So You Think You Know Calypso? *Videos*
When I think of the West Indies, I think rum, palm trees, and steel drum bands—but not politics. Wrong! Trinidad & Tobago is a totally political place, evidenced by its indigenous Calypso music with its stinging lyrics.
I wanted to find out more so I did a bit of research into how this distinctive musical tradition was formed:
West African Roots
Calypso music is derived from West African Kaiso and canoulay music, which was imported with the slaves that were brought to work the island sugar cane. The slaves weren’t allowed to talk to one another and so used the music to communicate—especially their displeasure with the French overseers.
Here’s a snippet of Kaiso music:
Can’t see this video? Click this link: Kaiso Music
The music, which is highly rhythmic, was originally sung in a type of French Creole and later became a melting pot of musical traditions from throughout the Caribbean, including Benna music from Antigua, Barbudan Spouge music, and Jamaican folk music called Mento (the precursor to ska and reggae). Bits of Dominica and Haitian cadences were also thrown into the mix.
Modern calypso really began to take off after the abolition of slavery in 1834. It was during this time that the French planters brought masquerades to the islands. The calypso that was performed in the masquerade processions helped develop Trinidad & Tobago’s rich tradition of Carnival.
In the early 20th century, calypso’s political soul was again starting to spread as the music became a way to share news and foment dissent. Musicians were protesting WWII, Commonwealth rule, and political corruption. With the government censoring the music, a type of double-speak developed which encouraged even greater free speech among musicians.
For instance, take the Andrew Sisters’ hit, Rum and Coca-Cola, which was stolen from Calypso king Lord Invader. The song was originally a criticism of the prostitution, inflation, and other negative influences brought by the American naval base in Trinidad at the time. Once you understand the song’s origin, the lyrics, which are initially thought to praise of island life, take on a totally different tone:
Can’t see this video? Click this link: Rum & Coca-Cola
There are a number of grandfathers of calypso, including The Mighty Sparrow and Lord Superior. I was lucky enough to see both of these legends perform while in Port of Spain. A documentary film about their lives called The Glamour Boys was debuting at the Trinidad & Tobago Film Festival and the American Embassy hosted a preview that included a performance.
Both of these men, now in their seventies, were as rambunctious as ever. Verbally sparring with one another, alluding to life-long jokes and good-natured ribbing. With their thick Trinni accents, I only got about half of what was actually being said, but it was enough to fully appreciate their joy in the music and their importance as musicians who helped invent a new musical genre.
Here’s the Mighty Sparrow in his prime:
Can’t see this video? Click this link: Mighty Sparrow
Calypso is continuing to evolve, forming new musical styles. Two popular derivatives are Soca, which emerged in the 1970s and added bits of soul and funk to the calypso mix. Extempo is another off-shoot that is akin to rap, with the musicians performing extemporaneous lyrics and social commentary.
Here’s a hilarious example of a man and a woman dueling extempo-style:
Can’t see this video? Click this link: Extempo War
Travel & Learning
This is one of the great benefits of travel. While I was always a fan of calypso music I had no idea of its origins until I visited its birthplace of Trinidad & Tobago. It was only here that I gained a fuller appreciation for this national treasure that goes way beyond its distinctive rhythms and saucy lyrics.
Knowing it’s history makes me like the music even more!
This entry was posted on Friday, February 13th, 2015 and is filed under North America.