By Oliver Arditi
Grenada is a small island nation in the Caribbean, which probably pinged most emphatically on the radar of British and North American public awareness when the US invaded in 1983. For the majority of its colonial history it was a British territory, and in 1962, a dozen years before independence, it was visited by Alan Lomax on his ‘Caribbean Voyage.’ Presumably this trip was a bit more exciting than his visit to the pub in Blaxhall, a few miles down the road from where I’m writing, recordings from which are found on the first album I randomly clicked on when I visited the Global Jukebox website. I mention this not only because it was a startling coincidence, but because it is illustrative of the scope of Lomax’s collecting: clearly, in most parts of the world, or even in most parts of England, you will not find yourself just down the road from a place where he made a field recording (although in the USA you’re never far away), but he cast his net wide enough to demonstrate a complete openness to all stripes of traditional culture. When Carl Sagan consulted him to choose the music that would be sent beyond the heliopause on the Voyager probes, Lomax ensured that Andean pan-pipes and Azerbaijani bagpipes were included, among other things, at the expense of some of the big names of Western formal music, although he personally had never collected in those regions. This was a man who valued the diversity of human culture, a passionate advocate of the irreplaceable value of specific cultural practices, regional linguistic variations, and of course of geographically particular musics; he theorised this egalitarian sense of value as ‘cultural equity,’ an idea which gives its name to the foundation that is the custodian of his enormous archive.
Much of the music that Lomax recorded, especially in the US, was released on LP at the time; I’m not sure whether everything he recorded is in the archive today, or whether some of the recordings remain the property of the record labels at whose behest he collected them (such as the series of folk music albums he produced for Decca in the late 1940s, or the eighteen LP Columbia Library Of Folk And Primitive Music he compiled for Columbia Records while in the UK during the 1950s). I’m reasonably certain that not everything in the archive has been released in the past, however, and I have no idea whether Roll And Go is the first commercial distribution of Lomax’s Grenadan collection. I also have to admit that I have little idea where it fits in the bigger picture of Grenada’s musical history, but given how little value has generally been placed on work songs, and how tiny Grenada is, it seems likely that the tradition represented on this digital release has not produced a huge volume of recordings. It also seems likely, given the little I know about Caribbean cultural trends, that this tradition may have diminished considerably since these recordings were made; Grenada invests a great deal of patriotic pride in its calypso tradition, and has produced a number of notable reggae, jazz and soca musicians, but its older musics are now largely associated with its northern dependency, the island of Carriacou, with a population estimated at around only ten thousand. Whether any of these songs survive there today is a question for a more knowledgeable man than I, but the survival of these specific voices, singing from their now historically and culturally distant life experience, is irrespectively of inestimable importance to anyone who regards human cultural heritage in the same light as our rapidly dwindling biological heritage. That perspective lends a uniquely poignant and plaintive air to sounds such as these.
A specialist reviewer would be equipped to compare these songs to the broader sea chanty tradition, and would be more able to spot echoes or fragments of melodies and lyrics from other parts of the world, but I can at least hear the most obvious similarities and contrasts. ‘Blow The Man Down’ is a very well known song in Britain and America, and its customary lyric refers quite explicitly to a particular vessel making ready to depart from Liverpool; the version included here shares only its refrains with the song with which I’m familiar, but it is very recognisably the same song. The song that lends its name to the album, the brief and sprightly ‘Roll Roll Roll And Go’, is also reminiscent of the English chanty tradition, in its melody if nothing else. Elements of the Grenadian singers’ West African heritage is in evidence throughout, particularly in the polyrhythmic precision of many of the shouted interjections, but only ‘Gwen Mwen,’ with its indecipherable French lyric, sounds specifically like a West African song; again, my ethnomusicological knowledge falls short of a more exact attribution, but the important point is that there is a great diversity of identifiable traditions bound together in these songs. Of course all coherent musical styles, be they traditional, commercial or formal, are fusions, snapshots of development, usually frozen only in the glare of the recorded release or the collector’s document, but these songs were recorded at a particular moment when their various cultural sources had become submerged among one another without yet losing their distinct identities. Such moments must be very fleeting, and I’m sure they are tremendously exciting to those who specialise in the study of such musics. There is the British chanty tradition, probably much mingled with its North American offspring; the dimly remembered African heritage of the slaves from whom this music is partly inherited; some French influence, evident in the lyric to ‘Gwen Mwen,’ but probably more pervasive than that, given the continuing popularity of the quadrille in traditional Grenadian music; and there is also an unmistakable influence of popular musics from elsewhere in the Caribbean, particularly the calypso, which is Grenada’s national style as much as it is Trinidad’s.
