CALYPSO MUSIC IN TRINIDAD AND TOBAGO
ORIGIN OF THE TERM 'CALYPSO'
The term 'calypso' arose after the art form had been in existence for sometime. Initially the majority of songs were sung in patois. However, during the turn of the century when the people of Trinidad were struggling with the fading of the French patois and the emerging dominance of English, many terms were simply anglicized. Thus the language of the music began to change and, according to some, so too did its name. There are in fact several theories and controversies surrounding the origin of the word. This discussion will focus on those versions outlined in the works of Daniel Crowley, Raymond Quevedo, Errol Hill and Hollis Liverpool.
Nobody seriously contends that it has anything to do with the Calypso of Greek mythology, though one commentator, after reviewing the various possible origins and conceding that "the name Calypso is a misnomer and bears no direct relation whatever to the folk music of Trinidad itself," does venture to add, "[…] it is still not certain that the English or Americans on coming to Trinidad and hearing the expression used for the folk music and feeling its enchanting effects did not misinterpret the word to mean ‘Calypso’ of Greek mythology."
The following are the main theories put forward over the years on the origins of the term Calypso:
- It came from the Carib word 'carieto,' meaning a joyous song, which itself evolved into 'cariso'.
- It originated from the French patois word 'carrousseaux' (which was originally from the archaic French word 'carrousse') meaning a drinking party or festivity. This word was later transformed into other variants, namely cariso, calyso and cayiso.
- It may have come from the Venezuelan/Spanish word 'caliso' which referred to a topical local song. ‘Caliso' has a similar meaning in St. Lucia;
- The word 'careso' also refers to a topical song but mainly in the Virgin Islands;
- It was derived from the West African (Hausa) term 'kaiso', itself a corruption of 'kaito', an expression of approval and encouragement similar to 'bravo'.
This last version is the derivation that has found the most favour. Hence we find Raymond Quevedo, the knowledgeable calypsonian of the early half of the 20th century, claiming that ‘kaiso’ was the first term he knew. It then evolved into 'calypso' via 'caliso,' 'rouso' and 'wouso'. This last term 'kaiso' has also survived alongside its derivation 'calypso' which, according to Errol Hill, first appeared as the term denoting the Trinidad Carnival song, only in 1900. ‘Kaiso’ is still used to show appreciation for a calypso that is well composed and executed. Thus Quevedo’s statement about 'kaiso' being used to describe the song when sung, as well as a means of expressing ecstatic satisfaction over what was, in the opinion of the audience, a particularly excellent 'kaiso', is still valid today.
The dual existence of an original word alongside its etymological derivative 'kaiso' is nothing new. Hence 'kaiso', in addition to its main role as indicator of appreciation and approval, is at times also used interchangeably for 'calypso'. In such a case, it has the connotation of 'genuine' calypso. Recently, there has been in some circles a favouring of the term 'kaisonian' to designate one who sings ‘genuine' calypsos, as opposed to 'calypsonian' for the run-of-the-mill. Be that as it may, the term 'calypso' as we know it is now well entrenched in contemporary vocabulary as evidenced by its definition in The Concise Oxford Dictionary:
- Calypso – a kind of West Indian music or song in syncopated African rhythm, typically with words improvised on a topical theme.
THE EVOLUTION OF CALYPSO MUSIC
THE RISE OF CALYPSO
Calypso has earned its place in history as the national folk song of Trinidad and Tobago and the music of the Caribbean after the emancipation of the slaves. However, even before emancipation there is evidence that the art form had begun its growth. Errol Hill, the noted Carnival historian, suggests that West African Tribal songs were the precursor to the calypso (57). Hollis Liverpool expands on this, adding that calypso had its roots in the West African custom of griot court singing (187). The griots usually sang songs of praise and derision and were storytellers. According to Liverpool (185), calypso contains characteristics of these West African songs including:
- The percussive rhythmic beats
- The call-and-response pattern
- Extemporaneous singing
It is believed that these songs were introduced during the French settlement of the island of Trinidad. Gros Jean, an African slave, is reputed to have been the first calypsonian, having been named ‘Mait Caiso’ (Master of Caiso) by the Diego Martin estate owner Begorrat in 1790 (Mitto Sampson qtd in Daniel Crowley: 61). In the early days, the songs were sung in patois, in the extempo genre and usually involved colourful and aggressive language. There was also the trading of insults among performers, a form called ‘Mepris’ that later developed into the ‘war calypsos’ (Liverpool: 192).
