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January 13, 2008

Lionel Belasco - Goodnight Ladies and Gents

Belasco was the Scott Joplin of calypso:
he composed West Indian music from folk sources, which he found on his many travels throughout the islands, and was the first person to popularize calypso outside Trinidad. Piano player, band leader, composer, and entrepreneur, Belasco recorded more West Indian songs before World War II than any other performer.

For those of you who like calypso (or are interested in the roots of Carribean music), this is the real thing. Belasco is at the heart of the birth of calypso music, as its first important composer, arranger, and piano player. He crafted a style which incorporated such various influences as ragtime, dixieland jazz, Brazilian choro, Venezuelan folk, Trinidadian ritual music, classical parlor music, and the Spanish romantic tradition. Think a genteel Buena Vista Social Club via a trip through the slums of New Orleans and Brazil.

Port of Spain, Trinidad was in many ways the was the musical Mecca of the Carribean. It was "the most cosmopolitan place in the world for its size. It's like Hong Kong. You have every nationality in the world there… Syrians, Chinese, Portugese, East Indians, everything English, Jews Spaniards, there are still Carib Indians… I mean sometimes you walk in certain parts of Trinidad and you think that you are in a foreign country because you hear nothing else [but foreign languages]." --Lionel Belasco, from an interview 1961

Additionally, Belasco absorbed influences outside the city. As a teenager, he would go to out in the jungle to participate in stick fights and cock fights (once he got his hand broken by a cudgel). He witnessed a lot of native's songs, dances, and rituals, and brought this jungle music back to the city (much to the dismay of his mother). He also traveled extensively in Venezuela and Brazil, and was likely exposed to the similarly syncopated Choro music of Ernesto Nazareth, as well as South American folk melodies. He also lived and recorded in New York City for many years. His music was Creole; a true mix of cultures and races. Belasco's music inhabits a rare middle ground between the jungle and the parlor. It is both raw and refined.

Though there is quite a lot of nimble, quick playing on the part of the accompanists (check the Eddie Lang-esque guitar on Blow Wind Blow and Caroline), it never feels rushed. Belasco keeps to a stately pace throughout all the songs, never hurried and never lagging. It's a rhythm you could strut to, provided you also swung your hips and shoulders. This stately tempo allows for Belasco's infectious syncopation to work its magic. Through subtle polyrhythms, a simple melodic line becomes an complex and compelling tune without losing its simplicity.

Whether playing as an band-leader, accompanist to singers like the great Wilmouth Houdini, or solo, Belasco always played his music with grace and continuity. He never leaves you in the dark: every wayward melody finds its home, and each emotion is resolved before the next one begins. He can play an upbeat, joyous song that swings like you've never heard, and the next minute play a lilting waltz that becomes all the more mournful for its steady pulse and lack of dramatic flair. When the day is done, this music may seem old-fashioned, and in many ways it is. The lyrics, like most of calypso, are largely about the neighbors. It is gossip in song form. But the music also contains the gentle seed of something that we have forgotten. All art reflects the culture it is born in. With its gently prodding rhythm and loping melodies, this music gives us a glance to a world caught in between tradition and modernization: an impossible cusp where for a moment, the excitement of the dawning bustle of the city matched the regret for its drowning heritage.

get it here: part 1 and part 2 (re-re-re-posted May 10 2009)

my rip | mp3 192+vbr | 105 mb | cover included

see also the postings for Calypso Pioneers and Wilmouth Houdini at El Diablo Tun-Tun, and you'll find many more fine calypso, mento, afro-cuban, cajun, blues, old-time, etc. postings there too


Anonymous said...

Thanks a lot for this posting introducing Lionel Belasco - an almost forgotten source of original Carribean music brought into the spotlight. Great music and info provided, thanks again!
Keep up the good work!

Karl Eklund said...

Doesn't seem to be there 3/6/08

The Irate Pirate said...

hrm. it looks like massmirror has problems when the file size is over 100mb. I'll try splitting it and re-post soon.

The Irate Pirate said...

re-re-posted 3/6/08.
it's now in two parts. if the new link in the post doesn't work, you can try these direct links:
part 1:

part 2:

more direct links may show up as massmirror uploads it to more sites. feel free to post them here if you like.

and please, let me know if it still doesn't work.

Anonymous said...

the links to part 1 all seem to be dead. is there any way you can upload it to badongo (the link to part 2 is still active)? i would appreciate it very much.

The Irate Pirate said...

no, i can't do anything about re-upping it until may 2009, as i'm out of the country. but if you like part two, you could always buy it from smithsonian like i did. they're good folks to support.

Azulejo said...

Joe Nava
Thanks for sharing the magical music of Lionel Belasco. Grown in Venezuela, I can taste the caribbean flavor with the venezuelan air. I was born in Maracaibo, it is always a pleasure to listen to The Palms Of Maracaibo
No doubt a secret kept in world music.