Even today, calypso’s origins are still disputed by historians. Depending upon which historian you ask, they’ll tell you that calypso’s origins are in France or Spain. Others will suggest calypso’s origins are in West Africa, and specially, Nigeria.

Calypso in the language of the Ibildilio people, of West Africa, is translated as kaiso. Ka means go, and iso, means forward. So essentially, kaiso is a word to encourage the musician or performer to move forward. One of the first singers to have heard the word kaiso, was Raymond Quevedo. He was Attila the Hun, the Trinidadian calypso singer.

When he first started singing in 1911, Attila the Hun remembers the word kaiso being used to describe a song and dance routines. If  Attila the Hun had performed really well, his audiences described his performance as an excellent kaiso. However, despite kaiso being replaced by calypso in the pervious hundred years, some people still use the word kaiso.

Especially when they’re describing calypso in its rawest, most basic form. However, calypso is the anglicised version of kaiso. Calypso-Musical Poetry In The Caribbean 1955-1969, is also the title of a recent Soul Jazz Records compilation. It features nineteen tracks from the period when calypso was at the height of its popularity in the Caribbean. 

Calypso had been popular from 1912, when Lovey’s String Band headed to New York to record Mango Vert for Columbia Records. Two years later, in 1914, the first vocal calypso recordings were made. This included Julian Whiterose’s Iron Duke In The Land and Julian Sims’ Native Trinidad Kalenda. Then in 1914, the War interrupted calypso’s evolution. No calypso recordings were made during the War.

As the twenties dawned, calypso was about to enter its golden era. This lasted through until the thirties. What made this so important was that at last, Calypso has a standard structure, style and vernacular. This was hugely important. Before that, different artists approached calypso in different ways. Not any more. 

With ground rules established, calypso’s popularity exploded. Artists like Attila the Hun, Lord Beginner, Roaring Lion, Growling Tiger, King Radio, Wilmoth Houdini and Lord Executor became some of the biggest names in Calypso. They also became champions of calypso. It was a way people within the Caribbean could express themselves.

Soon, lyrics were being written about everything from social problems, politics, politics and relationship humour. Humour played an important part in calypso lyrics. The calypso singer became known as part poet, politician, philosopher, romantic and comedian. However, the government took to censoring records. Not only did the fear political unrest, but moral outrage. Despite the censoring of calypso records, some of the best calypso singers became huge stars, travelling to New York where they play live. So, it’s no surprise that American record labels looked enviously at calypso.

In 1925, Columbia became musical pioneers. They were the first American record label to release calypso records. Okeh followed suit in 1934. Okeh came late to the party, and although they benefited financially, calypso’s golden era was interrupted by the War.

Unlike during World War I, calypso records were released during World War II. Some calypso singers released records in support of the War effort. Many of these records fell into the hands of American G.I.s. They were stationed in Trinidad, and many came across Calypso for the first time. This resulted in the American G.I.s spreading the word about calypso.

Previously, only a small number of people were aware of calypso. This included a coterie of middle class intellectuals, whose natural habitat was Greenwich Village. No longer was calypso just a music for a minority in America. 

Instead, calypso became almost mainstream. Roaring Lion’s Ugly Woman featured in the 1944 movie Happy Go Lucky. Even The Andrews Sisters jumped on the Calypso bandwagon. They covered Lord Invader’s Rum and Coca Cola. Calypso’s move to the mainstream continued in the post-war years.

In 1946, Ella Fitzgerald covered Wilmouth Houdini’s 1939 Calypso hit He Had It Coming. Accompanied by Louis Jordan and The Hot Tympany Five, He Had It Coming reached number one in the US R&B charts. Then a year later, Calypso Carnival became “the first calypso musical ever presented.” Over in Trinidad, a new calypso superstar was born.

His story began back in 1942. That’s when Aldwyn Roberts dawned the persona of Lord Kitchener and recorded his first hit Green Fig. He was championed by a calypso veteran, Crouching Tiger, as the man who would take calypso in a new direction. Lord Kitchener introduced jazz and R&B influences into Calypso. This was vital. By then, Calypso was risking going stale. Not any more. The man hailed as the “Grandmaster of calypso” had revitalised the genre. His popularity soared. So much so, that Lord Kitchener performed in front of US President Harry Truman, when he visited Trinidad. After that, Lord Kitchener toured the Caribbean, and then headed to Britain, where he helped popularise calypso.

Lord Kitchener set sail on the HMS Windrush in 1948. Onboard were Lord Beginner and Lord Woodbine, two other calypso singers. Their destination was Britain, where like the rest of the Windrush generation on the boat, a new life awaited. They believed they were heading to a country which was prosperous and they’d be welcomed. Sadly, they were very wrong.

