Calypso in the UK: From 1910 to 2020

Calypso music steel drum

“Each generation of slaves and freeborn Blacks created new musical genres and  performance styles.”

Maltsby 1991, 185 NY Routledge Press, 2006

This quotation, whilst specifically referring to Black American music,  encapsulates the substance of Black musical composition in general. I contend  that this process is as marked in Calypso as in Blues, Soul, jazz, Hip-Hop, RnB,  Rap and Reggae. 

Prior to World War II West Indian recordings in Britain consisted of a sequence of nine Parlophone 78-rpm records. Victor Record Company visited Trinidad in 1914 for on-the-spot recordings of local music; subsequently issuing two examples entitled “Native Trinidadian Calipso (sic), by J. Resigna”. These are the earliest known examples of calypso on record. 

In 1914, likewise, Lovey‘s Trinidad String Band travelled to the United States and made more recordings for Columbia. Seven of these were by Sam Manning (made between 1924 and 1925), one by Slim Henderson (made in 1924) and one by Cyril Monrose‘s String Band (made in 1925). 

In 1938, U.K. Brunswick (a subsidiary of Decca) released six 78s drawn from Decca’s US calypso catalogue. Almost all the idiomatic recordings are connected with musicians from Trinidad. Jamaica, the largest British West Indian island,  was never visited by record company field units during the period up to 1950. However, the presence of Jamaicans in London’s jazz/dance bands in the 1930s indicates their commitment to the Caribbean musical spectrum during the first half of the twentieth century. 

The calypso has been the premier vehicle for expressing the social and political attitudes of Caribbean peoples, from its roots in the West African griot tradition.  (The word “Calypso” is an adaptation of the West African word “Kaiso”, meaning  “well done” or “encore”, and shouted out by audience members as a term of  approval during a griot’s performance.) As new styles evolved, Bluebeat, Reggae,  Zouk and Soca became linked with particular islands. All these subsets of the Calypso art form were African in origin but intertwined with musical genres inherited from European colonizers.  

As people left the Caribbean in the early 20th century to seek work in Canada, the USA and Britain, the content of calypso altered to reflect local conditions.  Although calypso had been heard in Britain since the end of WW1 the so-called “Windrush generation” reintroduced Calypso to the British public through some if its finest exponents, viz. Lord Kitchener, Roaring Lion, Mighty Terror and Lord Beginner. The witty lyrics used to express conditions in Britain (“My Landlady’s too rude, in my affairs she likes to intrude” – Kitchener) reflected the feelings of  British Caribbeans, (citizens, NOT immigrants), the jaunty rhythms and catchy  melodies often disguising some of the underlying darkness of the subject matter. Calypso lyrics are both informative and challenging, using double-entente” to  ridicule politicians or the ruling class, as well as to inform and reflect the public’s  views of the world.

Trinidad’s (and Jamaica’s) independence in 1962 saw many Caribbeans  returning home, including Kitchener, Lion and Beginner. They remained in the  West Indies, while in Britain the calypso tradition was kept alive through the 1970s and ‘80s by British based performers like Mighty Tiger, (first British  Calypso Monarch, 1971) and Lord Cloak. In 1991 the Association of British Calypsonians was formed. Its membership represents performers from various Caribbean countries. After nearly 30 years of performing home-grown Calypso and Soca in British carnivals like Notting Hill, Leeds, the Midlands, Bristol and  beyond, Calypso has increased in importance and relevance.      

The topics covered by Calypso in Britain have become ever more on point. “British” calypsonians comprise a group of performers from at least eight  Caribbean countries, as opposed to just hailing from one country. Moreover, the  topics covered in the London Calypso Tent tend to be broader in their scope than those in the islands, often dealing with international issues rather than local  politics. In this year’s online virtual Notting Hill Carnival the calypso competition’s first and fourth places dealt with the Corona virus, the second  place was about “Four times more likely to be stopped” and the third was about BLM. This is also true of carnivals in Toronto, New York and Miami and reflects my observation that people will carry their culture with them, reinvent and adapt it to fit new surroundings and new circumstances. 

Calypso Notting Hill
Notting Hill Carnival, London. Photograph: Angel Ganev/Flickr

From February 2000 until July 2012 I was “calypsonian – in residence” for the BBC, writing a news – based calypso every week for broadcast on BBC local stations. A couple of years ago I was a guest on a BBC station and sang my song  “Haiti”, an excoriating attack on France, Britain and The USA for the plight of that brave nation, born out of the only successful Black slave rebellion in history. A fellow guest expressed some concern that the (safe) calypsos he remembered by Harry Belafonte were seldom performed today. This attitude highlights to me an ongoing problem, that of the refusal of colonizing nations to accept songs criticizing them.  

The advent of Soca (generally credited to Ras Shorty I and the mixing of African and East Indian percussion styles in the early 1970s) brought a faster, more urgent feel to the calypso. While there are some Soca artistes who maintain the political and social commentary that we have come to expect from Calypso, Soca  has itself been subdivided. “Jam ‘n’ Wine” requires little lyrical content with more emphasis on dancing. Groovy Soca mostly confines its topics to “feel good”  carnival issues. Chutney Soca is the domain of the Indian citizens of Trinidad and  Tobago, incorporating flavours of the sub-continent’s Bhangra and other styles. Today’s “Conscious Soca” (a rising trend over the past ten years), is where we find the calypso spirit of social commentary and invective. 

The “safe” image of calypso as inoffensive “fun” songs like “Don’t Stop The  Carnival” is challenged by the rhetoric which I and many other calypsonians enjoy bringing into our work. People’s “comfort zones” have always been and indeed, still need to be, shaken, and today’s Caribbean music genres are the children of the “mother music” that is Calypso.

A professional musician and composer for more than 40 years, Alexander divides his time between live performances, running his own small record label, and doing poetry and calypso workshops in schools and colleges. Since February 2000, he has been Calypsonian-in-Residence for the BBC. He was UK Calypso Monarch in 2010-11 and 2011-12.

This blog is part of our Black History Month 2020 series, which celebrates black voices and achievements over time, and across the globe.

Author image courtesy of Stephen Spark.

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