Where else can you get so many calypso renderings of ’60s hits?
I don’t know what’s more appealing: the cover of Shango’s self-titled 1969 debut, featuring the quartet posed with a lounging lion or the description of the machete-wielding African “shango” cult on the back of the album that jokingly ends with the statement, “We used to have a harmonica player.” Admittedly, those two things are the greatest aspects of the album. The band’s first of two releases, the 10-track album has only five original songs—all heavily-indebted to Afropop—and is otherwise comprised of covers. Haven’t you always wanted to hear a calypso version of “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”?
If anyone actually remembers Shango, it would be for their novelty “hit” of sorts, “Day After Day (It’s Slippin’ Away).” The natural lead-in to the album, the track was written by Tommy Reynolds (who would later form Hamilton, Joe Frank & Reynolds), the actor Stuart Margolin (of “The Rockford Files” fame) and producer Jerry Riopelle. Calypso to the core, it may be the greatest song about the San Andreas Fault and the end of California as we know it. Over tongue-in-cheek lines like “Better get ready to tie up the boat in Idaho” there’s an irresistible cacophony of steelpans, flutes and marimba. The musical influences make more sense when you see where the band members hail from. As per the liner notes, Reynolds and Malcolm Evans are both from St. Croix. Joe Barile is from Ischia, an island off the coast of Italy. And Richard Hernandez is from good ole Torrance, California.
“Day After Day” is followed by “Ljuba Ljuba,” which starts off with a deceptively stripped down combination of light vocals and bongos before unleashing more marimba, flutes and, this time, some guitar. And despite the fact that so much of the album is made up of cover songs, “Mama Lion” is not a cover of the Graham Nash song. His was written in 1975, anyway. Shango’s “Mama Lion,” though, is a madcap blend of various and sundry Afro percussion. But it’s a step up from “Mescalito,” which favors that joyous percussion style that sounds more like someone hitting pans together. The discordant track has no vocals to speak of and essentially just sounds like Shango recorded themselves taking five in the studio.
Now, don’t ask me how (or indeed why), but this album features not one but two Beatles covers. The first is an instrumental cover of “Hey Jude” that is truly painful to listen to. The piano is, naturally, replaced with a marimba, the percussion is on the heavy side and random flutes don’t do much to redeem it. Even though they completely butcher “Hey Jude,” Shango’s version of “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” is surprisingly respectful of the original. But they can’t resist letting loose with the Afro rhythms and throwing in some random yelling toward the finale, just for good measure. The same goes for their cover of Donovan’s “Sunshine Superman.” It sticks to the original, with a little added flair on the percussion side of things and even more marimbas.
The only time Shango’s penchant for throwing everything they’ve got at a song truly works in their favor is on their cover of Bobby Scott and Ric Marlow’s “Taste of Honey” (as sung by Tony Bennett). The original version is dull, and that’s being generous. But in the hands of Shango, the arrangement becomes downright whimsical. At the very least, when they sing “I will return/ I’ll come back for the honey and you” it sounds like they’ve been somewhere. Somewhere where calypso and reggae are the be-all and end-all. But somewhere, nonetheless. There’s clearly a reason why Shango didn’t make the cut, but their debut is worth having purely as a novelty, if nothing else. Where else can you get so many calypso renderings of ’60s hits?