Calypso as a pop culture fad or a fact of life in 1950s Toronto.
In the 1950s, Toronto’s black population was small and the West Indian population smaller still, kept that way by Canada’s exclusionary immigration policies. As a first step in integrating into a new, unfamiliar country, new arrivals first worked to achieve their basic needs including securing employment and adequate housing. But nearly as important in the adjustment to a new country were opportunities to socialize and reconnect with the culture from home, like calypso music.
While aspects of Caribbean music flavoured the North American mainstream culture as pop culture fads from time to time, the relatively isolated West Indian community—who weren’t concentrated in any single residential neighbourhood—remained cultural outsiders with relatively few opportunities to engage with the music and culture on their own terms. A decade before the creation of Caribana, West Indian immigrants were already seeking similar ways of transplanting “cultural expressive forms,” in the words of researcher Annemarie Gallaugher, that helped “to shift the focus of home from strictly ‘there’ to include ‘here’ as well.”
By the late 1950s, Toronto had long enjoyed at least occasional exposure to calypso music and Caribbean culture. From the 1930s to the 40s, Caribbean culture had occasionally popped into the mainstream consciousness with brief island-inspired dance and music fads, with calypso covers by pop vocalists like the Andrews Sisters. Lord Caresser (aka Rufus Callender), a Trinidadian calypso singer, proved to be so popular in the Montreal nightclub scene of the 1940s and 1950s he earned a weekly CBC radio program with a national and international audience.
Harry Belafonte’s explosive popularity in the late 1950s touched off a new craze for calypso-themed music, Hollywood films, West-Indian-inspired ruffled shirts, and “Calypso Cut” hairdos targeted at a mainstream white audience. Calypso, or at least the pop music version of it, threatened to supplant rock and roll’s preeminence with teenagers at any moment. The Star explained how to throw a teenage Calypso party, helpfully suggesting fish netting, palm trees, and bales of straw as decor and pineapples and coconuts for snacks. There were calypso-themed entertainments at Maple Leafs baseball games, Argos football games, and charity fundraisers.
As a descriptor in ads and news coverage over the years, calypso was usually utilized as a short-hand for any kind of generic Caribbean sound—interchangeably meaning mento, ska, reggae, and other musical styles—making it difficult to know, from written sources alone, to know precisely what music featured at each of these venues or events.
Extracted from its working-class origins and the calypso singer’s role as storyteller and critic, improvising lyrics about social, political, and often salty topics, commercialized calypso was often reduced to a pleasant, innocuous sound. In Trinidad and Tobago, calypso and steel band music were looked down upon by respectable folks as pursuits of the rough lower class. When, as a youth in his native Port of Spain, Selwyn “Sello” Gomes—who described himself as a “quarter Black, and three-quarters Portuguese with some Scottish”—became fascinated by the syncopated rhythms created by black steel band musicians, his parents disapproved.
Defying them, Gomes left home at the age of 17 to join a steel band, playing steelpan in clubs at night and finishing high school by day. “It was a very difficult decision for me,” Gomes later told a Star interviewer, Nicholas Keung, “but I was just obsessed with steel drumming.” Gomes first came to Toronto in 1955 with the Trinidad Tropitones for a three-week-long engagement at the Canadian National Exhibition, headlining the grandstand show as the Esso Tropitones Steelband. The band’s “exotic” sound—accompanied by two dancers in bright costumes and an energetic emcee—were the hit of the fair. And, when the troupe returned to the CNE in 1957, Gomes stayed behind—with his two steelpans as his only possessions. Gomes’ path to immigration, staying behind after a tour, would be repeated by numerous Caribbean musicians in the years to come. After working as a professional on the nightclub circuit in the 1960s, Gomes eventually took a full-time job at Sir Wilfrid Laurier Collegiate, where he’d soon started a steel band and would work to integrate steel drumming into the city’s musical education curriculum.
There were other Caribbean artists touring to Canada who stopped in Toronto. The Calypso-Carib-Creole Carnival, a well-publicized appearance of Haitian choreographer Jean Leon Destine’s touring company (comprised of performers from Guadalupe, Trinidad, and beyond) at the Eaton Auditorium in September 1957, promised Torontonians weary of commercialized calypso a taste of “the real thing.” The Little Carib Dancers, a 31-member troupe of dancers and musicians from Trinidad, appeared in a revue of Calypso, shango, limbo, and bongo staged as part of the Stratford Festival in the summer of 1958.
(Above right: Globe and Mail [September 14, 1957])
The Club One Two (12 Adelaide Street East) was one of a number of nightclubs in advertising regular calypso performances in the late 1950s. While some, like Ray Carroll and His Jamaicans who enjoyed a nine-week run at the club, were the genuine article and were composed of musicians born in Jamaica, Haiti, Cuba, and Bermuda, others were opportunists.
