The Dawn of Calypso

Explore the emergence and development of Calypso music in the Caribbean and in the U.K..

Calypso Performers (1938/1948) by William P. GottliebNotting Hill Carnival

What is Calypso?

Calypso music is an Afro-Caribbean musical tradition that emerged in Trinidad and Tobago in the mid-19th Century. It is closely related to West African Kaiso music, as an upbeat genre based upon call-and-response singing.

Calypso is deeply rooted in themes of political commentary and protest, sporting witty lyrics, a satirical tone and double entendre. Calypso music has become established as a cornerstone of Trinibagonian and wider Caribbean popular culture and is an important part of Carnival festivities. 

Dance at Plantation, Trinidad, 1836 (1836/1836) by Richard BridgensNotting Hill Carnival

The Origins of Calypso

Calypso is thought to stem from the West African Kaiso and Canboulay music sung by African slaves working on plantations in the 17th Century. Enslaved Africans were not allowed to communicate with each other, therefore early Calypso existed as a form of communication, and to mock their slave masters. 

Calypsonians from Trinidad (1947/1947) by William P GottliebNotting Hill Carnival

The Development of Calypso

Modern Calypso emerged in the 19th Century, where it fused various elements of Trinibagonian popular culture. Alongside Kaiso and Canboulay, Calypso was shaped by the emancipation of slaves in 1834 and their subsequent adoption of Carnival festivities.

Calypso Advert from New York City (1939/1939)Notting Hill Carnival

Calypso performers became the stars of Carnival, performing call-and-response tunes in dedicated Calypso tents. It was at this time that Calypsonians began the tradition of outlandish stage names, such as Attila the Hun, the Mighty Terror and Macbeth the Great. 

Calypso performer (1941/1941)Notting Hill Carnival

The Lion - 'Ancient Carnival' (1938)

What does Calypso sound like?

Musically, Calypso is structured in a poetic ballad form, with iconic features including syncopated (offbeat) rhythms and lyrics focused on sociopolitical critique, as highlighted in the examples below.

Lord Kitchener - Legacy of a Calypsonian 1967-71 - Album Cover (1967/1971) by Lord KitchenerNotting Hill Carnival

Lord Kitchener - 'If You're Brown' (1967-71) Album Cover

Lord Kitchener (1967-1971) - 'If You’re Brown'

“[Chorus] ‘If you’re brown they say you can’t stick around, if you’re white, well everything’s alright,

If your skin is dark, no use to try, you’ve got to suffer until you die.”  (0:27-0:41)

Lord Kitchener recounts his experience of the way non-white people were treated in London. It displays a far less optimistic tone than his more popular ‘London is the Place For Me’, which was written and performed at the outset of his life in London.

Singing SandraNotting Hill Carnival

Singing Sandra - 'Die With My Dignity' (1987)

Singing Sandra (1987) - 'Die with my Dignity'

“You want to help to mind your family, you want to help your man financially,

But nowadays it really very hard to get a job as a girl in Trinidad,

You looking out to find something to do, you meet a boss man who promise to help you,

But when the man let down the condition, nothing else but humiliation,
They want to see you whole anatomy, they want to see what you doctor never see ..." (0:27 - 1:01)

Singing Sandra here gives a raw exposé of sexual assault in Trinidad, often hidden under the guise of employment. It is one of her many politically-charged Calypso’s, including ‘Voices from the Ghetto’, a criticism of government-enabled poverty in Trinidad, and ‘The War Goes On’, a commentary on militarism.

The Mighty Sparrow by EchoesNotting Hill Carnival

Calypso Pioneers

Several Calypsonians have been named the ‘King of Calypso’, although perhaps none more than The Mighty Sparrow. Dubbed ‘Calypso King of the World’ and ‘Supreme King of Calypso’, The Mighty Sparrow has been creating Calypso’s for upwards of 50 years, receiving multiple awards.

Lord Kitchener (1956/1956) by PopperfotoNotting Hill Carnival

Alongside Sparrow are Lord Kitchener (pictured) and the Original De Fosto, who are similarly decorated and revered Calypso artists sporting multi-decade careers and considerable influence over the establishment and development of Calypso as we know it today.

Calypso Rose (2019/2019) by Getty for CoachellaNotting Hill Carnival

Women in Calypso

Calypso is a historically male-dominated art, with many of the original pioneers being men, despite the extensive and well-documented female Chantwells. It was only in the mid-1960’s that women emerged as Calypsonians in their own right.

Calypso Rose (2019/2019) by Andrea De SilvaNotting Hill Carnival

Perhaps the most famous female Calypsonian is Calypso Rose, who rose to prominence in the 1970s as the first woman to win the Calypso Monarch title. Other notable women who followed in her footsteps, winning the Monarch title, are Singing Sandra and Denyse Plummer. 

Windrush Arrivals in 1948 (1948/1948) by PopperfotoNotting Hill Carnival

Calypso in the U.K.

Calypso is first documented in the U.K. in 1917, arriving with the British West Indies regiment stationed on the south coast. However, it is thought to have become truly established in the U.K. with the Windrush Generation, as wider Caribbean populations moved to the nation. 

Perhaps most notably, it was Lord Kitchener’s rendition of ‘London is the Place for Me’, filmed on the arrival of the Empire Windrush in 1948, that kickstarted the Calypso scene in the U.K.. Several notable Calypsonians moved to Britain during this time, including Roaring Lion and Lord Beginner.

Mighty TigerNotting Hill Carnival

Calypso was maintained in the U.K. by home-grown Calypso artists, including the Mighty Tiger (pictured; the U.K.’s first Calypso Monarch, crowned in 1971), and Lord Cloak. 

Musicman by Association of British CalypsoniansNotting Hill Carnival

Following the inception of the British Association of Calypsonians (ABC) in 1991, Calypso and Soca music became solidified as an institution in the U.K. Carnivals of Notting Hill, Leeds and Bristol. 

Pictured: Musicman performing at the annual ABC Calypso Monarch competition.

Calypso and Notting Hill Carnival

Today, the core of U.K. Calypso is rooted in Notting Hill Carnival. The highlight of a Calpsonian’s year is performing at the ‘Calypso Tent’ in the Tabernacle in West London, where the Calypso Monarch Finals are held annually on the Friday before Notting Hill Carnival.

Watch G String’s winning performance from the Calypso Monarch Finals last year at Notting Hill Carnival 2020: Access All Areas. 

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