Posts Tagged trinidad

Why should the Trop Rock Community thank Christopher Columbus?

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Why should the Trop Rock Community thank Christopher Columbus?

On July 31, 1498, Christopher Columbus discovered the Island of Trinidad. Why is this important, you ask? Without this discovery, you might not know who Lynley Tolls, Frankendread, John Patti, and many more are. The Steel Pans originated in Trinidad.

Below is a history of the Steel Pan:

For over 50 years the world has enjoyed the scintillating, pulsating music of the steelband. Audiences from London to New York and beyond have been left spellbound, amazed that such rich tonal quality could come from discarded oil drums. The refined sound we now hear is the result of decades of hard work, research and innovations by master tuners such as Ellie Mannette, Neville Jules, Bertie Marshall, Anthony Williams, Rudolph Charles and Lincoln Noel to name a few. But how and where did it all start?

There are varying accounts as to the exact date and location in Trinidad the first steelpan was tuned since no official records were kept by either the pioneers or the British colonial government of the day. This, however, is one popular version. Necessity, it is said, is the mother of all inventions, and the steelpan is sound proof of that maxim. It was born out of deprivation, a desperate need by a people to fill the void that was left when something central to their existence was taken away.

SteelPanSince the 1800s, the inhabitants of Trinidad had been participating in a street carnival brought to the Caribbean island by the French. When the freed slaves (slavery was abolished in the West Indies in 1834) joined in the festivities, they could not afford the conventional instruments, so they used African drums, the instruments of their ancestors, then created percussion bands made up of bamboo joints cut from the bamboo plant. The “Tamboo Bamboo” bands (tamboo is a corruption of the French word tambour which means drum) bands were rhythmic ensembles that provided the accompaniment for the masqueraders in the annual parade.

Throughout the 1920s and 30s these bands flourished, but by 1940 something dreadful was about to plunge the world into perhaps its darkest and most notorious period in the twentieth century. Unwittingly, the events of that dark era would provide the beam that lit the way to the discovery of a new musical instrument.

When Adolf Hitler drew Europe into World War Two, the British colonial government summarily banned the Tamboo Bamboo bands, forcing the people to look for other ways to make merry. Readily available were steel drums discarded by the oil refineries on the island.

As they banged against the flat surface of the drum, the fun seekers accidentally stumbled upon a sound that would lead to further experimentations, and consequently, the birth of steelpan, the only musical invention of the twentieth century.

While death and destruction consumed Europe in the early forties, the lives of the underprivileged, unemployed young men in Trinidad were filled with hope and excitement. They realized that the constant pounding against the flat end of the drum left an indentation, and the sound changed as well. Word would soon spread about the discovery, and the possibility of making music with the drums. Further experiments would follow. To achieve further indentation, they would heat the drums in bonfires. What they discovered too was that by varying the size and depth on the indentation, it was possible to get more notes with different tones. As the creativity of these youths took over, one note led to two, three, then four on a single drum.

When the war ended in 1945, Trinidadians, like most people around the world, took to the streets in celebration, carrying of course, their new instruments. While they made music, there were still limitations. They needed an instrument on which an eight-note scale could be played. Who would be the first to tune such an instrument?

It is said that a young man from a depressed area of east Port of Spain, the capital city, was the first to do so. Legend has it that Winston Spree Simon, tirelessly working to improve on the initial discovery was able, sometime in the early to mid-forties, to tune the ping pong; on which he could play a complete eight-note scale. With rubber wrapped around one end of a piece of stick, Spree played a simple melody to the excitement of those who surrounded him at what would later come to be known as the panyard. News of Spree’s achievement spread like wildfire around Port of Spain and from there on, experimentation with the drums went on apace across the country.

Much like the rapid changes in modern technology, the development of different instruments with their own distinct tone came in quick succession. At the dawn of the fifties names such as Ellie Mannette and Neville Jules emerged as top class tuners. Simultaneously, bands were being formed across the land, some of them adopting names from American movies such as Destination Tokyo, Casablanca, Rising Sun, Invaders, Tripoli, Bar 20, Red Army, Desperadoes.

