By Roger Gibbs
Long before reggae came to international attention, the popular music of the English-speaking Caribbean was calypso, music whose origins are complex and go back over 200 years. It was in Trinidad & Tobago where this music reached its zenith in the 1950s and 1960s, shaping the social and political discourse in the Caribbean, and influencing today’s popular music. Today, the art of calypso has receded to the margins, replaced by soca – the soundtrack of Carnival celebrations across the Caribbean diaspora.
Calypso is not one type of music, but an eclectic genre with many different styles which vary depending on the occasion. 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. Calypso lyrics were satirical and witty, lewd, provocative, and often couched in double meaning or double entendre. This type of storytelling calypso became the staple of the “calypso tent” format.
At the same time, calypso accompanied carnival revellers in the streets, creating road marches and “jump-up” party songs. Singers used call-and-response choruses and chants to hammer home their messages. 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. This canon of rhythms is what truly defines calypso’s character, and not “storytelling in song” as we are often told. These distinctive rhythms shape calypso melodies and instrumental parts.
Early American jazz musicians were enthralled by calypso and it became very popular in Harlem, New York in the 1920s, where Caribbean people made up almost a quarter of the population. That laid the foundation for the calypso “craze” that swept the land in the early 1950s. Harry Belafonte’s ‘Calypso’ (1955) was the first album to sell a million copies, while leading artists like Ella Fitzgerald and Nat King Cole all recorded calypso songs. Fitzgerald’s ‘Stone Cold Dead in the Market’, a version of ‘Murder in the Market’ (an 1890s Barbadian folk calypso), was the first vinyl single to sell a million. Granted, the type of calypso American artists were singing was much sanitized.
In the Caribbean, calypso reached its zenith in Trinidad with the works of Lord Kitchener, Mighty Sparrow, and a host of other outstanding singers. Lord Kitchener (Aldwyn Roberts) is one of the most brilliant composers of the 20th century. The invention of the steel drum at the outbreak of WWII subsequently created some of the most remarkable instrumental calypso music, a sound recognized worldwide as quintessentially Caribbean.
In the 1970s, a new sound – soca – captured popular imagination. Soca, influenced by Black American dance music – particularly disco, R&B and soul, managed to retain much of the polyrhythm appeal of calypso, but shed the melodic ingenuity and clever wordplay of calypso. Classic calypso, like the blues and jazz, remains a rewarding artistic experience young music students and aspiring singers who are interested in Caribbean music.
Roger Gibbs is a Barbadian-born singer/guitarist and recording artist who composes, arranges and performs Caribbean Acoustic and Calypso. He lives in Toronto