Tuesday, November 01, 2005
When I started this blog I gave you a taste of Trinidad, defined 'liming' shared a lime with you and gave you a bit of history on steel pans. The steel pan is the national instrument of Trinidad and Tobago. The musical style that was born in Trinidad is calypso. You'll find calypso and related musical forms across the Caribbean but Trinidad was the womb and is the home of the most noted calypsonians.
Now before you start humming 'Jamaica Farewell' or the 'Banana Boat Song' let's get one thing straight. Dat ain't calypso, boy! It has a calypso beat, but beat alone does not a true calypso make. No disrespect to Harry Belafonte, but it his stuff too polished, too tame, too benign, too bland to be the real article. It is a watered down version of what began as a way for slaves to communicate when it was forbidden for them to speak.
Like so many Caribbean islands, Trinidad was populated by slaves to work the sugar plantations. Most of the slaves came from West Africa where a musical form called Kaiso was commonly used by griots, or story tellers, to pass news, history, and folklore. Slave masters prohibitted talking in the fields not realizing the songs they permitted were not mere amusement, but part of the elaborate grapevine passing news and sharing both scathing and humorous observations on the masters and ruling classes. Calypso is still sometimes referred to as Kaiso.
The French had introduced 'Carnival' to Spanish Trinidad. The staid Brits disapproved of such bachanalia when they gained control of the island. Just like the couldn't keep the rhythm from going on when they banned bamboo bands and drums, they couldn't keep a good song and party down. When sugar cane is harvested the fields are first set afire in what the French called 'cannes brulees' and what the local patois morphed into 'canboulay.' Carnival may have been banned but while the fields were burning the slaves celebrated canboulay with dancing and song. They were afforded a bit of freedom since few slave masters cared to be among the burning fields. Under lax supervision, the slaves sang the rowdiest songs with the most cutting assessments of the local masters, colonizers and social conditions. In addition to commentary, songs with more than slightly risque lyrics became popular as well. Grinding hip motions and shocking topics predated Elvis considerably. The musical tradition expanded and became further entrenched.
At the beginning of the 20th century, among semi-literate peoples, calyspo was still one of the most common ways to spread news of current events. It was considered reliable and it pushed the limits of free speech with its denunciation of local and British politicians. In the 1940's Aldwyn Roberts AKA Lord Kitchener came to the forefront of Calypso. Considered by many to be the greatest calypsonian for his longevity, artistry, and commentary, he continued to compose and perform enthusiastically until his death in 2001. He encouraged the development of younger musicians and carried calypso across the Caribbean, to the USA, the UK, and West Africa gaining a fan base across the world.
Today, calypso continues to offer humorous, often highly critical views of current events, but with a broader scope that reflects the more widespread popularity of the genre and the migration of Caribbean people. New forms such as the less socially aware but somewhat more danceable 'soca', and the 'rapso' style which blends hip-hop with calypso have become popular. Calypso in Trinidad has a strong association with pro-African sentiment which at times has left the large Indo-Trini population feeling left out. The response has been the development of the 'chutney' style of calypso which mimics the musical patterns of calypso but allows for greater expression of the Indo-Trinidadian viewpoint.
Now all yuh get on bad an' lemme see yuh wine dem hips to some true calypso!