supply of 78rpm records and a couple of long playing records by Trinidadians, North Americans of West Indian descent, and other North Americans fed a calypso boom that had been incubating since the late 1930s. In Trinidad, Christopher marketed some of the DIAL recordings on the red 78rpm Calypso label. Christopher and Edouard Sa Gomes were the only Trinidadians making records between 1950 and 1954 and few other recordings were made between the end of World War II and the middle 1950s when the Mighty Sparrow burst on the scene. The Dial recordings presaged the successful recordings made by Emory Cook later in the 1950s and by Telco and RCA beginning in the 1960s. I will present a brief history of the DIAL calypso records, review the circumstances of the recordings, and briefly mention the musicians, calypsonians, and styles of music recorded on DIAL.

In 1937 the Radio Corporation of American (RCA) set up a recording studio in the then new St. James Theatre (Port of Spain)  in order to cut calypso records for their Bluebird label. [2]  The first major recording project in Trinidad after World War II took place in this studio in 1947.  According to Christopher, “this group of fellas come down from the States to do this recording  but it was never sold in Trinidad.  They recorded in St. James.”[3]  The 1947 session was sponsored by Continental Records, a New York based outfit that had recorded or re-issued a lot of ethnic music in the United States.  They issued about 15 of the Trinidad recordings and none sold very well.[4]  

Aubrey "Bolo" Christopher at  his Nelson St. Studio 1986 - Photo copyright Donald Hill
Aubrey “Bolo” Christopher at his Nelson St. Studio 1986 - Photo copyright Donald Hill
-- click here for additional image

In 1949 the BBC made a non-commercial Christmas recording by calypsonians Lion, Tiger, and Invader called “Christmas Day Calypso” as well as an instrumental by the Perseverance Club Band. [5]  

In 1950 recording efforts picked up considerably.  The BBC made a couple more recordings and a visiting North American tourist, John Bessor, recorded calypsonians, a backup band, and the Woodbrook Invaders Steel Orchestra in Lord Invader’s Calypso Club.[6] Edouard Sa Gomes begin his own label, “Sa Gomes,”[7]  which was eventually to run to at least 180 78rpm records.[8]  And Aubrey Christopher began his first furtive attempt at recording on the Christo label.  

There were no known recordings cut in Trinidad in 1951 but in December 1952 H. Ramón Fortune, also known as “Popo Arindell,” recorded “speech and vocal effects” and a folk tale for the BBC.  (A few months later he would record an entire 10” LP for Christopher and Russell.)   In fact, the BBC made extensive recordings in Trinidad and in nearby Carriacou this year in a quantity on par with the subsequent DIAL recordings.  Finally, Sa Gomes continued recording on his own label.

This sets the stage for 1953, when the DIAL recordings were made.  An announcement of the recording project was printed in the Trinidad Sunday Guardian.

Funland Steel Orchestra 1953 - Dial Records

Both the New York distributors of Dial records and Mr. Christopher have the greatest faith in the sales potential.  Calypso records are in great demand now, they have found.

The records will carry a special “Calypso” label, with a map of Trinidad.  “This will mean that they sell themselves,” says Mr. Christopher.  “Tourists are always skeptical that calypso records processed by foreign companies are not authentic.”[9]  

Ross Russell, President, owner of DIAL, had owned a record store in southern California and was a jazz enthusiast.  He had made legendary recordings of bopster Charlie Parker and others in 1949.  Early in 1953 Russell was based in New York City and  decided to go to Trinidad on a whim:  

It sorta happened by accident.  I was living in New York ...and my close friend was New York editor of Ebony magazine [Alan Morrison].  He was planning to go to Trinidad for the international cricket, the world finals between the West Indies and the Indian team...and he talked me into coming with him...

 This was the period of - the big hit in America was “Rum and Coca Cola.”[10]  But when I got down there I felt it was very much of an indigenous culture - folk songs - and I started going in the tents [arenas where calypsos were sung before Carnival]...

So the way I got into the recording end of it, there was a man named Christopher... He had a selling electrical goods and he also had a big table of calypso records; he had a small recording studio with old antiquated equipment.[11]  So when I started thinking about recording some of this stuff, I talked to him and we formed a kind of verbal contract....So I saw the carnival and was fascinated by it...I ended up staying over quite a while, … I think, pretty nearly two months.[12]

Aubrey Christopher ran the Christopher Brothers Cycle and Radio Services with his brother.  Born in Trinidad in 1911, he grew up on Nelson Street where his father, a Trinidadian of Chinese descent, owned a “Chinese Shop,” a grocery and notions store at 70 Nelson Street. His father also owned a yard on Nelson where tents were set up for Carnival calypso competitions.[13]  Aubrey’s mother was a Venezuelan creole.

