Celebrating Trinidad’s Calypso

October is Calypso History Month in Trinidad & Tobago. Debbie Jacob explains why this indigenous folk music means so much to the region

Singers like the Mighty Sparrow had a pivotal role in the independence movement. Photograph courtesy Trinidad ExpressThe late Alphonsus “Arrow” Cassell had a massive international hit with “Hot Hot Hot”. Photograph courtesy Chad Cumberbatch

It has been called the people’s newspaper, and the history of much of the Caribbean is wrapped up in it. Calypso music documents events, and it’s the backbone of West Indian carnival.

In Trinidad & Tobago, the Unified Calypsonians Organisation (TUCO) recognises calypso’s vital role in the Caribbean and celebrates the art form during Calypso History Month in October.

“Calypso is alive and more than that, calypso celebrates life,” says Lutalo Masimba, the president of TUCO. Known in the calypso world as Brother Resistance, he says calypso is the rhythm of West Indian life.

“It celebrates and analyses life and the way we live it.”

Calypso has been a vital means of expression, and indeed rebellion in the former British West Indies. By using double entendre (double meanings) slaves poked fun at plantation owners and communicated in something close to a secret language while the slavemasters felt they were simply being entertained. Calypso, a form of quiet rebellion, was also a perfect vehicle for the independence movement that swept through the Caribbean countries colonised by the British.

Dr Gordon Rohlehr, emeritus professor of literature at the University of the West Indies, has pointed out on many occasions the role of calypsonians such as Slinger Francisco, the Mighty Sparrow, in the independence movement. Singing songs like “Dan is the Man in the Van”, about the British education system, or “Jean and Dinah”, about the American presence at the naval base in Chaguaramas, Sparrow created a platform for challenging colonialism.

Dr Hollis Liverpool, a former schoolteacher, who is known in the calypso world as Chalkdust, has also sung and written about calypso’s role as both ritual and rebellion.

Today, visitors to Caribbean carnivals – including Cropover in Barbados – experience traditional calypso being sung in calypso tents, while soca music, the upbeat, bubbly, modern, danceable version of calypso, propels masqueraders through the streets during Carnival.

“And while the music excites and ignites the world, the singers who bring the music have triumphed over trials and tribulation,”says Brother Resistance.

He’s talking about the descendants of the powerful chantuelles, the first calypsonians, who, he says, “went through pressure and pain for the artform.”

From slavery through colonialism, the calypsonians were there to lend a voice to the disenfranchised Caribbean people. Under colonialism, early calypsonians such as the Growling Tiger faced censorship. The tension did not ease up after independence. Blue Boy’s “Soca Baptist” became Road March under immense pressure from Shouter Baptists who wanted it banned because they considered it sacrilegious.

“In spite of all the obstacles calypsonians have soldiered on, singing the blues as they battle against oppression. Today they are triumphant,” says Brother Resistance.

Indeed, calypso has come a long way. David Rudder’s “Rally ‘round the West Indies” has become an unofficial regional anthem. Trinidad & Tobago’s Minister for the Arts and Multiculturalism is Winston “Gypsy” Peters, a former national Calypso Monarch and a champion of extempo, a type of freestyle calypso war sung on the spot, to a traditional melody used by all contestants.

TUCO’s celebrations this October honour famous calypsonians past and present throughout the islands. From Barbados there is Anthony “Mighty Gabby” Carter; Stedson Wiltshire, known as Red Plastic Bag; Alison Hinds; and Edwin Yearwood. Grenada boasts Edson Mitchell, “King Ajamu”, who is equally adept in calypso, soca, parang, and reggae.

Brother Resistance says, “Antigua, St Kitts-Nevis and Anguilla claim Rupert ‘Swallow’ Phillo, Isidore ‘Mighty Dow’ York, and Burning Flames. And the same way Alston ‘Beckett’ Cyrus, Trevor Lockhart ‘Winston So So’, and Frankie McIntosh blazed the trail for Vincey mas and St Vincent, is the same way the international charts opened up for Kevin Lyttle with the hit song ‘Turn Me On’.”

TUCO’s celebrations also honour the late Alphonsus “Arrow” Cassell and his massive international hit “Hot Hot Hot”.

Trinidad & Tobago still boasts of having the living legend Winston Bailey, the Mighty Shadow, who is credited with being one of the founding fathers of soca music. Bailey’s percolating bass guitar rhythms were crucial in the development of soca. No calypso celebration would be complete without mention of the late, great Lord Kitchener, who owned the most Trinidad & Tobago Road Marches.

If you’re in Trinidad & Tobago come October, check out the events for Calypso History Month. TUCO has designated it as a time of celebration, reflection, protection, and affirmation. There will be seminars, workshops, a lecture series, exhibitions, and live performances, all to honour calypso’s voice.