Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot
Fighting in the captain’s tower
While calypso singers laugh at them
And fishermen hold flowers
– Bob Dylan, from “Desolation Row”
The Culture and Style of Calypso.
I’ve said plenty about Guyana’s literature. I haven’t meanwhile neglected my favorite art form as a way of understanding my new home. Even before I arrived in this country, I heard hundreds of Guyanese songs on Spotify, Youtube, and on CDs summoned from the music collections of the Greater Kansas City area public libraries. And I guess it has taken me this long of being immersed in those sounds – calypso, reggae, soca, chutney, mento and more – to gather my thoughts well enough to have anything to say on the vast topic of the music of Guyana and the West Indies.
A librarian should be able to classify calypso and distinguish it from other styles of music, but I still find myself at a loss for where to begin. A song may be worth a thousand such words, and this song represents a revered master calypsonian, Mighty Sparrow, in his prime while typifying much about the whole genre.
Listeners will recognize the distinctive rhythms, the Caribbean instrumentation combined with a brass section, and the creole dialect. What may be less apparent but just as essential to calypso is the primacy of the calypsonian’s persona: the aristocratic sobriquet, the self-referential style throughout, the off-the-cuff immediacy of the lyrics, the swaggering braggadocio, the boasting of sexual prowess, the feeling for the listener that a larger-than-life character has your ear in a bar with a crazy story of something that happened to him yesterday. These are common tropes in calypso. But even more essential to calypso’s distinctive flavor – and I only began to notice this after listening for awhile – is the artistry of phrasing and clever use of meter. Calypso’s lyrical poetry only sounds slap-dash. Poets of the style utilize, as much as rhyme itself, the natural fall of vocal chords on certain syllables to create pleasing symmetry within verses. Within symmetrically-metered verse, they often gratuitously toss rhyming words in wholly unexpected places. And they add or subtract the number of syllables or modify the sounds syllables make to heighten the sense of controlled chaos. The effect can be jarring or invigorating. With or without steel pan drum accompaniment, the wild, playful rhythmic quality of a steel drum band pervades calypso phrasing.
For the casual listener, I believe the sound of calypso has a lot to do with the instrumentation and arrangements. But once calypso gets in your blood, a skilled calypsonian cutting rhymes over a strumming guitar is all it takes to get the distinctive vibe rolling.
Calypsonians clearly knew what they were doing with their poetry. The most revered among them sprinkled every verse of their songs with fresh innovations of rhyme and meter while accusing rivals by name of being derivative. (see eg. Lord Melody’s roasting of Mighty Sparrow in Cowboy Sparrow and Mighty Sparrow’s subsequent calypso, Reply to Lord Melody). Regional competitiveness and personal rivalries between the massive egos of Mighty Sparrow, Lord Melody, Duke of Iron, Roaring Lion, Mighty Panther and so many others drove them to push the style to new levels of mastery.
Calypso music provides a logical jumping-off point for delving into the music of Guyana. When Lord Kitchener issued his call to the four corners of the Calypso Kingdom, he sings “I have invited Jamaica, lovely Trinidad, Barbados, and Demerara.” Trinidad is ground zero for calypso. But African musicians from the British colony of Demerara (now part of independent Guyana) were, from the 1920s on, contributing in essential ways to the alchemy that molded calypso’s distinctive sound. And calypso is more than a place to launch into Guyana’s music; the Guyanese calypsonian is no shadowy artifact of history. She lives, he laughs, and still occasionally pisses off the politicians and scandalizes the pious (see below for more on the tradition of calypso in Guyana today).
Bob Dylan’s reference to calypso singers in “Desolation Row,” (in the same verse as he imagines a face-off between those allegedly higher-brow poets, Pound and Eliot) goes to the heart of the calypso style in another way: its comedy, and especially its satire. Calypso music, even narrowed to its golden age of 1940’s – 50’s, represents a vast, diverse body of work. But the comedy that pervades calypso is “the right handle to take hold of the bundle,” to borrow a phrase from a literary critic.
For comparison’s sake, consider another style of music also born in the Caribbean but having today far more widespread global influence than calypso. I mean reggae music, of course. Calypso is, if not the mother, at least the senior auntie (see more below on calypso’s confusing family tree). But, unlike calypso, reggae music is so often moralistic, even preachy. Meanwhile the calypsonian jester – though often employing far more complicated arrangements, rhythms, and lyrical subtleties than reggae attempts – rarely takes himself half as seriously as does the reggae evangelist. There are no taboos and few morals in calypso. Everything in the human experience is both open for discussion and fodder for laughs.