IMG_2519These bands were made up of instruments such as the ping pong (which by that time had been improved and expanded by the likes of Mannette and renamed the tenor pan), double seconds, guitars, cellos and bass. To further illustrate the rapid development of the instrument, by 1951 Trinidad was invited to send a steelband to the Festival of Britain at the South Bank Exhibition. This led to the formation of the Trinidad All Steel Percussion Orchestra (TASPO) with members drawn from steelbands such as Casablanca, Invaders, Free French, Crossfire, Tokyo, Southern Symphony, North Stars, Rising Sun, Sun Valley and City Syncopators. Among the chosen few were Mannette, Spree and a man who would soon earn his place among the legendary innovators/tuners, Anthony Williams.

By the time the sixties rolled around, the steelband was still a work in progress. The panyards became laboratories, and men like Williams would take the experiments one step further. His contribution was perhaps the most innovative piece of work of that era. He designed a tenor pan known as the “fourths and fifths,” meaning that next to the tonic note were the fourth and fifth notes of that scale. This design is still the standard used in most steelbands to this day. And Bertie Marshall of the Highlanders would soon follow with his creation of the double tenor, a must in every steelband. The seventies belonged to Rudolph Charles, leader of the Desperadoes who took innovations beyond the tuning aspect of the instruments. He introduced the nine and twelve bass, which effectively extended the range and depth of the bass drums by increasing the number of drums from the traditional six to nine and then to twelve.

Charles followed up with the quadrophonic, and improvements on the pitch of the tenor pan to what is now known as the high tenor; He also changed the appearance of the steelband with the silver chroming of instruments replacing the oil paints of the fifties and sixties. For better movement of bands through the streets, and to protect the instruments from the sun during the carnival parades, he put the stands on wheels and covered them with canopies.

These developments were not confined to Trinidad and indeed Tobago, the other half of the twin-island nation. Across the seas on the smaller islands of the eastern Caribbean, in the late fifties and sixties, bands were being formed as well, at first with instruments bought in Trinidad, but later with home-made brands by men who had, over time, learned the art of tuning. For instance in the early fifties, Antigua, to the north, boasted of such bands as Brute Force and Hell’s Gate. In the decades that followed, the steelband would move beyond the shores the Caribbean to North America, England, other parts of Europe such as Holland, Switzerland, Sweden and as far east as China, Japan. Today in Trinidad alone, there are more than 100 steelbands. Across the world, hundreds more.

Back in Trinidad in the late fifties/sixties, the developments in the steelband world were not simply a contribution to the family of musical instruments. The bands, comprised mainly of unemployed young black men, often found themselves in violent confrontation, something akin to the gang warfare that gripped certain cities in North America. As a result, these young men who should have been regarded as pioneers,were reviled by a large portion of the society, regarded as social outcasts, particularly by the middle and upper classes.

After the island became independent from Britain in 1962, the new government moved to change the image of the panmen as they were being called. Official involvement was evident with the hiring of bands to perform at social and state functions. Corporate sponsorship was also encouraged to provide the bands with funds to purchase drums, pay for arrangers, tuners and uniforms. Hence such marriages as Amoco Renegades, Coca Cola Desperadoes, (now West Indian Tobacco Company (WITCO) Desperadoes, Pan Am North Stars (since disbanded), Shell Invaders (now BWIA Invaders), Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce (CIBC) Starlift (now Petrotrin Starlift). The involvement of corporate citizens in the affairs of these motley groups slowly helped to erase the stigma and bring about social acceptance by the wider community. Panmen are now regarded as the cultural ambassadors of the land and the steelpan has been officially recognized as the national instrument. In addition, both sponsor and band have grown to respect each other’s role in their mutual existence.

With this new image, the war on the streets soon gave way to another kind of warfare -a musical war on the stage. In 1963, the Carnival Development Committee which was formed to put a sense of organization into the street festival, started the panorama competition with each band vying for recognition as the superior band in the land. In this competition, every band is required to play a 10-minute rendition of a calypso of choice. The winners and other participants are rewarded financially and there are other perks, such as trips overseas and engagements at home.

