Josephine Premice






Caribe by the Haitian-American Broadway actress and singer Josephine Premice (1926–2001) is one of the most-treasured Calypso albums: strongly exotic, with tropical percussion schemes, an enchanting lead vocalist as well as a duty-bound all-male backing choir to die for. Recorded on two consecutive days in March 1957 and released in September of the same year on Verve Records, it is chock-full with guitars and flutes, bongos and congas, maracas and guiros, a celeste and many horns. 12 takes made it onto the album, two of them envisioned by Calypso Jo or la Madonna Negre herself as she was called in Italy. Without intending to sound all too absolutistic, but everyone seems to absorb Calypso, it is a subgenre closely adhered to the Caribbean islands and thus already exotic in and on itself, but once North American gold standards of the Jazz world are transformed into coruscating Calypso critters, Caribe gleams even brighter!


Almost all songs are unanimously cheerful, upbeat and blissful, with many a curious situation thrown in for good measure; quite a few incidents are purposely exaggerated, especially when they are poked into the Calypso corset, but all lyrical portions are by tendency wise and noble. Josephine Premice is an alto singer, so the range of her voice oscillates only slightly between profundity, played spiteful remarks and controlled doses of recalcitrance. The aforementioned backing choir turns out to be an equally strong ingredient to the album’s endemic aura, constituting itself as either the moral instance, the encouraging feedback device or the lamenting sissy who gives itself in to the leading lady’s charisma. That said, there is even more meaning and oomph behind the album: one man named Barney Kessel, famous Jazz guitarist with a prestidigitation second to none, not only plays his signature instrument on each of the 12 tunes, but also arranges and conducts the orchestra of session musicians off which the famous top 10 bass player Ben Tucker stands out as the prominent inclusion. A taste of Caribbean circumambience – here comes Caribe.


Caribe is about the scintillating art form called Calypso, and what better way to familiarize a potentially less inclined listener than with Harold Arlen’s and Truman Capote’s smasher Two Ladies In De Shade Of De Banana Tree? Barney Kessel’s plinking guitar strumming conflates well with Ben Tucker’s bass frame, the celesta sparks as well as the short brass eruptions, but these things are only of minor importance compared to an idea that is as great today as it was back then: the first vocals are actually not delivered by Calypso Jo! The all-male backing choir sings the title in a jocular-anticipating way before she joins the fun, with her chesty voice being full of verve, further boosting the luminosity of this already sunlit piece. The percussion thicket is top-notch as well, consisting of muffled bongos, clinging shakers and kettle drums. This great rendition is immediately outshone by a crazily transformed version of George and Ira Gershwin’s The Man I Love which bursts at the seams thanks to its uplifting bongo-backed tempo, the glowing horn helixes and last but not least the pirate-like tra la la singsong by both the backing choir and Mrs. Premice which altogether create a marvelously good-natured exhilaration.


While Island Wind by the – unknown to me – songwriting duo of Hunter and Emig succeeds with polyphonous guitar overlays in front of maraca groves and a notably upfront Josephine Premice who becomes entangled with the susurrant humming choir, the Calypso luminary’s own Rookombey is a huge favorite of mine, for it makes a sudden U-turn with its shady alto flute aorta draped in a nocturnal Middle Eastern timbre plus its implied truculence found in manifold strong-willed lyrics à la "I wanted a new romance, that’s why I went to a voodoo dance." The belching savage portrayal of the male choir chanting rookombey adds another layer of sanguine lust. The sunnier side of life then reappears in the shape of Sunny Skylar’s and Irving FieldsTalk T’ Me, a tune where the chantress and her choir are on par and whose instrumental base lures the listener with grainy maracas and Barney Kessel’s jazzy guitar spirals, with the last song of side A, Joe Elly’s It Never Happen To Me (sic!) is a blast due to its highly catchy brass blebs of the silkened kind, the delicately diffuse bongo mirage with the humming choir in the distance, the paradisiac flute airflows and wondrously bucolic guitar ameliorations.


