Calypso as Music of Resistance – “a history lecture through music’’

By Lincoln DePradine

From left: Roger Gibbs, Nathanael Ojong & Henry Gomez

Musical entertainers Henry “Cosmos’’ Gomez and Roger “Rajiman” Gibbs, and York University’s Nathanael Ojong, were agreed on one thing at the end of a 90-minute interactive workshop, titled “Calypso as Music of Resistance’’, held at the university’s Keele Campus.

“It was really great,’’ said Ojong, deputy director of York University’s Harriet Tubman Institute. “On a personal note, I really learnt a lot. It was like a history lecture through music.’’

The free event, held in collaboration with the Organization of Calypso Performing Artists, was interspersed with live music and audio recordings, and involved an extensive discussion on calypso, its origin and history; calypso’s African connection and its link to French-speaking Africans that were present in the Caribbean during slavery.

The workshop session, said the organizers, was an attempt at “placing calypso music in the context of slavery, colonialization, oppression, struggles for emancipation, and migration’’.

The initial calypsoes of Trinidad were sung in French after Trinidad, then under Spanish rule, invited Catholics from French-speaking islands such as Martinique and Grenada to settle in Trinidad, which was sparsely populated at the time.

Gros Jean, who moved from Grenada to Trinidad, is regarded as the first calypsonian in Trinidad, Gomez said.

Calypso, a combination of various genres, evolved as more accompanying instruments were added over time, with performers – including Growling Tiger, Roaring Lion, Sparrow and Singing Francine – using the art form to comment on societal issues such as poverty, cost of living and social injustice; as well as the 1960s civil rights struggle in the United States.

On Ghana’s declaration of independence on March 6, 1957, Lord Kitchener composed and sang an independence song called “Birth of Ghana’’.

“Ghana is the name,’’ Kitchener sang. “Ghana, we wish to proclaim; we will be jolly, merry and gay, the 6th of March, Independence Day.’’

“Calypso became the newspaper of the day,’’ said Gomez, a former Canada Calypso Monarch. “Calypsonians were never afraid to take on the political master of the day.’’

Gibbs referenced Barbadian Gabby’s 1983 “Boots’’, in which the calypsonian criticized Barbados’s spending on its army and the US militarization of the Caribbean.

“Calypso’s strong storytelling tradition served to comment on the news topics of the day, gossip in the village, and local opinions on events in the outside world,’’ said Gibbs. “Calypso preserved the African polyrhythms of the once enslaved peoples and lower classes, as they fought to retain their culture and reinvent themselves under harsh colonial Caribbean regimes.’’

Gomez is an executive member of the Harriet Tubman Institute and holds a Master of Arts degree from York University. His Master’s thesis was, The Caribana Parade: Storming and Issues of Power and Control’’. 

Trinidad-born Gomez said the idea for the calypso workshop was spurred by research he undertook during his Master’s degree studies.

“I uncovered so much that I thought I knew but didn’t really know,’’ he said. “Once I expressed the idea to Roger of doing this calypso discussion, he said, ‘yes, let’s do it’. We work well as a team.’’

Gibbs described the workshop as “wonderful’’, saying he was “very happy’’ with the outcome, and underscored the importance of teaching young people about the history of calypso.

“Although a lot of work has been done to document the story of calypso and the music, there is no ‘Calypso 101’ to teach young musicians,’’ said Gibbs, a Barbados-born singer and guitarist and recording artiste.

“So, we need to do a lot more work in the area of documenting not only the lyrics of calypso and the stories about the artistes and the history and the social and political impact, but also in telling the story of the music – how is it played? Why is it played that way? What are the rhythms they use? And, how it is put together.’’