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Experiencing the beauty of Calypso music :its history and talented artists

Updated on April 18, 2013

By Michelle Liew

Source
Mayaro Beach in Trinidad.
Mayaro Beach in Trinidad. | Source

“Sad to say, I’m on my way....won’t be back, for many a day,

My heart is down, my head is turning around

I had to leave a little girl in Kingston Town...”


My first exposure to Calypso was listening to Harry Belafonte’s 50‘s Calypso in my musician father’s car while the family was out driving. Though it was not music of my generation, it had a relaxing feel and led me to making a few requests to be taken to the beach.

Many might also remember songs from The Little Mermaid as they watched the cartoon or accompanied their children while doing so. Songs like Kiss the Girl and Under the Sea are-you guessed it - Calypso influenced numbers.

What is this gentle, relaxing and very listenable form of music one must simply take to the beach? Who are some entertainers who have made a mark on the Calypso scene? This writer will attempt to answer some of these questions and introduce-or recall-some popular Calypso songs.

A horse and wagon in Trinidad
A horse and wagon in Trinidad | Source

The origins and functions of Calypso Music

Calypso music is Afro-Caribbean music that developed in the island of Trinidad and Tobago in the early to the mid 20th century. It was the music of Martinican Planters from West African Kaiso and their slaves.

The music draws upon French and African influences. It is characterized by melodic ,harmonic blends and relaxing rhythms sung in a French Creole and led by a Griot

or traveling musician. Over the years, he became known as a chantuelle and eventually, a Calypsonian.

English replaced French patois as the dominant language of the caribbean, and Calypso singers started to sing their songs in English. It became a way to express political views and to challenge the doings of Trinidad’s government. It also serves to document the history of Trinidad and Tobago.

The French also brought Carnivals to Trinidad, and they grew in popularity. Though a subject of argument, Calypso music is said to be influenced by the music of incoming French Troubadors.

The first instance of Calypso music was recorded in 1912 by the Lovey’s String Band. Most of the instruments of Calypso came from Lovey and Lionel Belasco. However. no noteworthy pieces were recorded till the 1930s, when musicians like Attila the Hun(not the barbarian, the musician), Lord Invader and Lord Kitchener made the form popular. Rum and Coca-Cola, another Calypso number, became popular for the Andrews Sisters despite its critique of the presence of the ladies of the night in Trinidad.

A toned down, commercial variant of the form, Harry Belafonte’s Banana Boat Song, became popular when he released it in 1957.

Banana Boat Song-Harry Belafonte and the Muppets

The stylistic features of Calypso music

Calypso music has a number of distinctive features that gently, yet firmly, make it Trinidad’s musical brand. You just know a Calypso piece when you hear one.

Folk Music

Calypso music has its roots in the Caribbean and is music that clearly belongs to the people of the area. It is music formed and integrated firmly into Trinidad’s culture.

Gentle rhythms

Calypso music has gentle rhythms that are great beach prompts. Much of it is played in relaxing 4/4 or Cut Time of 2/2.

Though relaxing, the music is by no means sleep inducing. Imagine yourself doing a dance to it on that beach!

Lyrical/Double entendre

Calypso music is very lyrical. The outstanding feature of the music is the lyrics that Calypsonians come up with.

Much of the lyrics of Calypso music of the pre-1950s made use of disguised double entendre or words with dual meaning to make political statements and critiques. Rum and Coca Cola is just one example.

Storytelling

Calypso music like the Banana Boat Song were created to tell simple folk tales or stories. The Banana Boat Song tells the story of dock workers shift loading bananas onto ships. The lyrics of the song discuss the taliman was the man directing the worker

Call and response

One of the features of Calypso is the use of call and response. The Calypsonian soloist would sing the main line, which others harmonizing with him responding to that call.

Be sure to enjoy the amusing attempt of the muppets to do so in the video of the Banana Boat Song below with a talented Harry Belafonte, who plays the Calypsonian soloist leading the muppets. He also tells us a little bit of the history of the song. The muppets make a beautiful but, well, not so cooperative chorus!

