One of the great lyricists, Lord Kitchener (photo from cd Klassic Kitchener vol 2)

Since the last great war and the Andrews Sisters’ version of the rum and Coca Cola song from Trinidad, the world has identified the Caribbean with a type of music called calypso.

After the success of the American women, in the 1950s a pair of American men of Caribbean extraction – Harry Belafonte and Irving Burgie – made the first million selling long playing record in the pop music era with a collection of what is generally accepted as calypso songs.

The worldwide popularity of the genre, however, has not continued, although it remains the vital force in Caribbean fetes the world over. Prof Gordon Rohlehr speaks of the role of the Decca label in internationalizing the music:

Calypso, and its current manifestations of soca and soca dub (ragga soca), or closely related idioms such as zouk in the French Antilles and Cadence in Haiti, dominate the annual sugarcane crop over or Lenten festivals and carnivals throughout the former colonies. This has resulted in suggestions that calypso is carnival music – a preposition buttressed in the reality that many calypsonians are not full-time, seldom record and most do so only at carnival time when they sing in competitions.

Only Grenada-born Trinidadian The Mighty Sparrow (Francisco Slinger), Montserrat’s Arrow (Alphonsos Cassell), Trinidad’s David Rudder (unusual for having not chosen a moniker), Barbados’ The Mighty Gaby (Anthony Carter) and a few others have followings outside the Caribbean communities.

Among calypsonians, there is debate about who should truly wear that nomenclature, since, it is argued, he or she must write and perform his/her own songs.

Whether calypso is Trinidad or Caribbean music has been a moot point in recent years. Barbadian historian Dr Trevor Marshall, for example, puts forward strong arguments that the calypso type lyric and tune in English, was alive in 19th Century Barbados, at a time when the chantrelles of Trinidad were still chanting in French. And whether the music evolved solely out of the Afro-Caribbean experience is also warmly debated.

If the origin of the music is controversial, so is the origin of the name it carries, as Guyana-born Caribbean linguist and lexicographer, Dr Richard Allsopp demonstrates. (See side bar Ka isu, Kaiso, Calypso?).

Gordon Rohlehr, Professor Emeritus at the St Augustine, Trinidad campus of the University of the West Indies has another story of the origin of the music.

He identifies four theories on the origin of calypso. The first is that it is/was a continuation of African tradition in the New World plantation society, having come over with those who were enslaved. The second theory is that calypso is a direct of indirect transfer of the European Trubadorean activity, particularly through French Caribbean influences. The third, which is hardly courted in historical circles, is that calypso was the music of the original Amerindian people of Trinidad, while the fourth theory is that it was the appropriation of the Africans of different musics to which they were exposed.

“My personal approach blends one and four,” said Rohlehr, “where the African tradition supplied the solid core of melodies and rhythms.”

Rohlehr cites more than six African thematic elements to back the theory of continuity. These include distinct influences of thanksgiving and worship songs exemplified by early minor key chants; war and battle songs, brought out in the stick fight tradition of Trinidad and with the call and response structure featuring the interplay between the individual and the group.

Then there were work songs and those used to pass on messages for subversion or escape from slavery; those of celebration at the weekend dances and other festive occasions; songs for social control which satirised, mocked (Trinidad pikong), humoured, prophesied or “masked” (playing mas or masquerade) in the tradition of the poetic licence granted to the griot to criticise the political leaders.

Also there were songs of commendation of outstanding achievement, and finally those transmitting news, gossip, scandal, narrative and rarely, love songs.

The calypso of old was usually done in a minor key, was often extemporaneous and featured any one of a score of themes as previously outlined. Rum and Coca Cola, original lyrics by Lord Invader and melody by Lionel Belasco based on a Martinique folk song, spoke of the social impact of the presence of American soldiers based in Trinidad during the war and the local girls “working for the Yankee dollar.” In the 1950s Sparrow’s Jane and Dinah celebrated “The Yankees gone and Sparrow take over now.” Apartheid was roundly attacked and criticised and Rudder has lamented the Haiti situation.

Black Stalin the Rastafari calypsonian encouraged black unity in 1979 with Caribbean Man (from the same place/ make the same trip on the same ship) and as Rohlehr pointed out, ired the Indo-Trinidad population who said their presence was ignored. But when Ras Shorty I did Um Shant Oh incorporating Indo elements he was criticised for desecrating Indian tradition.

In the past calypsonians incorporated the foxtrot, swing and the beguine in their music. Today they borrow from Indian chutney, North American soul (the fast soca dance beat is said to be “soul calypso”, and Guyana-born international singer Eddie Grant has hinted he originated the form), and Jamaican reggae, as demonstrated in Machel Montano’s 2008 release, Wining Season Remix with Jamaica’s Shaggy:

Rohlehr describes this as “a lot of imperialism by choice” as singers seek to get the music “out there” to Tokyo, London, New York. Much of the lyrics are repetitive urging revelers to “jump, jump jump!” or “get something and wave… Wave yu hand in the air, wave yu hand in the air,” and this too has meant bickering: What is calypso? It can’t be defined except for its state at any point in time, says Rohlehr.

Contrast the styles of Kitchener, from the old school and baby boomer Gaby, to that of Montano:

Traditionalists like Trinidad’s Chalkdust who gained a doctorate in calypso studies, seem to want to maintain the old minor key tune, social comment and sharp wit. Arrow, is going for the dance hall as he seeks to relieve “stressed out” 20th Century survivors.

Grant has set himself a mission of conservation and has bought the catalogue of hundreds of titles of people like the Roaring Lion and Attila the Hun of the early part of the century. He has began re-releasing them – some he has covered himself – through his Ice label as he seeks to make sure the calypso flag continues to fly.

Edited from the original published in Journeys magazine.

About Mark Lee

Editor, author and writer with career spanning print, radio, television and new media.

Mark Lee

Editor, author and writer with career spanning print, radio, television and new media.

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[…] says calypso is a usually spontaneous topical West Indian song in African rhythm (see main article, ‘Kaiso – The First Caribbean World Music’) . It says the origin of the use of the word is 20th Century and unattributable. Webster’s is […]

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