Over the past three decades, several bands have shot into the national consciousness as they repeatedly claimed the coveted title as panorama champions. Bands such as Desperadoes and Renegades (9 wins each), All Stars (4), Phase Two Pan Groove (2), Exodus (1) are now household names with international followings.

Indeed, over the past four decades, the steelpan has come a long way, moving from the panyards of the most depressed areas of a society to some of the most prestigious concert halls around the world. The Desperadoes, for instance, have performed at the Royal Albert Hall in London, Carnegie Hall, the Apollo and Lincoln Theaters in New York, the United Nations building, and the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. Other bands like Renegades, All Stars, Phase Two, Exodus have wooed audiences from London to Paris to Japan, mesmerizing them with their renditions of some of the most complex works of the classic composers such as Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Sibelius, Rossini, Borodin.

As the world gets ready to enter the new millennium, the students of Spree, Mannette, Williams, Marshall, Charles who with their genius and creativity gave this century perhaps its sweetest gift, are preparing to take pan to higher heights. No one knows what the final product will be, but we know for sure that it will continue to make a joyful noise unto the world of music.

History can be found HERE.

On Island Time in Paradise – Trinidad & Tobago

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April 13, 2012

It has been a while since I wrote last. It is not that I haven’t had
a lot to write about, rather it because I have been staying so active
that I haven’t found the time to check in with my friends in other
parts of the world. Every time I post I could write about the
wonderful weather, but I suspect the weather is pretty good back in
the much of the United States now, too. It is great here as always.
The crowds are diminishing and the islands are more to my liking as
they slow down and revert back to the relaxed pace of the off-peak
season. I am still on the island of Tobago and honestly, I have
stayed here longer than I expected to. I am growing to love this land
and her people and her relaxed way of life. I have done a bit of
camping on some of the remote beaches. Hiked and walked and ridden my
scooter all over the island.
Earlier in the week I was invited to play golf with a couple of guys
from Florida. They were down here for a 14 day fishing trip. They
said they had chartered a boat and spent the past few days fishing and
drinking rum. After going with them the Blue Horizon Resort where
they had stayed since they have been here, I suspect they have been
drinking more than fishing. I haven’t played much golf in the past 20
years and don’t really see much point in the game as a whole but I do
realize that I am in the minority in many parts of the world. You
know the main reason that I probably feel this way is that I am not
much good at it. At any rate, I decided to go with them to play.
Once I got to the course I decided after my first drive I figured I
would enjoy the day a lot more if I didn’t swing clubs. So, I made it
my task to drink beer and watch them play. I drove a cart and really
enjoyed to company. The course was pretty and the experience was a
good one so I considered the day a success. These guys told me that I
should find my way to the King’s Bay Café. They said it is known for
its great food and as they said “the most beautiful view on the

The next day I found my way to the café and discovered that if
anything they had undersold it. Since then I have been there four
more times. It looks a little like a brightly colored small cottage
overlooking the sea. The view is wonderful and so is the food.
Sitting on the porch looking out over the bay below, you can almost
imagine seeing Captain Edward Teach (Blackbeard) sailing his ship into
the safety of the tall hills surrounding the protected waters far
below you, under his frightening demonic black white and red flag of a
satanic skeleton, stabbing a heart with a huge arrow shaped spear.
This island was a haven to pirates. Buccaneers from the early 18th
century chose Trinidad and Tobago as a jumping off point to “take
advantage” of the Spanish and Portuguese shipping lanes. They moored
in these harbors and bays to steal away and hide until they were
ready for their next encounter with a ship loaded with rum, sugar and
gold. If you are ever on this island, I highly recommend you find
your way to the King’s Bay Café. It is a gem in this jewel of an
island and let your imagination transport you back to a time when
pirates worked these waters and enjoyed the relative safety of these

