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Friday, August 19, 2011

Music to Awaken the Ballroom Beast

Emory Cook walking down the a street in Trinidad, from the Emory and Martha Cook Collection
Emory Cook was excited about calypso. That urge one gets when listening to it--you might know it---the feeling of not being able to stay in your chair much longer because it just wants you to get up and move? Cook poured it into his records. Besides calling it "music to awaken the ballroom beast," Cook described Calypso in his liner notes to Dance Calypso! (Cook 1180) as:
  • taking the opportunity of saying something to somebody in song that you couldn't say in polite society...
  • satire that makes you laugh because in it is unveiled all that is ludicrous and irrational in a lot of other fellows; sometimes you may even recognize yourself if you listen hard...
  • free association plus improvisation...
  • also a dance which turns loose each vertebra in the body to fend for itself, thus exposing the tender inner compulsions...
  • of Trinidad, and Carnival...
  • not 8 bars but 9 or 7 or whatever it feels like... 
  • * not susceptible of precise definition.

The founder of the Cook Laboratories record company, Cook may be known for his innovations in audio engineering, but his recordings of Caribbean popular music remain some of the most exuberant and fresh-sounding of his catalog. Thanks to his dedication to "faithful sound reproduction," his calypso records are not only amazing in quality. They are filled with the contextual richness of mid-to-late fifties Trinidad and Antigua, a time ripe with political transition and musical innovation.

Emory Cook recorded these albums "on-the-scene" in the former British West Indies.  His studios were calypso tents and carnival processions, dance clubs, beach bars and vegetable gardens ("The vegetables grew noticeably during our two-hour performance. The Indians knew it all along. Now everybody knows music is good for vegetables." (Cook 1140)). Describing one such field excursion wherein a waiter dropped a tray of soup into the lap of one of Cook's fellow diners during a recording of a performance, Cook writes,
These true life vignettes of stereo location recording are typical collecting experiences. This is always what happens when you abandon home and fireside to search the wide wild world for music. To hell with it. It's their best number. We'll use "Little Darling," tray and all. If you don't hear it hit the terrazzo, then you can assume it struck something soft. Turn up the volume! It must be in there somewhere! (Cook 1140)
In many of the the calypso tent recordings, the crowd goes wild between verses, laughing and cheering, but listens with rapt attention while the singer delivers the next "humor-coated pellet of uncamouflaged truth." (another Cook-ism)

 The Young Brigade band in a calypso tent, from the Emory and Martha Cook Collection
Cook's liner notes are as innovative and passionate as his recording methods. They are packed with turns of phrase that make you forget that you're reading the back of a record jacket. He shies away from too much scholarly talk about the music in favor of describing the experience and feel  of the music and its setting. When the music dies at the end of one of his calypso records, you feel like Cook at the close of Carnival: "Under a bright moon, Port of Spain was quiet again, owls and dogs resumed their conversations." (Cook 1072)

These recordings, part of the Cook Labs Records, have been a part of the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Special Collections since they were donated by Emory and Martha Cook in 1990.

Some notable calypso recordings in the Cook catalog:

Brute Force Steel Band of Antigua
Jump-Up Carnival
Calypso Kings and Pink Gin
Calypso Exposed

And, as always, listen to samples and download original liner notes at

-Cecilia Peterson, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections

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