After the close of World War II calypso was very popular, both at home in Trinidad and in the United States.  During the War the steelband had developed and although outdoor Carnival was outlawed for the duration, the calypso tents thrived with heavy GI patronage. Lord Invader’s “Rum and Coca Cola” became very popular and when it was copyrighted by Morey Amsterdam and two other North Americans and released by the Andrews Sisters, it became a monster hit.  Invader won his case for being the true author of the lyrics to the song and opened a calypso club in Port of Spain for tourists.

Christopher had watched the recording process at the St. James when Continental cut a few 78s in 1947.  With skills as a bike mechanic and radio repairman, he thought he could cut records himself.  So in 1950 he built his studio at 7 Nelson Street and began to record calypsonians, including Spoiler, Terror, Lady Iere, the Mighty Killer, and possibly Nat Hepburn on the Christo label.[14]  “In those days in Trinidad we didn’t have electric wind it up.  So the speed, we had to do 78s.  We didn’t have a means of playing LPs”[15] 

Cavalcade Calypso - Dial Records

Christopher made the historic DIAL recordings in the same studio.  The building is still standing.  He says that when international record mogul and founder of ICE Records Eddie Grant visited him a few years ago, he laughed at the small size of the studio and the British equipment upon which the acetates were cut.  Says Russell, the studio was “no bigger than a double toilet.  There was a lot of reverberations.  And so we did the steel drums.  .  . outside...“[16]  All but the steel band recordings were made within the studio.  Christopher sat in another room where he kept his office and where he had the recording equipment set up.  He could see what was going on through a small window.  But although the studio itself posed problems,  Christopher knew his trade and had purchased the best British 78rpm equipment (John Cowley: personal communication).

In this little studio some of the most significant commercial records early 1950s in Trinidad were recorded:

78 RPM & 33 1/3 RPM

Carnival - Dial Records

In addition to recording some of the most important calypsonians of the era, Christopher and Russell recorded steelbands, Orisha music, a string band, and a bamboo band.  Let’s first look at the calypsonians.  There was Small Island Pride, Wonder, Growler, Zebra, Panther (Russell’s favorite), Spoiler, Blakie, Viper, Terror, Wonder, Young Kitchener, Comma, and Dictator.  Accompanying  these singers were Frankie Francis and his Calypso Devils, McClean’s Calypso Kings, Tommy Gomez Calypso band, Jules Louis and His Hot Six, and the Dial Calypso Orchestra.   Many of the big hits of 1953 Carnival were put on record, including 1953 Calypso Monarch winner Spoiler’s his new songs “Beg Bug” and “What the Scientist Say,”[18] Viper’s “White People’s Bacchanal,” Growler’s last song, “Woman Taxi Driver,” Dictator’s “Honesty Best Policy,  Panther’s “Taxi Driver,” Blakie’s “Steelband Clash,”  Small Island Pride’s “Letter From Executor,”[19] and many others.   

Russell and Christopher gathered together calypsonians from two successful calypso tents: Terror, Spoiler, Viking, Wonder, and Zebra from the Young Brigade Tent on St. Vincent Street and Small Island Pride, Panther, Young Kitchener, and Viper from the Old Brigade Tent, which was renamed the Elite Coronation Tent, in honor of the coming coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, at 65 Henry Street.  They cut Growler’s last records shortly before he died, as Gordon Rohlehr writes, “obeah-haunted.”[20]  Some of the senior tent greats from the Old Brigade were conspicuously absent.  They included, at one time or another, Executor (who died in poverty in 1953), Atilla, Invader, and Tiger.  For the most part, the Old Brigade consisted of a group of singers that had recorded for Decca in the 1930s and included two generations of calypsonians, singers whose recordings were very popular outside Trinidad but whose popularity within the island was fading.  Also, it may have been that these calypsonians owed allegiance to Sa Gomes.  Although Christopher and Russell missed a few contemporary singers - most notably Melody - the young entrepreneurs taste in calypso was on the cutting edge of local calypso fashion.

