New Orleans claims to be the most northern end of the Caribbean and so among all the traditional jazz and other there is both steelpan and calypso. The Neptune Steel Band is directed by Reynold Kinsale from Blue Angels in downtown Port of Spain who also has been teaching working with secondary school steel bands in New Orleans. Kinsale also teaches pan in local schools. Daria Dzurik leads a unique ensemble (Daria and the Hipdrops) playing double seconds.
Meanwhile various artists in New Orleans are mining classic calypsos. Since the pandemic, Galactic has just recorded in lockdown Roaring Lion’s “Wash Your Hands and Clean Your Fingernails” and a few years ago Leyla McCalla recorded a great version of Tiger’s “Money is King. But if you want to be transported back to the Miramar hotel in the 1950s for calypso and vintage Trinidad dance music, your choice is Charlie Halloran and his Tropicales.
Charlie is an in-demand trombonist who in a pre-pandemic week has several standing gigs with traditional jazz groups in New Orleans. He has been in New Orleans for over ten years where he has become one of the most in demand players on the traditional jazz scene. Twice rated a rising star by Dowbeat magazine, he has toured and recorded with Squirrel Nut Zippers and several other bands. But generally, he likes to stay at home and enjoys being a sideman but more and more leads his own band.
Yet, he wants to hear more Lionel Belasco, Johnny Gomez, John “Buddy” Williams and Cyril Diaz. Halloran grew up in St Louis in a family full of music numbers with both older brothers in local bands. He was playing with his brothers by the time he was 15 and has never stopped, visiting New Orleans a couple times while getting a music degree in college in St Louis and a master’s degree in music at Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York.
Soon as he finished, he gathered all his possessions and moved there to New Orleans. It was summer and the city was slow in re-building the music scene with musicians scattered by Katrina with many touring during the hot and humid New Orleans summers.
Within a few days of his arrival, he followed a well-established path of busking at Jackson Square and soon enough was playing on his own or with another musician or two. Soon he was a couple blocks away busking still but with bands that needed a trombone player. It wasn’t long before he was playing trad jazz bands in the French Quarter and on Frenchman Street.
Most of his work was traditional New Orleans jazz. But it wasn’t long before he became a member of Panorama Jazz Band led by clarinetist Ben Schenk who kept expanding the band’s repertoire beyond jazz to brass band music and klezmer from Eastern Europe, and music from the Caribbean, beguines and Mazurkas from Martinique and the music of Lionel Belasco. Halloran credits Schenk for opening his eyes and ears to vintage Caribbean music.
Halloran started to hear old records by the Mighty Sparrow, Duke of Iron, Invader, Lord Melody and more. He wanted to hear all he could from the bands of Johnny Gomez and Cyril Diaz, the sound of Trinidad dance music in the Fifties, music played at the Normandie, the Miramar, other places while building a set of musicians who enjoyed playing a different repertoire.
Halloran’s first record was a straight jazz record (though it did feature “I’m Coming Virginia” with music by Trinidad composer Donald Heywood). Then he put out an album of biguine music from Martinique which Caribbean Beat magazine praised its “nostalgic ambience, while the music has a quality that makes you want to grab a partner and dance the night away under tropical stars.” That was the first step toward a band playing vintage Caribbean pieces.
For the holiday season last year, he put out Christmas EP and last month he issued his first record mixing calypsos and biguines, Shake the Rum. It can be heard on Bandcamp with either a physical cd or a digital download available.
It features three different vocalists. Jimbo Mathus who leads Squirrel Nut Zippers, sings Sparrow “Mango Vert” and a Duke of Iron version of “Fifty Cents.” St Louis Slim, who gave him one of his first jobs when he moved to New Orleans doing Lord Invader’s “Barbados.” John Boute, a great New Orleans singer best known for singing “At the Foot of Canal Street” on the TV show Treme. Does an energetic but laidback performance of Sparrow’s “Dorothy.”
His band, the Tropicales, is full of his favourite musicians several he has played with for years like drummer Doug Garrison as they both are members of Panorama Jazz Band though Garrison is best known for his many years with popular local band, the Iguanas. Tomas Majcherski also plays in Panorma and he and Charlie play in Tuba Skinny one of the most popular bands in New Orleans these days. Majcherski had his own band Rhythm Wizards, that pioneered using lots of classic calypsos with both Halloran and bassist Pete Olynciw. Guitarists John Maestas and Joshua Starkman fell into the band a few years ago, both with lots of experience in other bands. Certainly, the most unlikely addition was congo player Cesar Bacaro. “He was working in the kitchen at my favourite bar when the bartender suggested I try him out for a gig. I needed a drummer that night, he showed up with his congas and has been in the band ever since—over two years!”
Charlie Halloran and his Tropicales have held down the coveted Monday night slot at the atmospheric backyard at Bacchanal Wine for months until lockdown. He can’t wait to get back there and play more vintage music from Trinidad but until then check out his fine new album on bandcamp where you can hear every track.