Calypso Instruments - Instruments Used In Calypso Music

Let's take a look at calypso instruments. What instruments are used in calypso music?

When calypso music started in the West Indies in the eighteen hundreds, the music was played on skin drums. In 1884 skin drums were banned by the government in an effort to stop calypso (which was protest music). This hardly stopped the Calypsonians. They just started making instruments out ofbamboo. They cut different lengths of bamboo and formed what they called tamboo bamboo bands. 

The bamboo was later banned by the government, claiming that it encouraged violence, but this didn't stop the Calypsonians from playing. Other instruments used at the time included stringed instruments, maracas and bottle-and-spoon.

In the 1930s, Calypsonians began making instruments out of metal objects. They would make their own instruments out of the bottoms (pans) of shipping containers, paint cans and garbage cans. By the end of the 1930s there were bands made up only of pans. These bands were called steelbands. Pans were made out of 55-gallon oil drums. Pans could play an entire scale and could specialize in bass, harmony, melody or rhythm.

The steel pan (wrongly called steel drum) is the only acoustic instrument invented in the twentieth century. It is the national instrument of Trinidad and Tobago.

calypso instruments - steel pan

Some steelbands limit their instruments to steel pans, percussion and drums. The instruments are usually all acoustic. Different kinds of steel pans are used such as a tenor pan, double tenor pan, seconds pans, guitar pan, and cello pan. Then there's what is called an engine room comprising of percussion instruments like conga drums, grater and cowbells, plus a drum set.

Nowadays, in some bands, only one or two players play the pan, accompanied by electronic instruments like guitar, bass, keyboards, and a drum machine, or drum set.

At calypso tents and calypso competitions what calypso instruments are used? Instruments include a brass section comprising of tenor saxophone, alto saxophone, trumpets and trombone. The rhythm section includes guitar, keyboards, bass, drums and percussion instruments like cowbell and conga. Percussion instruments often include an old tyre rim or piece of metal.

Today, as a cost saving measure, sometimes brass instruments are not used in calypso music. They are substituted by keyboard brass tones. This is very typical of certain calypso recordings. Not having live brass instruments in a song means that you don't have to pay players to play the instruments. This can significantly reduce the cost of production/recording. In soca music, which is a hybrid of calypso music, increasingly the brass instruments are taken out altogether.

Typical calypso instruments are the trumpet, trombone, flute, saxophone, bass guitar, Spanish guitar, conga, bongos, steelpan, violin, maracas, cuatro, concertina, bamboo sticks, glass bottle/spoon, claves, and jawbone. Nowadays, calypso music is changing a great deal to incorporate all kinds of instruments.

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