Kaiso Papa – a backward look at Calypso Music
Histories of Calypso often seem to start by mentioning ‘Kaiso’ a word used particularly on the Island of Trinidad to describe Calypso music in an effort perhaps to establish links between West Africa and the colonial creation of the island of Trinidad. Okay, far be it for the writer of this piece to go against tradition… Kaiso is thought to be a Hausa word for ‘Bravo’ a kind of verbal exclamation of a thumbs up, a ‘well done chap’, a ‘you’re doing well my son’, ‘continue if you please wonderful singer”. The Hausa just in case you were wondering are a West African people, mainly concentrated around Northern Nigeria.
It is of course from West Africa that European slave traders in the main bought their, in quite brutal terms, ‘livestock’ and therefore quite possible that this word links darkest Africa with the sunny happy fruit laden swing in a hammock all day long (if you were a plantation owner that is) lazy soporific for anyone but a slave, Isle Caribe.
Some say that ‘Kaa Iso’ means ‘Continue’, or ‘Go On’. There is a tradition of praise singing and poetry in West Africa as espoused by the Griot (an African poet, artist, singer and songwriter) that continued into French speaking Trinidad, with Griots leading the Kaiso in French Creole.
My own opinion is that shouting ‘Kai~So’ was a way the crowd could give points to the winner, or encourage a particularly energetic performance. Like honoring a heroically ripping lead guitar solo in the Stevie Vai tradition, or screaming encore after the end of a rather good night at the Opera. Drumming, singing, musicianship and lyrical artistry have always been highly respected in the Caribbean and a point about which combatative competition can and does take place. It is particularly in lyrical athletics that Calypso excels, and nowhere more so than Trinidad.
Though Kaiso exists in many Caribbean Islands, Trinidad, originally settled by Spain and later by France and then the British is it’s birthplace. Calypso was monumentally popular in the 1940s and 1950s, a popularity held in many of the same countries that exported slaves there in the 1740s and 1750s! Later the White West’s ability to appropriate and make anything with the littlest bit of true soul it’s antiseptic and homogenized own, while at the same time strangling the life out of it, would astound! The record industries of both the U.S.A. and the U.K. furthered the insult by stealing the culture of the Afro Caribbean decendants of slaves that their forefathers had stolen in the first place!
Over time the Griot of Africa developed into the Chanterelle and then the Calypsonian, a singer, songwriter and raconteur extraordinaire. Unfortunately the Griot also developed into plenty of Robert Mitchums, but enough of sour grapes.
Slavery was abolished by a self congratulatory British nation in Trinidad in 1834. Kaiso had always been a music whereby slaves had commented on their awful lot, where they had satired their owners and celebrated themselves as a release from the hard times that they suffered. In an attempt to survive with culture, pride and humanity intact.
Calypso was now also free to develop into competitive singing and a celebration of Black culture. At the annual celebrations of Carnival Calypsonians performed, rehearsed and based themselves in temporary venues called ‘Tents’ and it was in these Kerosene lit spots that artists like the Mighty Growler and later Lord Kitchener were first heard. These Tents had some great names, the ‘Redhead Sailor Tent’ of the 1920s, the ‘Victory Calypso Tent’ and more recently, ‘Massive Gosein’s Chutney Tent’, but more of Chutney later perhaps!
It is said that the first recording of a Calypso was made in 1912 when an instrumental by the group Lovey’s Orchestra was recorded and that the first Calypso vocal was recorded by Jules Sims and the Duke of Iron in 1914. Perhaps Calypso was sold on street corners as sheet music before that, much as it was in Kingston Jamaica where Mento was the popular musical style, it seems entirely plausible. Calypso spoke of daily news, sports, politics and of small town gossip, it is a genre that cannot exist without the energy of what is current.
So we pass from a poorly recorded written history of Calypso to an initially scratchily recorded audio history, where the music and lyrics could be heard and enjoyed worldwide and Calypso was free of cultural and geographic restrictions. Trinidad did not have it’s own recording industry at this time so artists recorded in New York. There are tales that the first Jamaican song to be recorded was performed in that same city. Sadly no one knows what it was, or exactly where it was recorded.
At this time American Jazz and Pop music had an influence on shifting styles in Calypso as did the establishment of U.S. bases on the island in 1941. G.I.s on the island injected money and North American culture and Trinidad saw off the influence of Great Britain in preference to American economic assistance.
The lyrics of Rum and Coca Cola speak of this, – ‘Drinkin’ rum and Coca-Cola, Go down to Point Koomahnah, Both mother and daughter, Workin’ for the yankee dollar’. (Implying what exactly one wonders?)
