A Brief History of Calypso Calypso is one of the many musical forms that resulted from the collision of African and European cultures in the New World. It evolved from a concatenation of Kalinda, a Yoruba call-and-response type chant, with French ballad and Spanish string band music. Due to the banning of drums during the era of slavery, Trinidadian music did not maintain the vigorous drumming traditions that survived elsewhere - notably in Brazil and Cuba. Instead, the emphasis was more on the melodic and lyrical side although, needless to say, it still retained a strong rhythmical element. Calypso grew out of the songs that were sung during carnival. After the abolition of slavery in 1830, Carnival was a boisterous and often violent affair with gangs of stick fighters competing with each other and also with the police. On more than one occasion it degenerated into out-and-out riot and was often banned. Kalinda was sung as an accompaniment to the stick fighting. Beginning as a jamette, underclass appropriation of the Mardi Gras celebrations of the plantation owners, Carnival gradually became more respectable as more and more middle-class Trinidadians began to take part. By the turn of the century, the original French Creole patois was giving way to English as the language of calypso and the songs were more often in eight line verses rather than the more rudimentary four lines of the so-called road marches. Mastery of English was seen as a sign of sophistication and calypsonians vied with each other to cram as many polysyllabic words into their songs as possible. The institution of the calypso tent was another factor in the development of calypso as an 'indoor' music to be listened to. The 'Golden Age of Calypso' was undoubtedly in the 1930's and 40's when Lord Executor, Atilla the Hun, The Growling Tiger, Lord Beginner, King Radio and The Roaring Lion, to name only the most prominent, were all in their prime. The subject matter of their songs was usually topical and even when dealing with serious topics such as social injustice they were usually humorous as well. F.D. Roosevelt's state visit to the island, or the particular calypsonian's problems with women might equally well be the subject of a calypso. The bands that accompanied the singers usually consisted of guitar, double bass, violin, trumpet and clarinet and they played in a style somewhat akin to Dixieland jazz - another element to enter the calypso melting pot. Recordings were made and calypso became briefly popular in America, Britain and even West Africa. There was a brief resurgence in the popularity of calypso after the Second World War when the Andrews Sisters had a big hit with Lord Invader's Rum and Coca Cola but this was a safe and sanitised sort of calypso. The history of calypso does not end here (the entire career of the legendary Mighty Sparrow is still to come for example) but as in just about every other aspect of life the Second World War seems to mark the end of an era. It would be misleading to see this past era as being an age of innocence or even of excellence but the elusive charm of old time calypso, both musically and lyrically, has a distinct character which differentiates it from post-war calypso. Thankfully it has been preserved and remains to delight further generations.-- Peter Ridsdale
The first vocal recording of a calypso was made in 1914 when the Duke of Iron teamed up with Jules Sims. Prior to this, the first recording of calypso music was an instrumental by a band called Lovey's Orchestra in 1912. In the early days of calypso, calypsonians (singers of calypsoes) formed groups and performed at various locations around Trinidad during the months leading up to Carnival. Since these locations were temporary and ceased to exist after Carnival, they were called "tents." Calypsonians took on individual nicknames and the tents were also named. The first calypso tent in Trinidad was the Railway Douglas Tent which opened its doors for business in Port-of-Spain in 1921. Among the other tents that opened in Port-of-Spain during the 1920s was the Redhead Sailor Tent. Some of the popular calypsonians from the 1920s through the 1930s were: Attila the Hun; Lord Beginner; Lord Caresser; Lord Executor; Mighty Growler; Wilmoth Houdini; Lord Invader; Roaring Lion; King Radio; Growling Tiger; Duke of Iron; Macbeth the Great; Mighty Destroyer; Chieftain Douglas; and Gorilla.
In 1935, the first female calypsonian to sing in a tent, Lady Trinidad, made her debut at the Crystal Palace Tent on Nelson Street in Port-of-Spain. Her success paved the way for two more female calypsonians to follow in her footsteps in 1936: Lady Baldwin (Mavis Baldwin); and Lady MacDonald (Doris MacDonald). In 1937, Lady Trinidad made history when she became the first female calypsonian to make a record.
One of the larger and more popular tents in the early 1940s was the Victory Calypso Tent which functioned at 95 Edward Street in Port-of-Spain; however, the most popular tent was The Original Old Brigade which also operated on Edward Street. Another tent in operation was the Maginot Line Calypso Tent which was located at 47 Nelson Street in Port-of-Spain. The name of the World's Fair Calypso Tent was changed in 1943 to the Commando Tent and featured Growling Tiger, Lord Beginner, Lord Caresser, and King Iere. Calypsonians who did not join a tent banded together and performed in cinemas around the country. One such traveling group that functioned in 1942 was the Roving Brigade.
Although Carnival was suspended from 1942 to 1945 during World War II, the calypso tents were kept open. By 1947, the 24-year old Lord Kitchener had gained enough popularity to open a new tent called The Young Brigade which featured young calypsonians such as: Lord Melody; Lord Ziegfield; Mighty Killer; Mighty Spoiler; and Mighty Viking. Kitchener's tent was later changed to The Original Young Brigade. The Old Brigade and The Original Young Brigade were the two most popular tents throughout the remainder of the 1940s. In addition to the early calypsonians, some of the popular singers of the 1940s were: Lord Pretender; Small Island Pride; Sir Galba; Gibraltar; Lord Viper; Lord Kitchener, Mighty Terror, and Lord Wonder.