The other day, I happened upon a film noir fest on Turner Classic Movies and ended up watching Night of the Hunter (1955) and Cape Fear (1962), both of which starred Robert Mitchum as the cool, nefarious bad guy. Then the same week, I heard Maya Angelou on FIP Radio Paris singing a calypso song. A funny realization came to me:
Q: What do these two stars, one literary, the other celluloid, have in common?
A: Calpyso music.
The word “calypso” possibly comes from the Nigerian Ibibio “kaa iso” (“continue, go on”) as a term used to encourage contestants. (It’s my guess that perhaps it was used in Limbo dance contests, as Africans had brought Limbo dance to Trinidad, where calypso developed in the 17th century.) The music style came to the French Antilles (Guadeloupe, Martinique) with African slaves and French planters in the early 1800’s, later becoming popular in Trinidad and Tobago. Calypso in the Caribbean played a similar role as griot music in West Africa—for oral history reporting on events and topical news of the day.
Trinidadian calypsonians like Lord Kitchener went to England in the 1950’s, and the music became very popular there with the expatriate community. Hit songs included Kitchener’s “London is the Place for Me” and Young Tiger’s “I Was There at the Coronation” (of Queen Elizabeth in 1953). Both songs are on a terrific compilation CD, London is the Place for Me / Trinidadian Calypso in London 1950-1956). Harry Belafonte ignited the worldwide calypso craze (and some lampooning by Stan Freberg and others) with his song “Day-O”(The Banana Boat Song) in 1956.
But back to Maya Angelou—she worked as an entertainer in her early years, singing and dancing to calypso music in clubs around San Francisco. In fact, she changed her professional name to Maya Angelou at her manager’s urging so that her name would better “capture the feel of her calypso dance performances.” She recorded her first CD, Miss Calypso, in 1957 for Liberty Records after calypso gained popularity with Harry Belafonte’s hit “Day-O” (The Banana Boat Song). Angelou also starred in a movie called Calypso Heat Wave. This was long before her literary fame, which came in 1969 with her autobiography I Know Why the Cage Bird Sings.
As for Robert Mitchum, he was filming Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison in Trinidad and Tobago, where he met and was charmed by two famous Calypsonians, Mighty Sparrow and Lord Invader. Mitchum had a good voice—he sang his characters’ songs in films and did not need to be dubbed. Inspired by the music in Trinidad and Tobago, Mitchum recorded Calypso is Like So…! in 1957, the same year as Angelou’s album.
This short clip features Maya Angelou as “Miss Calypso” on a TV program. The small frame that pops up on the right captures her delightful reaction to the clip on The Oprah Winfrey show—you can tell she hadn’t seen it for a long time!
And here is Mitchum’s 1957 album Calypso is Like So…!