Steel Drum Music - Dial Records

Several steelbands recorded.  They were the Funland Steelband, the Johannesburg Fascinators, the All Stars including Neville Jules and his “Hot Ping Pong,” and the Sun Valley Steelband (who accompanied Blakie in “Steelband Clash”).  As one of the creators of the kittle, ping pong, and the tune boom, Jules was a true pan innovator.[21]  He came out of Hell Yard on a bank of East Dry River and like other panmen from Hell Yard, was a member of the (Trinidad) All Stars band.  This pan band was known for its “bomb” tunes, classical and other pieces that they would drop like a bomb on juvay to surprise and impress the competition.[22]

The early 1950s was a rough time for the steelbands and pan men.  Following a successful tour of England and France by TASPO (Trinidad All Star Percussion Orchestra], the first chromatically tuned pan band.  Still, 1953 was not many years after the steelband clashes of the late 1940s and 1950, the year of a steelband Jmeute immortalized by Lord Blakie in "Steelband Clash:"

It was a bacchanal
1950 Carnival
Tokyo and Invaders just below
And when the two band clash  
Mamayo! If you see cutlass
Never me again
To jump up in a steelband in Port of Spain.[23]

After the pre-Lenten Carnival and Christopher and Russell had completed their recordings there was another brief carnival, the Coronation Carnival in June honoring Queen Elizabeth II.[24]   There were eight steelband clashes and several hundred people were injured.  One person was killed, having gotten out of his car in the middle of a steelband fight.  He was beaten to death when he was hit with a baseball bat.  The riots erupted when there were high levels of post War unemployment and rivalries between grass roots and middle class bands were intense.  For several years the Trinidad Guardian, defender of middle class values, railed against the bands.  I mention all this because the Dial recordings took place right in the middle of the changing image of pan and other Carnival and Afro-Trinidadian arts and culture.  

On the one hand there were the tourist venues such as Invader's Calypso Club and Beryl McBurnie's Little Carib Theatre that glorified traditional arts and packaged them for foreigners and the middle class.  On the other hand there were the negative prejudices some middle class people had toward the bands, the steelband clashes, and the struggle for identity for the grass roots folk.  

For the historian of Trinidad's music, the few recordings by the Santa Cruz Serenaders are a fine example of the string band tradition whose immediate roots lie in late nineteenth Venezuela but whose style goes back through both rural Venezuela and Trinidad to Spain.  When played for Christmastide serenading, string band music is called parang.  Many of their tunes and song styles belong to the dJcima tradition that is many hundreds of years old and which has contributed tunes and lyrical form to turn-of-the-century calypso.  

Shango - dial records

The Dial recordings of music of the Orisha (Shango) may be the first commercial recordings of such music, although in 1939 Melville and Frances Herskovits made field recordings of many Orisha songs and calypsonians, at least since the 1930s, recorded themes and melodies based on true Orisha songs.  The “Shango” music comes from one of several African like religious communities scattered throughout the island that perpetuated Yoruban, Dahomean, and other African cultures in a highly syncretistic form.  This music had its origins in the middle nineteenth century when some Nigerians and other Africans were captured as slaves and shipped to the Caribbean.  They were “freed” by the British and landed in Trinidad where they joined other Africans brought to the island as indentured labor.  

These religious songs were recorded in Christopher’s studio.  The performers were Popo Arindell with “Yaruba Drummers, and Olive, Joe and Mangua.”

The Shango cult people who are heard here are city people who live on the Quarry Hill, on the east side of Port of Spain and who go to the near-by country side to practice their religion.  Joe and the three percussionists are employed in the local abattoir, while Olive sells limes on Picadilly Street near the market.  The recording date is fortunate in the participation of Popo Arindell, who plays guitar in a seaman’s bar in Port of Spain for his living, but is a Shango man with a profound interest in religion, magic, music, dance and of course Shango, which combines all elements.[25]   

In conclusion, the Dial recordings were an important addition to the previously recorded commercial ventures in Trinidad dating from 1914 when records were first made on the island by the Victor Talking Machine Company.  The Dial records also help us to understand the vast body of field recordings made by Melville and Frances Herskovits in Toco and Port of Spain in 1939, the BBC recordings around 1950, and the field recordings made by Andrew Pearse, Dan Crowley, J.D. Elder and others beginning in the same year of the Dial recordings.  These developments must be understood as a part of a great transformation of Trinidad’s (creole) folk culture occurring on many fronts.  Trinidad’s Carnival culture was moving into a new phase of development as a component of the rise in creole power (Eric Williams and the People’s National Movement) just before the independence of Trinidad and Tobago.  

Soon to overshadow the DIAL recordings were Aubrey Christopher’s own successful Kay 45rpm recordings begun in 1955 that were recorded in the same studio at 7 Nelson Street, and the Vitadisc, Balistier, and Cook LPs that collectively dominated the commercial market until Telco and RCA entered the locally recorded calypso market shortly before independence.[26] 

Gradually these historic recordings are coming to light.  ICE has been reissuing calypsos from the 1960s through the 1980s in an ambitious series that is temporarily inactive.  Cook’s story is being written by Keith Warner and Ken Bilby for Smithsonian Folkways, who own the rights to Cook, in a reissue project.  It is hoped that all the Cook recordings will be reissued on CD in the next few years.  Meanwhile, it is likely that the DIAL recordings from Trinidad, as well as Ross Russell’s DIAL 10 LPs of Martiniquean café music and rural and urban music from CuraHao will also become available on CD in a very short time.

