Calypso: Roots of the Roots


Hip-hop's West Indian connection has always been strong, from DJ

Kool Herc's legendary sound system parties -- which were founded

on the example of Jamaica's "system men" -- to contemporary

collaborations between dancehall and hip-hop styles such as those

between Ice-T and Daddy Nitro ("Depths of Hell"), Yo-Yo and Patra

("Romantic Call"), and Q-Tip and Tiger ("Who Planned It?"). Yet

the connection to Trinidadan music, particularly Calypso, is

rarely made, even though its roots run deep -- deeper, in some

ways, than those in Jamaica. The basic elements of hip-hop --

boasting raps, rival posses, uptown throwdowns, and political

commentary -- were all present in Trinidadan music as long ago as

the 1800's, though they did not reach the form of commercial

recordings until the 1920's and 30's.

Trinidad was first colonized by the Spanish, but eventually was

taken over by French-speaking Catholics from the French West

Indies. These colonists brought with them European traditions of

carnival, which they celebrated among themselves. Yet with the

emancipation of Trinidadan slaves in 1838, Carnival was reclaimed

by Trinidad's Black population, who brought to it African elements

such as massed drums, stick-dancing, and Shango ceremonies. By

the later part of the nineteenth century, Trinidadan Carnival had

evolved into a much more complex social ritual. In the city of

Port-of-Spain, bands of stick-fighters, each led by a "big pappy,"

would roam the streets; if they encountered rival groups, they

would throw down a challenge in song, know as a 'calinda.'

Tensions often escalated to a fight, in which the sticks, carried

to beat rhythm for the songs, turned into weapons. Various

regimes of police tried to put down the stick-fighting, but as

often happens, this attempt to drive the resistance of the people

down only led to its springing up in new forms. The Calypso

style, drawing from the traditions of Carnival and calinda songs

as well as from the kind of small-combo dance music that was

performed in tourist spots in Port-of-Spain, became a new medium

for the boasts of the Carnival crews, as well as a vehicle for

political commentary and oral history.

Calypso music, like early ska, made use of bits and pieces of

music from the U.S. and Europe, but added African rhythms and

call-and-response structures. The pleasant, festive tone of the

music, however, often belied the rage and resistance embodied in

its lyrics. The first generation of Calypso singers -- men like

the Growler, the Tiger, Lord Invader, The Lion, and Atilla the Hun

-- had a wide repertoire of cheerful tunes for their regular gigs

at nightclubs in the Port-of-Spain, but at the same time wrote

many songs of resistance which were performed at Carnival or large

outdoor tent parties. Some, like the Lion's "Boo Boo La La,"

threatened the symbols of colonial power with its chants of "Burn

Down the London Theatre / Burn down the Big Empire" (and this in

1938, over fifty years before "Burn Hollywood Burn"). Others,

such as Atilla's calypso "The Commissioner's Report," which

attacked a report that attempted to whitewash the brutal

government force used to put down a 1937 oil workers' strike and

the mass protests that followed in its wake, were much more


They said through the evidence they had

That the riot started at Fyzabad

By the hooligan element under their leader

A fanatic Negro called Butler

Who uttered speeches inflammatory

And caused disorder in this colony

The only time they found the police was wrong

Was when they stayed too long to shoot the people down

A peculiar thing of this Commission

In their ninety-two lines of dissertation

Is there is no talk of exploitation

Of the worker and his tragic condition

Read through the pages, there is no mention

Of capitalistic oppression

Which leads one to entertain a thought

And wonder if it's a one-sided report

Atilla's bitter irony here is underscored by the way he mocks

official language, and makes explicit the oppression of the

workers as the fundamental cause of the protests. Like rappers in

South Central, Atilla has to make this argument because the

'civil' authorities would much rather see it as a 'riot' than a

rebellion -- sound familiar? As WC and the MAAD Circle might say,

"ain't a damn thing changed."

