A style of Afro-Caribbean music that originated out of Trinidad and Tobago during the early to mid-20th century and spread to the rest of Caribbean Antilles and Venezuela. Its rhythms can be traced back to West African Kaiso and the arrival of French planters and their slaves from the French Antilles in the 18th century.
Calypso drew upon African and French influences, and became the voice of the people. It was characterised by highly rhythmic and harmonic vocals, which was most often sung in a French creole and led by a Griot. As calypso developed, the role of the Griot (originally a similar traveling musician in West Africa) became known as a chantuelle and eventually, calypsonian. As English replaced "patois" (Antillean creole) as the dominant language, calypso migrated into English, and in so doing it attracted more attention from the government. It allowed the masses to challenge the doings of the unelected Governor and Legislative Council, and the elected town councils of Port of Spain and San Fernando. Calypso continued to play an important role in political expression, and also served to document the history of Venezuela and Trinidad and Tobago.
Calypso in the Caribbean includes a range of genres, including: the Benna genre of Antiguan and Barbudan music; Mento, a style of Jamaican Folk music that greatly influenced Ska and Reggae; Ska, the precursor to Rocksteady and Reggae; Spouge, a style of Barbadian popular music; Dominica Cadence-lypso, which mixed calypso with the cadence of Haiti; and Soca music, a style of Kaiso/Calypso, with influences from Cadence-Lypso, Soul, and Funk.
It is thought that the name "Calypso" was originally "Kaiso" which is now believed to come from Efik "ka isu" ("go on!") and Ibibio "kaa iso" ("continue, go on"), used in urging someone on or in backing a contestant. There is also a Trinidadian term "cariso" that is used to refer to "old-time" Calypsos. The term "Calypso" is recorded from the 1930s onwards. Alternatively, the insert for The Rough Guide to Calypso and Soca (published by World Music Network) favours John Cowley's arguments in Carnival, Canboulay and Calypso: Traditions in the Making: that the word might be a corruption of the French carrouseaux and through the process of patois and Anglicization became caliso and then finally "calypso"; however, Cowley also notes that the first mention of the world "Calypso" is given in a description of a dance in 1882 by Abbé Masse.
The first identifiably Calypso genre song was recorded in 1912, by Lovey's String Band while visiting New York City. In 1914, the second Calypso song was recorded, this time in Trinidad, by chantwell Julian Whiterose, better known as the Iron Duke and famous calinda stick-fighter. Jules Sims would also record vocal calypsos. The majority of these calypsos of the World War I era were instrumentals by Lovey and Lionel Belasco. Perhaps due to the constraints of the wartime economy, no recordings of note were produced until the late 1920s and early 1930s, when the "golden era" of Calypso would cement the style, form, and phrasing of the music.
Calypso evolved into a way of spreading news around Trinidad. Politicians, journalists and public figures often debated the content of each song, and many islanders considered these songs the most reliable news source. Calypsonians pushed the boundaries of free speech as their lyrics spread news of any topic relevant to island life, including speaking out against political corruption. Eventually British rule enforced censorship and police began to scan these songs for damaging content.
Even with this censorship, Calypsos continued to push boundaries, with a variety of ways to slip songs past the scrutinizing eyes of the editor. Double entendre, or double-speak, was one way, as was the practice of denouncing countries such as Hitler's Germany and its annexation of Poland, while making pointed references toward the UK's policies on Trinidad. Sex, scandal, gossip, innuendo, politics, local news, bravado and insulting other calypsonians were the order of the day in classic Calypso, just as it is today with classic Hip Hop. And just as the Hip Hop of today, the music sparked shock and outrage in the moral sections of society.
Countless recordings were dumped at sea in the name of censorship, although in truth, rival US companies did this in the spirit of underhanded competition, claiming that the rivals' material was unfit for US consumption. Decca Records lost untold pressings in this manner, as did its rival, RCA's Bluebird label.
An entrepreneur named Eduardo Sa Gomes played a significant role in spreading Calypso in its early days. Sa Gomes, a Portuguese immigrant who owned a local music and phonograph equipment shop in Port of Spain, promoted the genre and gave financial support to the local artists. In March 1934 he sent Roaring Lion and Attila the Hun to New York City to record; they became the first calypsonians to record abroad, bringing the genre out of the West Indies and into pop culture. Lord Invader was quick to follow, and staying in New York City after a protracted legal case involving the theft of his song "Rum and Coca-Cola", a hit by the Andrews Sisters, made his home there along with Wilmoth Houdini, and became one of the great calypsonians of the USA.
