Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



A song form native to Trinidad, originally improvised social commentary and a medium of poor people's information, from the West African praise singer (the traditional recorder of tribal history, commentator, celebrator, satirist). The terms 'calypso' and 'kaiso' are used interchangeably in Trinidad, where 'Kaiso!' is often heard in calypso tents as patrons wish to show approval: it probably comes from a West African Hausa term which depending on context can mean regret, triumph, contempt, etc. Possible derivations of 'calypso' include the West African 'kaiso', French patois 'carrousseaux', Spanish 'caliso', Virgin Islands topical song 'careso', etc. It first appeared c.1900 spelled 'calipso'. According to legend, the first 'chantwell', or singer of what became calypso, was a slave, Gros Jean, in the late 18th century.

Rhythms and melodies are predominantly African, but melodies were influenced by nearby Venezuela. identified in the early 20th century by 'pasillo' or 'paseo', a Venezuelan dance form. Music of French, Irish and English origin has also been incorporated; French was the basis of patois or Creole lyrics through 19th century. Veteran calypsonian Roaring Lion's book Calypso From France To Trinidad -- 800 Years Of History '87 controversially challenges the view that calypso in the strictest sense is of African origin; he argues that it derives from French 'ballade' (created in 1295), which was given pseudonym 'calypso' some time in 1900; 'There is no evidence', writes Lion, 'to support the claim that it is either a variant of African folk songs or that it was invented by African slaves in Trinidad. This belief is purely speculative.' Lion also asserts that only since Trinidad's Black Power revolt in 1970 has there been a desire to stress calypso's African roots.

After 1838, when slave apprenticeships ended, the annual Trinidad Carnival changed from a genteel aristocratic affair to a popular African-dominated festival, including masquerade or costumed bands; the season begins after Christmas and ends at midnight on Shrove Tuesday. In the 19th century, masquerade bands preparing for carnival used practice tents with bamboo supports, roofs of palm leaves, in the back yards of Port of Spain (capital of Trinidad); here the chantwell composed songs and practiced, with band members providing the chorus; on carnival days he led the band in the streets with the prepared choruses, but also improvising songs of praise, criticism, or challenge, prepared to do battle with rivals. At the turn of the century patois gave way to English, people moved from tent to tent to see what was happening, audiences gathered at rehearsals and tents began to charge admission. Calypsonian and railway ticket collector 'Chieftain' Walter Douglas (1895-1982) made the break in 1921, producing first recognizable calypso tent, completing the process of calypso's breaking away from the old masquerade band tradition: he replaced the palm roof with railway tarpaulins, kerosene flambeaux with gas lamps; erected a stage, provided rented chairs; printed tickets, handbills for railway passengers and employees; brought in an orchestra of flute, clarinet, cuatro, guitar, bass, occasionally violin, and a chorus. Shows are still called tents, though now using halls, cinemas etc as venues and touring the country during the season. Performers move from tent to tent looking for the best deal.

The first calypso records were made in 1914 when Victor visited the island; emigrants to the USA were recorded there throughout the 1920s, including Johnny Walker, Sam Manning, Wilmoth Houdini (1895-1973); local businessman Eduardo Sa Gomes sent Atilla the Hun and Roaring Lion to NYC to record in 1934 and continued sending artists to NYC annually after each season, expanding and cornering the record market. USA Decca and Bluebird also sent engineers with mobile recording units to Trinidad in the late 1930s. Records made in NYC were released in the UK in 1938 by Atilla, Lion, Lord Beginner, King Radio and Growling Tiger, but did not make much impact. Artists still record in NYC; a stable industry has not been established in Trinidad because of its seasonal nature: there were three recording studios there in the early 1980s, only Coral has survived (but a few more started from the late '80s). Most calypso records are released just before or during the season, though non-Trinidad and Tobago (T&T) artists will release records the previous year in time for other Caribbean festivals.

The first known calypso competition was in 1914, first national Calypso King contest 1939; the final of the competition run by T&T government-run National Carnival Commission (NCC) at Dimanche Gras shows on Carnival Sunday nights from 1958; on the inclusion of women contestants in 1978 the title changed to Calypso Monarch. The NCC panel of judges visits tents and selects semi-finalists who compete at Skinner Park in San Fernando a week before the big night; finalists compete against the reigning Monarch during Dimanche Gras show in Queens Park Savannah in Port of Spain, required to sing two songs, usually choosing one with a serious topic, one in a lighter vein. Winning is still regarded as a singular achievement ('title carries both the prestige and aesthetic relevance of a Grammy', wrote Daisann McLane in 1992), but there is controversy about the competitive element nowadays. The Road March is the 'people's choice', played by brass bands, steel orchestras and disc jockeys throughout T&T accompanying parades of costumed bands over the two-day climax of carnival, the emphasis on melody rather than lyrics; the Road March contest became official in 1962, though unofficial 'road marches' have been recorded back to '32. The Road March is thought to be derived from kalinda, an early song type which accompanied stick fighting. During the 1930s-40s 'Golden Age' names like Atilla, Lion and Tiger prevailed; Mighty Spoiler (1926-1960), Lord Melody (1926-1988) and Lord Kitchener (1922-2000) emerged post-WWII. A watershed year was 1956; since then Mighty Sparrow has more or less dominated and new generations emerged: Calypso Rose, Black Stalin, Mighty Chalkdust, Mighty Shadow during '60s-70s, Superblue (formerly Blue Boy), David Rudder and Tambu '80s.

During the '70s the modern form of soca began to emerge. In '86 for the first time the Young Kings, Calypso Monarch and Road March titles were held by the same composer/performer: Rudder challenged tradition by using his own name, a full-time working band (Charlie's Roots) and by allowing the influence of jazz and soul; he threatened to become a hero bigger than the genre by revitalizing the island's roots at time of economic and political crisis.

In 2008 Carribean and Floriday stations were playing 'Barack Obama' by Cocoa Tea and 'Barack The Magnificent' by Mighty Sparrow.