Trinidad & Tobago: A Rich History of Dance, Devotion and Demonstration

Trinidad and Tobago is home to a variety of celebrated music genres born out of the nation’s rich history of dance, devotion and demonstration. Of these, calypso has risen as a national symbol that, regardless of attempts by the modern tourism industry to rebrand it as ‘tropical’ fantasy, encapsulates a history of defiance against colonial authority tied to social comment and rebellion music. Today, the music of Trinidad and Tobago is less prominent than that of Jamaica or Cuba in ‘World Music’ circuits, but its legacy and its latest trends remain a central part of the contemporary scene.

Country Profile

Located at the very southeastern edge of the West Indies, just off the coastline of South America, Trinidad and Tobago is a dual island nation, the former much larger than the latter. With a population of around 1.3 million, it is the sixth most populous island in the Caribbean. Unlike most other islands in the region, its demographics are equally split between two major ethnic groups: black populations, whose ancestors were African slaves, and (East) Indians, descended from immigrant labourers who came from India after the abolition of slavery. Its religious affiliations are as mixed as its ethnic composition: it has large Hindu, Roman Catholic and Protestant populations and a large number of African-influenced religious sects (including Orisa (‘Shango’) devotees and the Spiritual Baptists), as well as a small Muslim minority. It is a thoroughly rural society, with a rural population of around 90% that, contrary to world trends, is actually rising (its rate of urbanisation is around -1%).

Cultural History

Although a unified nation today, the two islands of Trinidad and Tobago only joined together in 1889 and, until then, they had separate, and somewhat divergent, histories. While the larger Trinidad was a principally Arawak island in its early history, named Iere (humming bird), the smaller Tobago was a Carib island, its name related to the tavaco (the traditional pipe for smoking tobacco leaves). Both islands were ‘discovered’ by explorer Christopher Columbus during his third voyage to the West Indies (1498) and, like elsewhere in the Caribbean, as European colonists set out to take over his new found lands, the indigenous peoples and cultures of both islands were either wiped out or enslaved via subjugation, disease and forced labour. Although Columbus himself claimed Trinidad for the Spanish Crown, leading to the establishment of a small outpost (1510), Spanish fleets in pursuit of the mythical Eldorado returned later to fully colonise the island (1592). The Spanish control maintained control of the island for nearly two hundred, but it was then taken over by a British expedition (1797). Tobago, by contrast, was first claimed by English explorers led by Sir Walter Raleigh (1608), and was successively occupied by sparring European forces; in fact the island changed hands more times than any other Caribbean territory: it was taken over by Dutch settlers (1632) until French forces seized the island (1676); it was then apportioned to Britain in the settlement for the Seven Years’ War (1763); and it then passed back and forth between French (1781), British (1793), French (1802) and finally British (1814) powers.

Spanish colonists, under the auspices of their Roman Catholic priests, either enslaved indigenous peoples as workers in encomiendas (villages specifically designed for exploiting Amerindian labour) or moved them out of Trinidad to agricultural enclaves in other Spanish colonies. Under Spanish rule, Trinidad was an isolated and fragile island, supported only by small exports in tobacco that lacked any substantial plantation infrastructure. After poor harvests, outbreaks of disease and slavers’ raiding, both Arawak and Spanish settlers were dwindling on the island. In response, the colonial government issued a call that welcomed white and ‘free coloured’ Roman Catholics to join their colony, resulting in an influx of French Creoles, mainly from Haiti but also from other islands like Grenada and Dominica, who initially migrated for the land opportunities and to escape poor treatment in the French colonies but later came as refugees fleeing the successful Haitian Revolution (1791-1803). They acquired African slaves from French colonies, developed a new network of plantations on the island and established a dominant Francophone culture. At a similar time, a subculture also emerged in Trinidad when around 800 African-American enslaved soldiers, having fought for the British against the United States of America (1812), were resettled on the island, bringing Baptist rituals and North American singing traditions into Trinidadian culture. Overall, a parallel story played out in Tobago, which became an abundant sugar island after the British acquired the island, operating with its own plantations and slave workforce sourced from British colonies mainly in West Africa.

