In 1940s Trinidad and Tobago a “high brown” was a medium-complexioned or light-skinned person. In the colonial-era racial hierarchy set up by the British, which privileged whiteness, an insipient colorism trickled down to the Afro-Caribbean/Indo-Caribbean majority. On this color scale, people of a lighter complexion were considered more attractive and socially mobile than more darkly complected ones. People of these lighter shades sometimes internalized this Anglo-Caribbean bias and came to consider themselves inherently superior or more greatly entitled.
Compounded by the gender relations of the Global Depression, this colorism became yet more pronounced and vexing during World War II (a period of simultaneous scarcity [due to the war] and sudden prosperity [due to the influx of American dollars]), when the foreign servicemen showed more attention (and cash) to high brown and white Trinidadian women…effectively luring them away from local men. In this calypso, the Growler complains that the expectations of his ‘high brown’ lover have proven unmanageable.
Read Duff Mitchell’s review of Gypsy in the Moonlight in the April 2016 hardcopy edition of Everybody’s Caribbean Magazine, or at Big Drum Nation.
This in-depth analysis comes from an educator who lived through the war years in Trinidad and so the characters, situations and overall narrative stance of the book are all put in historical perspective.
Cheers to Mr. Mitchell!
Rum & Coca Cola wasn’t Invader’s last word on the topic of the geo-gender-ethno-socio-econo-politics of what he famously called “the American social invasion” of World War II. On several other occasions Lord Invader revisited the topic and its long, snagging, bridal train of themes. Sometimes he was more nuanced, even covert, as in 1947’s Pepsi Cola (seemingly a more pacific, less turbid bubbly concoction than Rum & Coca Cola). Other times he let the Yankee occupation have it with all guns blazing.
In Yankee Dollar (1946) Invader deals directly with the sexual economics of the American presence, what we might call the “WWII sex-ecs” of 1940s Trinidad and Tobago. The fact was that after a couple of centuries of Spanish then British rule men of all colours in the colony had come to think of themselves as kings of their households, and lords of their women, an attitude that was but a microcosm of the imperial model where the colonies were the inanimate or otherwise feminine subjects of the (male) kingdom of Great Britain. But when the Yankees showed up, flush with cash, British control over West Indians began to slip just as men’s control over women (if they ever truly had it) felt like it was dribbling through their fingers. The local girls were no longer impressed by one’s roll of British bank notes, crisp and fresh from Barclays. Yankee dollars made English money worthless (and meaningless) by comparison, and British preeminence, too. One scene in Gypsy in the Moonlight describes a woman who walked off her job as a domestic in an Englishwoman’s home when she got her hands on some Yankee dollars. In Invader’s tune, his own wad of pounds sterling coupled with his local quaintness are spurned by a world-wise mopsy who tells him it would be better for him if he were at least a Puerto Rican with some Yankee greenbacks.
In this 1956 recording of The Soldiers Came and Broke Up My Life, Invader adopts the viewpoint of the cuckolded Trinidadian husband, a staggeringly increased demographic during the then-past war years. The American occupation is recalled with ire in this song from the following decade by which time the war was over and most of the Yankees had already gone home, leaving only a skeleton crew on their leased-land bases. It’s almost as if Invader is still suffering the PTSD (Posttraumatic Stress Disorder) from those heady, bygone times when tens of thousands of Yankee servicemen had effected widespread upheavals in local colonial-era power relations, including those between husband and wife.
Well, you knew it was coming.
More than any other, this perennial calypso is irrevocably associated with the complicating presence of American servicemen in WWII Trinidad. Its unflinching look at the effects of the “Yankee Dollar” on local gender relations and sexuality is legendary. Its critical tone, topic, and scenarios are subjected to some dark and unexpected twists in Gypsy in the Moonlight.
The topic of the disruptive effects of “the American social invasion” of Trinidad and Tobago was a close and important study for Lord Invader who returned to it in other songs, sometimes with even greater poignancy. At least one of these other songs will appear later in this feature on the music that inspired Gypsy in the Moonlight.
The lyrics of Rum and Coca Cola were sanitized in the copyright-infringing version of the song by the American singing group, the Andrew Sisters. Their saccharin rendition became immensely popular in the U.S. Calypso had become all the rage and the Andrew Sisters’ management (Morey Amsterdam) wanted a piece of the action. Lord Invader ended up suing Amsterdam for stealing the song he and Lionel Belasco had composed together, and eventually won the case in an American court.
Linked here is Invader’s tight, punchy, but still scathing 1956 revisit to Rum and Coca Cola, the infamous calypso that he’d first sung more than a decade earlier.
For more on Rum and Coca Cola lore, visit the Rum and Coca Cola Reader web page. And for some fascinating pictures of World War II in Trinidad, like the one of soldier and mopsy above, visit the “Striderv” flickr page.
Calypso is a topical medium, commenting on any and all issues and events of its day, often with clever humour and keen wit. Double entendre is a favorite device, almost a characteristic trait, of the calypso form, at least for the frequency with which it is used. Double entendre is often employed to probe themes of a sexual or political nature without running afoul of censors (in the 30s to 60s) and radio program directors. In this sly, mid 1940s calypso, Duke of Iron manages to turn the World War Two military escort of merchant ships (i.e., the naval convoy) into a sexual innuendo.
