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Calypso is a style of Caribbean music associated with the island of Trinidad in the West Indies and linked very closely to the annual celebration of the pre-Lenten carnival. The music, as well as the name itself, has uncertain roots, yet scholars generally agree that calypso is an example of a hybrid musical form resulting from the interactions of colonizers, slaves, and others from the eighteenth century onward. While calypso grew out of a myriad of traditions, it has spawned a number of separate musical genres such as soca, rapso, talkalypso, chutney soca, and others.
Although there is no general agreement as to the origin of the term, there are references in Trinidadian newspapers of the nineteenth century to cariso and kaiso, both song forms characterized by the performance of extemporaneous, satirical lyrics. The term kaiso, which was shouted to encourage or praise successful singers, is considered a possible source for the word calypso, and indeed is still used instead of calypso. The cariso is only one of many song forms to emerge from the colonial era in Trinidad. Creole slaves and free Africans contributed a variety of songs and dances, including the bel air (derived from both African and French sources), the juba, the bamboula, the calinda (both a martial art and a song style), and the lavway (a road chant performed during carnival processions). Combined with these forms were British ballads, French folk songs, Venezuelan string music, and other types of Creole West Indian songs. Furthermore, as new musical forms were created or introduced to the island—American jazz, Venezuelan paseos, and ultimately such diverse forms as Hindi film music, reggae and dancehall, soul, and rhythm and blues—they were incorporated into calypso.
Claimed for Spain by Christopher Columbus in 1498, Trinidad has played host to colonizers, slaves, indentured laborers, and immigrants from diverse cultural backgrounds, many of whom contributed their own musical forms to the mix. However, the African musical forms of the slaves and the musical styles of French, English, and Spanish colonizers exercised perhaps the greatest influence.
Trinidad was opened by Spain to French colonists first in the 1770s and later in 1783. The French dominated the cultural life of the island up to and even beyond the English conquest in 1797. The French imported their pre-Lenten festival of carnival, and much of the earliest carnival music was sung in Creole or patois. During the nineteenth century, English culture, language, and religion increased in importance and influence, and many of the folk musical styles gradually changed from French Creole to English. As the English extended their hegemony over the island, they also embarked on a mission of reforming the carnival. By the 1880s unruly masqueraders and riots against police repression resulted in a massive campaign of controlling and channeling the public celebration into a manageable event. By the early 1900s calypso music, marked lyrically now by social satire, political commentary, humor, and sexual innuendo, was largely being performed in “calypso tents,” temporary venues in which calypsonians competed against each other for prizes offered by private sponsors.
The first calypso recordings were made in 1914, and by the 1920s and 1930s Trinidad’s finest calypso singers, such as Attila the Hun, Roaring Lion, and Lord Invader, were regularly recording and performing in the United States. “Rum and Coca-Cola” (1944) by the Andrews Sisters, a sanitized reinterpretation of a Lord Invader song, became an American hit. It also spawned a landmark lawsuit by Lord Invader against the American actor Morey Amsterdam, who illegally copyrighted the lyrics. Invader won the suit.
Although they faced routine censorship by the British colonial authorities, the calypsonians of this period, sometimes referred to as the golden age of calypso, displayed enormous creativity and invention in circumventing restrictions placed on them and creating songs rife with double entendre, inside jokes, and subtle parody. Audiences relied on clever calypsonians for insight into the ironies of colonial rule, the hypocrisy of the ruling classes, the meaning of certain scandals and outrages, and so on. Savvy politicians could often “take the temperature” of the public by the attitudes of their calypsonians.
From its earliest days, calypso music served as a forum for the expression of social and political views within the Caribbean. Remarkably, the criticism mounted by calypsonians was not limited to broad appeals against inequality, racism, poverty, and oppression, but tackled precise specificity laws, domestic policy, proposed legislation, foreign policy, labor relations, actions by public figures, and even speeches given by notable persons. Thus, in addition to humorous rivalries between singers, songs about the beauty of the land, and compositions with a ribald flavor, calypsos were composed with such titles as “Prison Improvement,” “Shop Closing Ordinance,” “The Commissioner’s Report,” “The European Situation,” “Devaluation,” “Slum Clearance,” “Reply to the Ministry,” and, fittingly, “The Censoring of Calypsoes Makes Us Glad.”
The arrival of indentured laborers from South Asia from the 1840s until 1917 dramatically changed the ethnic makeup of Trinidad. Competition for work and land created tensions between the island’s Africans and South Asians that ultimately manifested in political divisions being drawn along ethnic lines. Although never reaching the violence and discord of Guyana, where a similar immigration took place, the presence of Indians in Trinidad was closely followed by calypsonians. Initially, many calypsos dealing with Indians discussed “strange” customs, delicious food, and beautiful women. Creole calypsonians often commented in song on how they fell in love with an Indian girl or how they were able to participate in an Indian feast. As political tensions heated up during the 1950s, however, calypsos became more pointedly political. By 1961 the calypsonian Striker, registering his dismay at the deep ethnic division present in local politics, remarked in song that “Negro can’t get a vote from Indian.” Today there are a number of noted Indian calypsonians, both men and women, as well as African artists performing in the Indian-influenced genre of chutney soca. Even so, tensions between the two communities persist and are often played out musically over the airways and in the calypso tents of Trinidad.
In addition to the rebellious and resistant side of calypso, there was a strong dose of patriotism (songs in favor of England during the Boer War [1899–1902], World War I [1914–1918], and World War II [1939–1945], for instance, were common). Furthermore, calypsonians recorded the achievements of the British Empire and the royal family with great enthusiasm. Compositions in favor of the Empire coexisted with little discomfort alongside songs detailing the often oppressive conditions under which the children of the Empire labored.