Perhaps because calypso’s roots are in the observance of Carnival, a time when celebrants purge themselves of carnality by giving those impulses free reign, calypso functions as a bacchanal airing of dirty laundry. Reggae music offers humanity hope and redemption, while calypso singers laugh at them. Calypso is not exactly hopeless, for it is almost always a defiantly joyful sort of music. But where reggae is profound and spiritual, calypso is topical and carnal. Calypso grounds itself in the real world and its day-to-day problems. Calypsonians complain about the world mostly for the sake of finding it all so hilarious. Calypso grapples with heavy subjects, but usually with an attitude of at-least-we-can-laugh futility.
A Review of the the Comedy and Objects of Frequent Ridicule in Calypso with Examples
The political satire of calypso
Here is the aformetioned, Mighty Sparrow, with a calypso No Doctor, No (The Situation in Trinidad) commenting on corruption in the local government and ridiculing lying politicians who promised him one thing in September and then “went and raise up the taxi fare.” He also laughs in a song Short Little Shorts at the colonial governor for legalizing Bermuda shorts just so he can ogle the girls who want to wear them. Lord Invader has an idea for how to address rising crime in “The Old-time Cat-o’-nine: Beat them bad and they bound to change their mind.” The rhythm of Mighty Spoiler’s delivery is on point in Magistrate Try Himself, a hilarious calypso that mocks the very notion of a fair and impartial judge. Lord Commander, in an epic take-down, mocks the entire criminal justice system – the cops, the judges, the lawyers and the business community which profits. Commander sneers, “Police should be merry when somebody violate the law/Because that is what the government is paying them for.” Posted below, his “No Crime, No Law” is an explosive introduction to real calypso, a revelation for those who associate the style of music with Harry Belafonte’s polished, folksy crooning. It’s plausible to imagine Lord Commander’s blistering, machine gun delivery of this calypso set over a hip hop beat and titled “No Crime, No Law (The Situation in Ferguson).” (Here’s a webpage where you can play the track and read the lyrics together.) Later, below, I will consider the irony that this is the kind of music that was later repackaged as a sophisticated, carefree music for the cultural exposure of Caribbean vacationers.
Calypsonians often commented with jokes about international affairs as well. English colonial rulers are satirized by the calypsonians’ very assumption of lordly titles. Nazis and Hitler were ridiculed as in Lord Melody’s “Berlin on a Donkey” (not on Youtube) which tells the story of a man who tries to go and tell Hitler what he thinks of him.” It begins:
I went to Berlin on a donkey/ One a Hitler’s boy try to stop me/ I give him the achtung as he wish/ He said ‘what you selling?’, I said codfish.
The absurdities proliferate from there. The refrain consists of gibberish made up of what an English-creole-speaking Trinidadian thinks German sounds like in order to fool the Nazi guard. But Hitler finally says to send back the codfish, so the calypsonian kills a random Nazi youth instead “because he insulted me donkey.” Russians are hated, not for their Communism, but because “they went and put that poor puppy in a satellite.” Lord Invader mocks, below, the American GIs stationed in Trinidad during World War II for their whoring with local girls and for chasing their rum with coke.
Even the British royal family were fair game for laughs. Here’s Lord Caresser from Trinidad, a British colony at the time, laughing about Edward’s abdication of the throne. (This song, sometimes titled “Love, Only Love,” got around. Caresser’s recording is the oldest, but don’t miss Lord Flea’s hilarious version, or that of Blind Blake and the Royal Victorian Hotel Calypsonians.)
Race in calypso
Racial stereotypes are low hanging fruit for comedians. The calypsonians make fun of everyone around them, their stuffy English rulers, the “coolies,” the “chiney men,” and, most of all, themselves. Lord Cobra jokes about a white man receiving a heart transplant from an African donor in the song Negro Heart. Lord Beginner has a calypso I can’t find on Youtube called “Straight Hair Girl” which mocks the African women who bleach and straighten their hair. Mighty Sparrow sings:
I envy the Congo man/ I wish I could go and shake he hand/ He eat until his stomach upset/ And I never eat a white man yet.
Kitchener’s chin is up as he faces the reality of his lot in the song If You’re Brown. He laughs at a mixed race woman trying to pass herself off as white in If You’re Not White, You’re Black. Lord Beginner is more hopeful but still humorous in this calypso about mixed-race marriages.