You know, when you are traveling in this part of the world you need to
remember that there really is an island of Margarita. I don’t know if
this is the place that Jimmy Buffett has found in the bottom of a
tequila bottle, but just may be. This trip isn’t taking me there, but
rest just north of the coast of South America and is about 200 miles
west of Tobago. In fact, this was there that Captain “Red Legs”
Greaves claimed his biggest booty. He captured a huge quantity of
gold and pearls there and spared the towns and villages by not
plundering them in the process. If there is truly honor among
thieves, Red Legs was the most honorable. He is known for “rewriting”
the pirate code to make certain that women and prisoners were treated
properly when they were captured. He was never known to rob the poor
so, in a sense, he was the Robin Hood of the Caribbean pirates. He
is probably best known for being captured in Jamaica where he escaped
from jail during the terrible earthquake that submerged the old city
of Port Royal, being one of the few that escaped alive from that
horrific natural disaster. Okay, that is pirate history lesson for the
day. Back to Tobago where, I have to share, that I have honestly
thought over the past few days that I might like to settle…if I ever
decide to settle in just one place.

Tomorrow, I will be grabbing my pack and my sleeping bag, turning in
my rental scooter in order to find passage to another piece of
paradise. I am trying to find my way to Grenada and, if I can get a
cheap enough ticket, find a friend with a sailboat headed in that
direction or someone that is willing to let me crew for them for the
trip, I will be underway. It is only about 90 or 100 miles from here
to there, but that is too far to swim so, tonight I will be searching
for a lift to Grenada. Hopefully tomorrow I will be in Garfield’s
beach bar

William Fair Roberts…on island time in paradise

On Island Time in Paradise – Trinidad 4

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March 4, 2012

It is a great Morning in Trinidad.  I have already been to the beach
and watched the daylight filter across the sky as I listened to my
iPod to add little background music to the natural drama in front of
me. I rode my scooter from Port of Spain south to Point Fortin
yesterday.  Though it is just over 30 miles as the crow flies, I could
not find a crow flying that way and it took me a good portion of the
day to get here.  Passing villages, shops, stores and stands along the
way didn’t help, because I had the urge to stop at everyone of them.
This is the “high” season here and while the weather is great the
crowds aren’t.  There are too many people for my taste.  This is the
dry season so you don’t have to worry much about rain spoiling your
time in the island, but the tourists may.  They are everywhere. They
are flashing their platinum cards and pushing their way to the front
of every line you see.  Have I told you that I hate lines.  Anyway,
when I got to Point Fortin I decided to find a place to stay that
wasn’t so touristy.  I found one. It is called a beach.  Granted I
dealt with small biting flies and a few hundred mosquitoes but I slept
well with the sea breeze blowing across my body.  When I got here I
grabbed a mosquito net and a small rope hammock along with a couple of
necessities for island travel like fresh fruit, a fresh fish to cook
for dinner and a bottle of rum.

It was a great evening.  There was no one there.  I think I might be
on a private beach, but at least until I am rousted out of my little
paradise here, I am alone.  The temperature here is about 80 degrees
and I took a quick dip in the sea to wash away yesterday’s dirt and
grime from the road.  I swam around for a while and really enjoyed the
waves on my skin.  There wasn’t much wind when I got in the water so
the waves were pretty calm.  I got out of the water and dressed in my
jungle shorts and t-shirt and went back to the edge of the woods for a
cup of instant coffee and a day old muffin.  I am going to spend some
time here and then move on to the eastern side of the island.  I am
hoping to escape the crowds and find me another secluded beach to sit
on and meditate the “meaning of life.”

Until then, I am going to snorkel here and see what the less populated
underside of this island is like.

Now a few traveling tips for Trinidad:
Okay, it was a very wise decision to rent a scooter.  Renting a car
here will cost you a minimum of $300 and a scooter is far less than
that.  Rooms this time of year are also high.  This is not my favorite
time in the islands.  By April most of the tourists will go home to
see the last of the melting snow and I will still be here in paradise.
The crowds are smaller and if you are lucky you will have some time
to enjoy the real island life, without the influence of the dollar and
the euro and the yen.

I don’t think I will be staying here quite as long as I thought I
would.  Don’t get me wrong.  This is a beautiful place.  The few
people I have spoken to have been real and very hospitable, but I need
to find an island with less tourists this time of year.

For now I am going to enjoy this beach with the sun at my back and the
blue-green water in front of me.  The Young Rebel Goombas are singing
in my ear thanks to my iPod and right this minute and, all is right
with my little world.

