Simon Browne, violist and Assistant Professor of Music at UTT has accomplished something that others had not dared to do in recent times. He transcribed and arranged for modern ears the original music of early Trinidad recording pioneers, George “Lovey” Baillie, Lionel Belasco, Cyril Monrose, and Vincentian, Walter Merrick. The music, originally performed and recorded up to a century ago, was showcased in a concert at a packed UTT @ APA auditorium on the evening of Saturday 15 March. An emotional Browne choked back tears at the realisation that he had succeeded in presenting this original native music to a new contemporary audience, and a very sizable one at that.
Although a similar exercise led by Errol Ince was attempted in 2013 at an ACTT-produced event under the patronage of former president Prof. George Maxwell Richards, this concert showcased the foreign-born UTT professional musicians along with local counterparts, Theron Shaw, Glen Worrell, Dean Williams and Desmond Waithe on guitars and cuatro. The remnants of Patrick Manning’s ill-fated orchestra “made up of foreign qualified musicians” (p. 102) paid dividends to the enrichment of art in the islands by reframing these island songs for strings and reeds, maracas and guitars. That juxtaposition of native composition and foreign player performance highlighted potential for creative industry in T&T that politicians still view (p. 380) with bigoted indifference.
A catalyst for this endeavour by Browne and company was the release, by German company Bear Family Records, of the earliest recording of Trinidad music—in time for T&T’s golden jubilee—Calypso Dawn, which showcased the complete recordings of Lovey’s Original Trinidad String Band in CD format. The first recording made in New York from that session one hundred and two years ago, “Mango Vert” was beautifully performed as an opening piece by violist/violinists Browne, Jonathan Storer, Eleanor Ryan, double bassist Caitlyn Kamminga, along with flautist Katy Gainham, clarinettist Yevgeny Dokshansky, Josh Watkins on maracas, and the aforementioned local guitarists.
With that beginning, the creole music scene in the 1910s to 1930s in these islands was captured and refined with nuanced arrangements by Browne to replicate the zeitgeist of an era. By extension, the Academy of Performing Arts at UTT hoped that, “by recreating the sound and style of those times, we can form a living link to that part of Calypso’s past– a part that deserves to be remembered and treasured.” Lovey’s Band was “the orchestra of choice among the social elite of pre-World War I Trinidad.” A keen observer of the audience demographic that evening would surmise a similar sentiment relative to today, and maybe suggest wider engagement. Lovey’s music was made for dancing, and the temptation to break loose was “unfortunately” resisted by many.
Browne elucidated this modern local audience to the influence of then-popular 19th century dance music from Europe and South America—waltzes, paseo and mazurkas—on the compositions performed and recorded at that time. Of significance was the music of world-famous violinist Fritz Kreisler and the influence it had on the Belasco composition, “Adelle” originally recorded by Cyril Monrose String Orchestra in 1923. The quartet of Browne, Kamminga, Waithe and Williams re-created this hauntingly beautiful melody featuring solo violin. The absence of the piano, the instrument of Belasco and Merrick, allowed Browne to utilise his violin as a lead voice and sometime counterpoint with Dokshansky. “Carmencita” by Belasco was a piece that had violin and clarinet as duetting partners alternating leads, while the old lavway, “Caroline” allowed for a solo by Desmond Waithe on cuatro.
The eternally popular “Old Lady, Old Lady” (Tay Lay Lay) was recreated in its 1923 arrangement losing much of the popular harmonic invention that came later with Kitchener. Jazz and calypso were nascent at that time. That forced perspective of featuring the solo violin lead and ignoring the impulse to collaboratively improvise and exchange made for a re-imagining by the audience of the possibilities inherent in local music.
Lionel Belasco stands as an icon in Trinidad music in the depth of his compositions and the breadth of his music business acumen by interpolating folk melodies and copyrighting them in his name in the US, thus spreading the canon of early West Indian music further than anyone for decades before or since. Singer Krisson Joseph replicated with almost accurate precision the phrasing and cadence of Trinidad vaudevillian Sam Manning with the spirited, and encored, take on Belasco’s “Sly Mongoose.” The audience that evening offered a potential for greater exchange commercially and otherwise with these musicians. The echoes of carnival should not be silenced.
Programme order (original artiste and year first recorded):
- Mango Vert (Paseo) – by Lovey’s Original Trinidad String Band – 1912
- Manuelita (Vals Español) – by Lovey’s Original Trinidad String Band – 1912
- Sarah (Trinidad Paseo) – by Lovey’s Original Trinidad String Band -1912
- Discie You Doan Know De Law (Paseo) – by Lovey’s Original Trinidad String Band -1912
- Tres Bemoles – by Merrick’s Trinidad Harmony String Band – 1925
- Adelle – by Monrose’s String Orchestra – 1923
- Old Lady, Old Lady – by Monrose’s String Orchestra – 1923
- Carmencita – by Lionel Belasco and his Orchestra – 1933
- Caroline – by Lionel Belasco and his Orchestra – 1927
- Sly Mongoose – by Lionel Belasco/Sam Manning – 1925
- An edited version of this article appears in the Trinidad and Tobago Guardian published as Echoes of Carnival…a concert review.
© 2014, Nigel A. Campbell. All Rights Reserved