Despite their stated preference for Canadian folk songs, Martin Overland, his sister Arlene, and friend Leon Segal formed The Strangers as a calypso trio in early 1957 specifically to capitalize on the craze. “Calypso is West Indian folk singing,” Overland explained. “I thought if I formed a calypso group, I could also teach the group to sing Canadian folk songs.” Although The Strangers sang calypsos like “The Wheels Are Turning,” and “Sweet Temptation”—always careful to explain their origin and meaning to the audience like they were museum artifacts—The Strangers’ set also included Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.” Inevitably, the trio’s one-week appearance at the Club One Two earned it a three-month engagement at the Barclay Hotel and a recording contract with London Records.
(Above left: Toronto Star [August 26, 1957])
The Star‘s Stan Rantin, one of the few critics who explained calypso’s origins for readers at the height of the Belafonte-fuelled craze, questioned how long the fad would last. “Already its popularity has attracted the inept imitators. And nothing kills a fad faster than the bandwagon,” Rantin argued, suggesting that most “authentic calypso singers” from the Caribbean “would not be polished enough for Canadian or U.S. audiences.”
Certainly, critics and audiences didn’t always “get” West Indian music. Although he admitted that “[i]n its own environment,” calypso singing “can have a certain raffish charm, and the feeling of spontaneity,” Globe and Mail critic Frank Morriss felt the musical style was “a chancy business in a night club.” His comments were prompted by an appearance of the Duke of Iron, born Cecil Anderson in Trinidad, at the Frontenac Arms (306 Jarvis Street) in March 1960. As a true calypsonian, the Duke of Iron improvised material on-stage to poke fun at Toronto’s foibles. Nevertheless, another critic John Kraglund, concluded: “The Duke of Iron is the type of balladeer that should appeal to those who like authentic, if somewhat modified, calypso. It would probably be less attractive to those who feel Harry Belafonte is the definitive exponent of this popular song form.”
(Above right: Globe and Mail [March 17, 1960])
In other words, the Caribbean music that was pushed to the forefront of public consciousness was not the kind that meant the most to Toronto’s Caribbean and West Indian community.
In the 1950s, the West Indian community in Toronto, shaped by the quirks of Canadian immigration policies, was mostly composed of unmarried, childless women who had been recruited to work in Canadian households through the West Indian Domestic Scheme, and students studying at post-secondary institutions. It was only with an easing of immigration regulations in 1962 and 1967—to make merit, not race, the determining criteria for entrance—that West Indian immigrants arrived in greater and greater numbers. Some joined family members who’d first arrived as domestic workers, and others sought greater economic opportunities than were available in the West Indies. The black population in Toronto grew from 3,153 in 1961 to 11,695 in 1971 according to figures from Keith S. Henry’s Black Politics in Toronto Since World War I (Multicultural History Society of Ontario, 1981), although other sources offer significantly higher estimates.
West Indian immigrants regularly encountered prejudice and discrimination in 1950s Toronto, particularly in the spheres of housing and employment. Immigrants sought venues that might assist in overcoming these first-level needs, but also opportunities to re-establish connections with their ethnic origins and the home culture. But, with the West Indian population small and scattered across the city, there were relatively few opportunities for them to get together in social settings where they weren’t the very visible minority.
The Universal Negro Improvement Association (355 College Street), a charity organization focused on the black and West Indian community, acted as a social gathering space with weekly dances and jam sessions with musicians from the 1920s to the 1940s and offered opportunities to socialize. “All roads in the community led to the Saturday night dance of the UNIA,” Jamaican-born community activist Bromley Armstrong once said.
Faced with relatively few West Indian acts visiting the city, and the Harry-Belafonte-style mainstream Caribbean sound, Sara Abraham argues in the Canadian Journal of Development Studies, Volume XXVI, No. 2 (2005), many West Indians in Toronto “relied on recorded calypsos from the Caribbean. This was the “old culture” (however new the music); it was a way of staying in touch with the distant pulse, and also a vehicle of experiencing profound nostalgia.”
Prior to formal Canadian distribution channels being established by Caribbean record companies, new arrivals from the West Indies carried with them 45s and LPs from home. The records would help turn house parties and gatherings at community organizations into opportunities to re-establish connections with their ethnic origins and culture. Similarly, domestic workers from the West Indies established a Caribbean club in Toronto as early as 1958, holding weekly gatherings at the YWCA’s McPhail House to dance to calypso records—providing a burst of camaraderie and familiar culture in unfamiliar surroundings.
“Ah, that is music,” exclaimed a Jamaican domestic worker and member of a similar YWCA club in Ottawa. Although she and her colleagues were satisfied with their jobs as domestics, they found the new country “a bit dull socially,” the Globe and Mail reported. One of them had brought a stack of calypso records, so the weekly gatherings of their informal support network at the YWCA turned into dance parties.
Like domestic workers, students were among the few West Indians that restrictive immigration policies allowed to enter. After the Second World War, the number of students coming into Canada from the Caribbean on temporary visas to study at post-secondary institutions increased dramatically. Concentrated on and around Toronto’s college campuses, West Indian students seeking friendship and an outlet for cultural expression threw their own parties and talent contests, playing records they’d brought from home and forming calypso bands with instruments brought from home.