Many Calypsonians rose to prominence during this era, names like ‘Macbeth the Great’, ‘Atilla the Hun’, ‘Cro Cro’, ‘Lord Blakie’, ‘Explainer’, ‘Lord Shortshirt’, and the ‘Mighty Spitfire’, but none more so than Lord Kitchener. During the 1950s ‘Kitch’ moved to England. Having first spent a few months on the island of Jamaica, he embarked on the now famous Empire Windrush. Once in England he became a cultural figurehead for the ex-pat West Indian community and by default popularized Calypso in Great Britain. Check the Honest Jons release ‘London Is The Place For Me’ (Vol1) for a taste of this moment in Calypso history and some very fine music indeed.
The Bahamas, Antigua, St. Lucia and Barbados are all known for their Calypso music, and Jamaica for it’s closely related (but sneered at by natives of Trinidad) alternative, Mento. It’s not that Mento isn’t great, but just that Trinis believe that lyrically, Calypsonians are seriously superior. After all it’s all about that competitive lyrical joust, the tournament of well chosen witty words you will recall. Cricket will always be more than a game (particularly to a West Indian) and so goes it with Calypso.
Lord Invader sings in his song ‘Calypso War’ – ‘Calypso singing is such a technical thing, It was not made for one and every to sing, How by the heavens can those songsters win, Except by necromancy, and that is a sin?, My head is like a book that is well compact, My tongue like a gun that never yet snap, And I’m sorry for the molester who molest Lord Invader – My intention is War’
Sound familiar? How about the Rap Battles engaged in by MCs in Hip Hop? It’s all there in the culture, it has been for hundreds of years. It’s an always will be and always was, kind of situation. Not only is it a cultural thing, but I believe where you get a group of testosterone driven men doing whatever it is they’re interested in somehow they’re bound to find some way to make a competition out of it. Competitive fishing, stamp collecting, record collecting, baking, weaving, knitting and home-making in general for example. Eh?
Calypso music was so popular in 1950s England and America that it was echoed in design, children’s toys and fashions. It was everyone’s idea of luxury in the 50s and 60s to be able to afford a holiday in the West Indies and with people like Sir Larry Olivier visiting Noel Coward at Firefly, his Blue Mountain hideaway, to partake of the gardener’s extremely potent ‘Weed’, the glitterati set the trend for a trip to a luxurious Caribbean island destination. That package often included the Calypso experience, and so the music was then further spread by returning tourists clutching little recorded mementos, sold in hotel lobbies, of their time ‘a foreign’. Every hotel worth it’s salt had it’s own Calypsonians to entertain the guests. Just take a guess at where the Hiltonaires could have played?
1965 was the year that tourism surpassed the sugar trade as the number one earner in Jamaica. It would be another 5 years before Calypso’s popularity would begin to wane in the west.
Harry Belafonte – Calypso
In the meanwhile one artist in particular is worth taking note of, Harry Belafonte. He is credited with introducing an American audience to Calypso via the effortlessly named Lp. ‘Calypso’ which spent a remarkable total of 99 weeks in the American charts, 31 at the number one position! He started off his singing career to pay for acting tuition fees, appearing in front of Charlie Parker no less at his first gig! ‘Jump Up Calypso’ was another hit Lp. for him in 1961. Though Harry Belafonte’s Calypso music lacks the veracity of a bona fide antecedent of Trinidadian Calypso, at it’s core is a respect for Calypso. Belafonte was a man known for his humanitarian works and a deep respect for his fellow man. Works which included providing financially for Dr. Martin Luther King’s family.
The Modern era
As Calypso’s popularity in the West waned it did what every music dropped by fickle fashionistas does and retired quietly back to it’s roots, the very people who reveled within it, natives of Trinidad and the Caribbean. Conversely as Reggae’s popularity took off worldwide Calypsonians were left grasping for recognition and it was in this atmosphere of fading glories that Garfield Blackman a native of Lengua Trinidad invented Soca.
Soca is a blend of African and Indian rhythms. Indentured Indian workers had long been a part of the Caribbean’s history and made up a sizeable population Caribbean wide. The tale is that Blackman experimented for nearly a decade with Indian rhythmic instruments and Calypso music. A hit song called Ïndrani released in 1973 shocked all. Releasing an album called Endless Vibrations then fully launched the Soca sound. Musicians who had been conservatively using traditional instruments and rhythms began to adopt his new style as their own. Probably the most well known Soca tune is Arrow’s ‘Hot Hot Hot’ a big hit worldwide. Traditional styles continued alongside Soca, and in turn other offshoots came and went.
And so to Chutney… Chutney is simply a more heavily influenced Indian style, utilising a soundscape that references Bollywood movies and traditional instrumentation, such as the Harmonium, while also quoting from Dancehall Reggae, Ragga and other Caribbean styles.
The Caribbean is the most extraordinary cultural crossroads and Calypso is the perfect expression of that. A Blend of Africa, Europe, America and beyond, with just a dash of Chutney to flavour! Calypso is a comment on everything and everyone in the Caribbean, irrepressible and irresistible.
Mike Murphy originally published July 6, 2009
All information for this article was gleaned from t’internet, my brain, and a few books.