Review of Carnival, Canboulay and Calypso: Traditions in the Making


Carnival, Canboulay and Calypso: Traditions in the Making – John Cowley – 1999

carinalcanboulayI’m a big fan of Calypso and have wanted to know more about the background and development of this genre of Caribbean music for a while now. Cowley’s book goes someway to explaining the historical background to its development.

Being a study of Trinidad and it’s tradition of Carnival, Canboulay and of Calypso, it’s not entirely taken over with music but seeks to explain how Carnival came about, its roots and development from the earliest records right through to the era of sound recording. Whence it’s music became the predominant force by which it was known worldwide. In general it succeeds.

It reads like a well written and engaging thesis, a historical study, unfortunately suffering from structural repetition as the author uses mainly newspaper reports of Carnival to trace development over time. Wonderful that it begins in the days of Trinidad’s enslaved Africans and discusses the influence of that islands’ many diverse ethnic groups on Carnival and Carnival’s culture (music included), but it is a little dry and lacking in personal testimony. We are treated over and over again to reports of each year’s Carnival and of the subsequent court cases involving wayward participants, and this becomes mildly soporific.

However within these confines it is also revealing and revelatory.

Did you for example know about the tradition of stick fighting in Trinidad? Or the many riots that occurred during Carnival and the way in which Carnival became a canvas for the dispossessed to paint their complaints and to cock a Snook at the gentry and at the White and sometimes Creole classes? The book reveals the influence of North American black-face minstrelsy and of Jubilee singers on Trinidadians and on Carnival, and the influence of touring Circus on the island. It tells of the influence of the Spanish and the French and particularly of Venezuelan culture. Finally it discusses the rise of the calypsonians in the early part of the 20th century.

In short you’ve got to be a motivated reader to engage fully with this book, but if you are, then it’s a great read.

Not for the feint hearted or general reader.

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