When you think of Calypso music, your mind escapes to a tropical paradise. You can hear the blissful rhythm of the steel pan drums swirling among marimbas and horns, while shakers compliment the upbeat percussion and brassy tambourine. In fact, the rich history of this genre of music is really interesting. Famous for its “feel good” sound, the melody of Calypso is fun and care-free, but the message behind it has a different tone. Calypsonian singers have often used their music to spread a message of hope, freedom, and justice.
To put you in the mood, we’ve included the video below, hit play and read on while the horns and marimba play.
What Is Calypso Music?
Calypso is a form of Afro-Caribbean music that originated in Trinidad and Tobago. The start of the genre came from the arrival of African slaves who were forbidden to speak to one another in their native languages, so they communicated through songs. Initially, it was a form of West African music called Kaiso before reaching the Caribbean islands. Throughout time, musical influences from the French, Spanish, and British settlers contributed to the sound.
Over a century ago, calypso became a way of spreading news around Trinidad. The lyrics spoke out against political corruption and artists used it to express free speech. Eventually, British rule enforced censorship. Law enforcement monitored the songs to try to find incriminating content.
After the abolition of slavery in 1834, the French brought Carnival to Trinidad, and Calypso competitions became increasingly popular. By the 1920s, tents were set up at Carnival for Calypsonians to practice before competitions; these have now become showcases for new music.
Calypso Meaning and Origin
“Calypso” may originate from the Greek word Kalypso, which translates to “she that conceals,” and came from kalypto meaning ” to cover, to conceal.” According to Greek mythology, this was the name of the nymph who fell in love with Odysseus.
However, there is a debate about the actual origin of calypso, meaning, the origin of the term is blurred by the sheer number of real influences on it. Some believe that it derived from “kaiso” a Hausa (a Nigerian/Chad dialect) word for bravo. Then again, France played a huge role in the development of Calypso music, so others argue that it came from the French word “carrousseaux” (similar to the English word carouse) which means a drinking party. Alternatively, there are also those who think the origins are Spanish or Caribbean and came from the words “caliso or carieto.”
Wherever the word came from, the beat is contagious.
The first Calypso recordings came in 1914 and inaugurated the Golden Age of Calypso. Since that time, there have been lots of songs that made a lasting impression on Calypso music lovers. Here are just a few:
- Rum and Coca-Cola: Composed in 1943, the song became a huge hit in the United States making it to the Billboard’s U.S. Pop Singles.
- Hot hot hot: Featured on his 1982 album, the single became an instant hit in Arrow’s native country Trinidad & Tobago and worldwide.
- 1 cent, 5 cents, 10 cent: This song was a favorite in the 90s and was a hit at house parties.
First, Mighty Sparrow is best known for his hits “Jean and Dinah” in 1956 and “Carnival Boycott” in 1957. He is an 11-time winner of the calypso monarchy and an eight-time winner of Trinidad and Tobago’s Carnival Road March competition. At the young age of 14, he started a steel band to perform at Carnaval. Mighty Sparrow taught himself to play guitar and started writing his own songs. He won the Carnaval competition and received the grand prize of 40 dollars.
Additionally, David Rudder was a pioneer for the new era of calypso music. His many hits include “Bahia Girl,” “Bacchanal Lady,” “Panama,” and “Engine Room.” The title track of his 1988 album Calypso Music remains one of the best selling songs in calypso history. Shockingly, by age 12, David had begun singing with a band called the Solutions. In his teenage years, he also sang backup for Lord Kitchener.
Finally, Shadow has recorded nearly 20 albums throughout his career. His voice is low and powerful, and recognized around the world for his song “Return of De Bassman.” He also goes by the names “Mighty Shadow” and “The Shadow.”
Female influence in Calypso
Despite a long tradition of female chantwells, the genre had been dominated by men until the emergence of Calypso Rose in the mid-1960s. Calypso Rose’s success in the 1970s resulted in her becoming the first woman Calypso Monarch.
