Calypso and Its Roots

Roaring Lion, Raphael Arlus Kairiyama De Leon aka Hubert Raphael Charles,
got his name from a resigned calypsonian called “Poetic Harris” who,
on hearing the power of De Leon’s singing, jumped up, threw his

hat in the air and shouted “He roars like a lion”.

Harry Belafonte and his million copy plus selling Calypso album from 1956

While thousands of Westindians from Grand and Small Island alike streamed into Panama to labor at building Panama’s Great Waterway and continue its smooth running operation, a new musical genre had been evolving and gaining much popularity in the Caribbean. Calypso would eventually lighten and stir the hearts of many and reach the comfortable homes of Americans and Europeans alike through the magic of Hollywood and the small screen. The tale of Panama’s “Silver People” would not be at all complete without the story of Calypso and the Calypsonians who helped shape Panama’s culture and history.

Calypso is a unique musical art form that originated in the Afro-Caribbean, more specifically in Trinidad and Tobago, during the beginning of the 20th century. Limited in their ability to speak to one another by their masters during slavery, African slaves communicated with each other more freely through song. This promoted a sense of community among the Africans, who saw not only their colonial masters change in rapid succession but their music styles as well from French, Spanish and British styles in 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.

Calypso, in fact, became a way of spreading news around Trinidad. Politicians, journalists and public figures would often debate about the lyrics in popular songs and many islanders considered them the most reliable news source. Calypsonians, then, tested the boundaries of free speech as their lyrics and rhythms spread news of any topic relevant to island life, including speaking out against political corruption. British rule, however, began to censor the music and the police were authorized to scan these songs for damaging content, but even with this censorship, calypsos continued to push boundaries.

The first Calypso recordings, made by Lovey’s String Band, debuted in 1912, and inaugurated the “Golden Age of Calypso.” By the 1920s, Calypso tents were set up at Carnival for Calypsonians to practice before competitions. The first major stars of calypso like Attila the Hun, Roaring Lion and Lord Invader, followed by Lord Kitchener started crossing over to new audiences worldwide in the late 1930s. Lord Kitchener, in fact, one of the longest-lasting calypso stars in history, continued to release hit records until his death in 2000. The famous Calypso “Rum and Coca Cola,” composed by Lord Invader and popularized by the Andrew Sisters in 1944, became an American hit.

The more commercialized form of Calypso became a worldwide craze with the release of the “Banana Boat Song,” a traditional Jamaican folk song, that became a hit in Harry Belafonte’s 1956 album Calypso, which was the first full-length record to sell more than a million copies. It was also in that year that The Mighty Sparrow became an international hit with his rendition of “Jean and Dinah.” The song was a musical commentary on the easy availability of prostitutes after the closing of the United States naval base on Trinidad at Chagaramas.

Panama produced her own native Calypsonians, but in our next posts we will briefly introduce the great Caribbean troubadours who paved the way for this enchanting musical art form.

“Ah Want It” Lord Kitchener

 

“Gee Me de Ting” Lord Kitchener

 

Harry Belafonte “Banana Boat Song (Day O) click below:

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