Calypso Music 101

Caribbean steel pan band

Christof46/Wikimedia Commons/CC by SA 4.0

Calypso is a genre of Afro-Caribbean music that comes primarily from the island of Trinidad (though Calypso is found throughout the Caribbean). Like most genres of Caribbean music, Calypso is heavily rooted in West African traditional music and was originally used as a means of communication between slaves, as well as a form of entertainment.

The Sound of Calypso Music

Because Trinidad was, over time, ruled by the British, the French and the Spanish, the African rhythms that form the roots of Calypso music blended with the European folk music of all of these places to give us the heavily rhythmic but still pleasantly melodic sound that we now recognize as Calypso. Calypso is generally played on folk instruments, including the guitar, banjo and various types of percussion.

Calypso Lyrics

The lyrics of traditional Calypso music are generally quite political in nature, but because of strict censorship, are cleverly veiled. Calypso lyrics, in fact, are so carefully structured on events of the day that music historians can date many of the traditional Calypso songs based on their lyrical content.

The Worldwide Popularity of Calypso Music

Calypso music became something of an international craze when Harry Belafonte first scored a major U.S. hit in 1956 with "Day-O" (The Banana Boat Song), a reworked version of a traditional Jamaican mento song. Belafonte later became an important figure in the folk revival of the 1960s, and although critics say his music was really a watered-down version of Calypso, he still deserves credit for popularizing the genre.

Genres of Music Related to Calypso

There are other genres that are related to or often get confused with Calypso. Some of these are Soca, Chutney, and Jamaican Mento Music. There are also other types of music that come from the Caribbean region.