Many of the Windrush generation weren’t welcomed with open arms. At best, they were treated with indifference. Many British people were far from friendly. Instead, they were downright hostile. For The West Indians who’d arrived with great hopes and dreams, the dream had gone sour. A small consolation was that they’d brought a reminder of home, calypso.

New songs were written that reflected the hardship and disappointment of their new life. The lyrics were full of scathing social comment. This was their outlet to give voice to their disappointment. Sometimes, though the lyrics were joyous, hopeful and tinged with humour. Before long the genesis of a Caribbean music scene was taking place in Britain. Its popularity would eventually explode. Sadly, some Calypso veterans fed up with their new home, returned to Jamaica.

Soon, a new generation of singers were making a name for themselves. Especially with Lord Kitchener and other Calypso singers heading home. When they arrived home in Jamaica, a new type of Calypso was becoming popular, mento.

Mento was the music of the rural Jamaica. It featured instruments that were mostly used in rural locations. This meant a banjo, acoustic guitar, flute, saxophone, hand percussion and even, handmade instruments. These instruments were responsible for a proto-reggae beat. One of the biggest names of the Mento scene was Lord Flea.

Lord Flea became a huge star in Jamaica. Especially in the island’s nightclubs and hotels. By then, Calypso was a huge musical phenomenon. It was sweeping Britain and America by storm. ironically, the man who’d become one of the biggest names in calypso wasn’t even Jamaican.

That was Harry Belafonte. He was born in Harlem, to Jamaican and Martiniquan parents. Harry started off as a folk singer in the forties, and eventually, incorporated Calypso into his act. His first calypso release was his 1953 cover of King Radio’s Matilda. Three years later, in 1956, Harry Belafonte released his album Calypso. A fusion of Jamaican mento and traditional mento, Calypso seemed to catch the imagination of the American record buying public. It became a huge commercial success, resulting in the Calypso craze sweeping America. However, the calypso craze bore very little similarity to authentic calypso. 

For authentic calypso, there was only one place to go, the Caribbean. Whilst Harry Belafonte was conquering America with his sanitised version of calypso, some of the finest calypso ever, was being released in the Caribbean. Especially between 1955 and 1969. This is the period covered by Soul Jazz Records’ recent compilation Calypso-Musical Poetry In The Caribbean 1955-1969. It features nineteen tracks from another of calypso’s golden eras.

On Calypso-Musical Poetry In The Caribbean 1955-1969, there’s a total of nineteen tracks. They’re a mixture of calypso and mento. There’s contributions from some of the biggest names in calypso. This includes Lord Flea and Lord Kitchener. Then there’s contributions from Young Growler, Lord Hummingbird, Mighty Dougla, Viper, JB Williams Band, Brownie, Charlie Binger and His Quartet and Lord Byron and Orquesta Nueva Alegria. Several generation of calypso singers contribute to Calypso-Musical Poetry In The Caribbean 1955-1969. It’s best described a a veritable feast of calypso.

There’s a mixture of we’ll known tracks, hidden gems and rarities on Calypso-Musical Poetry In The Caribbean 1955-1969. During this period, lyrics were being written about everything from social problems, politics, politics and relationships. Humour played an important part in calypso lyrics. The calypso singer became known as part poet, politician, philosopher, romantic and comedian. No longer were the government censoring records. The fear political unrest, but moral outrage seemed to have passed. That’s just as well.

Some of the lyrics are full of social comment and sexual innuendo. There’s no way these tracks would pass a censor. Having said that, the music is also full of poppy hooks and is dance-floor friendly. Some of the tracks are akin to a call to dance. Resistance is futile as you submit to its charms and delights. Other tracks have a much more laid-back, languid sound. 

Sitting side-by-side with calypso and mento on Calypso-Musical Poetry In The Caribbean 1955-1969, is proto reggae. During this fourteen year period, Caribbean music was constantly evolving. It wasn’t going to risk standing still. That had happened before. It took mento to rejuvenate Caribbean music. 

You may wonder why I keep saying Caribbean music. There’s a reason for this. The music on Calypso-Musical Poetry In The Caribbean 1955-1969 isn’t just the music of Jamaica. No. Instead, it’s the music of all the islands in the Caribbean. They played their part in the sound and success of calypso revolution, whose second golden period is documented on Soul Jazz Records’ recent compilation Calypso-Musical Poetry In The Caribbean 1955-1969. 

For the newcomer to calypso, then Calypso-Musical Poetry In The Caribbean 1955-1969 is the perfect starting place.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: