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Lost Files: Marvellous Boy; Calypso From West Africa

Lost Files is a column dedicated to celebrating older projects that might have flown under the radar when they were released. This week, Oluchukwu Nwaibukwu brings back the calypso-themed compilation project released by Honest Jon's, Marvellous Boy.

In the 17th century, European slave traders started the importation of slaves from West Africa into the West Indies as they sought free labour on their sugar plantations. These slaves, stripped of their connections to native lands and roots, created calypso, a derivative of kaiso and canboulay music from their homeland. This genre of music became a source of strength and communication as well as a means of protest as they battled the scourge of enslavement in a land so far away from home.

Originally sung in Creole, Calypso became anglicised as the English colonial masters took over these islands and introduced their language. In 1912, the Lovey’s String Band recorded the first calypso song on a visit to New York and later in the 1930s, it became a popular genre of music, producing hit records and famous artistes. At this time, West Africans under the British colonial rule had begun to travel abroad for study, business transactions, and in rare cases, tourism. In places like Piccadilly, London, cultural exchanges occurred amongst the black community; literature, faith and music were swapped and taken back to different countries. In West Africa, highlife was the dominant genre at the time and in their experimental benevolence, the musicians accepted calypso and incorporated elements of it into their sound, increasing the range of the genre.

Think about the party scene at the beginning of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half Of A Yellow Sun: the guitar strumming and the trumpets blaring in harmony. That was the result of the calypso and highlife matrimony. After its forced emigration in the 17th century, calypso had found its way back home in the 1900s, and the music had come full circle. From being the soundtrack to slave revolts, it graced the dancefloors as West African countries celebrated their independence. But that was decades ago, and music in this part of sub-Saharan Africa has evolved, and grown in leaps and bounds since then. The Afrobeats sound took over, supported by Afropop, Afrosoul and Hip-Hop; the streets of Lagos are alive with Afrobeats, and drill music now pervades Ghana’s exclusive nightclubs.

In March 2009, London-based independent record label Honest Jon’s released Marvelous Boy: Calypso From West Africa, a compilation album of calypso and highlife records from the 1950s to the 1970s. Part of the label’s efforts to bring lesser-known genres to a wider audience under the “World Music” tag. The 18-song project features artistes from different countries, highlighting the various ways Calypso was modified, pressed down, shaken together due to cultural influences, choices of musical instruments, and in some instances, societal status. In Ghana, highlife music was for the elite. In fact, the name “highlife” comes from the fact that it was music played in exclusive clubs for those considered ‘high’ in society. In Sierra Leone, the music was called “Maringa” and later on, “Palmwine Music” because it was more popular in bars and establishments of that sort.

At first listen, it is easy to classify Marvelous Boy as old highlife, a reminder of past times, and a temporary moment of reminiscing for members of society who were either alive during the time highlife was at its dominant best, or born just after that period and thus feel a connection to it. But this compilation project is much more than a throwback or relic. Instead, it is a documentary of the times in which the music was produced. The songs are written about the most random of subjects: from the social commentary in Ebenezer Calendar’s “Cost of Living Nar Freetown” on which he bemoans the falling standard of living in the Sierra Leone capital and its effect on the lowest members of society, to Godwin Omabuwa’s “Dick Tiger’s Victory” celebrating the Nigerian-born boxer’s defeat of American Gene Fullmer to win the WBA Middleweight Championship in 1962.

Another interesting fact about the artistes featured on this album is the relationship and impact they all had on the creation and progress of the genre. The first modern calypso recordings in West Africa were done by Ebenezer Calendar and Famous Scrubbs, E.T Mensah’s highly successful (commercially and musically) Nigerian tour became the catalyst for the genre’s explosion, and shortly after that Bobby Benson introduced a new style; incorporating new instruments in his eleven-piece band. His first hit song “Taxi Driver”, one of his two songs featured here, included two phenomenal trumpeters Roy Chicago and Victor Olaiya who would go on to become industry heavyweights themselves; they both feature on the project. Erekosima “Rex” Lawson is another example of the innovation highlife forced out of its shining lights. Combining both aspects of his parentage, he regularly sang Igbo lyrics over predominantly Kalabari instruments and sounds. Steven Amaechi’s “Nylon Dress” is a standout cut featuring a guitar solo by a young Stephen Osita Osadebe, who would, later on, claim the title of King of Igbo highlife providing us with beautiful and evergreen tunes like “Osondi Owendi”.

But asides from its documental nature and being a “Who is Who in Highlife” record, Marvelous Boy is, above all, fun. At its heart, it is a West African project, with premium emphasis placed on the sound; the lyrics are not too clever or profound but instead play a complementary role to the different sounds created by various instruments. From guitars to drums, trumpets, and even a glass bottle tapped with a stick, it is a delightful journey, showcasing the joy and optimism with which these pioneers approached their craft. A truly marvelous work of art.

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