Yet Atilla, like other Calypso stars, was not only a social

commentator. Like everyone else, he frequently engaged in verbal

duels with the rival singers; when The Lion recorded "I'm Going to

Buy a Bungalow," a song in which he talked up the fine house and

furnishings he would get with the money from his calypsos, Atilla

shot back with "I Don't Want No Bungalow," which manages not only

to make fun of the Lion's inventory of furnishings, but throws in

an advertisement for Atilla's doctor and lawyers:

An' believe me, for health protection

Or in case of an action

Mister Marcano, me doctor, O'Connor me solicitor

An' Hannays me lawyer

Current events and everyday struggles were also central calypso

subjects. The Growler talks about the color line in "High Brown";

Lord Executor reports on the "Seven Skeletons found in the Yard"

in 1938; the Lion and Atilla the Hun boast of a radio session in

which they met Mae West and Rudy Vallee; The Tiger narrates "The

Whe Whe Banker Wedding." These early recordings, made by various

American and European labels, were originally targeted at the

white market for tropical or 'exotic' music. Under such

circumstances, it seems remarkable that so many of the political

calypsos were recorded. Then again, it may have been rather like

the situation described by Alex Haley in _Roots_, where the slaves

on board a slave ship are brought out on deck and forced to jump

and sing (lest the "cargo" be ruined for lack of exercise). A

Mandinka woman leads them in a chant of "Tuobob fa!" -- Kill the

White People -- and before long "even the tuobob where grinning,

some of them clapping their hands with pleasure." Similarly,

white audiences for Calypso records may have simply ignored the

message, listening only for the "happy" music they expected to

hear. ^1^

Yet whatever the international interest in the music, Trinidadan

artists continued to evolve and expand their calypsos, fighting

for prizes at each annual Carnival. The Mighty Sparrow, who is

still active, got his start by winning the Calypso crown in 1956,

and frequently attacked American exploitation of Trinidadan labor

and natural resources. Enraged by the U.S. oil refinery built on

the island of Point a Pierre, Mighty Sparrow cut a calypso that

showed how American exploitation was only a new form of


Well the days of slavery back again

I hope it ain't reach in the Port of Spain

Since the Yankees come back over here

They buy out the whole of Point a Pierre

Money start to pass, people start to brawl

Point a Pierre sell the workmen and all.

While remaining true to this spirit, Calypso -- like other forms

of music -- continued to evolve through the '50's and '60's. When

rock-steady and reggae bands looked to make their music a form of

national and even international Black resistance, they took

Calypso's example. Calypso itself, like Jamaican music, moved

back and forth between the predominance of boasting and toasting

songs packed with 'slackness' and sexual innuendo and a more

topical, political, 'conscious' style. And, as with reggae,

tempos increased in the '70's and '80's, giving birth to the high-

speed dance music known as 'Soca.' Younger artists such as Black

Stalin, Drupatee, Superblue, and the United Sisters now dominate

at Carnival, and are reaching a new international audience via

labels such as Eddy Grant's Ice Records (and yeah, that's the same

Eddie Grant who dropped "Electric Avenue" back in 1983). Grant

has also worked to acquire rights to large back-catalogs of

classic Calypsos stars such as Roaring Lion and the Mighty

Sparrow. The oldest Calypsos, for many years available only to

those who collected the 78-rpm discs, are being re-issued on CD by

Rounder Records, with first-rate research and liner notes by

veteran collectors such as Dick Spottswood. Grant, for one, is

optimistic about the future of Soca, which he prefers to call

"Kaisoul" -- an amalgam of Kailso (Calypso) and Soul, and has been

working the business end hard. A sign that something is changing

is the fact that I was able to pick up Grant's "Soca Carnival '94"

compilation at K-Mart, and some chain stores now have added a

divider for Soca in the world beat section. Yet no divider can

really separate off Calypso from the musical web of what cultural

critic Paul Gilroy calls "The Black Atlantic"; from Port-of-Spain

to Kingston, from Miami to the South Bronx, from Cleveland to

South Central L.A., Soca and other Black musics fuse and recombine

the call-and-response, the beat, and the rhymes in one continuous

yet ever-changing flow.



^1^ Thanks to Dick Hebdige, in his book _Cut 'n' Mix: Culture,

Identity, and Caribbean Music_ (London: Methuen, 1987), pp. 26-28,

for noting this example.


Calypso Carnival: 1936-1941 -- Rounder Records CD 1077

Calypso Breakaway: 1927-1941 -- Rounder Records CD 1054

(contact: Rounder Records, One Camp Street, Cambridge MA 02140)

Soca Carnival '94 -- Ice Records 940802

(contact: Ice Records, 110 Greene St., New York, NY 10012)