From the sugar fields to the carnival

A brief history of Calypso
carnival in frederick street illustrated london news,1888

“…all Caribbeans know, more or less intuitively that in the final analysis, the only sure possession the undertow of history has left them is their paradoxical culture.” – Antonio Benitez Rojo

Out of the ashes, we rise.

Darkness will always make way for the dawn, and just as mother nature defies logic and shoots fresh grass from beneath concrete, the human spirit endures. Drawing on these principles, we observe the most famous musical genre coming out of the Caribbean – Calypso.

The diversity of the music in the region is hinged on the influence of our enslaved ancestors as well as the external forces that impressed upon the society over time.

Music plays a significant role in the construct of cultural identity. As one of the most complex forms of human cultural expressions, music epitomises a culture’s most fundamental values. During the dark times of slavery, Africans rose up together and cried out, drawing on the culture from which they were uprooted, mixing it with their new surroundings, and creating harmonies which told the story that was being created for them.

Native to Trinidad and Tobago, Calypso has spread and become quintessential of the wider Caribbean region. According to legend, the first ‘chantwell’, or singer of the genre was a Trinidad slave, Gros Jean, in the late 18th century. The term ‘Calypso’ came to describe the artform after it had been in existence for sometime on the slave plantations, where enslaved Africans fused the language of their French captors with their own languages to form Trinidadian Creole or Patois. There were many precursors to the term. Some claim that it came from the Kalinago word ‘carieto,’ which means a joyous song, some say it came from the Spanish word ‘caliso,’ which refers to a topical local song, and others that it was adopted from the Yoruba term ‘kaiso,’ or ‘kaito,’ which is an expression of approval. However, Calypso survived as the favoured derivation, and now, in Calypso tents in Trinidad and Tobago you will still hear patrons shouting “kaiso! kaiso,” from the audience when lyrical magnificence touches them.

With the abolition of slavery in 1838, Trinidad Carnival became less about the aristocratic class and transformed into an African-dominated festival where proud masquerades displayed specially designed costumes to imitate the gentility of the former masters. Calypso is fluid and overtime became more anglicised.

As society shifted, so too did the genre. There was movement from its roots in melodious rebellion. The 19th century saw calypsonians starting to compete with their songs as the genre emerged into a national form of artistic expression. Audiences now gathered for calypso shows at the turn of the century and the first known calypso competition took place in 1914. Today, Trinidad and Tobago is still considered to be the hub for the major Calypso competitions. Caribbean people, and the many tourists who come from countries such as Germany, Japan, Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom, attend the annual Calypso shows during the Carnival season. It all leads up to Dimanche Gras (Grand Sunday), where finalists compete for the reigning Monarch position.

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The 1930s – 1940s is widely considered to be the ‘Golden Age’ of Calypso. Calypsonians such as Atilla the Hun, Roaring Lion and Growling Tiger commanded the stage. The Mighty Spoiler, Lord Melody, and Lord Kitchener prevailed post-WWII. These calypsonians set the stage for those to come who would take Calypso to the global audience. The Mighty Sparrow dominated during the landmark 1950s in Calypso, and since then Calypso Rose, Black Stalin, Mighty Chalkdust reigned in the1960s -1970s and David Rudder continued into the 1980s.

The Mighty Stalker, in his book, “The True History of Calypso,” stated that what makes Calypso special is “our language. Some calypsoes have been written and the person listening has to unfold the  lyrics because they sometimes have double meanings. Some of the phrasing of the calypsoes are misunderstood by foreigners and they tend to interpret them differently (than a native Caribbean person would).” Each Caribbean country has its own dialect, and this may add to the appeal. The Calypsonian drew reference to an example of Trinidadian dialect and English in a song by the Roaring Lion:

English – If you can’t stand the zinging, please give me back my shilling

Roaring Lion – If yuh kyah stan de zinging gih mih back mih shilling.

Trinidadian Creole is now used heavily in Calypso to make the local stories ring clear and true. For foreigners, it may take a couple plays before the song is understood, but there is a lot to learn about the culture in the end.

The calypsonian delivers well-scripted words on current issues, sometimes in the form of satire. The singer is accompanied by a host of instruments, most notably the flute, clarinet, cuatro, trumpet, guitar, and bass. He or she is also traditionally backed by a chorus of singers who help echo the politically and socially relevant story. Essentially, being taken from their native land and placed on new ground, our ancestors developed counterhegemonic strategies toward elimination of their political and economic subordination and exploitation. In this struggle, aspects of expressive culture such as music – in this case Calypso – function as a highly effective and critically symbolic means of vindication.

Calypsonians sing on a wide array of topics, often taking a whimsical approach to an important subject, exhibiting how a major mark of Caribbean independence is revealed in our language and interpretation of such. This is a key characteristic of the genre and the performer. They sing about the public, on religious leaders, political leaders, international events or personalities, on the British monarchy, and even inspirational topics.

Even so, as we see in the lyrics of the Mighty Sparrow’s famous Jean and Dinah, “the yankees gone and Sparrow take over town,” Calypso still retains a certain level of resistance to outside forces which may seek to establish power.

To this day, Calypso is largely a form of social commentary on topical issues in the country. For instance, Singing Sandra’s Crying Voices from the Ghetto, reflects on the lament of the impoverished strata of Trinidadian society, where “Cupboard always bare and scanty, ten people in a one-bedroom shanty. Forced to sell on the pavement. No vacancies, no employment.” Similarly, the Mighty Shadow shares the stories of citizens facing dire situations in “Poverty is Hell,” singing “Wake up in the morning and the baby cry. The sugar pan empty, the milk bottle dry. The little boy child on the mango tree. The mango green, hurting up his belly.

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From the viewpoint of cultural history, Calypso has played a very important role in processes of confrontation, revolution, and revival in the Caribbean, as well as the invention and establishment of the Caribbean identity and heritage. Through this genre of music, African slaves crafted a way to describe their struggle at the hand of oppressors, Caribbean people tell the stories of the layman in society, and even today, the music is used as a uniting force across the region. Through the poetry that is Calypso, Caribbean people continue to pull together a collective culture, lifting it up, with hope that it will not be seen as nothing more than a downgraded identity.

Whatever happens you can be sure, we will sing about it.

From the sugar fields to the carnival
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Dizzanne Billy is a Content Creator, Social Media Manager, and Digital Marketing professional. She is an Outreach and Communications Officer at Climate Tracker and a youth leader in the field of environmental activism. Dizzanne graduated from the University of the West Indies with an MSc. in Global Studies, focusing her research on global environmental governance. She is passionate about writing, environmental advocacy, and travel.
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