If, indeed, a country may possess a heart and a soul, then the lifeblood of Trinidad and Tobago pulses to the rhythms of calypso music, and the country's hope of immortality rests with those of her children who take up the tradition and the responsibilities that come with it.


Calypso traces its roots back to West African kaiso. It began in Trinidad with the arrival of the first black slaves brought to work the sugar plantations. They were forbidden to speak to each other, shackled and put to work in the same way that blacks brought to America would be. And just as the American slaves would do, the slaves of Trinidad used music to communicate. Calypso was a political tool from the moment of its inception, and while entertainment was certainly a purpose of calypso, it was not its main purpose. The best examples of calypso are political and social commentaries, from classics like King Austin's "Progress":

I have already seen
The world has become divided
Between race, colour, creed and class
And some of the things
The scriptures predict
Truthfully come to pass
Soil that wouldn't bear
Children making children
To be a part of this growing mass;
And I ask, if this is progress,
How long will it last?

to the more modern, such as David Rudder's 1988 hit "Haiti":

When there's anguish in Port-Au-Prince
It's still Africa crying
We're outing fires in faraway places
When our neighbours are just burning.
They say the Middle Passage is gone
So how come overcrowded boats still haunt our lives?
I refuse to believe that we good people
Would forever turn our hearts and eyes

Haiti I'm sorry
We misunderstood you,
But one day we'll turn around
And look inside you.
Haiti I'm sorry
Haiti I'm so sorry...
But one day we'll turn our heads,
Restore your glory.

The best calypsoes often include wit and stinging humour that do not happen to be showcased in the examples above: a few years before my family emigrated, for instance, Chalkie's popular refrain was if you can't run the country, then call in Kirpalani!, Kirpalani being a major chain of jewelers at the time, and a symbol of well-maintained wealth. Ironically, the chain is now defunct, having declared bankruptcy. But at the time the lyrics were penned, Kirpalani as an establishment seemed unsinkable. Even more pointedly, a mere summer or two before our emigration, the most popular calypso, sung by Gypsy, was "The Sinking Ship". Its lyrics likened Trinidad to a luxury liner, and described how the country had suffered from the death of its first captain, Prime Minister Eric Williams, and the subsequent transfer of power to Prime Minister George Chambers. Gypsy sang:

Captain, the ship is sinking
Captain, the seas are rough
Shall we abandon ship?
Or shall we stay on it
And perish slow?
We don’t know, we don't know.
Captain, you tell we what to do.


Calypso, as one might expect, has come to have a curious mixture of informality with traditions and expectations over the years. In the early days, calypsonians formed roving groups which would perform at various places during the months leading up to Carnival, (the Monday and Tuesday preceding Ash Wednesday and Lent), never staying long. Because these stops were brief and the shelters gone after Carnival, they were known as "calypso tents". Most calypsonians, and the tents themselves, took stage names. Today, that custom is less rigidly obeyed; David Rudder and Machel Montano are two who have chosen to use their real names instead of picking an alias, such as Gypsy or Lord Kitchener did.

Calypso Diluted?

Among the biggest departures -- some have not hesitated to call it a "betrayal" -- from the calypso of old, has been the modern mixing of calypso rhythms with others, such as the Jamaican reggae and the East Indian rhythms, for such new genres as raga-soca and soca-chutney, respectively. The new genres hold a new attraction for the younger generations, being well-suited to light-hearted entertainment. Thus, the calypso as a finely honed instrument for socio-political change is being set aside in favour of the fun, new melodies and easy lyrics. The merit of the change is hotly disputed, and will likely continue to be for some time. The only thing that can be said with certainty about calypso's future is that, in whatever form it survives, it will not lose its appeal.

Can you hear a distant drum,
Bouncing on the laughter of a melody? (yeah, yeah)
And does the rhythm tell you, "come, come, come, come,"?
Does your spirit do a dance to this symphony? (yeah, yeah)
And does it tell you that your heart is afire? (oh, yeah)
And does it tell you that your pain is a liar? (oh, yeah)
And does it wash away all your unlovely?
Well, are you ready for a brand new discovery?

Calypso, calypso, calypso music (yeah, yeah)
Calypso, calypso, calypso music (yeah, yeah)
Singing ohyeah a ohyeah a ohyeah calypso
Singing ohyeah a ohyeah a ohyeah calypso...

-- David Rudder, "Calypso Music"

Note: I've contacted the artists involved, and await final permission. I don't anticipate a problem: calypso, as a genre, was meant to be shared, relying heavily on reproduction everywhere. In fact, the ultimate success of a calypso comes when the lyrics make it into everyday speech, sometimes becoming a kind of shorthand by which people refer to events and situations. For instance, any Trini who tells you "road make to walk" is referring to a calypso lyric, and is probably complaining about interference by authorities in something that, while not law, was a generally accepted right. "Road make to walk on Carnival day" is the lyric, a response to people who object to non-costumed onlookers joining the parade of costumed floats.