Sex and the double entendre in calypso
Calypso is like the porn bloopers of erotica. Sex is for laughs. Many are jokes about consent or the lack of it, as in Kitch, I Beg You To Take it Easy by Lord Kitchener. Sometimes the jokes are subtle; see all the that’s-what-she-said penis jokes in The Big Bamboo by the Duke of Iron. Or they can be extremely graphic as in this song about a housewife who admires an electrician’s screwdriver: “When she saw the size of the head/ she like it big, glossy and red” and begs him to “put in a good screw before you go.” Mighty Dictator’s calypso Mathematical Brother includes the bawdy lyric, “John Brown was 83/ He married Annabella she was just twenty/ He died of mathematics trying to see/ How many times 83 can go into twenty.” In the song Goaty (Mister Leave Me Animal), Mighty Sparrow recounts the afternoon he woke up to “hear me goat bawling out like Tarzan.” He “pushed his head outside to see what was happenin’,” and my gentle readers can probably guess what he saw a neighbor doing to his goat. Charlie Binger’s Six & Count Lasher’s calypso “Miss Constance” mines the metaphor of a footrace with a woman for myriad jokes about sexual endurance, premature ejaculation, condom problems, and more. Sadly, it’s not on Youtube, but here’s a sample of the lyrics:
I started off quite easy/ Confident of victory/ When the first lap ended/ I was feeling splendid/ But in the second lap rain start drizzlin’/ Miss Constance passed me as if she was flyin’/ I will never forget/ The way she opened up when the track got wet/ She wanted to lap me apparently/ So I got up and with a winning mind/ I made a terrific drive from behind/ The winner no one could tell/ We were coming in together when I hear the bell.
I could go on with examples like that all day, but finally here’s the good “Dr. Kitch” again. Lord Kitchener, by this time, was a renowned nightclub performer based in London with dozens of records and live BBC broadcasts under his belt. Princess Margret was a fan. (See below for more about the calypso invasion of Great Britain.) This is a song about anal sex.
Gender and misogyny in calypso
Women are mocked, objectified, worshiped and occasionally loved and respected in classic calypso. The song, Woman’s Figure, lists the desired measurements for waist, hips and bust if you wish to be Kitchener’s girlfriend. Roaring Lion prefers ugly women, at least for marrying (this calypso, recorded in 1937, was later popularized by an American rock-n-roll singer, Jimmy Soul, in the 1960s. Roaring Lion was not credited or paid. This kept happening to calypsonians. See more below on calypso’s unattributed appropriation below.). Wilmoth Houdini, in a frequently sampled calypso from 1931, thinks the sweetest women in the world are black. Lord Beginner appreciates women’s contributions to society in the song Housewives. The Duke of Iron sings “that the women of today are smarter than men in every way” in the song Man Smart/Woman Smarter, but the whole set up is really a vicious, back-handed compliment. Kitchener grapples with the question of who he would save first if his wife and mother were drowning. He decides, “I can always get another wife, but I can never get another mother in my life.” In a similar vein, Mighty Sparrow sings that men should “forget them jagabats and all them Jezebels and make sure your mommy okay.” (Here’s Mighty Bomber with a definition of jagabat if that’s a new term for some of my readers.) Yes, even when calypsonians are sweet about their mamas, there may be some sly misogyny in the subtext.
Calypso Rose won Trinidad’s Road March Song competition in 1977, the first woman to take one of calypso’s highest honors (after she won, organizers changed the name of a competition that had been running since the 1920’s from Calypso King to Calypso Monarch). She had been giving it back to men for a long time. In 1955, she recorded “Glass Thief,” probably the first calypso to criticize rather than relish gender inequality (regrettably not on Youtube). In a 1966 live recording of a calypso competition, the announcer invites her to the stage by saying, “And now, ladies and gentlemen, we change the sex.” He calls her “the only authentic female calypsonian in the world.” She takes the stage and rips into her empowering calypso, A Man is a Man.
A man is a man/ No mind what his profession/ You must use your discretion/ Know that man can give you satisfaction.
A man is a man/ If he have one foot or one hand/ Big belly man you must understand/ I am sure you could give me satisfaction.
By the way, though all of the men featured here have either long since died or retired, Calypso Rose is still doing her thing as an elder stateswoman of calypso. She even has a new record produced by Manu Chao. Here she is in 2016 throwing down with a taunt that dates back to Lord Executor in 1937 (“They say I reign too long, forgetting that me constitution is strong”).
Them foolish and petty men/ I don’t worry ’bout them/ They been trying to take me down/ But to the end I retain me crown.
