When Roaring Lion and Atilla the Hun, sailed to New York on the SS Nerissa in 1934, it was as pivotal a moment as Kitchener’s 1948 arrival in London. Now, their recordings have been painstakingly recreated for a fascinating live show by the Ibis Ensemble titled 1934.
A door opens on a rehearsal room inside the belly of NAPA, Port of Spain and the gentle swinging sound of 1930s Trinidad spills down the hall.
Music students wandering around the foyer of UTT’s Academy of Performing Arts barely lift their heads to listen, so caught up are they in tuning instruments and talking about exams. They are, by now, accustomed to this old-time sound. For several years, the Ibis Ensemble and lead arranger Simon Browne, have been unearthing TT’s earliest music on highly collectable 78 rpm recordings and turning them into live performances.
Tomorrow night, the latest recreation will take concert-goers back to 1934 and a turning point in calypso. In collaboration with musicologist and calypso fanatic Ray Funk, who presents an accompanying slideshow history lesson, the story of Roaring Lion and Atilla the Hun’s journey to New York’s recording studios, night clubs and radio sessions will be performed. Two-time Calypso Monarch Chucky Gordon plays Lion, and Krisson Joseph (son of the late Penguin) will play Atilla.
Newsday got a glimpse of the rehearsals earlier this week and caught up with Browne, originally from Cheshire in England, Funk, visiting from his native Alaska, and Gordon.
By the mid-1930s, New York was very much established as the self-styled Big Apple. A vast, dreamy, metropolis where bright lights gleamed down never-ending streets and fashionable stars drank Martinis in smoky bars. Trinidadians had heard about it, says Funk, on shortwave radio. Though Trinidad was still a British colony, the magnetic pull was not towards stuffy old England but to the brash, sexy US where anybody with the right amount of swagger could make a name for themselves.
As Funk sifts through the archives on his Macbook, he stumbles across a line he found while researching the notes that Atilla, real name Raymond Quevedo, made for his autobiography. It sums up the immensity of the occasion:
“Can you imagine the metamorphosis?” Atilla writes, “From a bamboo hut somewhere in the West Indies with a primitive background and rude instruments, to the National Broadcasting Company in the greatest city in the world.”
But how did the trip come about? I ask Browne.
“Houdini was in New York in the 1920s and recorded a lot of stuff with Lionel Bellasco, but he wasn’t seen in Trinidad as a true tent calypsonian,” says Browne, who arrived from England as a classical violinist but is now immersed in TT's music.
“He did a lot of boasting and couldn’t back it up, and there were a lot of war calypsoes between him, Lion, Atilla and Executor. It stuck in their craw that he was up there in New York doing all these recordings.”
When their chance came, in the shape of Portuguese record store owner Eduardo Sa Gomes, Atilla and Lion boarded the SS Nerissa and sailed for the States.
“They are seen in Trinidad as the first bonafide, authentic calypsonians,” says Browne. “There had been others, but they were all vaudeville singers. The idea of calypsonians is not just someone who sings songs but who lives the calypsonian life.”
Gordon, who has been trying to adopt that timeless persona, chips in: “They worked for themselves, they never worked at anything else, they never sang anything but calypso.”
Not satisfied with having competed in both the Soca and Calypso Monarch finals, Gordon has just completed a UTT course in music technology.
Has he tried to mimic Lion for this performance?
“I’m trying to capture the essence of how he sang, not necessarily the characterisation. He was very grammatical and it took a while to interpret some of the lines and understand the phrasing. I’m following as closely as possible, the authentic recordings.”
And will he dress like Lion, legendarily well-suited?
“Yeah man, definitely!” he laughs “Dapper!”
Browne has followed the recordings even more closely, transcribing the parts for guitar, cuatro, double bass, piano and clarinet for the past six months, in between teaching and touring. His players, classically-trained multinational musicians – even boasting a clarinettist from Belarus – seem instinctively in step with this early Trinidadian artform and privileged to have the chance to work with such vintage archive material.
“These recordings from ’34 are incredibly rare,” Funk confirms. “In 20 years of collecting, I’ve almost never seen them come on sale on eBay.”
At home in Alaska, he has over 20,000 records on his shelves. He got his hands on some of the recordings (on labels like Decca and Perfect Records) through John Cowley, a London producer who is compiling a box set for the Bear Family label.
“The style of verses and choruses, as opposed to call-and-response calypso, was being recorded before 1934, but this New York trip was the moment,” Funk says, definitively.
Two of the eight songs the ensemble will play, Ugly Woman (an outrageous, irreverent Lion number in which he recommends marrying a woman with “yampee mud all in her eye” rather than a pretty girl) and Graf Zeppelin (an Atilla social commentary about the day the airship flew low over Port of Spain, causing people in Woodbrook to run inside, screaming) are considered classics, Funk says.
When the pair returned to Trinidad, they had been transformed from scandalous, bawdy singers to national heroes. They had achieved the sort of international success that Trinidad’s biggest stars of today can only dream of.
The show 1934 begins at 6pm at NAPA.