Experiencing the beauty of Calypso music :its history and talented artists
By Michelle Liew
“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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
Instruments used in calypso music
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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
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
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
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.
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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