Homosexual and transgender humor in calypso
Homosexuals are the object of more than a few jokes in calypso. Guyanese Lord Canary complains of being sodomized by a homosexual doctor in Dr. Beckles. (Lord Canary says rival Guyanese calypsonian, King Fighter, goes to the same doctor and “takes it with a smile.” Here’s the accused King Fighter with a calypso about a trip to Suriname.) Lord Invader has a story about a brief (but apparently enjoyable) dalliance with a transvestite in My Experience on the Reeperbahn. Before he converted to the Muslim faith and became the leader of the Nation of Islam, Louis Farrakhan was a calypsonian who went by the name The Charmer. Here he is with a song making fun of a “certain person who wit dis modern surgery/ change him from he to she.” The Charmer is very curious to “get a peak” at the results of the surgery for himself.
Louis Farrakhan, everybody:
He tried to live the life of a man/ But that was not in accord with nature’s plan/ So he underwent this operation/ And came back home to shock the nation/ But behind that lipstick, rouge, and paint/ I got to know: Is she is, or is she ain’t?
Extempo Dueling and the Calypso Roast
Here’s Mighty Sparrow and Lord Melody making riotous fun of each other, fighting in the captain’s tower, as it were. The picong duel is a tradition in which two calypsonians extemporaneously volley rhyming insults at each other:
Sparrow, you shouldn’t tell me that at all/ I minded you when you was small/ Many a nights I mash your head/ When I cross to go on your mama in the bed.
For another must-hear example of the calypso precursor to the”rap battle,” see My Intention is War featuring Lord Invader exchanging free-style calypso insults with Mighty Dictator. The lyrics are worth examining at length because they so well demonstrate the fluency of the calypsonians’ language, their innovations of poetry, and how much American rap music owes to these old calypsonians of the West Indies.
Dictator, you insolent boobie, delirious mule/ Audacious slum monger you’re out of rule/ Your abnormal expressions worth no while hearing/ Descend at once, Dictator, and stop your sneering/ You gabilous squabbler illiterate ape/ Now you are one in a terrible scrape/ Dictator, you resemble Manuel Gogo/ A fowl thief from Tobago/ My intention is war.
Calypso singing is such a technical thing/ It was not made for one and every to sing/ How by the heavens can this songsters win/ Except by necromancy that is a sin/ My head is like a book that is well compact/ My tongue like a gun that yet never snap/ And I’m sorry for Dictator if he molest with Invader/ My intention is war.
Jokes, Caricatures and Confessional Comedy in Calypso
Countless calypso numbers are really the telling of one long joke, such as the song posted below, “The Bedbug Song” by Mighty Panther, which tells a joke about a man who decides he wants to be reincarnated as a bedbug so he can “bite dem fat ladies on der bumpers.” Jokes about bedbugs, fleas and other biting insects abound, often with sexual double meanings. The Naughty Little Flea is an extremely catchy, charming little song about a flea tormenting a dog. Muriel and the Bug celebrates a bedbug that “found his way to Muriel’s treasure/ that bug is really clever/ To find that area.”
Lord Melody’s “Wau Wau is Me (Shame and Scandal in the Family)” is a joke about a man who can’t find a wife because “When the papa see the gyal he shout, “Oh no/
That gyal is your sister but your mama don’t know!” Like any good joke, the song establishes a humorous pattern, only to blow it up with the punchline which occurs when the boy finally goes to his mama: “The mama she laughed and said, “Go man go/ Your daddy ain’t your daddy but your daddy don’t know!”
Many other songs recount a funny situation in the life of the calypsonian in a sort of confessional style such as this story about the time Kitchener’s girlfriend stole Kitchener’s wife’s lingerie in the song “Come Back With Me Wife’s Nightie”
Calypso songs are often full of caricatures in order to laugh at ordinary people. Here, in a favorite calypso of mine, Lord Cobra loses his girlfriend to a rival. But he has his revenge by immortalizing his rival’s over-sized schnoz in a calypso titled “Big Nose Harold.” The incorporation of banjo and what sounds like a gut-bucket bass for rhythm creates a marvelous vibe for this calypso. (The flip side of this 45, included in the clip, is a comical flaming of Mighty Sparrow, and another amazing instrumental arrangement.)
The wry and sardonic sorrow of the calypsonians
Calypsonians aren’t always trying to be funny. Lord Executor’s 1937 calypso My Troubles With Dorothy comes from a place of serious mental anguish. The strange, fermented harmonies of the chorus might be some of the saddest sounds humans have made. The song concludes with a bleak vision: a woman begging her man to beat and brutalize her. But each verse posits an absurdity or a bizarre bit of word play as if Executor is casting about for a way to laugh through his despair.