Steel Pans
Steel Pans | Source

Instruments used in calypso music

Steel pans

Early calypsonians made their instruments out of metal oil drums around them.These were known as steel pans and began to evolve into the modern pan we know today. The early environmental percussionists, they made use of garbage cans and any steel container they could find.

The modern pan is chromatically pitched and gives calypso music its characteristic Caribbean ring.

17th Century Silver Forks and Spoons
17th Century Silver Forks and Spoons | Source

Metal forks and spoons

True to the concept of environmental percussion (though they might not have thought of it then) Calypsonians used Forks and Spoons to add percussive rhythm to their music.

A pair of bongos
A pair of bongos | Source

Skin drums/bongos

Calypsonians also made use of drums made out of bamboo and covered by layers of membrane or animal hide. These were known as Tamboo Bamboo. Bemba drums were used to The government banned these drums in an effort to stop Calypso and its political references.

The bongo drum, an Afro Cuban percussion instrument, was used widely to give the calypso its relaxing yet uptempo beat.

Maracas
Maracas | Source

Maracas

Though Tamboo Bamboos or skin drums were band, it certainly did not stop Calypsonians from shaking the maracas or playing the Calypso for dance. The maracas gives Calypso its gentle, rhythmic feel.

Stringed instruments

While the drums were banned, Calypsonians also made use of a variety of stringed instruments like the guitar or banjo.

Any instrument could be used for Calypso music. The innovativeness of calypsonians made it difficult to ban the form altogether.

Lovey's String Band Mango Vert

Famous Calypsonians and their songs

Calypsonians helped to give the music of Trinidad its unique character, and many of them have helped to take the form to newer and greater heights. Here are some of them and their songs, in chronological order.

Lovey’s String Band

The first Calypsonians to introduce us to the form, Lovey’s String Band, formed in the 1890s and led by George Bailey, recorded a few pieces like Mango Vert, Trinidad and Paseo and Petrol and Sara. I was fortunate enough to find a recording of Mango Vert.

Julian Whiterose Iron Duke of the Land

The Iron Duke, Julian Whiterose

Julian Whiterose was the second artist to record the Calypso piece, Iron Duke of the Land.

Early Calypsonians sang in French, in the way the music originated. The Iron Duke greatly popularized the English Language form of Calypso. This is a very old recording, so do bear with the muffled sound.

TV Calypso The Mighty Terror

The Mighty Terror

The Mighty Terror, or Fitzgerald Henry was a Trinidadian jack-of-all-trades, having been a boxer, taxi driver, truck driver and and a ship fireman.

But it was in music where he made his mark and together with Kitchener and other Calypsonians, he took Calypso beyond Trinidad’s borders.

Like other Calypsonians, he was a storyteller. He wrote songs like Calypso TV, about how his wife and daughter begged him to buy one. Known as the Man with the Golden Voice, his songs always had a touch of humor.

Moko Jumbie Lord Kitchener

Lord Kitchener

Lord Kitchener or Kitch was one of the most internationally famous Calypsonians. He first found success with the song Green Fig which he released in 1942. He went on the release hits like Drink Ah Rum and Moko Jumbie, about the stilt walkers at carnivals in the Caribbean.

He found success in the UK in the 1950s. He became an important and relevant figure to the West Indians who migrated to the UK. He returned to Trinidad in 1962, and dominated the Calypso competitions of the 60s and 70s. He ran his own tent, the Calypso Revue, where he nurtured many Calypsonians. His son, composer and songwriter Kemai Roberts,

is known for his compositions of many road march titles.

Mighty Sparrow Jean and Dinah

Mighty Sparrow

The Calypso King of the World has be crowned Calypso Monarch eleven times and won the Trinidad Carnival Road March eight times. He, Lord Kitchener and Lord Melody were friendly Calypsonian rivals.

Mighty Sparrow made his mark in 1956 with the song Jean and Dinah, winning the Road March. He threatened to boycott the competition because of the small sum of prize money. He continued to enjoy a brief period of popularity in the 1950s, returning in style to the Road March with the song Ten to One is Murder in 1960.

The lyrics to his songs are known for being witty, ribald and frank commentaries on West Indian culture.