(Right: Toronto Star [October 4, 1956])
Charles Roach, a Trinidadian and Tobago-born law student and son of a trade union activist, had come to Toronto to study law in 1955. After hosting calypso parties at the International Institute of Metropolitan Toronto (709 College Street), Roach—a poet and musician—led The Tropic Knights band, and later, the Charlie Roach Band, performing at the assortment of West Indian after-hours clubs that would open in the 1960s.
Of another trio of students from Windsor’s Assumption University (two from Port of Spain and one from Caracas) who formed a calypso band in the late 1950s, the Globe and Mail reported: “Their music, they say, keeps them from becoming too homesick. Their courses in Canada will last at least another three years.”
Such informal activities built trust and camaraderie, argued Althea Prince, a student from Antigua who came to Canada in the 1960s: “We met at house parties, in Caribbean night-clubs which sprang up around the city, and at community events. We formed bonds of friendship which helped somewhat to heal the wounds of racism.” They also, students said, fostered discussion and debate on world affairs, particularly in relation to their native countries.
In 1955, the Canadian Negro Women’s Association (CNWA), formed a few years earlier with the goal of increasing the black community’s visibility, staged a more formal celebration of Caribbean music and culture called the Calypso Carnival. It was an overt attempt to foster a sense of common community between the club’s mostly middle-class and Canadian-born membership and the newly arrived domestic workers. An immediate success in its first year—organizers had to turn people away at the door—the Calypso Carnival was an annual event until 1964.
Each year a local community hall was transformed into a lively tropical atmosphere with decorations, a bazaar selling goods imported from the West Indies, and a buffet that included curried goat, mango chutney, fricassee chicken, codfish, ackee, sweet potato coconut pie, and other Caribbean foods. There was limbo dancing and entertainers could be local Torontonians, like Jamaican-born calypso singer Lord Power, or international, like the Duke of Iron.
Growing into one of the largest events in Toronto’s black community, the Calypso Carnival was attended by upwards of 4,000 people some years, earned a fair amount of media attention—a rarity at the time for the black population—and raised money for a scholarship fund.
In January 21, 1958, a Caribbean-themed revue was staged by a local semi-professional theatre troupe, Producers Playhouse, in a converted space on the second-floor of a Dundas Street East industrial building. Directed by Hungarian-born Rolf Kalman, a CBC set builder, the eclectic revue featured a Spanish flamenco dancer, an Irish tenor, and an Armenian gypsy guitarist, as well as West Indian performers. Dick Smith, a CBC cameraman born in Jamaica who would become a key player in the local West Indian music scene, played the “voodoo and conga drums.” He and Jules Sabrian composed and sang calypso songs. Canadian Paul Pettiford and Kathy de Lapene of Martinique, both of West Indian descent, danced. The show, called “a colourful and exciting anthology” by reviewer Stan Rantin, proved so popular in its brief run that it was later restaged at the Eaton Auditorium.
(Above left: Toronto Star [March 3, 1959])
House parties, dances, the Calypso Carnival, and the Producers Playhouse revue were but two of the growing number of ways Torontonians of Caribbean descent could come together to express their music and culture on their own terms, without needing their performance to appeal to a mainstream audience. And, as they provided an increasing number of venues for musicians to play, these events fostered the emergence of a live music scene for local Caribbean performers and nightclubs specializing in calypso and West Indian music—as will be discussed in a future installment of Historicist.
Additional sources consulted: Bromley L. Armstrong, Bromley: Tireless Champion for Just Causes (Vitabu Publishing, 2000); Joe Cullen in Canadian Music Educator (Spring 2011); AnneMarie Gallaugher, “From Trinidad to Toronto: Calypso as a Way of Life,” Ph.D. Dissertation, York University (1991); Yaa Amoaba Gooden, “‘Betta Must Come’ African Caribbean Migrants in Canada: Migration, Community Building and Cultural Legacies,” Ph.D. Dissertation, Temple University (2005); Frances Henry, The Caribbean Diaspora in Toronto: Learning to Live with Racism (University of Toronto Press, 1994); Keith S. Henry, Black Politics in Toronto Since World War I (Multicultural History Society of Ontario, 1981); Donna Hill, ed., A Black Man’s Toronto 1914-1980: The Reminisces of Harry Gairey (Multicultural History Society of Ontario, 1981); Lawrence Hill, Women of Vision: The Story of the Canadian Negro Women’s Association 1951-1976 (Umbrella Press, 1996); W.E. Mann, ed., The Underside of Toronto (McClelland and Stewart, 1970); Keith McCuaig, “Jamaican Canadian Music in Toronto in the 1970s and 1980s: A Preliminary History,” MA Thesis, Carleton University (2012); James St. G. Walker, The West Indians in Canada (Canadian Historical Association, 1984); and articles and advertisements from the Globe and Mail (1955-1977); Polyphony (Spring/Summer 1984); and the Toronto Star (1955-2005).