THE GOLDEN AGE OF CALYPSO
Over the last century, calypso has spread throughout the Caribbean and around the world. The year 1914 was a milestone in the history of this great indigenous musical artform. This was the year that the first calypso recording was made by the Victor Gramophone Company of New York. By the Second World War, the presence of American service men in Trinidad and Tobago ensured that calypso was propelled even further into the international arena. It was also during this period that the first recording studios were established in Trinidad (Hill: 56).
The late 1920s saw the rise of the first calypso tents. At that time, bamboo structures and tents were used as the venue for Calypsonians to practice and perform during the Carnival season. Today, calypso tents are housed in more permanent structures and showcase the new music of the Carnival season. By the next decade, the giants of calypso had begun their reign. Names such as Atilla the Hun, Lord Invader and the Roaring Lion stood out, but there were many others who were also making an unforgettable contribution to calypso music. Aldwin Roberts, the Lord Kitchener, proved to be one of the most prolific bards ever. He produced hundreds of calypsos from the 1940s until his death in 2001. 1956 saw the advent of the Mighty Sparrow with the now infamous and popular hit song Jean and Dinah. He followed this with many other memorable songs including Pay as You Earn, Federation, Ten to One is Murder, Mae Mae, and Dan is the Man. He continues to record today.
CALYPSO IN THE LATE 20TH CENTURY
The last thirty-five years has seen several changes in the calypso industry. Attempts have been made to encourage yearlong interest in calypso music by staging concerts outside of the Carnival season, however, this has not always been successful. Consequently, many artistes tour extensively, participating in the various Carnivals around the world, as well as other cultural events outside of Trinidad and Tobago. The art form itself has changed, spawning subgroups such as soca, rapso, chutney soca and ragga soca. This blending of various native rhythms has attracted a wider audience to the genre.
There has also been greater participation by women as evidenced by all-female concerts and tents. For many years men dominated the calypso world; so much so that its most prestigious competition was called the “Calypso King Competition” until 1978 when a woman (Calypso Rose) won it for the first time. It was then renamed the “Calypso Monarch Competition”. Calypso Rose, whose career spans over forty years, also won the Road March title on two occasions, 1977 and 1978. She has produced many notable hits such as Tempo, Her Majesty and Soca Jam, but Fire Fire is considered her signature tune. Her strides in the calypso world has opened the door for other female artistes such as Singing Francine, Denyse Plummer, Singing Sandra, and Abbi Blackman to name a few.
Today, some commentators suggest that the traditional calypso form is dying, while others claim that it is simply evolving. According to Errol Hill, calypso has remained current and popular on the local scene, constantly changing to meet the needs of the population. He adds that this is probably because every Carnival season a singer must offer at least two new songs. This relentless demand for new music keeps the songs topical and relevant but also places a great deal of pressure on the artiste to produce quality material. Hill notes, “Judged on the quantity alone, the output of calypsos in Trinidad and Tobago is staggering and appears to be increasing every year” (55).
ORIGINS OF SOCA
The soca genre emerged in the 1970s when calypsonian Lord Shorty (Garfield Blackman) began experimenting with East Indian rhythms, using instruments such as the dholak, tabla and dhantal and fusing them with the calypso beat. According to Alvin Daniel, Lord Shorty initially called this new beat ‘sokah’ (later changed to soca), declaring that it was the soul (so) of calypso (ca). Over the years, various commentators have questioned the meaning of the term soul in this context. Some claim that it refers to the soul music of the United States. King Wellington (a fellow calypsonian) for example, contends that Lord Shorty said “he was developing [a musical form that] was in fact a blend of soul music, calypso, East Indian and African rhythms” (qtd in Bowman Mix 6). Alternatively, others such as Alvin Daniel suggest that it alludes to the spiritual aspect of the music (Bowman Mix 6).