When the British Slavery Abolition Act was passed (1833), both Trinidad and Tobago were under British rule and full emancipation for slaves was, in theory, achieved on the islands (1838) although it took a couple of decades more to be achieved in practice. After emancipation, more than 150,000 indentured labourers, mainly from India but also from China, Africa and Madeira, immigrated to Trinidad to work in the sugar and cacao trades (mid-late 19thC) and subsequently the oil industry (early 20thC), adding new threads to the island’s diverse cultural patchwork. Tobago, on the other hand, endured difficult economic and environmental turmoil, with price falls leading to a collapse in its sugar industry and a powerful hurricane devastating the island, resulting in social upheaval which, culminating in the Belmanna riots, led to the amalgamation of Trinidad and Tobago into a unified colony (1889).

Over time, the oppressed subjects began to push for reform, securing local representation through a legislative council (1925) and, after a series of strikes and riots led by Grenadian Uriah Butler, gaining universal suffrage (1945). Campaigns for representation were also intrinsically tied up with cultural and religious motivations: Indian communities mobilised into organisations which protected marriage and burial rights according to Hindu and Muslim rites. Gradually, powers were increasingly transferred from the colonial Governor to local representative politicians until Trinidad and Tobago achieved independence (1962) and established itself as a republic within the Commonwealth (1976). Eric Williams, a highly educated politician and the first Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, dominated the public sphere over the new few decades, promoting racial equality, universal literacy and cultural excellence and personally envoicing the suppressed narratives and histories of the Caribbean to the world through literature, for which he won a Nobel Prize (2001).

Music Culture

Islands of Diversity

Trinidad and Tobago is notably culturally diverse. While there are other mixed countries in the Caribbean, these islands are somewhat unique in the way that their ethnic and religious groupings have retained such distinct communities, identities and customs and have thus maintained and cultivated their own discrete traditional musics along (Francophone) African and (East) Indian lineages. However, there has been some degree of syncretisation in the adaption of traditional practices to new contexts, and indeed in the development of new ‘national’ fusion styles that have attempted to bridge horizons and speak to and for people from all groupings on the islands. In practice, both the discrete traditions and the mixed modern forms equally embody these islands of diversity, symbolising in their own ways the national motto of ‘together we aspire, together we achieve’.

Devotional Traditions

Traditional musics in Trinidad and Tobago are chiefly organised around distinct ethnic and religious groupings: (Francophone) African and (East) Indian lineages. For traditional devotional music, the former are largely involved in Christian and African-derived syncretic worship practices while the latter revolve around Hindu and Muslim worship contexts.

The ‘Shango’ sect employs traditional song, dance and drumming in direct worship. Shango is a syncretic religion that, like a number of others in the Caribbean, merges Yorubaorisha metaphysics and rituals with Roman Catholic influences (e.g. assigning orishaswith apposite Saint’s names), and the sect is named for its selection of Shango (the orisha of thunder), as its patron saint for the islands. Each Shango congregation on the islands has its own particular community rituals, which are supervised and maintained by each temple leader as a religious duty: some tend to use song to express thanksgiving while others focus more on the use of dance and drumming to facilitate the exchange of energies and engagements with the orishas. However, all congregations use devotional music as an essential vehicle for worship in spirit possession ceremonies, which take place at the palain (a simple straw-roofed shrine lined with benches) or at a shrine complex (a compound of altars and candles commemorating the orishas, with stools for members of the congregation to find commune and colourful flags which celebrate the religion’s patron Shango as well as a particular patron orisha for each congregation). For such ceremonies, men wear a white dress and women wear colourful dresses and wraps covering their hair; musicians perform polyrhythmic drumming using a triad of drums, the bemba, the congo and the oumalay(three stick-beaten double-headed hourglass drums, derived from the Yoruba batá); and there is also usually musical/devotional participation from the congregation, who may shake idiophonic instruments like the shak-shak (a small rattle), clap their hands and/or sway and dance to the rhythms. For the drumming, the bemba always leads with syncopated rhythms delivered through virtuosic slaps, the congo offers fast, repetitive patterns that lock into those of the bembaand the oumalay has the freer improvisatory role of creating complex polyrhythms against the interlocking patterns. Yet, the use of these drums is not incidental and their playing is not random: specific traditional drumming and singing patterns, transmitted and preserved orally for generations, are employed to ‘speak’ to each orisha. For example, in the common Ebo ritual, traditional drum patterns are used not only to express general adoration for the orishas but also to devote animal sacrifice to a particular orisha;and they are used to induce spirit possession by calling on a particular orishato possess a priest medium who then, regarded as under the influence of its power, may dance traditional movements expressing its personality (often including wide ‘sightless’ eyes, shaking knees, ecstatic striding gestures) or may bestow its blessings and envoice its guidance. While the primary purpose of this music tradition is, of course, religious worship, it is also worth pointing out that Shango devotees are overwhelmingly working-class people. Beyond its direct devotional functions, the traditional music also came to embody this class identity, serving as a force of solidarity within the community itself and as a symbol of pride that represents the community at national celebrations.