I hope you are enjoying your personal paradise as much as I am
enjoying mine. I am about to continue what I was doing before I
started writing this morning….I was doin absolutely NOTHING.

William Fair Roberts…on island time in paradise

On Island Time in Paradise – Trinidad 3

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March 2, 2012

Late yesterday when I stopped writing, I set out from my hotel to find
a little adventure and fun.  It didn’t take long.  I went to a street
vendor stand not far from my hotel and enjoyed a great little meal and
a bottle of Carib beer, bottled here in Trinidad. In that bottle I
found a winner.  It is good by any standard and on your next trip to
these islands you should try one or two of these.  This company makes
several other products but the only other  one I have tasted so far is
Stag Beer. It is a really good beer.  I don’t think they export it,
but if you ever find a bottle anywhere, snap it up and all the others
they have keeping it company.  I think you will enjoy it.

I said I had a great little meal and, I did.  Never would I have
expected to be eating Indian curry at a street vendor in Port of Spain
in Trinidad, but there is obviously an Asian influence down here.  As
I said the food was good.  I am really fond of goat though I know
there are a lot of people that don’t care for it much and, I am told
that is what the curry was made of.  Anyway after I left there I did a
little exploring outside of the neighborhood where I am staying.  I
spoke with tourists from the US, the Netherlands, Spain, France, the
UK and Brazil and all of them said the same thing…”get off the beaten
path.”  We definitely were not off the beaten path last night.  We
were just a few blocks from the docks on Ariapita Avenue at a little
corner bar called Crobar. While I admit it was little touristy, I
think the cold beverages, music and friendly staff made up for it.  We
talked, told stories and spun tales of our travels until the wee hours
of the morning and Crobar was a great venue for all of that.  Also, if
you have a taste for a little of the famous Trinidad style BBQ, this
is a pretty good place.  We all shared a couple of plates and I have
to tell you, I had a blast. Luckily, one of my new friends had a
rental car and I grabbed a bottle of wine and I caught a ride to my
hotel where we sat up enjoying the fruit of the vine and each other’s
company until the first rays of sunlight began to cast long shadows
through the damp streets of the Belmont area.

Today, though,  I am taking my new found friends advice and getting
off the beaten path.  I am about to rent a scooter here in Port of
Spain and set a course around the countryside.  This is a fairly large
island and I could probably stay here for several weeks and not see
all there is to see, but at this point I don’t know how long my
interest will keep me here but, it could be for a long time.  I have
got to find a good map to slip into my backpack and set a course for a
Trinidad adventure.  A breakfast of fresh fruit, cheese and a warm
roll is now fueling my sense of adventure and I am on my way.   It is
a beautiful day, temperature in the high 70s F with wispy, high clouds
floating high above this island paradise.  Though I don’t know yet, I
think I will be heading south today if I can find something there that
will interest me and I don’t foresee any problem in that category.

At any rate, I am ready for adventure and, I am off to visit another
corner of paradise.

William Fair Roberts…on island time in paradise

On Island Time in Paradise – Trinidad 2

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March 1, 2012

This morning I got up long after the sun rose.  I was hoping for
bright sun and warm breezes blowing in from parts unknown and today
was a little different.  The sun had been up for hours and it was
hidden beneath a thick blanket of clouds.  The temps are warm but it
is very cloudy today.   After a couple of cups of coffee my boat mates
for the past month and I  said our good-byes and if they stick t ho
their plans they are headed to Aruba.  I made my way to shore with my
meager belongings.  I have been finding my way around since I got on
terra firma.  I located a small hotel about three blocks off the water
and got a very reasonable room for at least tonight.

This is my first time on the island so I have a lot of exploring to
do.  A great place to start on any of the islands in my portion of
paradise is a friendly tavern.  I have located a couple of promising
spots near my hotel and will be checking them out soon.  I have
already found out that this is a pretty good time to visit the island.
Most of the revelers have evacuated the island since they were here
primarily for the Carnival.  The Carnival in Trinidad is arguably the
greatest in the Caribbean and Mardi Gras is a wonderful time to visit
if you are an amateur tourist.  But if you want to see the people as
they are and view the island as it really appears it is best to stay
away from the peak tourists weeks.  I found a nice little apartment
for a very reasonable rate on Pelham Street in Belmont.  It is about a
mile and a half from the waterfront and though it was a long walk, it
will be a very short scooter ride once I rent one tomorrow.  Just down
the street from my room are two pretty nice restaurants.  As usual, I
am going to stay away from them for the time being.  I am going to
find some little stand or hole-in-the-wall in which to “dine in style”
tonight.  I would like to stay very close tonight.

