Calypso—Trinidad’s Unique Folk Music
BY AWAKE! WRITER IN TRINIDAD
WHEN you hear of the twin-island Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, what comes to your mind? Many would think of the sounds of steel orchestras and the lively strains of calypso music. In fact, calypso’s catchy rhythms and unmistakable style have become popular far beyond the birthplace of such music in the southern Caribbean Sea.*
According to the book Calypso Calaloo, the name calypso can refer to “any song that after about 1898 was sung at Carnival time in Trinidad, either in the streets by revelers or in staged performances by semiprofessional and professional singers.” Calypso may have been inspired by the historical African storyteller tradition that was brought to Trinidad by African slaves. Subsequently, cherished elements of African song, dance, and drumming, along with French, Hispanic, English, and other ethnic influences, formed a matrix from which calypso eventually emerged.
The origin of the name calypso is not certain. Some believe that it comes from the West African word kaiso, which was used in praise of a great performance. Even prior to the end of slavery in both Trinidad and Tobago in the 1830’s, crowds gathered during the annual carnival celebrations to hear chantuelles (singers) extol their own virtues and deride one another in song. For greater effect, each calypsonian, as calypso singers are known, adopted his own sobriquet, or stage name, and an identifiable style.
Its Style and Influence
Calypsonians have always been respected for their biting wit. Moreover, many calypso singers have developed the remarkable ability to conjure up several verses of flawless rhyme extemporaneously, often spicing them up with word pictures that are astonishingly relevant to the topic of the song. In the early days, calypsonians were mainly Afro-Trinidadian and of the poorer social strata, but today they can be found in every race, color, and class.
Dr. Hollis Liverpool, former director of culture for Trinidad and Tobago, is a historian and also a calypsonian. Concerning the early calypso singers, he told Awake!: “Their forte was always humor, for people came to the [calypso] tent principally to be entertained, to hear the rumors, to confirm the events they had heard about. The upper classes, especially, came to hear what the lower classes were doing, while the governor and his entourage came to see how high or low their political ratings were.”
Frequently, the calypsonians made officialdom and the upper classes of society the objects of their ridicule. As a consequence, calypsonians were revered as heroes and champions of the common people but considered problematic by those in authority. Calypsonians sometimes composed such stinging critiques that eventually the colonial government felt compelled to enact legislation designed to control them. The singers responded by employing double entendre, or double meaning, in their lyrics, developing this into a fine art. Double entendre continues to be a staple of calypso lyrics to this day.
Calypsonians were not just users of language but creators of it. In fact, their contribution to the vocabulary of West Indian colloquial speech has been significant. Not surprisingly, many people, even some politicians, often quote calypsonians to emphasize a point.
In recent times many genres and hybrids of calypso have been developed that appeal to various musical tastes. As with most other forms of music, the lyrics of some calypso songs reflect less than the highest moral values. Obviously, it is wise to be selective in regard to what kind of speech we expose ourselves to. (Ephesians 5:3, 4) We might ask ourselves, ‘Would I be embarrassed to explain a particular double entendre to my children or to an uninitiated listener?’
If you come to Trinidad and Tobago, you will no doubt delight in the beautiful beaches and reefs and be fascinated by the islands’ mixture of races and cultures. And you may also enjoy the steel orchestras and calypso—the lively, catchy sound that has captured the imagination of young and old around the world.
Steel bands often play calypso melodies, but the calypso singer is usually accompanied by such instruments as the guitar, trumpet, saxophone, and drums.
[Pictures on page 24, 25]