Calypso is a Caribbean music genre that emerged in Trinidad and Tobago in the 19th century. It grew out of traditions developed by enslaved West Africans, called kaiso, who sang mocking songs about their plantation masters.
The first calypso stars were rogue figures like Lord Kitchener, who toured in a tent and released songs that often satirized colonialism. Then came Harry Belafonte, whose famous 1956 song “Day-O” (aka the Banana Boat Song) was based on a Jamaican folk song.
Since the 1920s and 30s, when the first commercial recordings were made, Calypso has been an essential medium for political commentary. The lyrics, often narrating current events and the socio-political climate, would challenge authorities and speak to politicians directly. They addressed issues like corruption (as in Lord Invader’s “Rum and Coca-Cola”), racial segregation and abuse of civil liberties (as seen in the song “Commissioner’s Report” by Attila the Hun), and even censorship (like the subject of Roaring Lion’s “King Radio’s Sedition Law”).
After World War II, when many Caribbean artists began to record in New York, they shifted their focus from Trinidadian politics to more universal themes. Harry Belafonte’s “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” and Lord Kitchener’s “Don’t Stop the Carnival” both became global hits, bringing Calypso to a much wider audience. In the postwar era, the rise of fast and affordable airline travel allowed Americans to explore the Caribbean more, where they discovered the joyous sounds of Calypso.
Calypso music played by Caribbean station Brooklyn, NY, is carefree and lighthearted on the surface but often serves up profound, even subversive, messages. The genre’s focus on social commentary and satire is rooted in the Caribbean struggle for emancipation.
Enslaved Africans used this sly form of resistance to mock their enslavers and challenge colonialism. The sly lyrics accompanied a new instrument that replaced the kalinda drum—the steel pan. Made from oil barrels turned upside down, the pan has small areas pounded to different thicknesses that create notes when hit with wood or metal sticks.
The humorous style of the genre extends to the names and stage personas of calypso artists. For example, Lord Kitchener’s 1948 song “Windrush” referenced the exile of Caribbean families sent to England during World War II. The song was a protest against colonialism and was covered by Harry Belafonte, who popularized Calypso in the United States with his hit “Day-O” (The Banana Boat Song). The fun and lighthearted energy of this genre makes it perfect for parties, Carnival, or just a day of relaxation.
While Calypso may have a reputation outside the Caribbean as carefree and frivolous, the genre is one of the most politically charged musical traditions. This is in part due to its roots in the struggle for emancipation.
Developed from West African kaiso and the music masquerade away, or canboulay, Calypso became a platform for social commentary through praise, satire, and lament. It also became a way to mock enslavers and, in turn, grew into a popular tradition at the annual Carnival celebration of pre-Lent.
Censorship was common in the early days of Calypso, so artists would find ways to sneak songs past editors using a variety of tricks. Sex, scandal, gossip, and insulting other Calypsonians were just a few of the ways musicians slipped lyrics past censors.
In the 1970s, musician Lord Shorty breathed new life into Calypso with a genre he called Soca. Soca is a fusion of traditional Calypso with other musical trends, including funk, soul, and Indian music. Soca continues to thrive today, with stars like Aldwyn Roberts (Lord Kitchener), Roaring Lion, and Attila the Hun all reaching worldwide fame for their hits.
It’s a Form of Resistance
Modern Calypso evolved from West African jail traditions carried to Trinidad by enslaved people, who used songs as a way of preserving history and genealogies while offering social commentary and mocking their enslavers. Calypso carries on this legacy and is often a critical voice in the political landscape of Trinidad and Tobago, critiquing hegemonic sets of current values, e.g., the indulgent nature of public transportation as noted in Jean and Dinah by Mighty Sparrow, or the low IQ of children who leave college with “elementary knowledge,” as stated in Chalkdust’s I Can’t Bury Eric Williams song.
Lord Kitchener challenged colonialism in his 1948 hit Windrush, which spoke to the exile of Caribbean families sent to England after World War II. The Andrews Sisters’ 1944 Rum and Coca-Cola became a hit in America despite its criticism of the rise of prostitution near American naval bases on the island. And when you listen to Soca, the up-tempo descendant of Calypso, you hear a sped-up form of Calypso that is a fusion of African rhythm and Indian scales.