Side B opens with a collaboration of Barney Kessel with Jack Marshall: No, No, Joe is a brass-fueled sun-dappled gleeful tune about a Caribbean’s yearning of leaving the island for the USA, longing for the genre of Rock instead of becoming a Calypso luminary, with the baying choir warning her via turbulent "don’t you go!" exclamations. A rather bittersweet – and autobiographical – topic, but presented here in effervescent colors, making it a substantial ditty and one of the album’s best offerings. Taking A Chance On Love by Vernon Duke, Ted Felter and John Latouche sees a solo performance by Premice who is joined by celesta-and-guitar glints and croaking guiro flecks in tandem with bongo shrubberies, whereas Chicken Gumbo by the trio of Merrick, Willoughby and Evans unleashes the most splendid layer of bongos and congas next to Barney Kessel’s guitar cascades and a voodoo priest’s iterated advice to eat the eponymous dish. Josephine Premice’s own Song Of The Jumbies is the bilingual downbeat apparition of the album and presented in hatched, dusky colors with peacefully meandering alto flutes, threnodic bonfire guitar strata and a particularly belly-massaging bass guitar accompaniment by Ben Tucker.


I do not know if this is still a Calypso tune, but the sunburst scenery of one Mr. NorvasThe Thief sure as hell is. Barney Kessel’s guitar returns to a jazzier eclecticism, the bongo beat with its iridescent rods and guiro sweeps is straightforward, the celesta glistens in the arrangement, and both La Bombe’s frantically blithesome vocals and the thief-shouting backing choir round off a calypsoistic rendition par excellence. The final Mind Over Matter by Hernan Brana, Dick Sanford and Sammy Mysels is a Rhumba-infused brass-focused apotheosis with an almost Mexican timbre: the guitars are sun-dried, the focus on both legato and staccato horns nurtures this presumption further, with the warbled flute being the final ingredient. The bongo coatings are soothing, Premice sings the chorus together with the choir, and blimey, even short second-lasting violin injections made it onto the album in the very last instance. A mirthful closer. 


Caribe is a great Calypso album, awash with light, eminently joyful and comprising that Caribbean superimposition of loftiness and carefreeness. It is the Calypso album to possess as an Exotica fan, and I can give you rather good reasons for this, methinks. Whether the fact that the mighty Barney Kessel’s involvement as both the lead guitarist and orchestra leader is valuable to the respective listener is of course up for debate, fair enough. Belittling or even ignoring the album’s superb percussion scheme is already a tad harder, for the bongos have this wonderful muffled quality, yet emanate that plasticity which is hard to describe, for these terms usually sit on the opposite ends of the high fidelity spectrum. Somehow, this dualistic state works fabulously and, most importantly, to the album’s advantage. But wait, isn’t there another good reason, the reason of them all to justify a listening session or two every once in a while? Sure, and naturally, this very clue leads to the enthralling temptress of Haiti herself, Josephine Premice. Her cheerful vocals do not show the greatest possible spectrum, she is not Yma Sumac after all (she is more akin to Miriam Burton). The blame can be put on the ever-sunny material supercharged with brazen horns and dreamy flutes. The one and only instance where this is decidedly not the case, namely in the spellbinding Song Of The Jumbies concocted by Calypso Jo herself, it so happens that the full force of her voice’s velvet-soft melodiousness becomes immediately apparent.


Notwithstanding this fleeting visit to moonlit destinations, Caribe is a flamboyantly opalescent artifact of sublime music. The performances are oftentimes designedly over the top, especially so when the all-male choir comes into play, and whenever these gentlemen appear, that is in eleven out of 12 songs, they make me smile; be it due to their hasty warnings, suspiring allusions, onomatopoeic chants or melting murmurings, this is a choir that is less gimmicky than essential for Caribe’s characteristic trait. Highlights include The Man I Love, Mind Over Matter and No, No, Joe, but by all means, check the album out yourself. This is easier than ever: it has been digitally reissued in April 2013 by Fresh Sound Records and is coupled with the chantress' 7" release she delivered with Norman Shobey simply called Calypso


Exotica Review 233: Josephine Premice – Caribe (1957). Originally published on Jun. 29, 2013 at