William Fair Roberts…on island time in paradise

On Island Time in Paradise – Cuba & Trinidad

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February 29, 2012
I left the Caymans about twenty days ago heading for the north coast of Jamaica and it seems that is about the only island in the Caribbean that I have not set foot on.  En route from Cayman to Jamaica I did my best to keep a bottle of rum company all night and I kept it close at hand until we fell asleep together on the deck of this beautiful sailing vessel.  With the stars above me my new-found friends taking care of the boat and me as a passenger, they decided to take a short trip north to Niquero.  We were only there for one day and it is a great little city.  We bought a few provisions, sum rum, fruit, beer and a few other things including some cigars to use for barter and then we were off.  Unfortunately, Nate asked that we take one more detour to Santiago de Cuba. We eased into the protected waters about an hour before sunset and anchored their waiting for morning.  Long after the sun set we took one of our small boats into shore and found a small nightspot where the young night turned old for me pretty soon.

By midnight I was back onboard our boat. At about 3:00 a.m. everyone but Nate came aboard.  Nessa said we were about to set sail.  She said that Nate had gotten into a fight and gotten himself arrested.  As he was being dragged out of the bar, he was yelling something in Spanish.  He kept saying he was an American and that he was on vacation from New Jersey.   It turns out that Nate Rackman was really Anthony Benelli and he was just trying to bum his way around the Caribbean.  Anyway, he was not a descendent of Calico Jack and in fact was a freeloader who has gotten himself in some hot water in a place he is not supposed to be in.

Within 15 minutes from everyone getting onboard, we were silently making our way out of the bay and into the open sea. I went below and brewed a pot of strong, black Cuban coffee and shared it with everyone of deck.  We sailed due south across a dark sea into the open waters and toward the northern coast of Jamaica.  Well, not exactly.  We intentionally bypassed Jamaica and sailed on to around Haiti and hopped from island to island.  We kept the islands mostly to our left and sailed toward South America.  We passed islands had visited and some I had only heard of, but with good winds we kept making our way south.  Yesterday we anchored just off Trinidad.  These waters are beautiful and this island is a true jewel.  This is the longest period of time I have ever spent on a boat and honestly I am ready for a little shore time.  When the sun rises in the morning I am going to say farewell to my Aussie friends and do a little wandering around this island.  Once I am done here, I will find my way to Tobago and spend a little time in that corner of paradise.

The daylight left us here in the small latitudes hours ago and we sat on the deck and visited for one more night before we go our separate ways.  Staring into the southern sky toward Venezuela we watched a brief meteor shower, a fireworks show to let us know that we are being blessed by the travel gods.  With one last toast we retired for the night, everyone but me and I am still here on the deck tapping out a few words and reflecting on my life here in the beautiful waters off of and island that has been written about and sung about and dreamed of by wanderers for hundreds of years.

I will try to make my post a little more frequent, but sometimes it is just hard to slow down enough take care of the things that pay my bills. I hope you are enjoying yourself as much as I am enjoying mine here in this corner of paradise.
William Fair Roberts…on island time in paradise

The Roots of Trop Rock – Calypso Music

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Photo: Calypso



Calypso developed during the 19th century with roots in Trinidad’s Carnival. It grew out of the various styles of Carnival music, including ribald songs, traditional drumming and stick-fighting songs, first sung in French Creole and by the turn of the century sung in English.

These tunes were originally sung by chantwells, singers who led carnival masquerade bands in call and response in tents in the weeks leading up to Carnival and on the streets during Carnival itself. In the 1920s, calypso was transformed into a more ballad style of political and social commentary. The singers no longer led the masquerade bands performed in the tents as shows rather than rehearsals for the street carnival. A strong crop of calypso singers emerged in this period all taking on warrior like pseudonyms including Roaring Lion, Atilla the Hun, Lord Beginner, Growling Tiger, King Radio and Executor. These calypsonians wrote and sang sophisticated songs and performed in competing tents during the Carnival season of the ’30s.

