By Roger Gibbs
Calypso is a misunderstood art. So much has been written about it, yet it remains an unknown entity in the mainstream. The reason is the story that truly defines what makes calypso sound unique – its wealth of rhythm – is still untold. The rich vocabulary of West African and Caribbean Creole rhythms embodied in the canon of calypso songs and steelpan arrangements remain unappreciated.
Today’s popular grandchild of calypso – soca – uses a portion of this musical heritage to create the exciting dance music we have come to love. It is enough to satisfy most young audiences brought up on a steady diet of North American music. But there is so much more.
Calypso had its heyday in the mid-20th century, first because of its popularity in New York City during the Harlem Rennaisance (1920s and 1930s), and then later as a result of calypso crossing over into mainstream America in the mid-50s. The music that Americans and the world over came to know as calypso, the music epitomized by Harry Belafonte songs, was in fact a sanitized and simplified version of calypso. This ‘calypso craze’ did not last long and was soon overtaken by rock & roll, the resurgence of folk music in the 1960s and an explosion of Black American forms like R&B, soul and funk. Belafonte remained relatively popular, but no other major artist was able to follow in his footsteps.
Meanwhile, the real calypso continued to evolve and dominate the music scene in Trinidad & Tobago and the Eastern Caribbean throughout the 1960s well into the 1970s before the impact of American cultural penetration inspired local artists like iconoclast Ras Shorty I to look for a new sound. The soca sound he created changed the foundational architecture of the rhythm by changing the foot pattern to one that mimicked the increasingly popular American disco music’s walking or marching foot drum pattern. That simple change allowed the bass guitarist freedom to play more melodic and complex patterns, as it no longer needed to play a basic walking pattern to support the complex syncopation of the other instruments.
Soca music of the mid-1970s and 1980s used a lot of the calypso vocabulary of rhythms and mostly kept the sound of horns playing block harmonies. The 1980s and 1990s saw an explosion of Bajan soca, much of it fuelled by Eddie Grant’s Ice Records productions, greatly expanding the genre’s popular appeal. Groovy soca, dub soca, dance hall soca and other variation saw soca move away from its calypso roots. Roy Cape and other continued to evolve the sound, embracing the video generation’s need for slick visuals
As American hegemony in dictating popular tastes in the Caribbean has grown stronger, over the last two decades soca has steadily converged with America and British popular dance/pop music. Ed Sheeran’s 2017 hit song ‘The Shape of You’ used a groovy soca beat, and many other pop stars readily dipped into soca music basket of rhythms to give their pop song excitement and dance appeal.
Conversely, Caribbean soca artists have embraced the production values and arrangements of international pop music. Gone are the horns. Welcome the keyboard synthesized sounds and pop music sound effects. Gone are the calypso song forms and extended chord patterns of early soca. Welcome the repetitive 4-chord pop song patterns and an emphasis on chants and slogans for lyrics, an approach Caribbean artists equate with modernity.
As a long-time musician and cultural commentator, none of this would be a problem to me if there was still room reserved for calypso. Change is inevitable, but I always hoped the Caribbean societies that created such an outstanding musical legacy would make every effort to celebrate and promote its values of rhythmic and melodic complexity, clever use of language and syntax in the same way America celebrates and promotes jazz.
Van Dyke Parks, an eminent American musician, songwriter, arranger, and record producer who has composed various film and television, once casually commented to me that Lord Kitchener (Aldwyn Roberts) was to him the greatest composer of the 20th century. I do not think we are able to appreciate the significance of this statement.
The works of Duke Ellington, Count Bassie, Miles Davis and others are mandatory for any budding jazz musician; a similar familiarity with the works of Kitch or Sparrow is not mandatory for young Caribbean musicians. Young Caribbean musicians are not challenged to learn the rich music heritage that is calypso.