What is Calypso? Calypso is a style of Afro-Caribbean music that originated in Trinidad and Tobago from African and European roots. The roots of the genre lay in the arrival of enslaved Africans, who, not being allowed to speak to each other, communicated through song. This forged a sense of community among the Africans, who saw their colonial master’s change rapidly, bringing French, Spanish and British music styles to the island of Trinidad. 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, that veteran calypsonian, The Roaring Lion (Rafael De Leon) asserted that calypso descends from the music of the medieval French troubadours.
History of Calypso The modern music history of Trinidad and Tobago reflects the ethnic groups which form the current culture—French, Spanish, British, the African and New World nations from which the African population derives, and subsequent immigration from Asia and India in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. A creole culture was formed, combining elements of hundreds of African ethnic groups, native inhabitants of the islands, Indian indentured labourers, and British, French and Spanish colonizers. French planters and their slaves emigrated to Trinidad during the French Revolution (1789) from Martinique, including a number of West Africans, and French creoles from Saint Vincent, Grenada, and Dominica, establishing a local community before Trinidad and Tobago were taken from Spain by the British. Carnival had arrived with the French, and the slaves, who could not take part in Carnival, formed their own, parallel celebration called canboulay. Stick fighting and African percussion music were banned in 1881, in response to the Canboulay Riots. They were replaced by bamboo sticks beaten together, which were themselves banned in turn. In 1937 they reappeared, transformed as an orchestra of frying pans, dustbin lids and oil drums. These steel-pans or pans are now a major part of the Trinidadian music scene and are a popular section of the Canboulay music contests. In 1941, the United States Navy arrived on Trinidad, and the pan-men, who were associated with lawlessness and violence, helped to popularize steel pan music among soldiers, which began its international popularization.