Early forms of Calypso were also influenced by Jazz such as Sans Humanitae. In this extempo (extemporaneous) melody calypsonians lyricise impromptu, commenting socially or insulting each other, "sans humanité" or "no mercy" (which is again a reference to French influence).
The first major stars of Calypso started crossing over to new audiences worldwide in the late 1930s. Attila the Hun, Roaring Lion and Lord Invader were first, followed by Lord Kitchener, one of the longest-lasting Calypso stars in history, he continued to release hit records until his death in 2000. 1944's "Rum and Coca-Cola" by the Andrews Sisters, a cover version of a Lord Invader song, became an American hit despite the song being a very critical commentary on the explosion of prostitution, inflation and other negative influences accompanying the American military bases in Trinidad at the time. Perhaps the most straight forward way to describe the focus of Calypso is that it articulated itself as a form of protest against the authoritarian colonial culture which existed at the time.
Calypso, especially a toned-down, commercial variant, became a worldwide craze with the release of the "Banana Boat Song", or "Day-O", a traditional Jamaican Folk song, whose best-known rendition was done by Harry Belafonte on his album Calypso (1956); Calypso was the first full-length record to sell more than a million copies. The success of that album inspired hundreds of "Folkies", or the American Folk music revival to imitate the "Belafonte style", but with a more Folk-oriented flavor. The Kingston Trio would be a good example. 1956 also saw the massive international hit "Jean and Dinah" by Mighty Sparrow. This song too was a sly commentary as a "plan of action" for the calypsonian on the widespread prostitution and the prostitutes' desperation after the closing of the U.S. naval base on Trinidad at Chaguaramas.
In the Broadway-theatre musical Jamaica (1957), Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg cleverly parodied "commercial", Belafonte-style Calypso. Several films jumped on the Calypso craze in 1957 such as Island in the Sun (20th Century Fox) that featured Belafonte and the low-budget films Calypso Joe (Allied Artists), Calypso Heat Wave (Columbia Pictures), and Bop Girl Goes Calypso (United Artists). Robert Mitchum released an album, Calypso...Is Like So (1957), on Capitol records, capturing the sound, spirit, and subtleties of the genre. Dizzy Gillespie recorded a calypso album Jambo Caribe (1964) with James Moody and Kenny Barron.
Soul shouter Gary "US" Bonds released a calypso album Twist up Calypso (1962) on Legrand records, shortly after returning home from his military post in Port of Spain. Nithi Kanagaratnam from Sri Lanka sang calypso-styled songs in Tamil in 1968, which was a success and earned him the title "Father of Tamil Popular Music". Since Baila rhythm was popular in Sri Lanka, most of his songs were classified as Tamil Baila. In the mid-1970s, women entered the calypso men' s oriented arena, Calypso Rose was the first female to win the Trinidad Road March competition in 1977 with her song "Gimme More Tempo". The following year with "Come Leh We Jam" she won the "Calypso King " competition, the first time a woman had received the award. The competition's title was changed to Calypso Monarch in her honour. The French and pioneer electronic musician Jean Michel Jarre released an album in 1990 called Waiting for Cousteau. The album has four tracks: "Calypso", "Calypso part 2", "Calypso part 3 Fin de Siècle" and "Waiting for Cousteau". It was dedicated to Jacques-Yves Cousteau in his 80th birthday. This album had a special participation of the Amocco Renegades (a traditional steel-drum band from Trinidad and Tobago). In the first track is possible to notice a strong style influence. Calypso had another short burst of commercial interest when Tim Burton's horror/comedy film Beetlejuice (1988) was released, and used Belafonte's "Jump In The Line" as the soundtrack´s headliner and also "The Banana Boat Song" in the dinner-party scene. Disney's song "Under the Sea", a calypso theme from The Little Mermaid won an Academy Award for Best Original Song in 1989 as well as the Grammy Award for Best Song Written for Visual Media in 1991.