August 21, 2002

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frequencies

by josh kun
London calling

BY THE TIME he recorded "Sweet Jamaica" in 1952, Trinidadian calypso star Lord Kitchener had been in London for three years, just long enough to know that he wanted out. "I regret the day I leave sweet Jamaica," he sang about the country where he had lived for six months "If I had wings like an airplane, I would fly to that blessed country again." Like the down-and-out calypso hero of Nat King Cole's "Calypso Blues" (who wants to go back to Trinidad because of how bad the food is where he is and how much it costs), Kitchener was ready to surrender the immigrant dream. He worried about dying of starvation, complained about the winter, and railed against unemployment and government food rations.

When he first took a ship to London in 1948, Kitchener – who was named after an English military hero – was brimming with hope and optimism. His arrival put a face on the first big wave of British Caribbean immigration: Kitchener on the docks, fresh from Kingston, singing "London Is the Place for Me" for newsreel cameras. "I've been traveling to places years ago," he serenaded, as black West Indians carrying suitcases walked into London's future, "but this is the place I want to know." The song was his giddy tribute to a city he had never lived in before (he beams about how "sociable," "pretty," and "comfortable" it is), a city he would eventually leave in 1962 to return to Trinidad when his disillusionment became too much to bear.

These two musical poles of Kitchener's London stay bookend London Is the Place for Me: Trinidadian Calypso in London, 1950-1956 (Honest Jon's Records), a new compilation that tells the story of West Indians in Britain through the songs of displaced calypsonians. What falls between them are songs by Kitchener colleagues including Lord Beginner, Mighty Terror, and the Lion – songs released both in England and back home in Trinidad – who all may have lived in London but never fully became Londoners.

Many of the songs on London Is the Place for Me are stories not, like the title track, of landing and staying but diaspora stories of being stuck, of wanting to go, of nostalgia for places and homelands that suddenly seem worlds away. Lord Beginner's "Jamaica Hurricane" plays like a news bulletin about a disaster back home, and Kitchener's "Birth of Ghana" – on which he's backed by musicians from Guyana, Jamaica, Panama, and Barbados – celebrates Ghanaian independence as if it meant the creation of a new destination for him, a place where, after leaving London, his generation of migratory Trinidadians might settle.

The compilation's most revealing songs are those that do glimpse Trinidadians striking cultural and racial deals with their new home – negotiating their Caribbeanness with a British crown intent on excluding them from the Anglo whiteness of Union Jack national pride. Young Tiger may have been one of the thousands of Londoners watching and cheering the coronation of the queen – he was "looking rapturously," he sings on "I Was There (at the Coronation)" – but actual racial integration into British culture was still enough of an issue that Beginner and Kitchener both sang about it. Take the former's "Mix Up Matrimony," a manifesto against racial segregation ("any color is a color, any race is a race, life is short so they mean to embrace") and an affirmation that West Indians are Britons too ("It doesn't take no glass to see how it come to pass, colored Britons are rising fast").

Though London Is the Place for Me only technically covers six years in the musical history of black Britain, its view of a racially divided nation uneasy about its dark immigrants is one that is still at the forefront of British cultural politics. While the British calypsonians had the independent Melodisc and Parlophone labels, their contemporary counterparts – the West Indians, Asians, and Arabs of post-Thatcherite Britain – have labels such as Nation Records that were founded to give voice and distribution to the international breakbeat fusions of second- and third-generation immigrant Brit noisemakers.

Select Cuts from Nation (Select Cuts) looks back on Nation's 14-year history with artists who replace the jazzy elegance and staid social commentary of their Trinidadian predecessors with militant postcolonial anger (and add bhangra, industrial, jungle, and hip-hop to the mix). The sample from an anti-immigrant British politician that begins Urban South's hip-hop diatribe "Brain Damage" – we hear him advocating the repatriation of black Britons to save the state from the terrors of a multiracial society – is what Nation artists like Asian Dub Foundation, Transglobal Foundation, and Fun Da Mental have been making music to combat.

In that way Select Cuts is an inadvertent second-generation sequel to the fresh-off-the-boat ambivalence (and cool confidence) of London Is the Place for Me. Instead of songs that never leave a homeland too far behind or never stop imagining the next stop on the diaspora tour, now we get songs for an immediate British home, songs determined to make London the place whether London likes it or not.

E-mail Josh Kun at jksfbg@aol.com