Guilbault, Jocelyne, and Roy Cape. 2014. Roy Cape: A Life on the Calypso and Soca Bandstand. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. ISBN 978-0-8223-5760-5 (hbk), 978-0-8223-5774-2 (pbk). 304 pp.

Reviewed by: Richard Elliott, University of Sussex

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Keywords: biography; calypso; music; soca; Trinidad

Jocelyne Guilbault’s new book, co-authored with Trinidadian musician Roy Cape, sees a shift in emphasis from her previous monographs on Caribbean music. Here, the focus is on an individual rather than on a particular set of musical genres, albeit that the individual—Cape himself—is identified with the genres of calypso and soca. The work examines how one person’s story casts light on an often hidden musical world. Cape, a saxophonist and bandleader who has played with calypso luminaries including Lord Kitchener, the Mighty Sparrow and Black Stalin, is celebrated as a driving force in Trinidadian music and as an example of a biographical subject too frequently neglected, an instrumentalist playing with more famous singers.

Guilbault describes the book as ‘a collaborative experiment in storytelling’ (2), one that combines the voices of musical subject and scholar. This is achieved through sections of the book written by each author, sometimes alone and sometimes in conversation. Further voices—teachers, mentors, fellow musicians—are presented in quoted interviews and epigraphs. As in a conventional biography, we are given details of Cape’s upbringing first, followed by an account of his life as a working musician. There is a rich cast of characters, reflecting Guilbault’s aim of ‘conceiving sound as part of a world of interactions ... a circulatory history’ (77). Indeed, much of the narrative of the book is about such interactions, whether it be the details of Cape’s progression through various bands or the relationship between performer, audience and community. Cape touchingly writes of wanting to use the book to ‘pay tribute to’ those who mentored him, worked alongside him and were ‘the pillars of my future development’ (1).

There are sections on the sound of calypso and its later development into soca, as well as some analysis of Cape’s style and approach to playing. Guilbault writes well about Cape’s tone in the third chapter, describing him as ‘a saxophonist who has mastered the vocality of a singer’ (84). Cape’s instrumental voice echoes that of calypso singers rather than jazz soloists and is equally in service to the needs of the audience, not least carnival revellers. There is an interesting section on what it meant to be performing UK and US pop hits in calypso style in the 1960s and how nationalist sentiment led to greater emphasis on local and regional identity. A recurring motif is the need to be flexible as a musical worker, with labour often coming to the fore in Cape’s observations. The vivid portrait of gigging background musicians puts the book in a similar category to Ingrid Monson’s Saying Something: Jazz Improvisation and Interaction.

Labour and work appear in other iterations too. For a start, there is the notion of music as a ‘labour of love’ and as immaterial labour, connections that Guilbault conceptualizes in the Introduction via recourse of the work of Eliot Friedson, Howard Becker, Bruno Latour, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri (3–7). Then there is memory work and the labour of storytelling, processes that are foregrounded not only in the format of the text, but also in Guilbault’s introductory framing of the methods, concepts and desires that brought the book into existence. In a more conventional biography, this foregrounding might feel like too much metanarrative; in an academic project that is as much interested in the ways we tell stories as the stories themselves, these extra details provide an interesting theoretical framework. The end product is an interestingly hybrid affair: part musical memoir, part meditation on life-writing, part history of Trinidadian music, part ethnography of the everyday. Central to its fascination is a reminder of the power of life-writing through material objects, be they instruments, records, pictures, schedules, hairstyles or clothes.

A chapter on ‘remembering with pictures’ has Cape reminiscing about his career and his fellow musicians by reviewing some old photographs, which are also used to illustrate the text. Among the interesting topics covered, the discussion of group outfits stands out, and with it the opportunity to witness the changing sartorial styles of Trinidadian musicians through promotional photos and album covers. Spatial as well as temporal narratives unfold here, as Guilbault highlights: ‘In articulation with each other, sound and sight make a band appear local, while at the same time internationally connected’ (140). The chapter also brings welcome reflection and opinion, something that is lacking in the earlier fact-based chronology. With the emphasis on the role of the bandleader in developing fellow musicians’ styles and careers, I was reminded of Man of Constant Sorrow, the co-authored memoir by bluegrass musician and bandleader Ralph Stanley.

There were times when I wondered whether a more straightforward (auto)biography like Stanley’s might work just as well as the model chosen here, without the interview questions and the sometimes interruptive contextualization of the writing process. My understanding of these features is that they aim to construct a rigorous, ethical, participatory (auto)ethnography and this must certainly be respected and admired. But I would have liked to have read more of Cape’s feelings and opinions, which could have usefully complemented, or even replaced, some of the more humdrum factual reconstruction. Perhaps we can’t have it both ways; rigour and ethics will tend to put a damper on ‘juicy details’, while livelier storytelling will too often veer towards the untrustworthy. If I raise this issue in response to this book, it is not to judge it harshly—for it remains a fascinating model of how contemporary ethnography and life-writing can be combined—but rather to reflect on the many ways of telling music’s stories.


Monson, I. 1997. Saying Something: Jazz Improvisation and Interaction. Chicago: niversity of Chicago Press.

Stanley, R., and E. Dean. 2010. Man of Constant Sorrow: My Life and Times. New York: Gotham.