The Music Diaries | Chin's Calypso Sextet led mento to great success
The works of the Chin's Calypso Sextet from the golden age of mento music and particularly the production skills of Ivan Chin for the group, bring into sharp focus the contribution made by several Chinese-Jamaican record producers to Jamaican popular music. But although Ivan Chin's contribution was crucial to the early development of the music and to mento in particular, his name is seldom mentioned among a list of such prominent Chinese-Jamaican producers like Byron Lee, Randy Chin, Leslie Kong. Justin Yap, The Hoo Kim brothers, and others.
One explanation given for this was that many musicologists tended to do ratings, beginning with the birth of the Jamaica music industry in 1957, perhaps a year after mento lost its popularity. Mento, nevertheless, contained rhythms that were later reflected in ska and reggae in later years, and as such, cannot be discounted. Reggae songs like Sweet and Dandy by Toots and the Maytals and Long Shot Kick The Bucket by the Pioneers remind us so much of the colourful and golden years of mento music.
The plain truth is that without Ivan Chin, there would never have been a Chin's Calypso Sextet, and without a Chin's Calypso Sextet, mento would never have achieved great success. Chin - an electronic technician - recorded, produced, and financed all the recordings done by the group at his store, situated at 48 Church Street, downtown Kingston. It was at his instigation that the group was formed between 1952 and 1953 and duly named after him.
The entire episode was, however, highly ironic, because Chin had earlier turned down a request from the same group of musicians (before they were named Chin's Calypso Sextet) to record and produce a song called Night Food. Chin steered clear of the request because he doubted whether it would take the market, or be a success, because of its suggestive lyrics. As it turned out, the recording became the fastest-selling record in the history of Jamaican music at the time and led the way in terms of Jamaican hit recordings. It also spurred Chin into action. He was now convinced that songs like Night Food, which had suggestive and ambiguous lyrics, were the type of songs that Jamaicans loved and promptly sent for Alerth Bedasse - the vocalist and music arranger of Night Food - and Everard Williams, the incomparable and prolific songwriter of the song, and countless others, to engage them in a contract to produce two mento recordings per month at a cost of 18 pounds per month. In a real way, the Chin's Calypso Sextet was born.
According to Bedasse, with whom I did an interview for Klas Sports Radio on May 7, 2005, they were the same band members as those who performed on Night Food "with the exception of Will, who replaced Ben on saxophone", he said. Bedasse listed the other band members as Cheston on banjo, Aaron on guitar, Peck on the rumba box or bass fiddle, Everard Williams on maracas, and himself on vocals and guitar. Occasionally, they would include a fife player. It was very much a studio band that existed solely for and to record under contract with Chin.
Unlike virtually all other producers and recording artistes of the day who utilised the services of either Stanley Motta's Recording Studios at Hanover Street or Ken Khouri's Federal Recording Studios along King Street in downtown Kingston, Chin did his own recordings, using his own cutting machine at his premises along Church Street in Kingston. He had temporarily converted a section of his store - Chin's Radio Service - where he sold electrical appliances and records, into a recording studio, specifically to record the quintet, and did so late at night when it was quiet and peaceful. According to Bedasse, "Mr Chin, in the evenings after the store is closed and the street is quiet, would make a kind of studio for himself. He bought a cutting machine and a mike, which he put on a table, and we would all congregate around it and play and sing into it, sometimes do it all three, four times until he was satisfied that he got what he wanted."
The first songs recorded by Chin and distributed on 78RPM (revolutions per minute) 10-inch vinyl discs were Honey Moon, Rough Rider, Sampson and Delilah, and Depression - all hits. Some 96 songs were reportedly recorded and produced by Chin, with The Chin's Calypso Sextet accounting for about 35 by Bedasse's count. Chin also recorded songs written by Williams for other artistes. They included the legendary Ethiopia by Lord Lebby - one of the first songs about repatriation that was commercially recorded in the Caribbean. It presaged the significant role that the Rastafarian religion would play in the later development of Jamaican music. The lyrics are particularly inspiring:
Come along everybody,
Come and hear what I have to say
Just listen and I will tell you,
What is the talk of the town today
For in every corner that you may walk
You can see a group of people park
They're not skylarking,
They are only talking about Ethiopia.
Other popular recordings recorded and produced by Chin for the sextet included Big Boy And Teacher, Big Sid, Rent Worries, Monkey Opinion, Black Market Meat, and Monkey Opinion, most of which were social commentaries or simply about things that were happening in Jamaica at the time.
Very little is know about Ivan Chin's early life except that he became very fascinated with electronics in his early teens and decided to do a correspondence course in radio technology with a California institution. He started his first radio repair business in Montego Bay in 1942. A visit to New York's Radio City Music Hall in 1946 widened his technical knowledge. Returning to Kingston in 1948, he opened his store at Church Street and sold some of the most exquisite equipment. Chin migrated to Canada in 1974, where he expanded and continued his business until the time of his passing from pneumonia on June 27, 2014. He was 90 years old.