What calypso means to the Caribbean

Visitors are often entertained with these clever, cheerful folk tunes, but calypso is so much more than that. Debbie Jacob talked to two experts

  • The late great Lord Kitchener in 1988. Photograph courtesy the Trinidad Express
  • The Mighty Sparrow in 1985. Photograph courtesy the Trinidad Express
  • SuperBlue in 1994. Photograph courtesy the Trinidad Express
  • Ras Shorty in 1991. Photograph courtesy the Trinidad Express

It was 1945, and the Andrews Sisters had rocketed their way to the number one spot on the Billboard charts in the US, where they remained for ten weeks with a bouncy calypso called “Rum and Coca-Cola”. In the waning weeks of World War II, the calypso about the carefree island life of Trinidad, where the natives sipped rum and Coca-Cola in the seaside fishing village of Point Cumana, was a welcome respite.

The Andrews Sisters, and much of the world, didn’t know that the calypso about Trinidadian women “working for the Yankee dollar” was really about prostitution. They didn’t know that Morey Amsterdam, an American actor who claimed to have written the calypso while he was in Trinidad entertaining US troops at the naval base, had really snatched it from the Victory calypso tent, where calypsonians performed during the Carnival season. Lord Invader filed a copyright infringement case in New York, along with Lionel Belasco, who laid claim to the calypso’s arrangement. The Trinidadians won.

In many ways the landmark case of “Rum and Coca-Cola” sums up calypso history: bold calypsonians with a wry wit rebelling against foreigners trying to rob them of their culture, tackling colonialism with double entendre that was only understood within the culture of calypso, and commenting on the social and political issues of the day.

“Calypso has always been a narrative about Caribbean life,” says professor of literature and calypso expert Gordon Rohlehr. “There are calypsoes about war, Carnival, cricket, football…”

Rohlehr says it is possible to understand any given era in the Caribbean by studying calypso. “You can analyse changes of attitude by just following calypso. It’s one form of documentation, and sometimes it’s the only form that can tell us from inside what people were thinking about.”Grenadian-born Slinger Francisco, known as the Mighty Sparrow, transformed calypso in the 1950s with outrageous performances that challenged the sexual mores of the day. Sparrow used his performances, as well as cleverly crafted lyrics (written by others), as a weapon against colonialism. In “Dan is the Man in the Van”, he criticised the colonial education system for turning Caribbean children into fools spouting nursery rhymes that had nothing to do with their culture. In “Federation”, Sparrow lashed out at Jamaica when it pulled out of an agreement for the islands to unite under one government. Sparrow injected a sense of bravado into calypsoes such as “Jean and Dinah”, reclaiming Caribbean women – even prostitutes – for Caribbean men when the Americans pulled out of their naval bases in Trinidad.

Calypso often banked on humour based on double entendre and sexual innuendo. In the 1970s Zandolee delivered “Stickman of the Year”, about a stickfighting encounter with a woman named Winnie, and “Iron Man”, about an inventor charged with having too much iron in his possession.

“The earliest humour, picong, delivered caricatures about people, the way they dressed or looked,” says Rohlehr.

Women were fair game. Sparrow sang about Melda, unkempt and smelly. Women were conniving and untrustworthy. But in 1998, Neil “Iwer” George’s calypso “Bottom in de Road” got body-slammed by women, who expressed outrage. Shocked and confused, George responded that “bottom in de road” was a reference to a fine “craft” (girl). But that marked the end of criticising women in calypso. Humorous calypso began to change form – but that wasn’t altogether a good thing.

“Humour has got vicious in the last two decades,” says Rohlehr, “particularly political calypsoes. There’s a harsh sarcasm. When these things happen we have to ask ourselves why.”

Traditional calypsonians often complain about being overshadowed by soca, the more danceable, uptempo version of calypso found in fetes (Carnival parties). Soca, given shape in the 1970s by Lord Shorty, Maestro and Shadow, also provides a snapshot of Caribbean society.

The late Lord Kitchener holds the record for most road marches in Trinidad & Tobago (the road march is the tune played the most often by costumed bands passing the judging points during Carnival). But in the 1970s, Winston Bailey, the Mighty Shadow, sang “Bassman” – a jumpy tune about how Shadow tried to forget calypso and go back to Tobago to plant peas – which ushered in a new era in calypso with bouncy basslines.

“Shadow’s ‘Bassman’ definitely had an enormous impact on calypso. It is a landmark,” says Rohlehr.

Calypso has had a major impact throughout the Caribbean, but when it comes to political commentary, Barbados rules alongside Trinidad & Tobago. Barbadian calypsonian Anthony “Gabby” Carter remembers when the late Barbadian Prime Minister Tom Adams took him to court for his 1985 calypso “Cadavers”, about the Prime Minister’s decision to store corpses from the US in Barbados.

Gabby says, “In the calypso there was a line ‘Who was this jackass, who was this fool who bring in the mafia money, I hope it was not Tommy’.” Adams believed Gabby had accused him of corruption and being involved in the drug trade. One morning Gabby was served with a lawsuit. “When I got the papers I said, ‘Politicians come and go and no one remembers what they said, but the music will live on. When Shakespeare was alive he wasn’t considered to be so important, because there were kings and queens and high society, but Shakespeare’s work lived on. No one to this day remembers what those kings and queens said, but people quote Shakespeare every day.” Adams died before the case was called.

Gabby considers “Boots”, about the absurdity of having an army in Barbados, his calypso with the most impact in the Caribbean. It was number one in Jamaica on a reggae chart in 1983. From 1982 to 1987 Grynner and Gabby’s Battleground calypso tent ruled Barbados, winning nine out of ten Road Marches.

These days, many calypso connoisseurs fear for the future of calypso throughout the region, but Gabby sings no dirges for the art form.

“Calypso will always be there. A song like Sparrow’s ‘Slave’ can never die. The next generation will laugh at the music of today that has no standards. They will look back and know what is rash, brash, harsh, hardcore foolishness and trash. Right now, the music is sleeping.”

Rohlehr says, “People say that calypso is dying, yet there is a living body of commentary, and it surfaces very quickly for events such as elections or sports.”

Gabby agrees. “Politicians make statements that become front-page headlines.  Fishmongers wrap fish in that newspaper, but a calypsonian’s music lives on.”

Gordon Rohlehr recommends:

For Rohlehr, other landmark calypsoes include:

Lord Beginner’s “Cricket Lovely Cricket”
about the West Indies’ first victory in England over the English

Austin “SuperBlue” Lyons’ “Get Something and Wave”
“for mobilising a disenchanted people coping with an attempted coup, while changing an entire way of celebrating Carnival”

Weston “Cro Cro” Rawlin’s  “Corruption in Common Entrance”
which accused the education system of Trinidad & Tobago of “preserving the prominence of a privileged ruling class”. The calypso resulted in an investigation into how children were assigned places in secondary schools.

The greatest according to Gabby:

“Slave” by Sparrow
“A landmark piece of work, because Sparrow painted a fantastic picture of slavery and gave a whole history in less than seven minutes.”

“Haiti” by David Rudder
“Look at Haiti today. Rudder was ahead of his time. He knows about the history of Haiti, and that Haiti is a North American and Caribbean problem.”


Funding provided by the 11th EDF Regional Private Sector Development Programme Direct Support Grants Programme.
The views expressed on this website are those of the the authors and do not reflect those of the Direct Support Grants Programme.