Amongst the (East) Indian communities of Trinidad, traditional chant and song forms are used as vehicles for devotion in both Hindu and Muslim religious worship. The dominant Hindu population draws mainly on traditions derived from North Indian culture, though, because the indentured labourers abandoned the caste system, these traditions have generally been practiced by all and in freer ways. Bhojpuri devotional songs have been a key part of religious practice. For example, for the springtime ‘festival of colours’ of Holi(or Phagwa), men would sing chautāl (festive Bhojpuri praise songs which exult the Gods), accompanied by the percussive playing of dhol (stick-beaten double-headed barrel drums) and jhāl (cymbals). Yet, through a ‘Hindu Renaissance’ on the islands during early 20thC, Vedic chants, mantras (sacred sounds, phonemes and utterances e.g. ‘Om’) and Hindi bhajan (hymns) became the primary forms of devotional music, and are all used in the temples and taught in Hindu primary schools. The Vedic chants are sung in Sanskrit and accompanied by a whirling drone, provided by instruments like tambura (long-necked plucked bowl lute). They are used in personal devotional practice as well as communal temple worship, especially in the context of the homa, a votive ritual involving casting offerings into consecrated fire. The bhajan comprise serious traditional recitations which praise Rama and other deities that, often accompanied by harmonium (portable keyboard pump organ), dhol drums and idiophones like kartal (clappers with jingles) and manjira (small cymbals), enforce religious and spiritual norms and values. Some bhajan are adapted to include ‘call’ interjections from a leader to a chorus ‘response’ between verses or in the lead up to refrains, revealing a degree of syncretisation that integrated Afro-Trinidadian vocality. Also used in worship are high energy and catchy songs deriving from the mystical Sai Baba sect, which utilise melodic repetition, convivial musical participation and rousing percussive playing from the dhol for their musical acts of religious devotion.

The Muslim minority also mainly draw on North Indian traditions for their acts of musical devotion. The call to prayer and chanting of the Quran are standard in that they utilise recitational singing but are not conceptualised as ‘music’. There are also specific devotional song forms, such as the kaseeda (or qasida) taught in Muslim schools, and sacred rituals involving music, such as those used in the ten-day Muslim festival of Hosay(Ta’ziye in the Middle East). Hosaycommemorates the martyrdom of Hussein in Karbalā’enacted through six days of prayer, fasting and the building of tadjahs (miniature ornate Mosque-shaped tombs carried on bamboo frames), followed by: a colourful flag march on the seventh day; a march of thetadjahs on the eighth; a procession of the tadjahs accompanied by men performinggatka(choreographed stick-fighting dancing representing Hussein’s triumph over death) to fierce drumming from a tassa (kettle drum) ensemble on the ninth day; and a parade of the tadjahswhich includes women singing acapella melismatic marseehas (laments) on the last day, culminating in the casting of the tadjahs into the river or the sea to symbolise the act of sacrifice. In the tassaensemble, the ‘full’ tassa plays out a tala metre and a ‘bass’ tassa beats out the steady processional beat, while some drums add layers of cross-rhythms and others improvise intricate ‘melodies’ over the top. The ritual has been syncretised in the sense that the specific artistic stylings of the tadjahsand the particular performance practices of the tassa ensembles have been adapted and cultivated to the extent that they are distinct from all other Hosay festivities around the world.

Beyond these major religious communities, certain other Trinbagonian faith groups use syncretised musical forms in the service of religious worship. Creole sects utilise African-derived traditions, as with the Shango, but generally include greater influence from French cultural practices, as with the bélè. The bélè refers both to a song and dance form and also to the drum (stick-beaten single-headed barrel drum) used for it. The bélè is a highly diverse form, with many distinct offshoots in different communities across the islands, but it is generally a courtship dance, whose choreography developed as African slaves imitated and mocked the graceful ballroom dance of their French masters; it combines the elegant movements and gliding steps of French contredanse with gestures from traditional African fertility dances. The couple usually start out dancing slowly and gracefully and, as the dance progresses, they move closer to the drummers as the music accelerates and crescendos and their motions become more accented and more sensual, culminating in vigorous movements which symbolise sexual union. Its devotional songs involve responsorial singing between a chantè (lead singer) and réspondè(chorus) that call on the spirits to perform their ‘magic work’ to consecrate their union. Its frenzy-inducing drum rhythms, which build from slow and calm to fast and wild as the dance moves on, are polyphonic and interlocking, with a three-part texture: a middle drum that maintains a steady ostinato pattern (often the duple cinquillorhythm X.XX.XX.); a lower drum that locks into it (often a triple extended rhythm that also includes the cinquillo within it); and a master ‘cutter’ drum that beats out high syncopated accents to accentuate the polyphony.