All of the songs included on Roll And Go have a simple call and response structure, although it is frequently treated flexibly, with a great number of commentaries called out by members of the ‘choir’, and the responses are frequently embellished in various ways. This is obviously communal music, made by and for groups of people working together, and although there is a form of hierarchy implicit in the division of the singers into caller and responders (each song being credited to ‘so-and-so and group’), it’s very clear from the delivery that the songs are led by consent, and that the caller may well depend on the response more than the reverse. The melody and phrasing of the initial calls often sound tentative, and audibly draw strength from the broad mutuality of the responding harmony, so that by the fourth or fifth iteration the leader is belting the songs out as confidently as the led. This is particularly noticeable in the opening ‘Hilo Boys Hilo,’ performed by Newton Joseph and his group; the next time we hear from Joseph, in ‘Steamboat Due Tomorrow,’ he is emphatic from the outset, and it is tempting to imagine that this is a subsequent performance from a recording session of which ‘Hilo Boys Hilo’ was the beginning, but there is no information provided with the album to suggest whether or not this is the case.
This is clearly the music of a male dominated milieu, but there are female voices in the responses to ‘Blow The Man Down,’ and a woman’s voice (presumably the Babsy McQueen to whom it is credited) leads the singing in ‘Roll Roll Roll And Go’; whether this could be taken to suggest that women shared in the work that the music would accompany is no clear, but it suggests at least that gendered roles were not defined by hermetically impermeable barriers in working class Grenadian society of the time. The songs show some variation in tempo, but they are basically all in moderato territory, which makes sense, given that they were traditionally sung during heavy manual work. Their themes range from the sacred to the profane, and from the epic to the banal; ‘Ring Down Below’ and ‘Shiloh’ are the only songs with an overtly religious theme (although the latter mutates into a version of ‘Hilo Boys Hilo’ around halfway through), while ‘Ride ’Em Trinidad’ is a celebration of drinking (and presumably not an actual drinking song); ‘Hooray Irena’ deals with crime and punishment, a common topic for the traditional music of the very poor, exhorting its subject to give the narrator their crochet hat when they go to prison. It is also the only song on the album to suggest an urban milieu, and it may be an import, with its distinctive calypso stylings, and obvious primary triad chord sequence.
There is a picture of a culture being painted here; it’s hard to draw any conclusions from a collection of songs, but it’s clear enough that this is the music of people accustomed to hard work and poverty, and to the same dual consolations of church and bottle that inform the American blues, with which it shares its fertile fusion of European and African folk traditions. Some of these songs are plaintive laments, in the manner of the blues, but the majority are more upbeat, in common with much Caribbean music. Perhaps the continued proximity to the sea encouraged a greater cultural optimism; the brutality with which Africans were treated in the Caribbean was certainly no less than in the continental colonies. The songs, in fact, represent a wide emotional range, and also a variety of informal social relationships, not just in their themes, but in their conversational character. This is the music of people opening their mouths to sing in the same way that people in Britain today might kick a ball about in the park, or talk about last night’s TV while they work; it is the music of lives in which there is little overt distinction between work and leisure, and although these are properly and accurately referred to as work songs, they might as easily be called ‘life songs.’ That, to me, is the most precious aspect of the endangered (or possibly extinct) culture that Roll And Go preserves: this is music that is not artificially separated from the rest of life, as it is in modern consumer societies, alienated from the everyday and redefined as a professional technical activity and the commodity it gives rise to. This music still belonged (when it was recorded) to the people you can hear singing it. That self-possession is evident in the enveloping breadth of the choral responses, the playful intricacy of the polyrhythmic embellishments, the fragile passion of the vocal timbres, and the resilient sensuality of each moment of sound. These songs do not ape the aesthetic conventions of dominant formal culture, and that refusal, that insistence on their own form of beauty, is a powerful and moving as any of the many truths that global musical culture has to offer.
Global Jukebox GJ1015, 2013, DD album, 35m 27s $8.99