Thursday 22nd February, 2007

 

A fresh look at Calypso, Soca history

 
 
 
 
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‘You cannot help but note the brilliant new directions in which he continues to steer Calypso. In Movin’ Up, King Wellington forges even further ahead with his highly successful calypso experiments…to create a distinctively different Calypso sound that is entirely his own.’

Calypso researcher Dmitri Subotsky takes a fresh look at the development of Calypso into Soca.

The creation of soca is almost always credited to Garfield Blackman, Lord Shorty (later Ras Shorty I), with tracks such as Indrani, Endless Vibrations and Soul Calypso Music being identified as landmark tracks in the development of the music. Others dispute this and names mentioned include Lord Nelson (Garrot Bounce), Shadow (Bass Man), Maestro (Savage) and even Eddy Grant (Black Skinned Blue Eyed Boys). I have personally never been comfortable with any of these assertions.

My first real exposure to soca music was on the airwaves of London’s radio stations in 1987. My views on what soca music was (and indeed should be!) were essentially formed from what I heard that year.

I had read about the beginnings of soca, and in particular the significance of Indrani, but it was many years before I actually heard the track, and when I did I was most surprised. By that time I was reasonably familiar with calypso from the pre-soca era and was expecting to detect the key elements of what I knew as soca music in this famous track. In all honesty I heard nothing that I recognised as soca. Certainly its use of Indian instruments singled it out as an interesting experiment, but I really did not feel that it was the missing link between calypso and soca that I had been led to believe.

I rather felt the same when I heard Endless Vibrations and Soul Calypso Music; they were certainly very different musically from most other calypsoes being recorded at that time and their lyrical content left one in no doubt that Shorty was trying to experiment with music, but to me they just did not have a soca sound.

I did not give the matter much further thought until in 2005 my colleague John Child invited me to join him in a discussion of the origins of soca for a BBC radio documentary. My views on the subject had not really changed and, although I did not at that stage have an alternative view, I was not prepared to tow the Shorty line.

I tried to think of what records I had heard from the early to mid-’70s that stood out as being different, and my mind was drawn to two particular albums by the same calypsonian. Examining his prior work led me to believe that this man played an important part, if not the most important part in the development of calypso into soca. That man was King Wellington.

King Wellington (Hawthorne Quashie) made his recording debut in 1966 under the name The Cisco with a track celebrating the PNM’s victory in that year’s general election.

He emigrated to the US in 1967, initially living in Manhattan but subsequently moving to Boston. Whilst there he studied music, including a period at Berklee College of Music.

Wellington’s first recording in the US was released in 1969/70 on his own Plek label. It was his commentary on the moon landings, entitled Moonwalking. The track was notable for its prominent bassline - an earlier indicator of things to come. Listening to it again, this track seems years ahead of its time.

In 1970/71 he recorded approximately ten tracks for the Straker’s label including Mango Vert, Mod Squad USA and Treat Your Woman Nice. However the most significant of these recordings was New Calypso Music. According to King Wellington, speaking to John Child and me in 2006, That was the first time a calypso was made with the bass soloing. Calypsoes in those days were four verses. I chose to make three verses because I wanted to leave space for the musicians to improvise. That was always my intent.

Soul singers like Arthur Conley, Jerry Butler and Otis Redding were the popular singers in Trinidad. Calypso was sort of pushed to the side. I thought if we join calypso with soul music we may generate some sales.

In 1973, King Wellington had possibly the biggest hit of his career with Steel & Brass, just missing out on that year’s Road March. Later that year he recorded his debut album, Who is King Wellington, which was initially released on Plek (dated 1973) and then received a wider issue on Charlie’s Records for the 1974 Carnival.

Art DeCoteau, Ed Watson and Ron Berridge arranged the vast majority of recorded calypso in the early 1970s, but King Wellington used a different arranger, pianist Orville Wright, a Trinidadian whom King Wellington had met at Berklee (and who was later Chair of the Ensemble Department there for many years). Further, the big band had been replaced by a smaller, tighter, group of musicians that included Michael Toby Tobas on drums (who later performed on Shorty’s Sweet Music) and King Wellington himself on bass.

The whole album sounded very different to other calypso of the time, particularly in its use of prominent bass lines and percussion. Also notable was the extended instrumental jam at the end of More Woman.

The album included several re-recordings of tracks originally recorded just a couple of years earlier, and when directly compared, the change in the sound is marked.

King Wellington called his music of the time Rusofunk, and he believes that if that name had stuck to the modern form of calypso, then he would be recognised as its creator.

His second LP, Movin’ Up, was released for the 1975 Carnival, the same time as Lord Shorty’s Endless Vibrations album.

In the title track, Wellington proclaimed, “pretty soon the world will see and know how much soul we have in we calypso.” The standout track on the album is, for me, the extraordinary Mighty Stone and Dem Calypso Jam, a bizarre funky effort that I am unable to compare to any other calypso.

Dave Elcock wrote of the album at the time: “You cannot help but note the brilliant new directions in which he continues to steer Calypso. In Movin’ Up, King Wellington forges even further ahead with his highly successful calypso experiments…to create a distinctively different Calypso sound that is entirely his own.”

King Wellington has in recent years been managing the Kaiso House tent.

His 2006 song, The Problem Is, was amongst the more highly regarded calypsoes of the year. When I contacted him last year, expressing my desire to speak to him about his contribution to the development of soca, he initially seemed shocked and reluctant to talk. For some reason, credit has been assigned elsewhere and his works have almost been written out of history.

In any genre of music, it is virtually impossible to put a change in the sound down to one person, but listening to the music of King Wellington today and putting it in its historical context can leave one in no doubt as to the significance of his contribution.

The influences of American soul and funk, giving space to the musicians, the prominence of the electric bass, the extended instrumental play-outs and the move away from the big band sound are all key elements of early soca, and they are evident in the recordings of King Wellington more prominently and earlier than that of any other artist.

This article is not in any way intended to denigrate the works of Lord Shorty and others, but to bring due credit to an unsung hero, who in his own words did not want to toot his own horn.

©2005-2006 Trinidad Publishing Company Limited

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