And A Smile

"Rum And Coca Cola"
The Andrews Sisters

Clash of cultures can be exciting. It can be destructive. It can be intoxicating--even if it's as simple as mixing rum with Coca-Cola.

Not every mixed drink is as complex as Feist's preferred brandy Alexander. Some of the world's most popular drinks are highballs, which mix a single liquor with a single mixer, usually in a large, straight-sided glass and with enough mixer that the alcohol goes down easy. The most popular highball mixer is some kind of carbonated soda, either ginger ale, lemon-lime soda, tonic water (the original highball mixer) or cola. And the king of the cola drinks is the Cuba Libre, or its more commonplace cousin, the Rum & Coke.

The Cuba Libre mixes light rum, the most common Caribbean tipple, with cola (traditionally Coca-Cola) and a dash of lime juice or a wedge of lime. It seems to have sprung up almost spontaneously as soon as Coke became available in Havana, around 1900, and has been popular throughout the region, and the United States, ever since. Nowadays it's mostly thought of as a way of disguising the taste of alcohol for drinkers who are more used to soda than liquor, but it originated as a blend of two unique flavors, at a time when cola drinks were themselves a novelty in much of the world.

The combination of American and Caribbean cultures is also the theme of "Rum and Coca-Cola." The Andrews Sisters song gives a sanitized version of relationships between American visitors and Trinidadian natives, who go out of their way to welcome them:

Out on Manzanilla beach,
GI romance with native peach.
All night long, make tropic love,
Next day, sit in hot sun and cool off.

Only the chorus of the Andrews Sisters version hints at what this song was originally about:

Drinking rum and Coca-Cola,
Go town Point Cumanah,
Both mother and daughter,
Working for the Yankee dollar.

When it was released, the Andrews Sisters version was controversial because it mentioned an alcoholic drink. What many didn't seem to realize was that the women in the song were "working" in the literal sense of the word. "Rum and Coca-Cola" began its life as a protest against the increased prostitution brought to Trinidad by American soldiers.

In the original version, this was harder to miss. According to the Andrews Sisters, when the GIs arrived in Trinidad:

Young girls say they treat 'em nice,
Make Trinidad like paradise.

The song's first English translation was blunter:

The young girls say they treat 'em nice,
And they give them a better price.

The man who brought the song to the Andrews Sisters made some efforts to disguise it, leaving out some of the more blatant verses, tweaking the rest, and pretending it was his own creation. It became so popular, though, that the real writers, Lord Invader and Lionel Belasco, sued and won a copyright infringement case in the American courts.

Still, the best-known version remains the Andrews Sisters version. For their part, the singers say they never really thought about the lyrics in the original brief recording session. Their version, in an age where recording time and equipment was unavailable to calypso musicians, has endured. But you can still taste just a hint of the harsh original under the layer of Americana.

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