It wasn’t just American presidents that were coming ashore in Trinidad. In the Destroyers for Bases agreement of 1940 the U.S. provided the British with 50 formerly-mothballed American ships in exchange for parcels of land all over the British West Indian colonies, the Bahamas, Bermuda and Newfoundland. The U.S. government then proceeded to built hundreds of military bases in the Caribbean from which they could prevent German U-Boats reaching the vital ports of North and South America, launch military escorts for supply ships between Europe and the Americas, and guard the approach to the Panama Canal. In the Battle of the Caribbean hundreds of American, British and German vessels were sunk in attacks and skirmishes.
British and American servicemen on the streets of Port-of-Spain, World War Two.
The arrival of the American army and navy in Trinidad is said to have increased the island’s population by as much as a third. The American presence brought disruption, opportunity, fun, danger and numberless complications to the lives of Trinidadians and Tobagonians. These complications provide many of the tensions and conflicts in Gypsy in the Moonlight.
Although written in retrospect after the war, Sir Lancelot’s 1949 calypso, “Trinidad is Changing” cheerfully glosses the social effects of the American military presence in Trinidad & Tobago. The song celebrates the American occupation for its ‘hipsterizing’ effect on local customs and speech. Based in Hollywood where he scored and even appeared in several films, Sir Lancelot impressed the Yanks back in the States as much as they did him in this plucky number.
“Trinidad is Changing” (1949)
President Roosevelt at a press conference aboard the SS Taboga, during his visit to Trinidad, Nov. 1936.
In November and December of 1936, three years after the Graf Zeppelin’s visit, Trinidad received another distinguished guest. On his way to and back from the Inter-American Conference for the Maintenance of Peace in Argentina, the American president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, came to Trinidad. He was welcomed and admired by the colonial authorities and citizenry alike. But while he was already a fan of Trinidad’s calypso music, having encountered the genre back in the States, this well-travelled gentleman is reported to have been staggered by the island’s cultural diversity, calling it an “ethnic potpourri.”
The consummate ‘calypso journalist,’ Atilla might have filed this report on his own but Fitz Maclean’s 1936 composition, Roosevelt in Trinidad, certainly met his standards. So Atilla popularized the Maclean song instead in the venues of Trinidad and New York alike.
No single drum or tambou bamboo recording was the inspiration for any scene in Gypsy in the Moonlight. Rather, several scenes in the novel draw their rhythm and cadence from indigenous Trinidadian tambou bamboo and Afro-Trinbagonian drumologies. These were fully formed, traditional arts by the mid 20th century. And at least two important scenes in the book take place within earshot of the driving, sometimes quickening, rhythms of these musical forms. In 1942, when Gypsy in the Moonlight takes place, bamboo men, drummers and other musicians were on the brink of inventing the steel pan. The addition of increasingly tuned, and therefore tuneful, metallic containers (such as kitchen pots, biscuit tins, and oil drums) to the rhythmic, sometimes ‘xylophonic’ ensemble of tambou bamboo and conga drums constituted a musical alchemy that agitated the background of some of the tensest scenes in the novel. Sometimes that rumbling background leapt forward and invaded the main scene.
In the more unusual, often improvised, idiophones, even the protagonist, Bonham Mars himself, could hear the beginnings of a new kind of music. And his musician friends “up the road” were already imagining that they might get a new, full-fledged musical instrument out of the experiment. Those were heady times for sure.
If you listen carefully to these 1956 Smithsonian field recordings you can get a glimpse of what it must have sounded like a decade earlier as improvised idiophones started creeping into the music and matching not only its rhythm beat for beat, but its melodies, note for note.
Ethiopian troops march out of Harrar to meet the Italians in war, November 1935.
It was not just Hitler’s ‘antics’ that had calypsonians concerned. The West Indies, with its population of predominantly African descent, was deeply disturbed by Mussolini’s 1935-36 invasion of Abyssinia (Ethiopia). In the Gold in Africa, an exasperated Growling Tiger suggests to the Italian dictator to invade someplace else. Some of his suggestions did not meet with the approval of the colonial authorities, as they seemed to betray Tiger’s loyalties to Africa over those to the British Empire and its allies.
Italian propaganda poster by fascist artist Gino Boccasile (1944) showing African American soldier carting off the marble-white treasures of Europe.
In his controversial calypso, so disgusted is Tiger with Mussolini’s aggression towards Ethiopia and its revered emperor Haile Selassie that he suggests the Italian’s invasion might be sexually, rather than politically, motivated. Tiger characterizes the Fascist dictator as a “shameless dog,” a debased creature, not unlike how the Italian government itself would depict black soldiers in its propaganda art a few years later.
The Gold in Africa (1936) is a haunting ‘mi-minor’ calypso, imparting a feeling of dread as it paints a grotesque profile of its fascist antagonist. It also casts light on the complex loyalties, inner conflicts and occasional ambivalence of the West Indian Negro towards WWII.
That ambivalence is laced through Gypsy in the Moonlight as part of its noir style and outlook.
In this jaunty calypso from 1940, Lord Beginner challenges the ascendant Nazi despot to do the right thing and surrender, warning him that at any rate his reign is near its end. It was only when Great Britain had made up its mind that Hitler was an enemy that calypsonians were allowed to release scathing songs about him.