In a similar vein, the Tobago reel is another syncretic song and dance form, but somewhat uniquely derives from the presence of Scottish planters and soldiers on the smaller island of Tobago: it is an Africanised version of a traditional Scottish music and dance form. It mainly draws on the stylistic elements of the reel(modal, mainly pentatonic, tunes in two symmetrical parts, largely featuring straight quavers, in simple metre of 4/4, with accents on first and third beats so a pulse of 2/2) as well as its typical instruments, including a singer, a couple of fiddles, a tambourine and an idiophone (e.g. a triangle), although its imitation between singer and fiddle and its rhythmic pulse are accentuated. Despite this indigenisation, the tunes themselves were preserved so faithfully in oral transmission that they can still be paired directly with tunes in the Scottish folk repertory; musicians reportedly found affinities between the ‘African’ approach to interlocking patterns for continuous rhythms and the Scottish approach to interweaving ‘tunes’ for continuous melodies. With these intertwining musical systems in combination, ‘Reel Dances’ in Tobago were said to last from 6pm in the evening until 6am the following morning. In devotional contexts, the reel was used to consult with ancestral spirits by calling them to ‘mount’ a medium, in the trance-like frenzy of the music and dance, to give them ‘second sight’ and guide them on the appropriateness of a marriage or on cures for a disease or to delight the spirit in times of hardship, such as national disasters or famine, so that they might use their powers to bring relief.

Perhaps the most syncretic musical practices are those of the Spiritual Baptists, who are also known as ‘Shouters’ for their ecstatic rituals.  Their religious practices derive from Baptist spiritual tenets, such as evangelism and liberty (including autonomy of local congregations), and their original music traditions derive from North American singing styles, mixing the melodies of Anglian hymns with African-derived responsorial singing. However, since their settlement in Trinidad (19thC), the Spiritual Baptists have absorbed a remarkably eclectic array of influences into their contemporary religious worship, which integrates Yoruba, Christian and Hindu theologies and draws on Anglian hymns, Yoruba-derived responsorial chants, African-American spirituals, Vedic mantras, Hindu bhajanand Chinese vocalisations, both sung in their individual original forms but also merged into a fusion form known as doption singingDoption singing is considered a mode of spiritual experience inviting the Holy Spirit to take possession of the devotee so they enter a state of trance that facilitates ‘mental travel’, a mystical journey to the spiritual heartlands of Africa, India and China, using the stylistic idioms to guide the direction of flight. The specific qualities of the style vary from congregation to congregation, but the basics of doption singing are to start with a melody from Anglian hymns or African-American spirituals, harmonised in multipart singing, accompanied by (Shango-style) polyphonic drumming and rhythmic accompaniment from the congregation through clapping and shouts, after which melodies and vocalities from the other cultural traditions weave in and out of each other in the unfolding song. Other core elements include constant motion (swaying, dancing) amongst the congregation, spontaneous outbursts of inhalations, grunting and glossolalia (speaking in tongues) and the use of a global bazaar of symbolic aids, including traditional African-derived dress, Indian altar oils and lota (a metal plate) and Chinese candles and bells.

Amongst wider Christian groups, Anglican hymns and African-American spirituals are popular in church services. However, at Christmas time, the most popular religious song is a Hispanic devotional tradition that came over from neighbouring Venezuela: theparang (or parranda in Spanish). These songs include aguinaldos(serenades) and other song forms that narrate the nativity story, the life and times of Jesus and general Christian themes such as compassion and charity. They draw on Spanish melody, poetry and improvisational vocalisms. Aguinaldoswere traditionally sung by a small group of men accompanied by cuatro (a Venezuelan lute similar to the ukulele)and chac-chac (maracas) as part of carolling to serenade families in return for food and drink. Today, they are usually sung by mixed voice choirs accompanied by various combinations of guitars, cuatro,chac-chac, tock-tock (claves), güiro(a scraped gourd)and marimbula (derived from the Akan seprewa) that mix in Afro-Caribbean textures and rhythms as entertainment for crowds in public spaces as an integral part of national Christmas celebrations. Though a primarily Christian custom, traditional parang songs are known, enjoyed and even performed by people of all different religious backgrounds in Trinidad and Tobago.

