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"Some say that in India they sing a calypso when they're charming cobra. Some say that Elisha sang a calypso in the chariot of fire. A fellow said 'If you please, it was sung by Espinoza and Socrates.' And Hannibal sang a calypso when crossing the Alps to meet Scipio.' But I told them, 'No, no, no, no.' Trinidad is the Land of Calypso"

-- Roaring Lion

A Brief History of Calypso

Calypso is one of the many musical forms that resulted from the collision of African and European cultures in the World. It evolved from a concatenation of Kalinda, a Yoruba call-and-response type chant, with French ballad and Spanish string band music. Due to the banning of drums during the era of slavery, Trinidadian music did not maintain the vigorous drumming traditions that survived elsewhere - notably in Brazil and Cuba. Instead, the emphasis was more on the melodic and lyrical side although, needless to say, it still retained a strong rhythmical element.

Calypso grew out of the songs that were sung during carnival. After the abolition of slavery in 1830, Carnival was a boisterous and often violent affair with gangs of stick fighters competing with each other and also with the police. On more than one occasion it degenerated into out-and-out riot and was often banned.

Kalinda was sung as an accompaniment to the stick fighting. Beginning as a jamette, underclass appropriation of the Mardi Gras celebrations of the plantation owners, Carnival gradually became more respectable as more and more middle-class Trinidadians began to take part. By the turn of the century, the original French Creole patois was giving way to English as the language of calypso and the songs were more often in eight line verses rather than the more rudimentary four lines of the so-called road marches. Mastery of English was seen as a sign of sophistication and calypsonians vied with each other to cram as many polysyllabic words into their songs as possible.

The institution of the calypso tent was another factor in the development of calypso as an 'indoor' music to be listened to. The 'Golden Age of Calypso' was undoubtedly in the 1930's and 40's when Lord Executor, Atilla the Hun, The Growling Tiger, Lord Beginner, King Radio and The Roaring Lion, to name only the most prominent, were all in their prime. The subject matter of their songs was usually topical and even when dealing with serious topics such as social injustice they were usually humorous as well. F.D. Roosevelt's state visit to the island, or the particular calypsonian's problems with women might equally well be the subject of a calypso. The bands that accompanied the singers usually consisted of guitar, double bass, violin, trumpet and clarinet and they played in a style somewhat akin to Dixieland jazz - another element to enter the calypso melting pot. Recordings were made and calypso became briefly popular in America, Britain and even West Africa. There was a brief resurgence in the popularity of calypso after the Second World War when the Andrews Sisters had a big hit with Lord Invader's Rum and Coca Cola but this was a safe and sanitised sort of calypso.

The history of calypso does not end here (the entire career of the legendary Mighty Sparrow is still to come for example) but as in just about every other aspect of life the Second World War seems to mark the end of an era. It would be misleading to see this past era as being an age of innocence or even of excellence but the elusive charm of old time calypso, both musically and lyrically, has a distinct character which differentiates it from post-war calypso. Thankfully it has been preserved and remains to delight further generations.

-- Peter Ridsdale

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