Although a few calypsos were recorded in the first two decades of the 20th century, the major break came with the 1934 recording trip to New York after Carnival by Roaring Lion and Atilla the Hun. Their recording brought international notice to calypso and won respect at home. In addition to the recordings, Lion and Atilla were taken under the wing of Rudy Valle, who brought them important exposure at his New York nightclub and on his Saturday night radio broadcast. That session yielded two classics: Lion’s “Ugly Woman,” which was later featured in a Hollywood musical and rewritten into a rhythm-and-blues hit, and Atilla’s “Graf Zepplin,” a celebration of the airship coming to Trinidad in the fall of 1933, a song still sung today.

For the rest of the decade, calypsonians went to New York each year to record and numerous field trips were made to Trinidad. By 1938, Time proclaimed a calypso boom in the United States. However, it didn’t really seem to happen until the Andrews Sisters’ version of Lord Invaders’ “Rum and Coca Cola” became popular during World War II: Despite being banned from the radio, it was one of the best-selling records of the war era. This song was a watered-down version of a sharp commentary on the ill effects of the American presence in Trinidad during the war. Still, it provided enormous exposure to calypso and sparked even more interest that led to an increase of recordings in the United States and England as well as the increased travel of calypsonians to both locations.

In 1957, the Calypso album by Harry Belafonte sparked a short-term calypso craze in the United States and to a lesser extent around the world despite the fact that most of the album was not calypso. For six months, the American entertainment industry rushed out dozens of singles and albums and three movies were produced with calypso themes. A craze for calypso dancing was born and it caused many nightclubs to change their décor and seek out any calypsonians they could find. The craze fizzled out quickly but not before calypso had entered the music conscious of many people around the world.

In 1956 a young Trinidadian singer named the Mighty Sparrow declared, “Yankee gone, Sparrow take over now” in his hit song “Jean and Dinah,” referencing the declining presence of U.S. servicemen in the country after WWII. Sparrow all but took over calypso from leading lights like Lord Melody (with whom he had a delightful duel in song) and the comic genius Spoiler. He created a new sound and style, one that was more melodic and brought a new excitement to the calypso tents with memorable albums of great songs that were heard throughout the Caribbean.

The other great calypsonian of the time was Lord Kitchener who had gone to England in 1948 and was a major force during the Fifties with his recordings of calypsos were popular throughout the Caribbean and in Africa. With Independence, Lord Kitchener returned and the two led competing tents of great singers during a golden era of calypso in the ’60s and ’70s with other masters of the art form: Duke, Stalin, Cristo, Cypher, Chalkdust and others. In the late ’70s, a whole new style, soca, was created by Lord Shorty (aka Ras Shorty I), Shadow and others. These artists brought a range of influences, from Indian music to R&B, and melded them into a more dance-driven, less-lyric-oriented style that has since evolved quite a bit apart from calypso. More recently artists like David Rudder have created a unique style merging elements of calypso and soca, and new forms like rapso exert a strong influence.

In the last decade Extempo competitions have emerged, where calypsonians are asked to compose and sing on the spot on any subject. A master calypsonian like Gypsy has made this art form his own. Until the 1960s, there were few women singing calypsos but with pioneers like Calypso Rose and Singing Francine and current masters like Singing Sandra, the situation has changed and women sing many of the strongest calypsos.

In Trinidad the crowds at calypso tents are older and not as well attended as the large and younger-leaning soca fetes. Yet there are more calypso tents than ever, and they go on the road all over the country during the Carnival season. There are more competitions, and companies continue to have their own calypso contests. There are ongoing efforts to involve young people in singing calypso with youth tents, school events and competitions. Throughout the Caribbean, calypso is a major part of Carnival celebrations in Barbados, Antigua, St. Vincent and the Virgin Islands, while calypsos are sung each year at Carnivals outside the Caribbean, as in Caribana in Toronto and Notting Hill in England. —Ray Funk


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