Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Crucian "Scratch" Band Music on Vinyl

I've had an interest in the traditional or folk music of the Caribbean for several years now. Despite this interest, I remained mostly unaware of the Scratch music from the U.S. Virgin Islands, in particular St. Croix, until recently. 

Scratch music is kind of like St. Croix's version of old-time, with jazz and calypso influences, and also European quadrille dance music traditions. A modern day (since the 1970's at least) full scratch band usually has seven people or instruments: saxophone as the lead, plus banjo-ukulele, electric guitar, triangle (steel), guiro (squash), conga, and electric bass guitar. 

I've obtained a few vinyl LP's of vintage scratch music by bands such as Jamsie and the Happy Seven, Blinky and the Roadmasters, and Joe Paris and the All-Stars. The most interesting one is probably Caribe Songs Music Can't Done by Joe Paris (picture shown above). It was supposed to be another Jamsie record, but it was mislabeled. I think it's always mislabeled. The seller sent it to me anyway and I'm glad he did. It's definitely a USVI scratch band playing, but Side A is all music like for a square dance or contra dance, with a caller and a band playing traditional tunes fronted by saxophone. I believe the Joe Paris credited on the back of the record is actually supposed to be spelled Joe Parris.

By far the best overall, however, is the Crucian Scratch Band Music LP by Blinky and the Roadmasters. This album was put out in 1990 on Rounder Records, so you know it's good! It took about a month for shipping from the seller in Europe, but my copy finally arrived in brand new unopened mint condition. This could actually become one of my favorite albums of all time, and features such standards as Ay Ay Ay, Cigar with the Race, Labega's Carousel, Father Molloy, Quadrille Figure Six, Caroline, Pussy Whiskers, Matty Gru, and Queen Mary. 

In my very, very, vanilla way I am trying to learn some of these melodies. I also got the Zoop, Zoop, Zoop CD of traditional music and folklore of St. Croix, St. Thomas and St. John...mostly so I could read the liner notes. It's got some great songs too!


Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Is Jamband Music Back in Style?

Is jamband music back in style? Did it ever go out of style? Was it ever in style?

An emphasis on live performance, changing up the setlists, extended improvisation that leave the song structure behind, well chosen covers but also a healthy dose of originals, investing in an impressive light show, a relentless touring schedule, and long two-set performances. Is that what we want nowadays?

Twenty-five years ago I was already seeing bands such as Leftover Salmon, moe., String Cheese Incident, Dark Star Orchestra, Strangefolk, Keller Williams, Sector 9, and Yonder Mountain String Band on a regular basis. (Well, 1999 for Yonder and STS9; some of those others date back to as early as '95). I never stopped listening to or going to see Phish, but for the rest of these it's been a long almost twenty year sabbatical.

Now I feel like seeing most, if not all of those bands again, even Widespread Panic who never really grabbed me back in the mid-90's but now I can appreciate. And hey look there's Goose and right behind them heeeeeeeeere's Eggy. So it's not just nostalgia. Now it's now again.


Sunday, January 22, 2023

The Original Danish Polcalypso Orchestra

Back in the year 2013 I discovered and obtained a copy of an obscure CD called Bonne Humeur by the Etcetera String Band, a string ragtime ensemble from Kansas City that was active in the 1970's, 80's and 90's. The band featured a surprisingly good banjo-mandolin (banjolin!) player Dennis Pash. Bonne Humeur was a unique one-off recording by the Etcetera String Band because instead of ragtime it focused on the early Caribbean dance music of Haiti, Trinidad, Martinique, the Virgin Islands, and Creole Louisiana. The tunes were played as instrumentals with the lead melody plucked by Dennis Pash on his banjo-mandolin. It was a life changing discovery!

Now, almost ten years later, I have found another group with a similar aesthetic called The Original Danish Polcalypso Orhestra, also known as Karlekammeret. Interestingly, Karlekammeret released their first album of Caribbean inspired traditional music in 1989, right around the time when the Etcetera String Band would have been recording and putting out Bonne Humeur. Something must have been in the air connecting Copenhagen to Kansas City!

The Original Danish Polcalypso Orchestra's approach was a little different, in that they primarily mimicked the instrumentation of St. Croix Quelbe or Scratch bands like Blinky and the Roadmasters or, more importantly, James Brewster's bands such as Jamsie and the Happy Seven or Jamesie and the All-Stars. The Scratch music of U.S. Virgin Islands does often have vocals, it's not all instrumental, but when soloing the head melody lines are usually played instrumentally by a saxophonist. Karlekammeret also had a banjo-mandolin (or maybe banjo-ukulele) but its role was primarily rhythm rather than lead melody as in the Etcetera String Band.

Being saxophone-oriented, the recordings by The Original Danish Polcalypso Orchestra tend to be in the saxophone friendly keys of Eb or Bb, whereas on Bonne Humeur the Etcetera String Band plays most of their tunes in the mandolin friendly keys of G and D. There actually seems to be one song that was common to both band's repertoire's and that is Sam Polo, a West Indian bamboula, although the arrangements are different.  

The Etcetera String Band never did a followup to Bonne Humeur and I've often wondered what pieces they might have included if they had done a sequel? With the recordings of The Original Danish Polcalypso Orchestra, it seems that there may be a possible answer to that question!