Harry Belafonte, the man who more than anyone brought calypso to the masses, died in April. His 1956 alum, titled simply Calypso, was the first LP to sell a million copies—and that is only the first million it sold. To say the music had mass appeal is an understatement; anyone who dreamt of warmth or rest, or boat drinks at the end of the day could enjoy that groove. For those who wanted to dig deeper there was a whole culture to explore.
Belafonte by no means introduced the music though, there were already a few calypso stars, particularly in New York with its large West Indian immigrant community. Beyond calypso, dreams of an island paradise had been circulating among cold weather Yanks since the annexation of Hawaii at the dawn of recorded sound. Cuba still had legal booze during prohibition and in the postwar years was a tropical paradise within reach of a growing middle class. Waves of rhythmic fads with Carribean or Latin origins washed up on the mainland as the 20th century progressed. Those waves haven’t really stopped to this day, but there is a 1950s moment when music met a certain aesthetic of umbrella drinks, summer clothes, and dancing by the pool, that positive energy of being delightfully tacky, has solidified in the public mind. It is that moment frozen in time that Charlie Halloran and his Tropicales capture so well.
In New Orleans, the northernmost city of the Caribbean, interplay with the music of the islands had been ongoing since the Haitian Revolution of 1791. The various musics of the islands share a lot with New Orleans jazz, a celebratory energy, a basis in brass band music that allows polyrhythmic freedom—Morton’s Spanish tinge. They developed concurrently from many of the same social pressures and musical roots. It’s natural for the young jazz musicians of New Orleans to take a deeper dive into these adjacent forms. More than a few of today’s brass players actually started in ska bands before catching the jazz bug.
Charlie Halloran plays trombone for a number of the best trad bands in New Orleans, notably the Shotgun Jazz Band, but the list is endless. When you need a sliphorn you call Charlie. He did, and maybe still does, have a trad band of his own, but since a 2017 album of biguines recorded to 78 RPM his concentration has been on the music of the Carribean and he has regular gigs with his group the Tropicales. Before this album they released an ambitious concept album recreating the music aboard cruises run by the Alcoa Steamship Co. out of New Orleans in the 1950s. His latest, Shake The Rum, gives 11 calypsos and biguines a New Orleans treatment.
The band includes Charlie Halloran, trombone; Tomas Majcherski, saxophone; John Maestas, guitar; Joshua Starkman, guitar; Pete Olynciw, bass; Doug Garrison, drums; Cesar Bacaro, percussion. There are guest vocals from Jimbo Mathus, John Boutte, and St. Louis Slim on a total of four vocal tracks. All three of the guest vocalists are perfect for the music, John Boutte in particular has a well deserved respect in New Orleans, he may even be the current voice of the city. He makes “Dorothy,” which is musically straightforward, a radio-ready summer hit, at least for WWOZ. St. Louis Slim isn’t the most obvious name for a calypso singer but he makes “Barbados” a sparkling moment. Jimbo Mathus doesn’t look like a calypso singer, more like a pirate, but he has the delivery down.
I wish there were album notes with details on each track the way there were with the Alcoa Sessions. By design these aren’t titles that will be familiar to most listeners and an educational moment is missed. Anyone listening deeply to this record is going to want to know more about this revelatory music. Like jazz, there is just so much of it that exploration can be daunting. The record does bear deep listening, these are talented jazz musicians, exploring unusual rhythms, tones, and arrangements. Most of it is meant to be fun and carefree but there are layers both musically and sociologically to last a lifetime.
“Tabu” is one title I did recognize. It made the rounds as a jazz standard starting in the mid-’30s. It was a highlight for me just from the sheer force of the musicality—four minutes of bliss touching on everything from surf rock to ska and late Ellington. As a contemplative, while still strongly rhythmic break it fits perfectly halfway through the album. “Fifty Cents” is a high point early in the album because it brings the islands right into the heart of New Orleans. It’s a talking blues about all the food and drink a lady can eat while you only got 50 cents. The kind of humorous tune popular when Dave Bartholomew ruled the New Orleans airwaves, but also something you might hear in the same time period from Wilmoth Houdini in NYC. Trying to look it up I found a folk version as collected in 1959, in Arkansas!
“Doudou Pas Pleure” was a pleasure to track down; they take it faster and with more New Orleans collectivity and improvisation than the several slowly-paced predecessors I found. But they do the spirit of the beautiful song justice. “Vicki” has a very period feel. Close your eyes, feel the sun on your face, and take in those guitar and trombone solos. There is variety enough here to play the album through at your summer party and trust everything to fall in place. I didn’t get to reviewing this album in time for last summer, but a new pink vinyl release gave me the excuse now. It’s gorgeous, and just the thing to spin poolside.