Now Dorothy a nice high brown/ Weighing two hundred and sixteen pounds/ And I the Executor featherweight/ She made me tremble like an earthquake
Adding to the odd experience of hearing this remarkable track: Lord Executor sounds a lot like Eric Cartman from South Park to me.
Many calypsos are conventionally beautiful pieces of music. But the prevailing authenticity and uncommon honesty of the form often slips in wry bits of unintended comedy. This Lord Invader song about Barbados is Exhibit A of how beautiful calypso music can be. “Barbados” is an almost formulaic song about longing to return to a lover and a place of former happiness. But in true calypso form, the chorus throws in a little surprise: Invader sweetly pleads with his lover there, “Please divorce your husband.”
The Calypso Tradition in Guyana Today
For a brief, comedic summary of recent Guyanese politics from the perspective of one frustrated calypsonian, look no further than Guyanese, King Parai, and his hilarious song Fight Down. The music video for the song features the ghost of Guyanese independence leader and former president, Cheddi Jagan, appearing to the calypsonian in a dream to dress down current PPP/C party leaders.
Another calypsonian from Guyana, De Professor, won the Guyana Calypso Monarch competition in 2013 with his song God Nah Sleep which satirizes the government and was later banned from the airwaves in Guyana as reported in a worthwhile New York Times piece that analyses the calypso tradition as it persists in Guyana.
A few weeks ago, an MP of the opposition party in Guyana, one Juan Edghill, created a commotion in parliament surrounding a dispute over a procedural measure. In the end, the police were involved, people got physical with each other, and accusations flew in all directions. Less than three weeks later, Youtube already hosts a couple of different calypso music videos offering opinions on the Juan Edgehill affair, including a song called “Juan and the Speaker” by Niomi Alsopp which was only posted eight days ago.
Both videos include “Calypso 2018” in the title and tags because they are official competition entries and will be performed live at events to be held as part of Carnival festivities, or Mashramani as they known in Guyana. Another less political 2018 entry laments the decline of the calypso tradition in Guyana. The woman, Abigail James, sings that both of her parents were calypsonians and vows to “do something to make calypso live.” But as her calypso’s title says, even she “ain’t singin’ no old time calypso.” And neither are many others of the best musicians in Guyana. Traditional calypso is not the style of music one hears on the streets of Georgetown these days outside of special events, or when I drive around with the sounds cranked up in my Rav4.
What one hears instead – blaring from houses, minibuses, at the market, almost everywhere in fact (Georgetown throbs with music at all hours) – in addition to globally ubiquitous hip hop and reggae, is soca. By some accounts a merging of soul and calypso, or “the soul of calypso,” soca is a contemporary style derived from calypso, reggae dancehall, hip hop, Latin American music, and Indian music. A pioneer of the form was Ras Shorty I, aka, Lord Shorty who from the beginning experimented with Indian instrumentation and Hindi lyrics set to a calypso beat, lending credence to the theory that Indian influences accounts for soca’s diversion from traditional calypso. The strong influence of disco in early soca seems apparent to me as well. Probably the best known soca song, Feeling Hot Hot Hot, is from 1983. But for the soca sounds one is likelier to hear on the streets of Georgetown today, I would offer the following example because this artist, Trinidadian Machel Montano, is the closest soca has to a Bob Marley figure, and he recently sold out the national cricket stadium in Guyana, the largest venue in the country. I’ve heard the song a few hundreds times whether I wanted to or not.
Also don’t forget, Guyana’s ethnic majority is East Indians whose ancestors arrived as indentured servants following the abolition of slavery in the colonies by the British empire. Traditional calypso arose among the Africans, but soca music is rooted and thrives among both Afro- and Indo-Guyanese people. A subset of soca, sometimes called chutney soca or sokha, incorporates heavier elements of traditional Indian music, sometimes placing them at the fore. Where but in a place where the descendants of African slaves and Indian indentured servants are striving together to create a nation could something like this sort of music even happen?
On Calypso Misappropriation.
I’m not usually one to complain about cultural appropriation. I generally approve of artists stealing and borrowing from whatever cultural sources inspire them. But the history of calypso offers some particularly egregious cases of whole songs being ripped off, sometimes turned substantively on their heads, and used without giving credit to the creators.