Harry Belafonte Jamaican Farewell-a jazz influenced version

Harry Belafonte

The King of Calypso deserved his title because he helped to popularize the form commercially in the 1950s. Best known for the memorable folk number, the Banana Boat Song, he has been an advocate of civil rights and humanitarian causes.

At first a pop singer, he soon became interested in folk music. Belafonte’s first Calypso release was Matilda in 1953. His album, Calypso, with the Banana Boat Song sold over a million copies and helped the form make inroads into America.

Ju Ju Warrior by Calypso Rose

Calypso Rose

The Queen of Calypso was so crowned from 1973 to 1977 but not allowed to compte with the men. Her persistence paid of when she won the Trinidad Road March in 1977 with the song Gimme More Tempo. After her success, winners of the Calypso Road March in Trinidad was known as Calypso Monarchs.

She has written over 800 songs and recorded 20 albums.

Conclusion

Calypso remains a popular musical form that engages many in a relaxing dance or a lovely day at the beach. We thank these fabulous musicians for making it known to us.

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    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 3 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks, Lady guitar picker.

    • ladyguitarpicker profile image

      stella vadakin 3 years ago from 3460NW 50 St Bell, Fl32619

      Really enjoyed this hub, you are a very good writer. I am working a piece of music from Trinidad and Tobago it is called, "Mama Gone Amountin" I love the beginning but have not mastered it all yet.

    • cmoneyspinner1tf profile image

      Treathyl FOX 3 years ago from Austin, Texas

      Oh my! The Mighty Sparrow. My husband would definitely approve this HUB. He loves Calypso music and always mentions that particular artist.

    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 4 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks, Glim!

    • Glimmer Twin Fan profile image

      Glimmer Twin Fan 4 years ago

      I've always thought the steel drums were so relaxing. Interesting hub with great songs.

    • travmaj profile image

      travmaj 4 years ago from australia

      Harry Belafonte - just his name conjures up music - and the word Calypso conjures up Harry Belafonte. What talent.

      And what an interesting, informative hub - I enjoyed reading about the various artists, and the history behind the Calypso genre.

      Thank you for this Michelle - beautifully presented - Voting.

    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 4 years ago from Singapore

      Calypso is so engaging! As I was writing this I watched Belafonte and the muppets a few times because the beat was catchy. Helped that the muppets were cute too, especially Fozzy! thanks for sharing!

    • Denise Handlon profile image

      Denise Handlon 4 years ago from North Carolina

      What a great hub, Michelle! I used to listen to Belafonte's music growing up,and was familiar with the sound of Calypso music by the time I was entering the Jr High music class. My teacher was quite impressed at the wide range of music I was familiar with thanks to my parents.

      The sounds of Calypso music was so intriguing for me I bought a small steel drum. My grandkids love it! UP/I/A/U and sharing.

    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 4 years ago from Singapore

      All are great singers! Thanks, manatiba!

    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 4 years ago from Singapore

      Yes, it gets to the head and you cannot stop singing it. Positive vibes! Belafonte still looks good in his eighties. Thanks for sharing!

    • manatita44 profile image

      manatita44 4 years ago from london

      Much thought put into it and extremely well presented.

      Belafonte was well known but the Mighty Sparrow was a calypso genius.

    • tillsontitan profile image

      Mary Craig 4 years ago from New York

      Great start to a great hub. Harry Belafonte is Calypso movie to many baby boomers. He brought the music to America and the fact that he was good looking didn't hurt ;)

      When we went on a cruise and heard the Calypso music on the ship and in the Bahamas we were hooked. Such happy music it just gets in your head.

      Voted up, useful, interesting, shared, and pinned.

    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 4 years ago from Singapore

      Hi Susan!! Oh yes, the music is completely relaxing and highly danceable! Thanks for sharing!

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      Sueswan 4 years ago

      Hi Michelle,

      This one brought back many happy memories. I remember dancing with my mom to Harry Belafonte's Calypso album when I was a little girl.

      Voted up and away and sharing.

      Have a great weekend. :)

    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 4 years ago from Singapore

      Hi Jo, thanks for commenting. Yes, finally found recordings of the Mighty Sparrow! Thanks for sharing!