Caribbean Music and Its Impact Around the World
Unsurprisingly, the 1950s was a favorite era for Caribbean music. Nat King Cole’s song, “Calypso Blues,” was the start of the music craze. However, it was Harry Belafonte’s 1956 album that brought Calypso to the mainstream. Even though, he is of Jamaican and Martiniquan descent, not Trinidadian.
The genre became a worldwide craze with the release of the “Banana Boat Song,” a traditional Jamaican folk hymn. But of course, Harry Belafonte sang the best-known rendition. It was the first ever full-length record to sellmore than a million copies in the US.
Maya Angelou also contributed to the calypso music scene. She’s well-known for her writing career, but she also recorded the LP, entitled Miss Calypso, which sold a large number of copies.
Calypso Dance: Unique, yet More Familiar than You Think
Calypso dance in Trinidad was initially called the “Bamboula” or the “Chica,” in the 1880s. Nowadays people call it “Jump Dancing.” And throughout the years, a ballroom version of it has emerged which is similar to Rumba and Samba. The performers who do the dance like to wear flower pods that resemble a plant found in Alaska called Calypso.
While Calypso is a popular all over the Caribbean islands, there are other well-known genres from the Carribean as well. Jamaica is famous around the globe for reggae music. Bob Marley served as a world ambassador for reggae and sold more than 20 million records throughout his career. Over the years the sound has transformed into sub-genres like Roots, Ragga, Dub, and Dancehall.
The birthplace of salsa music is Cuba, and it’s not only admired in its home country, but salsa is loved worldwide. The music is vibrant and appeals to folks from all walks of life. On the other hand, it’s most known as a form of dance. Numerous amounts of people flock to salsa classes to learn how to make the smooth, seductive dance moves.
It’s no surprise that Calypso dancing, with its cardio enhancing leaps, and muscle building gyrations, has been adapted to one of the biggest “dancercizing” crazes the U.S. has seen: Zumba.
Musicians first began making steel drums in the 1940s. There was an abundance of oil drums left from the military, after World War II, and the calypsonians started using them as instruments. The steel drum is the most recognized instrument of calypso music and rubber tools called mallets are used to play it.
The ensemble also uses iron drums, as well as congas and tambourines. Modern-day steel bands often include a brass section with a trumpet, trombone or saxophone to create a fuller sound. Calypso band members like to play a Caribbean instrument called the scratch. It’s a cylindrical grater stroked with a metallic comb.
Calypso and Carnaval
Most people consider Calypso as the official music of Carnaval. Since its foundation as the music of the slaves, the Calypso sound has transformed into the voice of celebration.
In the 1880s, issues with violence at Carnaval celebrations forced Trinidadian officials to consider banning the festival. However, that never happened, and the legacy of Calypso continued on. Artists wrote the music for Carnaval events as the festival grew, and it’s a tradition that continues to this day.
The Evolution of the Genre
Caribbean music has evolved over the past few years, and some fans want to stick to the original sound of the Calypso, while others are hoping to move beats and rhythms of it forward. Since the 1970s, the beats of Calypso have changed into a more fast-paced rhythm, which has transformed into new musical forms. Rapso and soca are two up-tempo versions that traditional calypsonians refer to as “party music.”
Rapso is a combination of Calypso and American hip-hop. The lyrical, street-style poetry has become an influential part of the modern music scene in Trinidad and Tobago. However, soca is another prominent music genre in Trinidad. It’s a combination of Calypso music with a touch of Indian musical sounds. Indentured servants from India introduced a music style called Chutney to the Calypsonians.
Music Is a Gift
Music is more than just rhythms, harmonies, and a melody. It’s an outlet for expression and a way to connect with others. What started as a means of communication between slaves, has transformed into a famous style of Caribbean music. There is no doubt that calypso will continue to influence the music world for years to come.