Secular & Festive Traditions

Beyond these devotional forms, traditional musics in Trinidad and Tobago also came out of secular social and festive contexts, with some still organised chiefly around ethnic groupings and others, especially festive traditions, aimed at bringing diverse groups and traditions together into a carnivalesque mix.

Amongst Hindu communities, Bhojpuri folk songs and stories were historically the dominant secular form. Stylistically, these songs tended to utilise simple melodies in lilting (2-3; X.X..) metres with declamatory voice in order to foreground their storytelling purpose. As well as being sung for recreation, they were put in the service of work, with a variety of specific functional repertoires (e.g. ‘grinding’ tunes) tailored to the rhythm of the task and to help the time pass faster, and they also took on cultural roles in the annual cycle events, such as khajri (harvest songs), and life-cycle ritual events, like sohar (birth) songs sung to celebrate the birth of a child and to wish them luck and prosperity. Traditionally, folk songs were sung in the Bhojpuri language but, over time, it became more common for them to be sung in the creole tongue. Folk song and dance especially played a key role in wedding ceremonies, which were large-scale community affairs. Wedding festivities traditionally took place over three days, and included rituals such as the kanyadan (a party to celebrate the father’s giving away of the bride), the godna (ritual body-painting) and the kohobar (a hazing rite where the couple enter a decorated room to play games with their relatives designed to tease and challenge them), on top of the marriage ceremony itself. Love songsfeatured regularly over the course of the marriage celebrations, especially songs narrating the Hindu epic of marriage: Ramaand Sita. At the kohobari, and also during cooking and the wedding feast itself, comic songs that teased the couple would be sung over a combination of dholdrums, tambourines, manjira cymbals and/or shak-shak rattles.  Wild tassa drumming, drawing on Muslim devotional tradition, would accompany the main wedding procession, which involved the whole community in its marching and animated dancing. Today, many of these traditions are only observed in self-proclaimed ‘traditional’ weddings, but the community tassa processions are still a regular feature of virtually all weddings.

In both Hindu and Muslim (East) Indian communities, Indian classical music forms are also an important part of traditional culture. Hindustani classical song traditions like dhrupad and Islamic, principally Sufi, song forms like ghazal and qawwali became common, though instrumental forms less so, and they were performed mainly in ‘secular’ environments despite their devotional resonances. As in villages in North India, songs were performed in duels between ‘songsters’ (rival singers) that lasted for hours, with each successive hour involving duelling with a different form of classical song, mirroring the time allocations of each rag(ragais not only an aesthetic framework including melodic, motivic and modal structures but also a cultural framework for performance which, amongst other things, stipulates rasa (‘moods’) and suggests certain times and even seasons for each raga). Indeed, over time, the melodic and rhythmic systems of raga and tala have been loosened for these forms, and in many respects the traditions have also been indigenised not only in cultural purpose but also in terms of vocality, melodic procedures and rhythmic stringency.

Afro-Trinbagonian communities have also developed festive African-derived and syncretic traditions. The blurring of the sacred and profane, important in both Spanish and African traditional aesthetics, is evident in the bélè and Tobago reel, which are used not only used in their devotional contexts but also at social events for dancing and at festive occasions for community celebration and revelry. During the days of slavery, collective work songs, known as gayup, were led by a chantuelle (a singer-storyteller role, akin to the bomba or ‘singerman’ in Jamaica, derived from the West African Mande jali tradition), who had to be a strong singer, skilled at melodic and textual improvisation and possess a razor-sharp wit for expressing gossip, news, social comment and satirical observation. The chantuelle entertained workers, especially by singing satirical songs that spread gossip or subtly ridiculed the colonial masters, maintained African cultural heritage, educating the community on history and customs through song, and provided the primary means of communication between slaves, as conversation was banned during work hours (which encompassed dawn until dusk) but responsorial song between chantuelles and workers was permitted for its enhancement of motivation and productivity.