Calypso enjoyed a craze period in post-war United States. Harry Belafonte and many other folk and popular performers presented sanitized, commercial calypso music to wide acclaim. Hollywood produced several films with calypso in the title and featured in the soundtrack. A number of established popular and jazz recording artists – Nat King Cole, Louis Armstrong, The Kingston Trio, The Andrew Sisters, and many more – put out calypso singles or whole albums to tap into the commercial appeal. Even my favorite Beach Boys song is, it turns out, just another old calypso song. Maya Angelou recorded a calypso album under the name Miss Calypso. Weirdest of all, the movie star, Robert Mitchum, put out a calypso concept album titled Calypso Is Like So… (and if I’m honest I’ll admit some of it is not too bad).
The re-brand marketed calypso as sexy, suave, sophisticated vacation music. Not bad for humble bacchanal songs created by former slaves.
But very little of the acclaim and wealth accumulated in the American calypso craze found its way to the calypsonians of the West Indies, even though many of their compositions were becoming famous, often completely without attribution. Americans behaved as though all of calypso was a giant catalog of Caribbean folk songs existing in the public domain. But many of the songs they adapted were the intellectual property of men and woman who were still alive and working steady gigs to support themselves and families.
Calypsonians frequently borrowed and adapted from each other. Mighty Sparrow once warned his friend Lord Canary that he should move from Georgetown to Port of Spain because many young Trinidad calypsonians were claiming Canary’s material as their own. Canary stayed in Guyana and was proud that his calypsos were well-known in Trinidad. Calypso was mostly a labor of love, even for the biggest names in the West Indies. Calypso recordings are rare well into the 1950’s except for those made in London and New York. So songs spread to wider audiences only because calypsonians stole from each other. A widely-adapted calypso was a trophy for its creator. No one got rich from calypso until the American recording industry got in on the game.
Even more offensive from my admittedly privileged vantage is the abuse American adapters inflicted on the songs themselves. Any casual listener to “Rum and Coca-Cola” by Lord Invader knows the song is about the corrupting influence of the large U.S. military presence on Trinidad during WWII. The song speaks out in a jesting way about the feelings of inferiority men in Trinidad felt due to U.S. military presence in their country. But the hit version released by the Andrew Sisters in 1945 and copyrighted as an original work by their producer is a chipper little song about a tasty new way to drink rum and a fun place to take a vacation. The disorderly claypso-patterned phrasing of the original verses mocking a powerful foreign military power is replaced with bland drivel and kitsch set in white-bread meter. The song sat at the top of the Billboard charts for 10 weeks. Coca-Cola Co. and rum distilleries embraced the free advertising. Millions of dollars were made. Lord Invader sued with the assistance of an American lawyer and was awarded a one-time $150,000 settlement with the Americans retaining the copyright and royalties.
The Calypso Invasion: The Migration of Calypsonians to London and a Colliding of Worlds.
Long before Americans developed a taste for watered-down faux-calypso, Londoners enjoyed a heady sampling of the real thing. A cadre of West Indian calypsonians – several of those cited here – made their way to England as part of a program to import laborers from the colonies.
The calypsonians thrived in London. They performed in pubs, and in live radio broadcasts of West Indian music hosted by BBC. In time they made records and developed a large fan base in London. A newsreel clip exists, posted above, of Lord Kitchener, himself, coming off the boat, claiming the title King of Calypso, and breaking out in song for the cameras. They were the glamorous bad boys whose charisma, sexual frankness and lack of reverence appealed to many young Londoners. The live broadcast recordings and albums produced by the calypso masters in the 40s and 50s signify a golden age of calypso. Because calypso was and still is a performance art, thriving mainly in competitions and festivals, without the London recordings, the documentation of calypso from this era would be much sparser. In those recordings we find the great calypso masters applying their wit and unique style to commenting, just as always, on anything that momentarily amused them.
One such moment led to a very happy colliding of worlds for me. Sālote Tupou III, the reigning monarch of Tonga attended the coronation of Elizabeth II. When a torrential downpour opened up on her parade, Elizabeth and others in the parade took cover. But the beautiful Tongan queen carried on in her open carriage. Her regal bearing in the downpour provoked a great deal of commentary. The symbolism of the moment is seared by pride into the consciousness of the Tongan people. And, what do you know, a calypsonian was on hand to witness the moment and, of course, turned it into an amusing song. It’s a small world after all, made so, of course, by the far reach of the British Empire (although my Tongan friends would correctly point out, “Excuse me, fakamolemole, but we were never colonized.”)
