Confusion Calypso | The MIT Press Reader

Harry Belafonte’s best-selling album “Calypso!” propelled the genre into mainstream American consciousness, but its celebration of Jamaica launched a fundamental misunderstanding that obscured the origins and colonialist history of calypso.

Calypso Troubadors with Lloyd Prince Thomas, “Calypso From Trinidad”, Que Records FLS 101, c. 1960.

By: Janet Borgerson and Jonathan Schroeder

After Harry Belafonte scored a hit in 1956 with his best-selling album “Calypso!”, calypso became the top-selling music in North America almost overnight. Belafonte, although originally from New York, had spent time in Jamaica growing up as both of his parents were from the West Indies. Its celebrity status – singer, Broadway and television performer, movie star – helped propel the calypso into mainstream consciousness in the United States. Hollywood contributed with films such as “Calypso Heat Wave” (1957) and “Bop Girl Goes Calypso” (1957).

But where does calypso really come from? Belafonte’s Calypso album celebrated Jamaica and sold over a million copies. “Day-O” immediately became associated with the genre. Not a simple marketing challenge, therefore, to remedy a fundamental error: Calypso is from Trinidad, not Jamaica.

As Trinidadian carnival music, calypso is not limited to a particular dance or set of steps. It certainly harbors rhythms, sometimes for marching and dancing in the streets, but also for carrying stories, spontaneous lyrics and commentary – sometimes meaningful, sometimes directly political in message. Calypso “battles” are a kind of popularity contest to choose the best numbers. Detailed liner notes on “Calypso!” (1957) by the Duke of Iron and the Fabulous Steel Bands describe this process: “Calypsoians are chosen through the toughest possible competition. Their acceptance is transmitted by the older masters who select the most talented young singers of the Carnival of Lent. The winners of these battles of humor, wit and invective appear as true calypsoians, who must create their songs on the spot. They say they must be Trinidadian.

Calypso evolved from West African musical forms, including Kaiso. The liner notes of “Calypso de Trinidad” (1957) provide insight: Calypso “was born out of slavery, when the Spaniards brought Africans to Trinidad in the 17th century. Slaves could not speak while they worked, but the overseer let them sing because they worked better that way. So, singing in their native dialects, the slaves exchanged news, gossip, and even acid opinions about their masters. The notes also touch on origins: “Many theories have been put forward by enthusiasts regarding the origin of this music with its African rhythm and witty lyrics reminiscent of French troubadours. However, all agree that it took root in the early days of slavery and colonization.

Calypso songs tell stories of adventure and avarice, using puns, exaggeration and puns, often with sexual innuendo. The catchy calypso standard “Rum and Coca-Cola” offers critical commentary on the US military presence in Trinidad. According to researcher Michael Eldridge, when the popular singing trio Andrews Sisters recorded their version in 1944, “it was banned from major American networks and became one of the country’s most popular hits. If the words sound pretty clear in the print media, few who sing today seem to notice that “working for the Yankee dollar” means prostitution. The development and evolution of calypso melodies and lyrics presented complications for those attempting to claim songwriting credits and copyrights, and “Rum and Coca-Cola” was infamous. for his legal wrangling over authorship and royalties.

As for how to dance the calypso: The calypso dance is a carnival dance. As researcher Cynthia Oliver describes it: “Calypso, a product of Carnival, is a dance where the feet sometimes move, sometimes lift gracefully from the ground as the upper body remains stoic and the waist and hips twist and bounce. . Major American record labels had been releasing calypso records since the 1930s. In 1950s America, in the dance craze, calypso morphed into a popular and traditional dance style. Not surprisingly, Calypso, as danced by most Americans, was an amalgamation of earlier ballroom styles and had little connection to West Indian carnival dance.

In 1957, the burning question was, Will Calypso condemn Rock’n’Roll? “An incredible number of Calypso records hit the market, nightclubs across the country switched to an all-Calypso policy, and many in the industry came to believe that rock ‘n’ roll was dead. and the calypso took over,” writes music historians Ray Funk and Donald R. Hill. However, rock and roll boomed and the calypso never achieved the success hoped for by the recording industry. While it lasted, however, artists from across the musical spectrum dabbled in making calypso records, including Latin musicians Joe Loco and Tito Puente, folk Burl Ives and the Kingston Trio, jazz singers Dinah Washington and Ella Fitzgerald, West Indian natives Maya Angelou and Josephine Premice, and actor Robert Mitchum.

As one listens to and watches mid-century calypso records, it is worth remembering that at the height of the calypso craze, the calypso house was mired in struggles to free itself from colonialism. There was an uneasy relationship between the American quest for new dances and new identities and a growing West Indian movement to establish independent states. For example, in Trinidad, amid growing nationalist sentiment, many wanted steel bands to play only “local” music – instead of foreign (European classical) music. Calypso music, however, proved adaptable and marketable, although it was overtaken by Caribbean reggae and subsumed into salsa.

Album covers offer compelling representations of cultural expectations, desirable experiences, and social interactions. Mid-century calypso record covers relied on a repertoire of powerful and pleasurable associations of island life, fueled by the travel industry’s imagery of tropical paradise. In turn, interest in travel to the islands, the home of “Day-O,” has sent American consumers to travel agents for resort vacations and Caribbean cruises. Rooted in national and international struggles for narrative control, the dances and their origin stories reveal political positions. What does claiming affiliation and identities mean in such a context? Mid-century record albums express these struggles.


Janet Borgerson is a Wicklander Fellow at DePaul University and co-author (with Jonathan Schroeder) of “Designed for Hi-Fi Living: The Vinyl LP in Midcentury America” ​​and “Designed for Dancing: How Midcentury Records Taught America to Dance”, from which this article is adapted.

Jonathan Schröder is William A. Kern Professor in the School of Communication at the Rochester Institute of Technology.

Comments are closed.