THE FATHER OF SOCA
Whatever the true significance, Lord Shorty is considered to be the ‘Father of Soca’. His 1973 hit Indrani is regarded as the first soca recording. Born in Lengua Village, Princes Town on October 6, 1941, he rose to fame in the 1960s with the song Cloak and Dagger. His popularity increased in the 1970s with albums such as Endless Vibrations and The Love Man. He covered a wide variety of musical themes, including the risqué The Art Making Love, the controversial Om Shanti and the topical Money Eh No Problem.
By the early 1980s, Shorty had become disillusioned by the trends in soca music commenting that it was not being used to “uplift the spirits of the people” (Joseph 48). Soon after, he underwent a spiritual conversion, abandoning material things and moving into the Piparo forest with his family. He later adopted the name Ras Shorty I and began recording in a novel musical genre called jamoo (jah music) which contained themes and rhythms reflecting his spirituality. In 1997, he recorded the anti-drug song, Watch Out My Children that became one of the most popular tunes of his career. Ras Shorty I died on July 12, 2000 of multiple myeloma (a type of bone marrow cancer).
Today, soca has become one of the most popular sub-genres of calypso, spawning its own sub-groups, chutney soca and ragga soca. Its high-energy beat has attracted the young and the young at heart. Early practitioners such as Chris ‘Tambu’ Herbert and Blue Boy (later SuperBlue) have given way to a whole new generation of singers such as Iwer George, Machel Montano, Destra Garcia and Faye-Ann Lyons just to name a few. Soca has survived the criticism of the traditionalist and grown into a massive industry, effectively taking over the Carnival party scene and the Road March arena.
Rapso is a style of poetry, blended with calypso that expresses the experiences of everyday people. The late Lancelot Layne is one of the persons credited with the creation of this genre. His songs Blow Away and Get off the Radio are among the first examples of recorded rapso music.
In the 1980s Brother Resistance (also known as Lutalo Makossa Masimba) together with his group the Network Riddum Band further developed this form of musical poetry. Some of his best known songs include: Tonight is De Night, Ring De Bell, Mother Earth, and Handclapping Song. In recent years other artistes such as 3 Canal, Kindred and Black Lyrics have adopted this musical form.
Below is an excerpt from the book Rapso Explosion written by Brother Resistance which describes the origins of rapso.
A NEW POETIC VIBRATION FROM TRINIDAD AND TOBAGO
RAPSO can be defined as a new progression of poetry created to relate to the everyday experience of the people (everyday people/street people/working people).
RAPSO is a network of rhythms (riddum) where the rhythms of the voice blend with African drums (first manmade instrument on earth) and the rhythms of the steel drum/pan (last natural instrument created on earth by man). This is foundation RAPSO. Eventually a musical form evolved from this rhythmic foundation and stringed instruments were blended.
RAPSO is the power of the word/the rhythm of the word, the truth and the light, and therefore pure RAPSO is the living experience of the voice. It is the vocal manifestation of the hopes and fears, visions and aspirations of a people struggling for true liberation.
RAPSO is a unique style of street poetry from Trinidad and Tobago which draws on the musical experience of the Shango/the Kaiso (Calypso) and robber-talk (a Carnival Theatre) / The Steelband. Some have described it as Soka-Poetry or Poetry-in-Soka, but the Rapso Poet has resisted all such labels. "Rapso" is a term originally coined by Network Riddum Band of East Dry River, Trinidad.
RAPSO has its historical roots in the ancient African traditions of the GIROT. Therefore the practitioner of Rapso is considered as the vessel of speech, the storehouse of knowledge and history, the teacher and communicator for this new generation. The rapso poet—man, woman, person—is one who lives and practices the art of RAPSO. RAPSO is living street theatre.
Source: Brother Resistance. Rapso Explosion. London: Karia Press, 1986.
In January 2000, as part of the millenium celebration, the Trinbago Unified Calypsonians Organization (TUCO) announced two lists of eminent calypsos and calypsonians:
THE TOP 200 CALYPSOS OF THE 20th CENTURY
THE TOP 50 CALYPSONIANS OF THE 20th CENTURY