Calypso developed during the 19th century with roots in Trinidad’s Carnival. It grew out of the various styles of Carnival music, including ribald songs, traditional drumming and stick-fighting songs, first sung in French Creole and by the turn of the century sung in English.
These tunes were originally sung by chantwells, singers who led carnival masquerade bands in call and response in tents in the weeks leading up to Carnival and on the streets during Carnival itself. In the 1920s, calypso was transformed into a more ballad style of political and social commentary. The singers no longer led the masquerade bands performed in the tents as shows rather than rehearsals for the street carnival. A strong crop of calypso singers emerged in this period all taking on warrior like pseudonyms including Roaring Lion, Atilla the Hun, Lord Beginner, Growling Tiger, King Radio and Executor. These calypsonians wrote and sang sophisticated songs and performed in competing tents during the Carnival season of the ’30s.
Although a few calypsos were recorded in the first two decades of the 20th century, the major break came with the 1934 recording trip to New York after Carnival by Roaring Lion and Atilla the Hun. Their recording brought international notice to calypso and won respect at home. In addition to the recordings, Lion and Atilla were taken under the wing of Rudy Valle, who brought them important exposure at his New York nightclub and on his Saturday night radio broadcast. That session yielded two classics: Lion’s “Ugly Woman,” which was later featured in a Hollywood musical and rewritten into a rhythm-and-blues hit, and Atilla’s “Graf Zepplin,” a celebration of the airship coming to Trinidad in the fall of 1933, a song still sung today.
For the rest of the decade, calypsonians went to New York each year to record and numerous field trips were made to Trinidad. By 1938, Time proclaimed a calypso boom in the United States. However, it didn’t really seem to happen until the Andrews Sisters’ version of Lord Invaders’ “Rum and Coca Cola” became popular during World War II: Despite being banned from the radio, it was one of the best-selling records of the war era. This song was a watered-down version of a sharp commentary on the ill effects of the American presence in Trinidad during the war. Still, it provided enormous exposure to calypso and sparked even more interest that led to an increase of recordings in the United States and England as well as the increased travel of calypsonians to both locations.
In 1957, the Calypso album by Harry Belafonte sparked a short-term calypso craze in the United States and to a lesser extent around the world despite the fact that most of the album was not calypso. For six months, the American entertainment industry rushed out dozens of singles and albums and three movies were produced with calypso themes. A craze for calypso dancing was born and it caused many nightclubs to change their décor and seek out any calypsonians they could find. The craze fizzled out quickly but not before calypso had entered the music conscious of many people around the world.
In 1956 a young Trinidadian singer named the Mighty Sparrow declared, “Yankee gone, Sparrow take over now” in his hit song “Jean and Dinah,” referencing the declining presence of U.S. servicemen in the country after WWII. Sparrow all but took over calypso from leading lights like Lord Melody (with whom he had a delightful duel in song) and the comic genius Spoiler. He created a new sound and style, one that was more melodic and brought a new excitement to the calypso tents with memorable albums of great songs that were heard throughout the Caribbean.
The other great calypsonian of the time was Lord Kitchener who had gone to England in 1948 and was a major force during the Fifties with his recordings of calypsos were popular throughout the Caribbean and in Africa. With Independence, Lord Kitchener returned and the two led competing tents of great singers during a golden era of calypso in the ’60s and ’70s with other masters of the art form: Duke, Stalin, Cristo, Cypher, Chalkdust and others. In the late ’70s, a whole new style, soca, was created by Lord Shorty (aka Ras Shorty I), Shadow and others. These artists brought a range of influences, from Indian music to R&B, and melded them into a more dance-driven, less-lyric-oriented style that has since evolved quite a bit apart from calypso. More recently artists like David Rudder have created a unique style merging elements of calypso and soca, and new forms like rapso exert a strong influence.
In the last decade Extempo competitions have emerged, where calypsonians are asked to compose and sing on the spot on any subject. A master calypsonian like Gypsy has made this art form his own. Until the 1960s, there were few women singing calypsos but with pioneers like Calypso Rose and Singing Francine and current masters like Singing Sandra, the situation has changed and women sing many of the strongest calypsos.
In Trinidad the crowds at calypso tents are older and not as well attended as the large and younger-leaning soca fetes. Yet there are more calypso tents than ever, and they go on the road all over the country during the Carnival season. There are more competitions, and companies continue to have their own calypso contests. There are ongoing efforts to involve young people in singing calypso with youth tents, school events and competitions. Throughout the Caribbean, calypso is a major part of Carnival celebrations in Barbados, Antigua, St. Vincent and the Virgin Islands, while calypsos are sung each year at Carnivals outside the Caribbean, as in Caribana in Toronto and Notting Hill in England. —Ray Funk