★ The Premise ★
Enough with the clichés of Calypso! The roots of this presumably ever-vivacious genre lead to darkened soils which are occasionally soaked with blood. This sentence will surely make the classical Exotica listener leave immediately, and I can’t blame this hypothetical persona, but those who want a true, straight look into the genre with all of its true rhizomes should consider Maya Angelou’s Miss Calypso, the foil to Josephine Premice’s joyous Caribe (1957). Born Marguerite Ann Johnson in 1928, the US-American singer, educator, playwright and historian died in 2014; in many eulogies, she is remembered for surprisingly versatile projects and endeavors, but considering the given topic of AmbientExotica, she is most likely to be associated with her short-lived stage name Maya Angelou.
Miss Calypso is recorded in 1956 and released in the following year on Liberty Records, with cross-license agreements allowing London Records to sell the record outside the US. It takes three people to bring the listener the darker, more toned-down, hatched photometry of a good Calypso: conguero and bongo player Al Bello, Jazz guitar luminary Tommy Tedesco who is one of the most frequently considered session musicians of that golden era, and of course Maya Angelou herself. The timbre of her voice is already rubicund and dark to begin with, and it suits the themes of contemplation, stargazing, but also riots and mayhem quite well. Here is a closer look at the three principal cornerstones that grace the album.
★ Vocal Performance ★
One thing is for sure: Maya Angelou not only sings or interprets a battery of Calypso ditties, she literally lives them, they are the circadian guide, destination bord and road post for the enchantress. Always on top of the situation, occasionally willfully over the top, the array of 14 tunes are a centrifugal force of jocund wisdom, with a few contretemps thrown in. Edward White’s Polymon Bongo is a perfect example of how a reduced and still vivid accompaniment stresses the protrusive vocals and puts them rightfully into the limelight.
King Radio’s Donkey City is a drowsy hammock-friendly piece where Angelou is at her friendliest when she sings about the “funny old donkey” while leaving a few pluvial antimatter particles attached to her vocals. Push Ka Pici Pi by Walter Merrick, Joe Willoughby and Louis Jordan is a distillate where things unfortunately don’t work on a vocal level: a semi-witty song with comparatively eclectic jazzisms guitar-wise at its heart, Miss Calypso is too belligerent and stubborn in this – of all things – final ditty that makes this last impression the wrongest one to have when all is said and done.
★ Unique Songs ★
Songs that are never heard before are the principal crown jewels of a record, especially so in the world of Exotica and its adjacent genres where interpretations and retakes of classics make up the vast majority of the presented material, no matter the style, equipment or manpower. In this regard, Miss Calypso addresses the commonplace attitude by at least featuring a roster of five unique ditties which are as follows: Oo-Dla-Ba-Doo is quite the fast midtempo ventiduct into tribalism due to Al Bello’s delightfully stolid congas which function as the reliant aorta for Maya Angelou to hold onto, shouting and scything her way through the jungle’s thicket. Adding to this illusion is the most cautious of reverberations. Scandal In The Family relies on the same formula which is excellently realized as well: darkly bubbling low frequency drums are serrated with fir-green conga droplets. Beware of the crestfallen lyrics though: “the white fell down and the sickness came, it burned her mind in the voodoo flame.”
Mambo In Africa meanwhile is a surprisingly aeriform mirage of sun-dappled silkened strings and a similarly mellow Maya Angelou at first, before the last third opens a rhythmic turmoil, carrying the seeds of Mambo all over the world. While Neighbor, Neighbor sees the temptress quasi-toasting over one of them pesky-neighbor ditties (“he comes to my house whenever he please’”) that is actually quite the joyful aureole, Tamo lets Maya Angelou return to her role as the clanswoman in front of Al Bello’s drums. The unique material doesn’t stand out in particular, but this is actually a boon in terms of the coherence and consistency of the album as a whole.
★ The Arrangements ★
The opener Run Joe by the above-mentioned trio of Merrick, Willoughby and Jordan is a pre-spy franchise theme with recondite piano shards, pressing instructions and opposing suntrap guitars about the eponymous jailbreaker, whereas Merrick’s Since Me Man Has Done Gone And Went lures with Tommy Tedesco’s much jazzier strumming of his signature instrument; in tandem with Al Bello’s laid-back bongo groove and a petulant Miss Angelou lamenting that “dem fellows can’t be trusted.” The aforementioned Polymon Bongo is anything but a tribal ditty stripped to the barest of bones, stressing the nocturnal darkness which itself becomes even greater due to the vocal omnipresence.
At times, fitting sunbursts arise and end the reign of the night: Wilmouth Houdini’s Stone Cold Dead In The Market, for instance, is a delight with its aureate polyphony as spawned by Tedesco’s softened guitar punctilio, with Milton Larkin’s Peas And Rice succumbing to the same soothing trade wind. What, then, constitutes the allure? Once the melodies are open to scrutiny and emitting multiplexed earwigs, the backing musicians outshine the temptress. All things considered, however, it turns out that the arrangements are always comparatively spartan indeed, making them a great contrapuntal – and phylogenetically veridical – force in view to the ever-glitzy Hollywood interpretations of the genre, Leo Addeo’s Calypso (1964) being but one example.
★ Calypso Origins ★
Maya Angelou is Miss Calypso, I’m telling you no big story here. However, if you read that sentence out aloud and emphasize the Calypso part of it, the semantics suddenly change and lead you to quite the surprising conclusion, namely that this is not the archetypal Calypso album one has in mind when viewing this album from an Exotica-driven point of view. Well, it is exotic alright thanks to the ubiquitous conga-and-bongo coppices and dreamy guitar sinews, the latter of which even transmogrify into convoluted Jazz cataracts in the given narrowed theme. And yes, the vocals are there as well, Angelou sings about commonplace sightings, dreams and longings, but also shame and scandal which are usually ostracized in the scintillating world of Exotica.
Calypso tunes have to be sun-laden and ablaze with technicolor plasticizers, that’s the basic premise and promise that has formed thanks to Harry Belafonte, Josephine Premice and even Elvis Presley. Miss Calypso showcases that things can be different. It isn’t as mystical as an Yma Sumac hydrazine, but knows to encapsulate the darkness of the jungle, the quasi-dangerous perils of the isle in a similar way. It just needs a pair of bongos and a distinctive voice to accomplish this. Once Tommy Tedesco joins with his guitar, this nocturnal mystique intendedly wanes and makes room for the sun to warm the hearts. Two sides of the single Calypso coin: only on Maya Angelou’s Miss Calypso. Available on vinyl, CD and a remastered download version.
Exotica Review 466: Maya Angelou – Miss Calypso (1956). Originally published on Mar. 10, 2016 at AmbientExotica.com.