For much more on this crucial period, and the evolution of calypso, I recommend the invaluable article “London is the Place for Me: Caribbean Music in the Context of Empire, 1900 – 1960.” by John Cowley. The full text is online at the link.
Calypso’s Family Tree: On the Evolution of Caribbean Musical Styles, Noting Guyana’s Role, and Touching as well on Guyanese Shanto Music and Jamaican Mento Music.
Calypso evolved from kaiso music, the oldest distinctively Caribbean style of music. The basic rhythms of kaiso and later of calypso were carried to the West Indies by West African Kongo people who had been abducted and enslaved. As in the United States, African slaves brought against their will to contribute uncompensated labor, also contributed a music that proved a high water mark if not the paramount cultural achievement of the entire region.
Among other African musical styles percolating all over the Caribbean, calypso benefited early from the cosmopolitan Carnival celebrations which drove its evolution, diversified its influences, and allowed for its wide distribution around the region and in important cultural centers. Lord Christo’s “Jacob from Panama,” a personal favorite, celebrates calypso’s diverse influences. In addition to the Latin flavors which are apparent in the style of the song, Americans Glen Miller and Charlie Parker are referenced in the lyrics as well. Included in calypso’s regular orbit were the other Carnival celebrations around the Caribbean including New Orleans. In addition to London, the city of New York – always a magnet and melting pot for every cultural innovation happening anywhere in the world – was instrumental as a place where West Indian musicians occasionally came and went to participate in Carnival-themed events. While there, early calypsonians were exposed to unfamiliar varieties of African music simultaneously taking root in the new world. In 1922, a West Indian musician from St Kitts even shared a New York City address with Sydney Bechet, the jazz clarinetist from New Orleans (Cowley).
Understanding all the influences and cross-pollination that occurred within Caribbean music can be a challenge. However, calypsonians are to be admired for never hiding their sources of inspiration. Instead, whenever they were genuinely impressed by some styling they wanted to incorporate, they very often wrote a look-what-I-can-do song about it.
Lord Kitchener was enamored with the American bebop jazz he heard in England and wrote Bebop Calypso in which he pays tribute to Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and other jazz legends. Below is another explosive example of cross-pollination: Count Sticky and his Calypsonians have the opportunity to jam with a “chico from Puerto Rico” and his rumba band. The result is a 45 vinyl disc bearing three minutes of unclassifiable wonder. This is one of the best songs I’ve heard anywhere.
Guyana played an early role in contributing calypso’s later infusion with jazzy, big band arrangements. As early as the 1920’s, performers from British Guiana in particular, among them a band leader from Demerara, Ken “Snakehips” Johnson, were performing early calypso songs as part of a vaudeville-style revue before British audiences in London.
While in London, Snakehips Johnson, who was also a dancer, expanded his band’s repertoire to include American jazz standards and big band jazz arrangements of his own songs. He was a central and influential character in West Indian music for many years since most Caribbean players who made their way to London during the 30’s and early 40’s played in his band which was called Snakehips Johnson & The West Indian Orchestra. Snakehips Johnson was later an early civilian casualty in the London Blitz when a German bomb landed directly on the nightclub stage – in the Cafe de Paris – where he and his band were entertaining.
A calypsonian from British Guiana, Bill Rogers, born Augustus Hinds in 1906, performed all over the Caribbean and in England and the United States. He made several recordings with RCA in 1934, and won the Trinidad Calypso King competition in 1937. He began his career touring Demerara, Berbice, and Dutch Guiana with a group called the Merry Makers beginning in the 1920’s and throughout the 30’s with a vaudeville show that included calypso, dancing and magic. He is sometimes called the king of shanto, a distinctively Guyanese calypso-style he pioneered. As far as I can tell, shanto recordings from the 1930’s are sparse and more or less limited to Bill Roger’s own. His calypsos are rooted in geography with many references to Guyanese places, customs and foods. A great example is BG Bargee which is a local recipe (BG is British Guiana) for how to prepare callaloo comically set to music (the clip at the link helpfully includes the lyrics for the fast-paced song). The Weed Song is about a woman selling medicinal herbs on the streets of Georgetown (the song was adapted by Harry Belafonte). Below is a recording of a local broadcast exploring the legacy of Bill Rogers. Many of the remarks are insightful and the quality of the recordings of the included songs is better than anywhere else online.
(Bill Roger’s son, Roger Hinds, is also a local Guyana entertainer and won the Chutney Soca Monarch competition in Trinidad a few years ago.)
