The History of Calypso and Social Commentary
Calypso is a style of Afro-Caribbean music that originated in Trinidad and Tobago during the early to mid 20th century. The music's structure, origins and traditions are that of West African slaves to poor working-class blacks who struggled to make ends meet. The sounds of Calypso have evolved to become the sounds of self praise, scorn for colonial, slave masters, liberation and freedom. Calypso has been referred to as a poor man's newspaper in times when literacy was not widespread.
By 1945 a new wave of Calypso singers in Trinidad rose to meet the demand for more entertaining songs. This Young Brigade included Lord Kitchener, Mighty Spoiler, Mighty Dictator, Lord Wonder, and later the Mighty Sparrow. 1956 also saw the massive international hit "Jean and Dinah" by Mighty Sparrow. This song was a sly commentary as "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.
A toned-down, commercial variant of Calypso 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 in 1956. Calypso was the first full-length record to sell more than a million copies. The success of that album inspired thousands of the American folk music revival followers to imitate the "Belafonte style".
The Black Power marches in 1970 triggered a new generation of singers such as Black Stalin and Brother Valentino. A broad range of voices and musical experimentation was ushered in by Shadow, Maestro Kitchener, Merchant and Explainer. In 1978 saw the Trinidad Calypso Monarch competition being won by a woman for the first time. Calypso Rose signalled the entry of many more women on the Calypso stage all over the region. The lyrics of these songs by these new artists allowed the masses to challenge the doings of the unelected Governor and Legislative Council in Trinidad, and the elected town councils of Port of Spain and San Fernando.
In his book Rituals of Power and Rebellion: The Carnival Tradition in Trinidad and Tobago - 1763-1962, Dr. Hollis "Chalkdust" Liverpool highlights the contribution of Calypso to life in the twin island republic. In the 19th century and early 20th century, many of the Calypsos protested against the inequalities of life and the deprivations of the colonial society. Calypso functioned as social commentary, ridiculed and mocked undesirables, mobilized the community, communicated events, and resisted the discriminatory practices that the upper class leveled on the lower class.
In 1934 a daily license was required for a tent (the traditional name for a building where calypsos are sung).This meant that the tent manager had to submit the lyrics of each Calypso to the police for vetting. Eventually British Colonial rule enforced censorship and police began to scan these songs for lyrical content they and their political bosses deemed damaging.
Are we there yet in Dominica? Well if a high ranking government official and his lawyers get their way with the courts, we might get there but only temporarily. Given the political realities today in Dominica, Calypso is one of the most effective political weapons on the island. Our calysonians and writers cleverly camouflage their songs with wit and banter and the sharp tang of social, patritotic and political criticism is evident. Today our colorfully named artists' lyrics are witty, mocking, colloquial, and topical have kept up the time honored tradition and duty of addressing current events and concerns and political characters.
Certainly our calypsonians push the boundaries of free speech as their lyrics spread news of any topic relevant to our island's life, including speaking out against political corruption , politicians and the their supporting colorful henchmen and ladies. Over the years the Calypso art form has been transformed and presented in various categories from political and social commentary to nation building.
Calypso continues to play an important role in political expression and in documenting the history of Dominica. It is imperative that all high ranking government officials, calypsonians, the honourable court of law and the court of public opinion, recognise and acknowledge this history and importance of the art form to people of colour all over the Caribbean and the world.
To the Checko who was my neighbour when he was a toddler in the La Plaine Valley, I say keep on composing and singing, my brother. To the Ambassador who was a friend while he resided in Washington, I say keep on working diligently to move our country forward and don't be distracted by a carnival song. We all can agree that the Checko and the Ambassador are both making invaluable contributions to the development of our island home in their unique ways. And to all Dominicans, please join me in saying: "Let the music play".