    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 4 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks, Elias. It's enjoyable and relaxing, though not sleepy...though like all music, should not be over played. Thanks for sharing!

    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 4 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks, Lurana. It's a lovely form of music....one that's quite hard to come by in these days of rap and hip hop! Thanks for sharing!

    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 4 years ago from Singapore

      Hi Khmazz, thank you! Thanks for stopping by!

    • Elias Zanetti profile image

      Elias Zanetti 4 years ago from Athens, Greece

      Never been into this kind of music before but you've done a great job with your presentation and got me really intrigued! I will certainly give it a chance!

    • MrsBrownsParlour profile image

      Lurana Brown 4 years ago from Chicagoland, Illinois

      I really enjoyed this! I love Harry Belafonte and had some exposure to other calypso music, but learned so much from this. The Muppet video is a great one. :-) Well-done and fun!

    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 4 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks, Nell!! Glad to share a little Calypso-let's dance!

    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 4 years ago from Singapore

      The others were unknown until Belafonte came along-unfortunately they were known mostly in Trinidad. Thanks for shaing!

    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 4 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks,Kathi!! Yes, he's a grand,well-groomed old man now.Thanks for sharing!

    • khmazz profile image

      Kristen Mazzola 4 years ago from South Florida

      Wonderful detail and information on a great type of music! Way to go!!

    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 4 years ago from Singapore

      Hi Kidscrafts! It's a cool sound, actually and really sits well with many! Intriguing to know that you've spent time in Africa....must connect with you to share the experience! Thanks for sharing!

    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 4 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks, Bill!

    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 4 years ago from Singapore

      Hi Carol, Belafonte is evergreen! I just saw a recent video of him, he's bald now but still looks dapper. Thanks for sharing!

    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 4 years ago from England

      What fantastic music michelle! I love Calypso, now I want to get up and dance! lol! great hub, and amazing info, thank you!

    • janetwrites profile image

      Janet Giessl 4 years ago from Georgia country

      Wow! This is such an interesting and comprehensive article about Calypso music. Harry Belafonte is great. Unfortunately, I haven't heard of the other musicians. Thank you for sharing this.

    • Fossillady profile image

      Kathi 4 years ago from Saugatuck Michigan

      I can recall when Harry Belafonte was at the height of his popularity. We were all enamored by him. But I didn't realize the style of music he sang was called calypso and had African/French origins. Very interesting. Loved the banana boat / muppets video! :O)

    • tobusiness profile image

      Jo Alexis-Hagues 4 years ago from Bedfordshire, U.K

      Michelle, now you're talking my language!!...great job, but how could you have missed the one... the only 'The Mighty Sparrow'... I remember Sparrow and Kitchener competing for the carnival road march, there were some humorous rivalry between the two. Another great write, definitely one for the archive. Sharing everywhere :).

    • kidscrafts profile image

      kidscrafts 4 years ago from Ottawa, Canada

      Thank you for this great article Michelle! I didn't know the term "Calypso music"... so another good thing learned today.

      When I go in the Caribbean, I enjoy that type of music even more than in Canada. May be it's the outside and the warm climate of those islands!

      May be part of it is that very young I lived in Africa and I always loved the sound and rythm of those big drums.

      What I love the most with the music in the Caribbean is the steel-drum; the sound of this instrument is very special and unique.

      Another great hub Michelle!

      Voted up and very interesting!

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Well-written, Michelle, and like Janine I love how you used your memories to start this very informative hub.

    • Janine Huldie profile image

      Janine Huldie 4 years ago from New York, New York

      Love how you started this one with your memories from childhood. I know the music my parents listened to and still remember from my childhood has shaped me to a degree and still listen to so much of it myself. Thanks you for sharing a bit of yourself and memories indeed here and have voted up and shared all over!!

    • carol7777 profile image

      carol stanley 4 years ago from Arizona

      Harry Belafonte is still one of my favorites and I love the words and music. Great job and presentation..photos etc...

    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 4 years ago from Singapore

      An article on the origins of Calypso Music and some talented Calypsonian artists.