I’ve possibly implied above that I think calypso is superior to reggae in some ways. So I should clarify that and acknowledge that what Jamaicans did with calypso, even before they deconstructed it and created ska, rocksteady and reggae, is nothing short of amazing to me (as a point of historical interest, here is a song by Lord Lebby and the Jamaican Calypsonians which is the oldest to reference Rastafari theology in Caribbean music; lo, hear the sounds of reggae being born). This is possibly because what the former slaves of Jamaica were doing musically, with a style they called mento, was novel to begin with. Some argue that Jamaican calypso is really just mento re-branded as calypso in order to more easily sell it to tourists. Maybe so. Speaking in the broadest terms, Jamaican mento, which could be as old as calypso and has a similar West African lineage, evolved in greater insularity from other African Caribbean influences and away from the carnival tradition. When I listen to early mento, though the rhythms and style are reminiscent of calypso, the purity of the West African sound is closer to the front, at least to my ears. Paradoxically, I also seem to detect stronger European folk influences than are present in the calypso originating elsewhere. (This Jamaican song, which includes the terrific lyric “Mama don’t need no gin, no whisky to make her frisky” sounds like it might of come out of the hills of West Virginia but for the references to coconuts and “coolie rice.”) Based on my review of the literature, most historians seem to accept that calypso predates mento and that the former heavily influenced the latter. If true, this is only important because it would clarify that reggae really is descended from Trinidadian calypso rather than having evolved independently from West African music.
Interestingly, Jamaican mento/calypso musicians showed particular interest in Guianese Bill Rogers’ shanto sound and his catalog of songs recorded in the 1930’s. Jamaican Count Lasher recorded The Weed Song. Jamaican Lord Lebby covered his BG Bargee. Both performers’ work represent bridges between Jamaican mento/calypso to ska music, an early style of reggae. So Guyana’s home-grown style of calypso may have directly contributed to reggae’s genetic make-up via shanto’s apparent influence on mento.
Whatever the case, Jamaican calypso is immediately recognizable and distinguishable from calypso created anywhere else. The Jamaican mento/calypso artists were always doing their own thing. And I have to say, the Jamaican sound really appeals to me. I look forward to studying mento more closely and the Jamaican branch of Caribbean music’s family tree. Here is my favorite mento song so far. In fact, this again is another of my favorite songs, period. It’s titled, “Hold Him Joe (Me Donkey Want Water).”
Take it from me, calypso can really get into your blood. Like all great musical styles, calypso creates within a person an entirely new way of feeling, of being in the world. My study of calypso music has been enjoyable for the sake of learning to appreciate and enjoy a style of music obscure to me before and that I had hardly considered. I find myself missing calypso now if I haven’t heard some in awhile. And I have accumulated a whole host of favorite songs and performers many of which I compiled in this post. But other musical vistas open as well, and I look forward to learning more about the wonderfully diverse music of the Caribbean and the world.
I made a Youtube playlist of most of the songs featured here.
A footnote about Bob Dylan because it’s my blog and I can write about whatever I want.
Bob Dylan recorded a calypso in the late 60s titled “Joshua Gone Barbados.” The song was recorded in the Basement Tapes sessions with The Band but went unreleased until Bootleg Series Volume 11 came out in 2014. Even then the song was only included in the more expensive expanded box set of the release. I have it, of course. But the track is still rather rare and not on Youtube.
In true calypso form the song mocks the cowardice of “Joshua, the head of government,” who called for sugarcane workers to “strike for better pay” and then skipped town when plantation owners began brutalizing the cane cutters who had gone on strike. The song references a Georgetown, but alas, the song is not about Demerara sugar plantations. Georgetown is also the name of the largest city on the Caribbean island of St Vincent.
A lot of misery in Georgetown,
You can hear the women bawl.
Joshua’s gone Barbados,
Like he don’t care at all.
Yea, Joshua gone Barbados, just like he don’t know,
Poor people on St Vincent ain’t got nowhere to go.
Folk singer, Eric von Schmidt, wrote the song imitating the calypso style. You can listen to that if you like, but trust me Dylan’s version has a truer calypso vibe. Johnny Cash sang it, too and his version is quite nice.
One more song for the road.
I mentioned in an earlier post about being stopped at a checkpoint because police were looking for escaped convicts after a riot and fire in a large Georgetown prison. Here’s a Guyanese performer, Alabama, with a reggae tune about the situation and a plea to Guyana’s president: “Fix it, Granger/ Fix it, Brigadier.” Per my observation, reggae music is every bit as popular as soca in Georgetown, certainly more so in some neighborhoods.