A brief guide to Calypso music

Origins

The dulcet, exotic sounds of calypso originated in the Caribbean island of Trinidad and Tobago in the 19th century. It derived from the West African Kaiso music tradition and the arrival of French planters and their slaves from the French Antilles in the 18th century. Often led by a “griot” (a West African storyteller/bard/musician), the slaves would sing songs mocking their masters in French creole.

The sound

The music itself is characterised by highly rhythmic, harmonic vocals and breezy melodies, which are usually played on traditional folk instruments such as the guitar and banjo as well as various percussion instruments like steelpans.

The context

Despite its joyous and vibrant sound, calypso music is in fact very politically charged, and has been frequently used as a form of protest. The lyrics would challenge the authorities and address social issues such as racial segregation and corruption, pushing the boundaries of free speech. Unlike the American folk tradition which tends to steer clear of political matters, it’s quite common for calypsonians to speak to politicians directly through their songs, often offering solutions to the problems in question.

Golden era

Calypso entered its golden era in the 1920s and 1930s with the arrival of first commercial recordings and the introduction of first major calypso stars to international audiences. Among them were artists such Attila the Hun, Lord Invader and Lord Kitchener.

Lord Invader’s 1944 song “Rum and Coca-Cola” became a huge hit in America when it was covered in a highly watered down version by the Andrews Sisters, despite its heavy subject matter of prostitution near a US naval base in Trinidad.

"Drinkin' rum and Coca-Cola Go down Point Koomahnah Both mother and daughter Workin' for the Yankee dollar"

Mainstream culture

Calypso became a truly worldwide craze when Harry Belafonte scored his first US hit with “Day-O” (“The Banana Boat Song”)—a reworked traditional Jamaican folk song.

Years later, it drummed up some interest when Tim Burton’s 1988 film Beetlejuice was released, featuring Belafonte's "Jump In The Line” and “The Banana Boat Song” on the soundtrack.

Another famous example is The Little Mermaid and its Oscar-winning song “Under the Sea,” featuring the unmistakable use of the chirpy steelpans—the national instrument of Trinidad and Tobago—and mellow harmonies.