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Brief History of Calypso

A BRIEF HISTORY OF CALYPSO IN TRINIDAD – by Marcus Mayers

NOW AND THEN

Trinidad was discovered by Columbus in 1498 (he named the island for the Christian Holy Trinity) and was ruled by Spain for virtually 300 years, remaining one of her most 'underdeveloped' American possessions.  Only in the 1770s, with the 'Bourbon reforms' of Charles III - designed to rejuvenate flagging colonial efficiency - did the Spanish crown pay attention to this thinly-populated, almost uncultivated, Caribbean island.

A Cedula issued by the Spanish monarch in 1776 highlighted the island's neglected state:
With no European Spaniards available for emigration, it invited West Indian French Catholics dissatisfied by Britain's

1763 take-over of their Antillean islands - Grenada, Dominica, St Vincent, Tobago to settle in Trinidad.  They were encouraged by land grants to set up agricultural units under their own management and to transfer slaves in quantity to work these plantations.

The French brought Carnival to Trinidad, and calypso competitions at Carnival grew in popularity, especially after the abolition of slavery in 1834. While most authorities stress the African roots of calypso, in his 1986 book Calypso from France to Trinidad, 800 Years of History veteran calypsonian The Roaring Lion (Rafael de Leon) asserted that calypso descends from the music of the medieval French troubadours.

Internationally, Trinidad and Tobago is best known as the birthplace of calypso music.1950s stars Lord Kitchener (Aldwyn Roberts) and Mighty Sparrow (Slinger Francisco). Lord Kitchener (1922-2000) was known as the "Grandmaster" of calypso. By the time of his death, only the Mighty Sparrow and the Roaring Lion had reached a similar level of respect.

Lord Kitchener ("Kitch"), the Grandmaster, was born April 18, 1922, as Aldwyn Roberts in Arima, Trinidad and Tobago  ("T&T "), into a family of six. His father was a successful blacksmith in Arima. Kitch attended the Arima Boys Gov't School between the ages of 5 and 14, when he was forced to leave school following the death of his parents. When in 1944 the then 21-year-old Aldwyn Roberts climbed the calypso stage at the Victory Tent with the name of "Lord Kitchener", it would not have been surprising if most of the patrons that night saw him as a "passing cloud'; as someone who might cause laughter, even get an encore, but who, like dozens of other youngsters, might disappear from the scene just as suddenly as he appeared. Few would have dreamed that like the Lord Kitchener from whom he took his name, he would prove formidable, hard to defeat, long lasting, successful, and much honored. It was his two big songs of 1946, recording events of 1945, which at once made him one of the most popular singers of the day.  The first called "Yes, I Heard the Beat of a Steel band", was the first calypso to take notice of the pan-beating young men at a time when society was hostile to them, seeing them as idle noise-makers.

This calypso captured the steel band’s position at a historic moment, and underlined Kitchener's fascination with the pan - a fascination that was to last to the end of his life. After the 1947 Carnival season, Kitchener traveled to Aruba, Curacao and Jamaica. In 1948 he left Jamaica on the Empire Windrush, a ship that marked the beginning of large-scale Caribbean migration to Britain. One of the other passengers on that M.V. Windrush was Egbert Moore (Lord Beginner). Kitch got an immediate booking at the only West Indian club in London, following his debut on the BBC. Six months later, Kitch was appearing in three clubs nightly, and his popularity extended beyond the West Indian and African night club audiences, to include music hall and variety show audiences. Kitchener remained in England, where he had an active career that included extensive recording for the Parlophone, Melodisc and Lyragon labels. His records were exported in large quantities to the Caribbean, where he remained popular. Some of his records were also popular in West Africa.

After the resounding carnival road marches of 1947 to 1950, when revelers heard "Pharaoh," by King Pharaoh (1947); "Canaan Barrow" by Lord Melody (1948); "Ramgoat Baptism" by the Mighty Wonder (1949), and "In a Calabash" by the Mighty Killer (1950), the Trinidad Carnival experienced such a famine of road marches that it needed a Lord Kitchener to come to the rescue. And Kitchener did answer this call in 1954 with the calypso "Mama Look a Band Passing", the only worthwhile Road March of that period. Andrew Marcano, Calypsonian Brother Superior, once observed that every one in T&T; grew up listening to Kitch. But Kitch is more than a T&T; hero. He is indeed a Caribbean institution and genius who uses wry, saucy lyrics to describe events, personal problems, human frailties and political issues, with equal irony and wit. Over the years, his genius has appealed to commoners and royalty alike. US President Harry S. Truman himself led the applause for Kitchener's "Green Fig." Kitchener returned to Trinidad for the 1963 Carnival and formed the Calypso Revue, which continued as a major tent. Through this tent, he helped many young singers develop their calypso skills.

