Calypso is one of the many genres of music that emerged from the Caribbean. Looking at its name, you might think it has some ties to Greece, but you'd be wrong.
It originated from a West African genre called Kaiso and is characterized by a calypso rhythm, witty lyrics, and a call-and-response format.
Let's look at the genre's characteristics, history, and legends to clearly define it.
Definition: What Is Calypso Music?
The definition of Calypso music is a popular Caribbean music genre with a fun beat and deep lyrics. The call-and-response singing methods in traditional calypso music make it fun to sing along to, and the syncopated 2/4 is famously fun to dance to.
But there's more to Calypso than just good vibes. For many people, music is freedom, especially in the case of Calypso as a genre. Trinidad's enslaved population used Calypso music to spread information and mock their masters. It gave them a voice during difficult times.
Calypso is also a way Islanders stay connected to their ancestry because it uses a range of funky and diverse sounds that originated in West Africa. It's an intriguing type of music that combines two distinct traits in its music to bring life to any gathering or Carnival: witty, satirical lyrics and a humorous style of energetic melody.
Calypso Music Characteristics
Here are some of Calypso music's unique identifiers.
Many Calypso songs are adapted from folk songs, which adds a lot of cultural significance to the songs.
A Mix Of Different Languages
Originally, calypso singers sang in French creole with some traces of Spanish, but as English became Trinidad and Tobago's official language, most calypso lyrics adapted to the change. However, there is still evidence of the country's linguistic past in how many countries blend lyrics.
A Griot Singing Lead Vocals
The griot singer does more than just sing lead vocals. They also serve as a storyteller, historian, and poet, among other things. In its early days, Calypso songs told folk tales in a call-and-response format.
The Use Of A Steel Pan
Calypso wouldn't be Calypso if it didn't have the sound of a steel pan, also known as a steel drum. It follows a 2/4 or a 4/4 rhythm.
7 Examples Of Calypso Music
Here are some of the most famous Calypso songs to truly give you an idea of what the genre sounds like.
“Jean and Dinah” by Mighty Sparrow
Mighty Sparrow is a legendary Calypso artist, so it's only right that we start this list with one of his most famous songs, Jean and Dinah. It was the song that won him his first Calypso Monarch crown and Trinidad Carnival Road March title.
If you were to ask Calypso fans worldwide what the greatest Calypso song of all time is, you'd hear the name of this song several times. The song offers commentary on the prostitution that was rampant at the time. It has a smooth melody and inspired a play with the same name.
“Day-O (Banana Boat Song)” by Harry Belafonte
You've probably heard this song from Harry Belafonte at some point. Despite being a Jamaican folk song with mento influences, the song is ultimately classified as Calypso. The song follows a call-and-response format. It's from the perspective of a night shift dock worker waiting for the number of bananas he stacked to be tallied so he can go home.
The song is extremely popular and was featured prominently in the movie Beetlejuice.
“Bee's Melody” by Lord Kitchener
Lord Kitchener is another Calypso legend whose name needs to be mentioned every time anyone speaks about the genre. Bee's Melody is an upbeat song that entices even the most reserved people to dance. The song tells us about a man so entranced by the sound of bees buzzing that he can't resist staying and dancing to it, even if he gets stung.
“Jump In The Line (Shake, Senora)” by Harry Belafonte
Harry Belafonte sang the most famous version of Jump In The Line, but Lord Kitchener originally wrote it. The song speaks about a beautiful woman who is an irresistible dancer. It encourages her— and you— to dance to the song's infectious rhythm.
“Rum & Coca Cola” by Lord Invader
If you've only heard the Andrew Sister's version of this song, you may be surprised to learn that the song was originally by a calypsonian legend called Lord Invader. There was a lengthy court case about the rights to the song. While Lord Invader didn't regain the rights to his song, he was compensated.
Similarly to Jean and Dinah, the song offers social commentary on the prostitution that was widespread in the country at the time. The lyrics talk about women in Trinidad earning money from the American soldiers. The song has a catchy beat, combined with Lord Invader's distinct voice, which makes this song unforgettable.
“Solomon” by Calypso Rose
Calypso Rose is Calypso's first female superstar. She's known for songs that address gender and racial inequalities in the country. Solomon is a song about a woman asking her abusive partner to leave her alone.
She laments that the titular Solomon is an awful partner who doesn't contribute anything to the household. Despite speaking about a serious issue, the song's smooth melody and catchy beat make it great to dance and sing along to.
“Money is King” by Growling Tiger
Money Is King is the most popular song by calypsonian legend Growling Tiger. Growling Tiger is renowned for using his songs to provide political and social commentary about the state of Trinidadian society.
Money is King is his most popular song, and it addresses the economic inequality that plagued the country at the time. The lyrics speak about how rich members of society can use their money to get away with anything, while the poor members of society get treated like second-class citizens.
Growling Tiger's smooth voice adds to the delivery of his message and makes this song a timeless classic
“Mary Ann” by Roaring Lion
Roaring Lion's Mary Ann is as authentic as you can get when talking about Calypso. It features a traditional calypso rhythm, including a steel man. The song was extremely popular in the 195, especially amongst steel pan players.