After emancipation, the gayup and other Afro-Trinbagonian traditions came to prominence through the freed slaves’ festival alternative to Carnival: the mas(from ‘masquerade’). These celebrations included extravagant nocturnal torchlight masquerades accompanied by dundunprocessional drumming; the canboulay (from the French cannes bruleé, ‘burnt canes’), a dramatic ritual burning of sugar cane fields; the kalinda, a rigorous stick-fighting tradition based on ancient West African martial arts, where two fighters attempt to push each other out of a ring, accompanied by the kaiso musical form (named after a Hausa cry of encouragement, roughly ‘bravo’ or ‘serves you right’), which combines gayup-derived song and bélè-derived rhythm; and wild untamed street kalinda-style stick fights between batonniers (‘bands’).  Kaisoplays a central role in the kalinda tradition: each fighter sponsors their own chantuelleto use their skills as a spontaneous wordsmith to simultaneously sing their praises and ridicule their opponent before the fight by glorifying their stature, boasting their talents and sharply satirising and belittling their opponent.

The fight itself is accompanied by responsorial singing between the chantuelle and the audience, who take turns to continue to praise/ridicule and also try and whip up audience support for their fighter. The singing of the chantuelle is accompanied by furious polyrhythmic drumming with bélèpatterns that also respond to the calls of the chantuelle, the mood of the audience and the drama of the fight. When one fighter emerges victorious, the drummers play to a frenzy and the winner’s chantuelle performs a victory song that exalts their fighter, mocks the loser and rouses the audience to dance.

Under British rule, mas traditions faced suppression and, at times, total censorship. In the late 19thC, its core celebrations were incrementally outlawed: first, the masquerade processions themselves; then, under the British Peace Preservation Ordinance (1884), the kalinda tradition; and, three years later, all the use of African-style drums in processional contexts. The reason these traditions were so feared is their carnivalesque celebration of the dissolution of power hierarchies, their unruly revelry, their subversive use of French patois, their expression of working-class identity, their symbolic potency in embodying hopes for black liberation, their capacity to find cultural power in social powerlessness and thus their tendency to inspire defiance against colonialism and even spark violent uprisings and rebellions. Yet, the Afro-Trinbagonian communities kept these traditions alive in private contexts away from the public celebrations. In public contexts, they also adapted them to circumvent censorship: for example, they created the tamboo-bamboo bands, which used bamboo instruments to replicate the kaisorhythmic patterns and were specially crafted in width and shape in such a way that they could even to some extent imitate the timbral nuances of the barrel drums.

Hispanic dances, which just like the parangcame over from neighbouring Venezuela, also became popular on the islands as a form of secular and festive entertainment and sociality. The joropo and gallerónare two such syncretic song and dance forms. The joropo is a spirited couple’s two-step waltz in 6/8, resembling the Spanish fandango in its sharp hand gestures and zapateado (foot stamping movements), that utilises polyrhythmic sesquiálterapatterns (the vertical alteration of 6/8 and 3/4 meters for a 3-3-2-2-2 beat; X..X..X.X.X.)) and Hispanic melodies and harmonies and African-derived refrains accompanied by guitar, cuatro, mandolin and chac-chac. The gallerón (from el gallo, ‘the cock’) is another syncretic couple’s waltz that again uses Hispanic melodies and vocal improvisation set to Spanish poetry and Afro-Caribbean responsorial refrains over sparse accompaniment on the guitar, cuatro, string-bass and chac-chac; it features distinctive choreography that imitates the interplay of a Rooster and Hen, with gestures that include stalking strides, gyrations, pecking, jumps and the flapping of wings (arms) and with the dance culminating in the leader (rooster) chasing down the follower (hen).

Fusion Forms & Modern Trends

The quintessential Afro-Trinbagonian fusion form in Trinidad and Tobago is calypso. Like mentoin Jamaica, calypso is best understood in terms of a fluid complex of traditional song, rhythm and dance practices that gradually coalesced into a perpetually evolving music genre. Its etymology is contested but seems most likely to be an amalgamation of the Hausa kaiso(cry of encouragement, roughly ‘bravo’ or ‘serves you right’, mentioned above), the French carruosseaux (‘to carouse’, to party) and the Venezuelan Spanish caliso (‘a topical song’). The precise point at which traditional Afro-Trinbagonian practices started to constitute calypso is highly debatable: some view the gayup work songs as a prototypal form, while others see it as too far removed with its lack of accompanying rhythm and dance; some argue the kaiso of the kalinda and canboulay festivities marked the start of the genre, while others see this as prototypal but not yet a realisation of calypso, especially in terms of dance. Nevertheless, the complex of traditional music practices that came together to form calypso include the gayup work songs, the kaiso songs, the music of the tamboo-bamboo bands that emulated the kalinda (and by derivation the bélè) drumming and the Hispanic songs and dances.