For decades, Kitchener remained a favorite calypsonian among steelbands, due to the catchy melodies and harmonic complexity of his compositions. Among his many well-known calypsos are "Trouble in Arima," "Mama Dis Is Mas," "My Pussin'" and "Pan in A Minor." Other forms of music include Carnival songs like lavway and leggos, as well as bongo music (which originated at wakes). Highly rhythmic and harmonic vocals characterized the music, 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. Early chantwells like Hannibal, Norman Le Blanc, Mighty Panther and Boadicea made names for themselves by criticizing the colonial government.

In 1914 calypso was recorded for the first time and the following decade saw the arrival of calypso tents, where calypsonians practiced and, eventually, new musics for Carnival were exhibited (including lavway and leggos). Calypso emerged as the pre-eminent Carnival song from the end of the nineteenth century and its association with the festival is investigated, as are the first commercial recordings by Trinidad performers. 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. American popular songs and jazz also affected calypso's sound, particularly by the 1930s. Calypsonians were always open to new ideas, an orientation in keeping with cosmopolitan attitudes of Trinidad as a whole. From 1915 through the mid-1930s, all recording of calypso occurred in New York.

Among the artists recorded were the pianist/bandleader Lionel Belasco, the vaudevillian Sam Manning and the calypsonian Houdini, all of whom were based in the U.S. In the early days of calypso, calypsonians (singers of calypsos) 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.


Rafael de Leon was born in Aroquita, in the Caura Hills of northern Trinidad, to a mother named Basalicion de Leon and a father named Arias Cairi Llama. An illegitimate child, Lion spent some of his earliest years in two orphanages, before being taken in, following his mother's illness, by an elderly woman named Miss Charles who lived on Coffee Street in the southwestern city of San Fernando. Lion's personal accounts of his early career vary, but probably debuted '29 in a small beginners' calypso tent in Belmont. Dubbed Lion Flaps '31 by Lord Beginner (Egbert Moore: 1904-- 80); changed to the Roaring Metro Lion '33 when he joined 'Chieftain' Walter Douglas's Railroad Millionaires 'Crystal Palace' tent. Had prevailing unofficial Road March (or leggo as it was known then) most years '34--8 with 'Wanga' '34, 'Advantage Mussolini' '36 (bouncy condemnation of Italian Fascists' '35 invasion of Abyssinia [Ethiopia], set to the melody of Don Azpiaz's international '31 Cuban hit 'El Manisero', 'The Peanut Vendor'), 'Ask No Questions' '36 (recorded in a trio with King Radio and Growling Tiger), 'Netty, Netty' '37, 'Nora Darling' '38.

Early victim of record bans by colonial authorities: 'Netty, Netty' was banned '36 by Commissioner of Police on grounds of 'immorality'; Collector of Customs dumped entire first shipment of the record in Port of Spain Harbour; however the will of Carnival revelers prevailed over censorship the following year when they made 'Netty, Netty' the Road March. Following Atilla's election to Trinidad and Tobago's (T&T) Legislative Council '50, he singled out 'Netty, Netty' in his historical speech '51 attempting to move an amendment to the notorious Theatre and Dance Halls Ordinance '34, used to regulate the performance of calypso during colonial days: 'The police heard ''Netty, Netty, gie me de ting you have in you belly.'' And they said they wanted the words changed to: ''Netty, Netty, give me the article in your abdomen.''  That is a singular injustice' (quote from Hansard).

Lion copped another ban '37 for the alleged obscenity of 'Sally Water'. Despite his brushes with authority, he was hired as official entertainer of Governors and visiting VIPs at T&T's Government House '37--44. Before his departure for England in the early 1950s, Lion had won more Road Marches (then called Leggoes) than any other calypsonian. This record stands till today, albeit that the aficionados from time-to-time seek to create a spurious distinction between the title Road March and Leggo. Upon arriving in England, where he then re-launched his career as an entertainer, Lion lived in the area of London known as West Kensington where at that time a great number of West Indians settled.

Lion went on to own several properties on Fairholme Road in London. Roaring Lion achieved fame for his linguistic prowess as much as for his catchy tunes. His lyrics, delivered in rapid-fire style, show an impeccable command of the English language (as well as Trinidadian slang), and are replete with witty turns of phrase, humorous metaphors, and clever alliterations and internal rhymes. He and Atilla were the first local artists sent to NYC to record '34 by local Portuguese businessman Eduardo SA Gomes; Bing Crosby and Rudy Vallee attended the sessions. During the trip Lion performed 'Ugly Woman' on Vallee's network radio show; the appearance celebrated in duo's calypso 'Guests of Rudy Vallee' '38, and entertained President Roosevelt at NYC's Waldorf Astoria Hotel. He continued to record annually in NYC from '36 until sessions were curtailed '42 due to WWII, making 95 slides in total. Roaring Lion continued recording through the 1990s; his later recordings feature electronic and soca backgrounds, though he continued to sing in the classic early calypso style. He was regarded as an elder statesman and historian of calypso music and frequently appeared in the Trinidadian media in this role.

Last Updated (Friday, 25 September 2009 19:11)

 
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