Calypso music is generally not the first thing one thinks of when daydreaming of the Caribbean islands, the Bahamas and Bermuda. The most common imaginings are sand, sea, and tropical drinks with those tiny umbrellas that hit you in the nose while you’re trying to imbibe. But what would those pleasures be if not accompanied by the pulsating rhythms and satirical lyrics of the local rhythms. Ever wonder exactly what that music was? It’s Calypso! The style that Harry Belafonte made famous, the music that makes you want to sway your hips to the beat and immerse yourself in the celebration of life! Remember the song Day-O from the movie Beetlejuice? That is calypso music.
Calypso music is a style of Afro-Caribbean rhythm which originated in Trinidad at about the start of the 20th century. The roots of the genre lay in the arrival of African slaves, who, not being allowed to speak with each other, communicated through song. The French soon brought Carnival to Trinidad, and calypso competitions at Carnival grew in popularity, especially after the abolition of slavery in 1834. It is from Carnival that today’s popular Soca music arose; made popular by such hits as “Hot, Hot, Hot” and “Who Let The Dogs Out”.
Over 100 years ago, calypso further evolved into a way of spreading news around Trinidad. Politicians, journalists, and public figures often debated the content of each song, and many islanders considered these songs the most reliable news source. Calypsonians pushed the boundaries of free speech as their lyrics spread news of any topic relevant to island life, including speaking out against political corruption.
The first major stars of calypso started crossing over to new audiences worldwide in the late 1930s. Attila the Hun, Roaring Lion and Lord Invader were first, followed by Lord Kitchener, one of the longest-lasting calypso music stars in history — he continued to release hit records until his death in 2000. 1944’s Rum and Cola by the Andrews Sisters, a cover of a Lord Invader song, became an American hit.
Early forms of calypso music were also heavily influenced by jazz such as Sans Humanitae, the extempo melody in which calypsonians lyricise impromptu, commenting socially or insulting each other, without humanity – once again the French influence! Many calypso music chord progressions can be linked to twelve bar jams in jazz as demonstrated by Lord Kitchener, one of the most famous calypsonians and a melodic genius.
Calypso music spread north to islands such as Bermuda in the 1940s and 50s, imported from Trinidad and Tobago. Though geographically far removed from the Caribbean, Bermuda shared a history of European colonization and African slavery with those islands further south. During the 1940s and 1950s, calypso became popular in Bermuda’s tourist hotels and clubs. The proximity of Bermuda to the United States helped to fuel the spread of calypso to America.
Likewise the Americans had their influence on calypso music, and popular sounds and a country and western feel were added to the unique sound which stemmed from the heart of the Bermuda Triangle.
Many calypso artists in Bermuda began to integrate the American influences into their sound, none more renowned than “Lazy Boy” a singer songwriter who wowed the crowds on the tour boat circuit during the 1990’s and up until 2004. His works are original and modern, yet retain the ambience and commentary of traditional Calypso.