Various Artists, “¡Con Piano, Sublime!: Early Recordings from the Caribbean 1907​-​1921”
By Shy Thompson · September 14, 2023 Merch for this release:
Vinyl LP, Compact Disc (CD)

As the 20th century rolled in, technology was evolving at a breakneck pace. Though still in their infancy, film and radio were transforming into commercial industries by the first decade of the 1900s. The recording industry, too, was crystallizing during these critical years. The gramophone—an early version of the record player which improved upon Thomas Edison’s phonograph—became a mass-produced item that ordinary folks could obtain. Recording equipment became more practical and more portable, allowing engineers to travel the world and capture live music. These two developments in tandem meant you no longer had to be in the room with musicians to hear them play; music could come from anywhere and be heard everywhere. As record dealers spread out across the Caribbean islands and explored the possibilities of this new medium, they found a diversity of music around every corner. ¡Con Piano, Sublime! : Early Recordings from the Caribbean 1907​-​1921 collects a small fraction of the sounds sealed in shellac during this frenzy, reissuing most of them for the first time since their original issue over a century ago.

Many of the songs on this compilation tell stories that immortalize ephemeral moments. Coro Chambelona’s “Son de la Chambelona” manifested from one of Cuba’s first political protest songs, written by opponents of conservative president Mario García Menocal during the 1916 election season. The original “La Chambelona” brutally mocked the divisive leader, but Victor Records took the unusual step of requesting the political lyrics be omitted so that the record would still be marketable in the event of Menocal winning re-election. (He did win.) In their place, an improvised bugle riff and a percussion suite of repurposed gardening tools give it a unique slapdash charm. The song eventually shed its political baggage and remains one of the most popular Cuban congas.

The musicians represented on ¡Con Piano, Sublime! also vary in levels of fame. Lionel Belasco is a monumentally important figure in the history of music from the West Indies. A pioneering calypsonian and ambassador for the then-young genre, he traveled the Caribbean extensively, adding tunes from all over the islands to his repertoire and popularizing them internationally. This version of “Buddy Abraham” was chronicled during a stay in New York City that he decided to make permanent; he would continue playing Caribbean music in the United States for the rest of his life. By contrast, little information remains about the performers of “Las Vacaciones.” The notes accompanying the session label it a cancion escolar (school song), and it does appear to feature a choir of young students, possibly accompanied by teachers on piano and violin. The circumstances of the amateur recording from San Juan have mostly eroded to time, but still hold precious details of Caribbean music history.

Record labels were still a brave new world when these early Caribbean recordings were pressed; engineers didn’t have the benefit of sales and marketing information to guide their choices, resulting in a surprisingly comprehensive survey of the local music of a disparate geographical area. The activity of labels around this time could be considered an early musicological event, but the science was imperfect and marred by motives of profit; context was often stripped from the final product. (“Bagai Sala que Pochery Moin,” for example, was retitled to the less descriptive “Native Trinidad Kalenda” by Victor.) ¡Con Piano, Sublime! does its part to correct the historical record, reuniting the stories with the music.

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