The 1940s were one of those significant times in Trinidad and Tobago's history. In a very real sense, they marked the end of an epoch, and the commencement of another. The period that came to an end was 'the old time days'. A slow-paced, patois-speaking island, where everybody certainly knew everybody else, and where the events of the day passed from mouth to ear with the easy familiarity of village life.
There was a club called the 'Long Tom Cigar Smoking Club of Almond Walk' that met early every morning outside Mouttet's on what is now Broadway, smoke, drink coffee, and talk about the latest news. This club, mentioned in Bodu's '....' and referred to by Col. Collens is worth knowing. Old-time calypsonians like Executor belonged there, as well as the Jones' of Duncan Street who were first to play 'dragon mas', but also such luminaries as old Mr. Gaston-Johnson and José Bodu. They ran old-time Carnival. ... Carnival competition downtown was the event!
Our story begins around 1903. It concerns a young girl of a prominent creole family. Well brought up, gentle, she had attended the Catholic Convent for young ladies in Port of Spain. Soon after leaving school, she met a man. He was from an entirely different background, and was described by people who knew his as "ne'er do well" and "just a common man in the street".
Distracted by passion, blind with love, she left her home and moved in with this person and lived with him for some time. After a years or so, he put her out on the streets and she became a lady of the night, a streetwalker. Naturally in a small community, that was sensational!
Those were the circumstances around which a song was created. The song was called "L'année passée". The composer was Lionel Belasco. Forty-odd years later, with the world at war, this melody with new lyrics became one of the most popular songs of the war years. It celebrated a lifestyle, the change in the overall society of our island. It was called "Rum and Coca Cola", and was rendered by the Andrew Sisters, the most famous singing group of the day to perhaps millions of servicemen all over the world.
The composer, Lionel Belasco, was the most accomplished musician in Trinidad. Growing up in Duke Street, he had lived from his childhood in a musical environment. His mother had been a concert pianist and music teacher. He started to composed at the age of 12, and had written over the years hundreds of waltzes, ballads, pasillos, calypsos and rumbas, becoming the foremost composer in the West Indies. Belasco toured a lot with his own band from Cuba to Belize. The American Victor Recording Company recognised his talent and in 1914 sent technicians to Trinidad to record his band at the London Electric Cinema, which later became the Astor. Belasco later appeared at Carnegie Hall and Grand Central Palace, on National Radio and in several motion pictures made by Paramount. He was a serious artist, but never lost his whimsical charm and sense of humour. He still thought that a woman's extended hand was for kissing, not for shaking.
During his stay in the United States, Lionel, or 'Lanky' as he was known, had made the acquaintance of an impresario by the name of Maurice Baron. Together, they produced many songbooks and collections of written music, which they published and copyrighted in the 1910s in New York.
It was suggested in court that "Rum and Coca Cola" had been lifted from a song in a folio published by them, entitled 'Calypso Songs of the West Indies'. The legal task before the lawyer representing Baron and Belasco was not an easy one. The charge was plagiarism - that a literary or musical work has been stolen from its real creator. When physical or tangible property is stolen, it changes hands. The owner is no longer in possession of it. But when a melody is copied, the owner still has it, and so has the thief! Furthermore, the 'stolen goods' can be disguised by some changes and be presented as an original work. After all, there are only 7 notes in the diatonic scale and 12 notes in the chromatic scale, and in spite of coincidence and the miracle of infinite permutations, one can always demonstrate a prior similarity to a least a snatch of a few lines. To win a plagiarism suit, the plaintiff must establish no merely some similarity with his own prior work, but substantial copying therefrom, as one legal expert put it. And this was precisely what was undertaken in the Baron and Belasco case by the New York firm of attorneys at law. What ensued was to be a landmark case. Baron's and Belasco's lawyers were not bothered with the lyrics of the song, whose origins were not their concern per se.
Lord Invader is credited as having written the words for "Rum and Coca Cola". When Belasco was asked why he did not take action against Lord Invader, he replied that "he was a brother". Perhaps Lanky and Invader met on Broadway one morning and decided that a sad thing was happening, and remembered 'L'année passée' as history repeating itself? In any event, the case was the music. Maurice Baron had written the harmony for "L'année passée". In court, he pointed out that it had sixteen chords and that "Rum and Coca cola" had fourteen identical chords, in the same places and in the same consecutive order.
But most significant of all of the chords written by him was one that was 'musically harsh', so to speak. It was deliberately made so to give a dramatic effect to the French world 'fille' (little girl) in "L'année passée", and thus emphasized the contrast between an innocent girl and the streetwalker she became in the following year, an event that had occured in 1903.
The same dissonant or out chord was found in the identical same spot in "Rum and Coca Cola". There was no reason for its existence there. the copier had left his calling card. The song had been first sung by Jeri Sullovan at the Versailles Night club in New York. It made an impact. The Andrews Sisters recorded it and 200,000 copies were sold, citing Mory Amsterdam as the composer on the record jacket. Maurice Baron and Lionel Belasco won their case, and were paid handsomely.,
The war years, from 1939 to 1945, were a watershed period in Trinidad and Tobago, one which were marked by the lyrics of these two calypsos:
"Since the Yankees come to Trinidad
They have the young girls going mad.
The young girls say they treat them nice
Make Trinidad like Paradise.
They buy Rum and Coca Cola
Go down Point Cumana
Both mother and daughter
Working for the Yankee dollar."
The Mighty Sparrow sang ten years after the war:
"Well the girls in town feeling sad,
No more Yankees in Trinidad,
They going to close down the base for good,
Dorothy have to make what she could.
All of them who use to make style
Taking anything with a smile."