Caribbean music may well prove the meeting ground where black and white musicians can overcome the segregation that currently afflicts pop music. Because it is still free of commercial cliches, this island music can inspire much-needed innovation. Two of last year's best albums -- Stevie Wonder's "Hotter Than July" and Clash's "London Calling" -- illustrated how reggae has inspired both black and white artists.More recently, two multiracial bands have used Caribbean calypso and ska to wittily mock ethnic barriers in music and society. Kid Creole & The Coconuts' "Fresh Fruit in Foreign Places" (Sire/Ze SRK 3534) and the English Beat's "Wha'ppen?" (Sire SRK 3567) are both second albums, and both are delightful.
The calypso and ska that these two bands use are lighter and more lilting than the more familiar reggae. The lighter, more varied rhythms not only make the music more accessible to soul and rock audiences, but also allow more flexibility for punning lyrics and exotic solos. New York City's Kid Creole & The Coconuts, who will be at the Bayou tomorrow, are the creation of August "Kid Creole" Darnell and Andy "Coatimundi" Hernandez, two-fifths of Dr. Buzzard's Original Savannah Band. "Fresh Fruit in Foreign Places" is quite faithful to the original Dr. Buzzard concept of sure-footed dance rhythms, with the island back beat replacing the Dr. Buzzard disco. The album affects the glamor of a 1930s MGM musical, shifting from Dr. Buzzard's Manhattan ballroom to Kid Creole's Caribbean cruise. As always, Darnell's lyrics and Hernandez's arrangements subvert the dancing and glamor with delicious irony.
Darnell claimed that "Fresh Fruit" is the sound-track album for a "rap opera" about an odyssey through a set of mythical islands. The songs don't hang together that well, though, and are better heard as 11 separate mini-operas. In each one the band stirs up a tropical party atmosphere as Darnell enjoys his jokes about racial, sexual and cultural fears.
In "Going Places," Darnell sends up New Yorkers who believe nothing worthwhile takes place off Manhattan Island. "In the Jungle" and "Animal Crackers" use double entendres, hyperboles and cracked calypso to burlesque those who fear interracial sex. "Table Manners" is an even funnier lesson in bedroom etiquette.
The medley of "Latin Music" and "Music Americana" mocks the categories that isolate the two from each other. "I'm so confused," Darnell sings, "this Latin music's got me so, so bemused; the accent's worse than cockney."
Hernandez lends island authenticity with the bright, percussive melodies of his marimba and vibraphone. Peter Schott adds the underwater swirl of modern jazz-funk keyboards. Darnell is an experssive storyteller who epitomizes a suave musical star even as he parodies the genre.
If Kid Creole & The Coconuts' humor is campy and ironic, the English Beat's approach is more acquainted andpolitical. This Birmingham sextet (only called the English Beat over here to distinguish them from San Francisco's The Beat) doesn't mock prejudice but resists it with the sheer vigor of the music.
For example, "The Doors of My Heart" leads off "Wha'ppen?" with a drum-love song that suddenly digresses into a "dub rap" about racial unity. The irresistible momentum of the jagged ska beat carries the song right through the digression. When the chorus -- "I can feel love thumping at the doors of my heart again" -- returns, it carries an added meaning.
The English Beat may attack the military ("I Am Your Flag") and the press ("Cheated"), but they also warn their listeners against counterproductive "rebellion" like shoplifting ("The Limits We Set") and Saturday night fights ("Monkey Murders"). Their mature realism is reflected in an unsentimental couplet like "It takes more than tears/To get rid of the stains."
Just the same, "Wha'ppen?" is full of jaunty high spirits. Many of the attacks are accomplished with hilarious exaggeration and wicked puns. David Wakeling's barking baritone tells the stories, while Ranking Roger's high tenor echoes lend an uninhibited joy. The rhythm has a stop-and-go effect that never once becomes undanceable or predictable. The band's standout instrumentalist is "Saxa," who blows open more than one song with the fierce cry of his saxophone.