The song's lyrics speak about persons at a Carnival singing about a woman called Mary Anne who works at the seaside sifting sand.
5 Top Calypso Musicians
There are far too many iconic Calypso singers for us to include them all, but these five artists are undeniably legends. From commercial success to impact, no one can deny the influence of these 5 top Calypso artists.
Slinger Francisco, or as he's most famously known, Mighty Sparrow, is one of the most iconic names in Calypso. He's been crowned “Calypso King of the World.” He has countless accolades behind his name, including winning the Carnival Road March and Calypso King/Monarch title eight times.
Some of his most iconic songs include:
- Sixty Million Frenchmen
- Melda (Obeah Wedding)
- Congo Man
- Sa Sa Yea
- Mas in Brooklyn
When Soca started gaining popularity in Trinidad, Francisco embraced the change. He started making music that was a fusion of the two, further solidifying his position as one of the greats. He should have received the Trinidad & Tobago lifetime award in New York back in 2013, but unfortunately, this was delayed due to health issues.
Francisco still releases music to this day and is still widely loved.
Rupert Westmore Grant, better known as Lord Invader, is a legendary Calypso artist known for his rustic folk aura and gravelly voice.
He recorded for labels like RCA Bluebird and won calypso competitions. Another thing that Lord Invader is known for is being a part of an extensive lawsuit over the rights to his song “Rum and Coca-Cola.”
He went to New York City in 1941 to represent calypso music under Decca Records. During this time, Morey Amsterdam copied “Rum and Coca-Cola” and gave it to the Andrews Sisters, who made it a smash hit. Grant sued Amsterdam for the rights to his song and was a part of a lawsuit that lasted for an extremely long time.
During this time, he recorded songs for Moses Asch and established himself as a calypso legend in New York City. Grant eventually won his lawsuit. However, he only received financial compensation and did not retain the rights to his song. He also didn't receive his compensation for an extremely long time.
It took an extremely long time for him to get his compensation, so long that he returned to Trinidad, where he had a successful career.
Harry Belafonte is not Trinidadian, but he is still a Calypso legend. The Jamaican- American singer recorded two of Calypso's most popular songs, which we mentioned earlier. He played a major role in popularizing Calypso music among an international audience.
Later in his career, Belafontecommitted to activism in both his music and personal life. His songs started including more political and social commentary. Belafonte has been a UNICEF Goodwill ambassador since 1987. Not only that, he worked closely with activists Paul Robeson and Martin Luther King. He was also extremely vocal against Apartheid.
Belafonte won three grammys, one Emmy, and a Tony throughout his career.
Linda McCartha Monica Sandy-Lewis renamed herself Calypso Rose because roses were the mother of all flowers, and she was the mother of Calypso. She was one of the critically and commercially successful women in the then male-dominated dominated industry.
She achieved great critical success and has been awarded virtually every award available in the Caribbean. In addition to being a musical legend, Lewis is also an activist. She has raised awareness through her music, both through her song lyrics and by raising money through her performances. She was also a UN Goodwill ambassador for former child soldiers.
Aldwyn Roberts, better known as Lord Kitchener, has been a prominent name in the Calypso world since he was a teenager. He was given his name by Growling Tiger, another Calypso legend.
Roberts won his first Road March title in 1946 and gained international acclaim after that due to his popularity with the US troops. He was also incredibly successful in the UK. He quickly became a regular on BBC radio. He maintained his popularity for years, even opening a nightclub, before returning to Trinidad and dominating the industry alongside Mighty Sparrow.
The History Of Calypso Music
In Trinidad, around the eighteenth century, groups of African slaves originally developed what we now know as calypso music. The music was an extension of a West African genre known as kaiso, and the double-entendre-filled satirical lyrics often made fun of slave owners.
Calypso has several influences. During the genre's development, artists fused African, French, English, and Spanish elements to create the unique genre we know and love today.
Calypso's rise in popularity and its cultural significance is closely intertwined with the Trinidadian tradition of Carnival. Carnival was introduced to the islands by the French. The slaves could not participate in the French celebrations, so they had their own celebration called Canboulay, which helped shape Calypso's sound.
When slavery was outlawed in Trinidad and Tobago in 1834, freed slaves rose to fame as performers in special calypso tents.
According to historical records, Lovey's String Band made the first known calypso music recording in New York City in 1912. The Iron Duke, Roaring Lion, Attila the Hun, and Lord Invader were among the early 20th century stars who pioneered the genre.
The 1950s was when the most legendary Calypso artists rose to prominence. Mighty Sparrow and Lord Kitchener are two of the icons that emerged from this period.
Although it's not that popular worldwide, some calypso songs have appeared in major mainstream movies like The Little Mermaid and Beetlejuice. With that said, It’s still played a ton in Trinidad.
What Is Calypso Music? Final Thoughts
Calypso music was a way for people to protest injustice from the days of slavery, where it acted as a voice for the slaves. It continues to serve as a voice for the disadvantaged population even now in the modern day. Calypso is more than just catchy dance music.
It's a vehicle for social change and also a celebration of life. While Calypso will also be linked to Trinidad, fans can apply the song's meaning worldwide, and everyone can enjoy the songs.