Calypso dancers via Wikimedia Commons Calypso dancers via Wikimedia Commons

Overview – The origins of Calypso music

Tue, Oct. 17, 2017
CAIRO – 17 October 2017: Calypso, the popular Afro-Caribbean dance, has a history that is more complex and courageous than the colorful costumes and lighthearted movements might first imply.

Underneath the veneer of joyous movements and infectious rhythms, Calypso serves as an instrument of political criticism, addressing social and political issues.



Calypso originated within Trinidad when slaves from West Africa were brought into the Caribbean islands to work on the sugar plantations. It is believed that Calypso evolved from the West African "Kaiso." Known as "the poor man’s newspaper," Calypso first emerged in tents, where slaves who were forbidden to speak to each other would meet in secret; a way of preserving west African traditions, communicating news and mocking their cruel masters.

A Calypso song would be performed by a singer known as a Griot, a charismatic bard who told stories and social commentaries through songs. As the slave population of the Caribbean found them quickly shifting through various slave masters, from the Spanish to the French to the British, Calypso evolved and grew further.



The golden age of Calypso came in 1914, with the advent of the first Calypso recording. Calypso tents grew in size to become annual festivals showcasing the newest talents.

Priding on bravado and extravagance, many Calypso singers took up outrageous names such as "Atilla the Hun," "Macbeth the Great," "Growling Tiger," and "Lord Kitchener," and sung fearlessly about society’s ills.



As the 1920s and 30s rolled on, Calypso grew further in power and many islands began relying on it for their news, with politicians discussing the meanings of popular songs, which typically dealt with themes such as colonialism, rapid economic development, political corruption and more.



As Trinidad became a sovereign state by the 1960s, Calypso figures became more closely involved with the politics of the time, standing alongside leaders and political parties. Where other folk traditions would either distance itself from politics or sing of an idealized past or hope for the future, Calypso directly addressed politicians and even offered their own solutions.

By the 1970s, it was believed that Calypso was on a downward trend in popularity, until the musician "Lord Shorty" revitalized it, and created a form known as "Soca," which utilized unique beats lifted from Indian music to breathe new energy into Calypso. Other musical trends began to merge with Calypso as well, from rap, R&B, rock, poetry, and reggae music, allowing Calypso to stand strong even to this day.


 
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