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'Ghana is the Name We Wish to Proclaim' - Two Popular Caribbean Voices and the Independence of Ghana

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'Ghana is the Name We Wish to Proclaim' - Two Popular Caribbean Voices and the Independence of Ghana
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This paper takes a look at two popular voices of the Caribbean and their comments in popular song on an event in colonial and post-colonial history that was generating hope, and was believed to inaugurate a new era. At March 6, 1957 the British colony Gold Coast gained political independence and became what today is known as Ghana.

Singing Ghana's praise Singing Ghana's praise

All over the British colonies, self-government and political independence were in the making. By the early 1960s most of the British colonies in Africa and the Caribbean had become politically independent states. Ghana‘s independence in 1957 became a symbol of this wider movement tightly associated with the hope for better times to come. The post-colonial experience in many places has turned out differently.

The two Caribbean singers and their statements on Ghana‘s Independence I want to focus on here are Trinidad‘s Calypsonian Lord Kitchener and his Calypso ‘Birth of Ghana‘, the other one, the statement of one of the most popular performers and vocal artists in Jamaica at the time, Laurel Aitken. His “praise song” for Ghana‘s achievement was released under the unspectacular name ‘They got it‘. Trinidad as well as Jamaica were still British colonies at the time, gaining their independence in 1962. Both singers convey in their songs the hope I have circumscribed above. Their statements provide insights into contemporary public sentiment and reflect the euphoria that Ghana‘s political emancipation was triggering among colonials by celebrating this achievement and its architect Kwame Nkrumah. Whereas Kitch‘s appraisal carries this euphoria as an act of pride and self-fashioning, almost constructing a romantic scenario made for national mythologies, Aitken‘s recording also allows for insights into discourses and feelings of the time that the conventional narratives of independence/achievement do not necessarily consider. This, above all, refers to the Jamaican reception of things happening at the time. This paper will attempt to put the recordings, as manifestations of cultural production and artistic expression, in context with social and cultural change, the migration of Caribbean people in the post-war years, and aspects of Black Atlantic culture.

The Recordings

Kitchener recorded ‘Birth of Ghana‘ at the 23rd of November 1956 in London. Almost a decade before, Kitchener had migrated to England. He started recording Calypsos in Britain as early as 1948. ‘Birth of Ghana‘ was released as a 78 r.p.m. record on the Melodisc label (Melodisc 1390) which had become the main outlet and major disseminator of Kitch‘s and other Caribbean artists‘ recordings to the rest of the world from the early 1950s.{footnote}Melodisc started operating in 1949. It was founded by the Austrian entrepreneur Emil Shalit, based in New York at the time, who had a British partner named Jack Chilkes. Melodisc became the largest independent record label in the UK, the main outlet for Caribbean and African music in this country. Melodisc records were exported in large numbers to West Africa, where Caribbean music gained immense popularity. The company can be considered to be the first independent UK label featuring music from different parts of the world like India, the Caribbean and Western Africa, strongly anticipating developments in the music industry and the global exchange of music to come.{/footnote} This 1956 recording confirms Kitcheners exceptional artistic qualities, his vocal finesse and lyrical inventiveness: his unique style of rendering and presenting Calypso. ‘Birth of Ghana‘ also reveals the musical sophistication that in terms of arrangement and harmonic structure is so characteristic of many recordings done by West Indian musicians for Melodisc in the 1950s. The listening experience of Birth of Ghana‘ is enhanced by a particular ”soundscape” that Richard Noblett has termed a ”steelpan feel”.{footnote}Richard Noblett, Notes to ”London is the Place for Me - Trinidadian Calypso in London1950-1956” (LP/CD) London: Honest Jons Records, 2002. {/footnote}

It has long been due to ask for the creative minds behind the well-known vocalists in the exceptional artistic and cultural productivity related to West Indian migration to England. This can not be done in depth here, yet, it should be pointed out that many of the West Indian recordings in London from the early 1950s were arranged by the Trinidadian musician and arranger Rupert Nurse then acting as musical director for Melodisc. Nurse, a childhood friend of Kitchener, came to England from Trinidad in 1945. He played an important role in the formation of West Indian music in Britain, for Kitch‘s recordings and the musical creation of what has been referred to as “steelpan feel”. Noblett states: ”As Kitchener embraced the modern sound, he relied on Rupert Nurse who augmented a regular Trinidadian team with other Caribbean musicians, including jazz players like the Jamaican alto saxophonist Joe Harriott.”{footnote}Noblett, 2002.{/footnote}

Laurel Aitken, on the other hand, was based in Jamaica in 1957. He decided to migrate to England three years later. In 1960 his records would be amongst the most popular ones among Jamaicans at home and in Britain. His artistic comment on Ghana‘s independence evolved out of Kingston‘s popular music culture where modern recording technologies and commercial record releases were rapidly increasing from the early 1950s. ”They got it” was recorded in the studio of the Caribbean Recording Company in Kingston, owned by the Indo-Jamaican entrepreneur Dada Tawari, where Aitken recorded frequently. It was released on a 78 r.p.m. - record on the Caribou label (CRC 158.), the same company‘s record outlet. Contrary to Kitcheners tune, the precise date of Aitken's recording is not clear. Given that ”Birth of Ghana” was already recorded in November 1956 {footnote}I‘m grateful to John Cowley and Richard Noblett for plenty discographic information over the years.{/footnote}, and hence the world-wide dissemination of the tune in line with the time of independence, or even preparations for independence celebrations, it is possible, that Aitken‘s tune was inspired by Kitcheners record. Melodisc records were a major import product in Jamaica from the early 1950s. Melodisc-recordings of West Indians in London were quickly available in Jamaica, especially because of the large popularity of Calypso in Jamaica, and thus songs on record could enter the island‘s musical repertoire quickly.{footnote}One telling example is Kitcheners Calypso ”Sweet Jamaica” which became an even more popular tune in the Mento-Version by the Jamaican Mento singer Lord Lebby (Kalypso RL 3) after it circulated around Jamaica on record. {/footnote} It would be inadequate, however, to consider Aitken‘s tune an imitation of Kitch‘s Calypsos or the Trinidadian form in general. On the contrary, it is expressive of the Jamaican musical idiom of the time and a significant indicator of musical developments to follow, an aspect of this sound document I will return to below.