Last week I posted a video which a number of you seemed to enjoy. I thought this week I'd polish up a post from the first couple of months of this blog. Today I'll share a little bit about Calypso music, which was born in Trinidad.
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. True Calypso music has an edge to it and offers incisive social commentary or political observations.
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. Caribbean slave masters prohibited talking in the fields but permitted singing, not realizing the songs were not mere amusement, but part of a 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 introduced "Carnival" to Spanish Trinidad. The Brits later gained control and disapproved of such raucous celebration. They foolishly thought banning bamboo bands, music, and Carnival itself would put an end to the riotous behavior. However, 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 during a bit of freedom since few slave masters cared to be around burning cane fields. Under lax supervision, the slaves sang the rowdiest songs and gave full voice to their opinions of their masters and the conditions at the time. Suggestive dancing as a flagrant form of rebellion also figured quite prominently and became a well entrenched in the style.
At the beginning of the 20th century, among semi-literate peoples, Calypso 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 ways print never would have permitted. In the 1940's Aldwyn Roberts (Lord Kitchener) emerged as a Calypso artist. He continued to perform until his death in 2001 and is considered by many to be the greatest calypsonian for his longevity, commentary, encouragement of younger musicians, and development of a worldwide audience for the form.
Today, calypso continues to offer humorous, often highly critical views of current events, but reflects the more widespread popularity of the genre and the migration of Caribbean people. Calypso in Trinidad is often regarded as an expression of the Afro-Trini mindset. This has led to the development in more recent years of the chutney style of Calypso, which gives the perspective of the large Indo-Trini population. Soca music, which is less concerned with social commentary but maintains the calypso rhythms in a more danceable style, has also evolved from Calypso, as has Rapso music, which blends hip-hop and urban styles with a Caribbean flavor.
Now all yuh get on bad an' lemme see yuh wine dem hips to some true Calypso music!