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).