  1. Much thanks is due to John Cowley through his conversations with me about DIAL and in his detailed letter to me on the subject.     ^

  2. John Cowley, personal communication, September 29, 1996.     ^

  3. Phone interview with Aubrey Christopher, August 17, 1996.  Christopher said that the studio was built “when they were building the cinema.”  Clearly, however, the theater was built in 1937.  Therefore, it is possible that he is mistaken or that they were modifying the studio in 1947.     ^

  4. According to John Cowley (in a letter to me dated Sept. 29, 1996), “Almost certainly, these [records] fell foul of the sterling crisis - pounds were not allowed to be exchanged for dollars for luxury goods.  That meant that copies of the Continental 78s were sent to Levy’s (Oriole) in the UK where they were redubbed and issued on Keskidee [label]… for export to Trinidad.  Sa Gomes was almost cer11tainly instrumental in all these arrangements, and probably the re-launch of the pre-war Deccas on the British Decca M30000 export series.”     ^

  5. The discographic information in this paragraph is from Richard Noblett and John Cowley, Unpublished discography of Post War West Indian Records, nd.     ^

  6. Noblett and Cowley, op. cit. and Donald R. Hill, notes to CD “Calypso Calaloo,” Rounder 1105, 1993.     ^

  7. Noblett and Cowley, op. cit.    ^

  8. John Cowley, personal communication, Sept. 29, 1996.     ^

  9. March 1, 1953, p.7.     ^

  10. “Rum and Coca Cola” was recorded in the early 1940s but its popularity held up for so many years after that that it became the definitive cross-over hit of the decade.     ^

  11. According to John Cowley, this equipment was hardly antiquated: “[Christopher’s] first equipment was an MSS disc cutter of British manufacture.  Made by Maguerite Sound System Recording Co Ltd., this was standard in most small British recording studios in this period (early 1950s).  Many machines were produced during the Second World War” (op. cit.).     ^

  12. Phone interview with Ross Russell, August 12, 1996.     ^

  13. As a young man Christopher was a bicycle enthusiast and in 1929 he won a Caribbean wide bicycle competition.  As a cyclist, he toured the Caribbean.     ^

  14. Only one recording on the Christo label has turned up for inclusion in Noblett and Cowley, op. cit.     ^

  15. Interview with Aubrey Christopher, op. cit.     ^

  16. Ross Russell said that the steelband was recorded “outside, in front of the shop” (op. cit.).  This was actually outside the back of the shop; that is, in the yard (Christopher, op. cit.).     ^

  17. “Trinidad Authentic Calypsoes,” c. 1955-56.     ^

  18. Spoiler actually won the competition with his 1948 hit, “Guest at the Royal Wedding,”  not “Bed Bug.”  See Gordon Rohlehr, Calypso and Society in Pre-Independence Trinidad, self published in Trinidad, 1990, p. 428.     ^

  19. John Cowley thinks that this and a few other of the DIAL recordings were cut in 1954 (in his letter dated Sept. 29, 1996).  Part of his argument is that Executor died after Carnival in 1953 and that any calypso that spoke of Executor’s death would have been for Carnival 1954.  However, another scenario is also possible.  Russell told me that when he left Trinidad, he traveled up through the islands to Martinique, where he eventually stopped and recorded Martiniquean music.  Only then did he return to Trinidad.  It is possible that it was on his return visit, that he and Christopher recorded Small Island Pride’s homage to Executor.     ^

  20. Gordon Rohlehr, op. cit., p. 427.     ^

  21. Stephen Stuempfle, The Steelband Movement: The Forging of a National Art in Trinidad and Tobago.  Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995, p. 40-43     ^

  22. Ibid., p. 113.     ^

  23. Lord Blakie, accompanied by the Sun Valley Steel Band, Calypso 513 (mx. D 213 A), recorded in Trinidad in 1953, Noblett and Cowley, op. cit.     ^

  24. Stuempfle, op. cit., pp. 110-112 and Rohlehr, op. cit., pp. 424-426.     ^

  25. anonymous liner notes (actually written by Ross Russell) to “Shango,” Dial LP 403, 1953.    ^

  26. Cook also issued a few 45s but not as many as the scores of records put out on the Kay label by Christopher.    ^

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