Although not technically a calypso, the well-known “Banana Boat Song,” a traditional Jamaican folksong whose best-known rendition was recorded by Harry Belafonte on his 1956 album Calypso, helped to make that album the first to sell more than a million copies.
Calypso Since Independence
In 1956 a calypsonian known as the Mighty Sparrow penned “Jean and Dinah,” a commentary in song about the sudden availability and desperation of prostitutes in Port of Spain after the departure of the free-spending American sailors stationed in Trinidad during World War II. While the song became an international hit, and won the calypso “crown” for Sparrow, it is perhaps even more important as a testimony to the renewed sense of cultural and political confidence then being experienced across the Caribbean as independence movements were flourishing. The 1950s marked a pivotal point in the development of calypso and perhaps inaugurated what might be called the “independence period” in calypso.
As Trinidad, Jamaica, Barbados, and other Englishspeaking islands continued their drive toward independence from the United Kingdom, folk idioms such as calypso, carnival, steel band, the musical form ska, and even sports such as cricket began to take on a nationalist tone. Nation-building calypsos, as they are sometimes called, emerged to praise the efforts of certain political parties and politicians and to encourage proper behavior and decorum among the populace.
The 1960s brought to the Caribbean not only independence but also the Black Power movement. Calypso reflected this new cultural consciousness lyrically; it also reflected the cultural source from which it came—the United States. One of the most important figures to emerge at this time was the Mighty Chalkdust, a teacher and calypsonian who obtained his Ph.D. from the University of Michigan and has, under his given name, Hollis Liverpool, researched and published widely on calypso, carnival, and Trinidadian culture in general.
Traditionally accompanied by acoustic music, calypso increasingly came to incorporate electronic instrumentation and the influence of North American musical styles such as rhythm and blues and soul. Alongside Black Power came the women’s liberation movement and increasing (though still small) numbers of women singers. Indeed, women as calypsonians are not given nearly the attention they deserve in the literature. Although largely excluded from the ranks of early recorded calypsonians, and often derided in songs such as “Jean and Dinah,” women have been instrumental in the development of Trinidadian music as chantwells (praise singers for stickfighters and singers of road marches) and in religious music. In the 1960s, attitudes toward women calypsonians began to change, and it was, perhaps ironically, the Mighty Sparrow who gave the then-unknown singer Calypso Rose her start. Along with Singing Francine and Denyse Plummer, Rose has become one of the most popular calypsonians of all time.
With the rise of outside influences from North America came further influences from diverse musical sources, including Jamaican reggae and (due to the presence of a large and thriving Indian population) Hindi film music. The result has been the development of new musical forms, such as soca, chutney soca, rapso, raga, and others.
Born in 1941, Garfield Blackman, known as Lord Shorty, would become the creator of soca music. Concerned that calypso was declining in relation to reggae, Lord Shorty experimented with the calypso rhythm. He combined Indian instruments such as the dholak, tabla, and dhantal with traditional calypso instrumentation. The result was a new musical hybrid that he called solka. With his 1974 album Endless Vibrations and the single “Shanti Om,” Shorty sparked a revolution in Caribbean music. Initially the term solka referred to an attempt to recapture the “soul of calypso,” which he felt was one of inclusion, common struggle, and resistance to oppression. Shorty hoped that the “Indianization” of calypso would bring together the musical traditions of Trinidad and Tobago’s two major ethnic groups, the descendants of African slaves and of indentured laborers from India. The name was later changed to soca, and it is routinely if erroneously explained as a fusion of soul and calypso.
By the turn of the 1980s soca was rapidly becoming the music of choice for Trinidadians during carnival time. The Montserratian singer Arrow did much to popularize soca internationally with his 1983 number-one soca classic “Hot Hot Hot.” Due to the globalization of the music industry, soca has evolved swiftly and has incorporated many outside influences, spawning such diverse subgenres as ragga soca and chutney soca. Although soca has become increasingly popular, many critics within the region have pointed to its reluctance to be anything more than “party music.” The political and social commentary once so central to calypso has had to find a new home in other Caribbean musical genres. In Trinidad this mantle has largely been taken up by rapso. Rapso is a unique style of street poetry from Trinidad and Tobago that originated in the 1970s (although it was not named rapso until the 1980s by Brother Resistance). Often credited to Lancelot Layne, rapso was created in a spirit of political protest and social justice. Layne’s 1970 hit “Blow Away” is considered the first rapso recording. Layne is also well remembered for his 1971 recording “Get Off the Radio.”
Beginning as a folk music of protest, social commentary, and political satire, calypso has emerged as one of the most important, internationally recognized, and fecund musical forms of the twentieth century.
- Cowley, John. 1996. Carnival, Canboulay, and Calypso: Traditions in the Making. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
- Hill, Donald R. 1993. Calypso Calaloo: Early Carnival Music in Trinidad. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.
- Hill, Errol. 1972. The Trinidad Carnival: Mandate for a National Theatre. Austin: University of Texas Press.
- Manuel, Peter, with Kenneth Bilby and Michael Largey. 2006. Caribbean Currents: Caribbean Music from Rumba to Reggae. Rev. ed. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
- Quevedo, Raymond. 1983. Atilla’s Kaiso: A Short History of Trinidad Calypso. Saint Augustine, Trinidad and Tobago: University of the West Indies.
- Rohlehr, Gordon. 1990. Calypso and Society in Pre-Independence Trinidad. Tunapuna, Trinidad and Tobago: Author.
- Warner, Keith Q. 1999. Kaiso! the Trinidad Calypso: A Study of Calypso as Oral Literature. 3rd ed. Pueblo, CO: Passeggiata.
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