History of Calypso Music

Let's take a look at the history of calypso music. Where did this genre of music orginate?

Calypso has strong African roots. Its rhythms can be traced back to West African Kaiso and the arrival of African slaves in the West Indies in the 1600's. These slaves, brought to toil on sugar plantations, were stripped of all connections to their homeland and family and not allowed to talk to each other. They used calypso to mock the slave masters and to communicate with each other.

Many early calypsos were sung in French Creole by an individual called a griot. As calypso developed, the role of the griot became known as a chantuelle and eventually, calypsonian.

The first recording of calypso music was an instrumental by a band called Lovey's Orchestra in 1912. The first vocal recording of a calypso was made in 1914 when the Duke of Iron teamed up with Jules Sims.

The 1920's saw the arrival of Calypso Tents. Originally Calypso tents were actually tents made with poles and covered with any material available that would provide shelter from the rain, usually palm tree branches. Today calypso tents are showcases for the new music of Carnival seasons and is held in community centres or auditoriums with comfortable seating. The first calypso tent in Trinidad was the Railway Douglas Tent which opened its doors for business in Port-of-Spain in 1921.

The history of calypso music

In the 1930s in particular, calypso was strongly impacted by American popular songs and jazz music. During this era, all calypso music was recorded in new York. The 1920s and 1930s were known for outstanding calypsonians like Attila the Hun, Lord Beginner, Lord Caresser, Lord Executor, Mighty Growler, Wilmoth Houdini, Lord Invader, Roaring Lion, King Radio, Growling Tiger, Duke of Iron, Macbeth the Great, Mighty Destroyer, Chieftain Douglas and Gorilla.

One of the greatest calypsonians ever, Lord Kitchener (Aldwyn Roberts) rose to prominence in the 1940s. He dominated calypso music until the late 1970s and continued to make memorable hits until his death in 2001. Lord Kitchener was known as the "Grandmaster" of calypso. By the time of his death, only the Mighty Sparrow and the Roaring Lion had reached a comparable level of respect.

In 1944, a cover version of Lord Invader's hit Rum and Coca Cola was done by an American trio, the Andrews Sisters. Since then the United States and the world has identified calypso music with the Caribbean.

In 1956, Harry Belafonte recorded a Calypso album featuring the famous Banana Boat Song ("Day-O"). Today, this is probably the most internationally well known calypso song. The album also became the first album ever to sell over one million copies. That same year the Mighty Sparrow burst onto the scene and took the calypso world by storm with his hit Jean and Dinah. This legendary hit, which celebrated the departure of US troops from Trinidad, ushered in a new era of political calypso.

While calypso music has been largely male-dominated, the 1960s saw the rise of Calypso Rose, rated as the "Queen of Calypso." One of her biggest releases is the 1996 hit Fire In Me Wire.

The history of calypso music

The 1970s saw a slow decline of calypso music. Calypso was said to be dying and reggae was the in thing. This prompted Trinidadian musician, Lord Shorty to experiment with calypso rhythms in an effort to create a different type of music. He combined Indian musical instruments like the dholak, tabla, and dhantal with traditional calypso music and it resulted in a new, energetic hybrid called Soca. While Calypso is the voice of social conscience, Soca is largely party music. Other forms include chutney-soca and rapso.

Although Soca music is more popular and more commercially viable than Calypso music in the Caribbean today, Calypso continues to play a major part in Carnival celebrations around the Caribbean. Every year competitions are held across the islands and Calypso monarchs are crowned. Despite a decline, the artform appears to be alive and well.

Listen to Calypso music here.

Related Reading

History of Soca Music

History of the Steel Drum

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