Full Disclosure
July 11, 2008
Festival and music

The Caribbean is home to a number of music genres that share certain characteristics. These genres are united by an Afro-Caribbean heritage, in recent time a slight East Indian blend, a vocal emphasis on rhythmic, alliterative and rhyming texts, with political, erotic, satirical or humorous tones.{{more}}

Calypso is one such kind of West Indian music or song in syncopated African rhythm, typically with words improvised on a topical theme. Puns, plays on words, and allusions are common. They use rhythms derived from West Africa, with cut time, and feature dance as an important component. At least that may be more accurately referred to as calypso in its purest form.

The term ‘calypso’ arose after the art form had been in existence for some time. Initially, the majority of songs were sung in patois. However, during the turn of the century, when the people of Trinidad and Tobago were struggling with the fading of the French patois and the emerging dominance of English, many terms were simply anglicized. Thus the language of the music began to change.

Some of the genres present in the Caribbean are competitive and are performed at Carnival or other celebrations. Calypso has formed the base for a high level of competition during carnival activities throughout our region, and by the same token it is one of the well-studied sections of our musical varieties. Since calypso became a major part of international popular music in the mid-20th century, the words geographic connotations have varied. Calypso’s roots were frequently ascribed to the Bahamas, Jamaica, Bermuda or the Virgin Islands. This process accelerated with the popularization of calypso and can be traced back to at least 1859, when a visiting ornithologist in Trinidad and Tobago ascribed calypso’s origins in British ballads. Some scholars have concluded that calypso’s roots can be traced across the Caribbean and beyond, from the Bahamas to mainland South America; others, however, consider it an exclusively Trinidadian phenomenon, since exported to all of these places.

The fundamental disagreement is over the nature of calypso itself. Caribbean Creole cultures share a common heritage that mixes several mostly interrelated African groups with British, French and other European cultures, and the indigenous societies of the Caribbean basin. Many elements of what is now considered calypso can be traced back to the time when these cultures began mixing, and evolving into distinct song forms which spread to other parts of the Caribbean music area, and thus musical influences and developments were traded in all directions. Trinidad’s contribution to this tradition came to be called calypso. To what precise degree these other song forms can be considered influenced by calypso, or vice versa, rather than simply originating from a similar mix of cultures, is probably unknowable, given the lack of detailed musicological data from the relevant period. However, it is clear that they share common relations and have influenced each other in many ways and directions.

Both calypso and steel pan were imported into Saint Vincent and the Grenadines quite quickly. From inception, calypso’s political lyrics have continued to be an important part of this genre of music. In a politically charged environment, there is even a greater propensity for more songs to take a sharp political bashing which in some cases justifiably is a representation of the sentiments in some groupings.

The idea that music can influence people’s thinking or lifestyle goes back many centuries. The fear that music potentially has this power has always lurked in the back of the minds of the powers that be. This fear of music as a social influence is better understood if you agree that politics and religion can shape the overall psyche of any given culture. We all accept cultural principles which are drilled into our minds at a very early age.

Once in a while a creative songwriter comes along and shocks the world with revealing lyrics that challenge the common thinking and stimulate compelling conversation. Regardless of the message, a song with communicative lyrics and a unique melody stands a better chance of being timeless than a song with incidental lyrics and a bland melody. Every song needs to have its own identity. That is what makes it memorable and powerful enough to evoke memories. May our songwriters and singers continue their attempt to raise the bar as we all look forward to hearing songs that can make a strong contribution to our society.

Saboto Caesar is a Lawyer and Unity Labour Party Senator.