Bedecked with retro black and white photography so redolent of the era covered, garnished with first class informative sleeve notes contained in tactile gatefold cardboard sleeves, Honest Jon’s albums - culled from EMI’s extensive Hayes archive of worldwide 78s - are enough to bring out the gotta-collect-‘em-all inner anorak in the best of us, especially when the music therein is as excellent as that on the London is the Place for Me series of calypso music that has achieved such acclaim.
Marvellous Boy – Calypso from West Africa is a more than worthwhile companion to those albums, covering recordings that cover the period from (roughly) the early ‘40s to mid ‘50s when Caribbean influences spread from the Creole (or Krio) artists of Freetown in Sierra Leone to the highlife sound of the other English-speaking West African countries, Ghana and Nigeria. Many of the songs here are consequently English-language, and bear the Calypsonian trait of humorous tales (or serious tales told with wit) told over a loose, playful backing. Bobby Benson and his Combo utilise their ballroom-band past on a playful cover of the Calypsonian classic Taxi Driver (I Don’t Care), all punchy sax, yelping trumpet and don’t-care-what-she-does attitude. Horn sections were crucial to the distinctive highlife-isation of this music, Ghana’s E T Mensah leading the way across the region, and represented here with the languorous and ever so slightly disturbing The Tree and the Monkey. Another big influence was Freetown’s Ebenezer Calendar, who brings his half-Barbadian roots to three tracks lightened by banjo-player Famous Scrubbs, excellent in his own right on Scrubbs Na Marvellous Boy, the S E Rogie-a-like Krio song that lends itself to the title of this consistently engaging collection, as calypso stepped into - and finally, permanently, out of - highlife and other local guitar styles.
The World is Shaking- Cubanismo from the Congo takes us back to the seminal years when Congolese musicians took the jazz and Latin-influenced music of their predecessors, mixed it with a picked - mostly dual, acoustic - guitar that imitated the Cuban son mutano piano style, and dropped likembe thumb piano into the mix plus occasional kazoo and fiddle to produce a dance music with a strong folkloric feel that reflected the nascent cultural confidence of the nation (reflected also by lyrics that were changed from Spanish to Lingala and Kikongo where applicable).
European-style polka piké, plus Latino biguines and rumba rhythms were still extant during this period, but the rudimentary recording standards can’t hide the increasingly sophisticated musicianship as those influences were bent and twisted around local styles, and despite one or two modest selections the biggest surprise listening to these cheerily attractive sounds is how quickly some of the artists here seem to have disappeared from history (perhaps through the advent of electric guitar?).
Boniface Koufoudila is the most traditional and exciting of the relative unknowns, an artist operating at the crossroads of the various styles with songs driven by likembe and fluid, attacking Cubano-Congolese polyrhythm, over which are laid sawing violin and chanted vocals. There’s plenty of sweeter stuff elsewhere, not least the five tracks by the most enduring of the artists captured here. Adikwa Depala went on to record with the-then Zaire’s Loningisa label – home to Franco’s OK Jazz – and Moni, Moni Non Dey, his version of El Manisero (Peanut Vendor), is typical of the album, containing early bubbles of the well-spring of interlocking guitar rhythms out of which a revolutionary musical flood was about to burst. History in the making.
This review first appeared in fRoots magazine