Historically, calypsocomprised song, rhythm and dance. Though it has always been a diverse music tradition, we can identify certain common trends. Its song style emerged from the gayup work songs and the subsequentkaiso tradition, with vocal influences also from Hispanic song. Like the gayup, its melodies featured wandering melodic lines with a great deal of syncopation and its refrains include responsorial singing between singer and chorus and, drawing on Venezuelan song forms, it included rhyming couplets, voice leading, the use of parallel 3rds and simple diatonic progressions (mainly revolving around I-IV-V). The older songs tend to be slow and in minor keys, while later songs moved towards a faster, upbeat tempo in the major with offbeat patterns driving the accompaniment (yet, straight rhythms rather than swung rhythms like those in Jamaican reggae). Like the kaiso, it has always had the simultaneous function of praise/ridicule, presentation/participation and entertainment/commentary, a symbol of black empowerment and colonial defiance but always with a sense of wit and a festive bacchanalatmosphere that meant it never took its own importance too seriously. It is however a genre that thrived on controversy and, as such, songs narrate storytelling and social commentary in the form of satirical observations (as one calypsonian put it: ‘a humour-coated pellet of un-camouflaged truth’) as well as local gossip and political scandals, though increasingly, influenced by Hispanic song poetry, it also spoke to poetic themes like romance and lost love. Its origin is disputed: either its main language started as French patois and then switched into Creole English or it has always been Creole English; though it still mixes in patois slang(e.g. in a traditional calypsoduel, each improvised verse ends with the patois refrain sans humanité (‘no mercy’)). The rhythms drew on bélè patterns preserved through the tamboo-bamboo bands and the march-like dances used in the masprocessions. Later, calypso became increasingly influenced by American jazz and other US popular music forms, and the latter is evidenced most in its increasing use of brass instruments for harmonic accompaniment.

However, calypsowas far from a static form, and specific offshoots and new purposes soon emerged. In the early 20thC, there were two main strands of calypso: the ‘oratorical’ calypso, which, maintaining a closer likeness to the kaiso tradition, involved a verbal duel of self-praise/opponent-ridicule that emphasised

spontaneously improvised witty word-play; and ‘ballad’ calypsowhich, driven by itscalypsonians’ identification with the defiant gayup singers who dared to ridicule their slave masters, took on a more consciously political role as a platform in the struggle for national independence. In line with the carnivalesque subversion of power hierarchies, calypso singers took on satirical aliases to flaunt their talents and prestige  (e.g. ‘Lord Kitchener’ (Aldwyn Roberts) and ‘Mighty Sparrow’ (Slinger Francisco)). Fuelled by the rise of the recording industry, calypso became a successful commercial popular music genre in Trinidad and Tobago and beyond in the 1930s.

The British administration, concerned about its rising power and status, implemented a ‘public safety’ ordinance (1934) that started the censorship of calypso lyrics and banned the tamboo-bamboo bands. Once again needing to adapt their music to a new instrument, rebellious ‘badjohns’ amongst the industrial Afro-Trinidadian workers in the ‘Hell-Yard’ ghetto moulded large metal oil drums into concave gongs and gave form to the now-national instrument of Trinidad and Tobago: the steel pan (N.B. the origin of the steel pan is contested and other Caribbean nations also claim ownership, though the weight of evidence does seem to be on the side of Trinidad and Tobago). The crafting of steel pans requires great skill and patience, and it is not a standardised instrument so there are innumerate designs in terms of size, tuning, timbre, etc. Steel bands consist of tenor, rhythm and harmony pans (playing instrumental melody, harmony and bass respectively), accompanied by an ‘engine room’ of other percussion instruments such as congas, güiroandtimbalesand, later, a brass ensemble. Like the genre itself, the bands became an anti-establishment symbol associated with the struggle for national independence. Ironically, at the same time, calypso suddenly became intensely popular abroad, and ‘the calypsocraze’ took in the USA. However, this form of calypso was highly Westernised in musical style and was framed in ‘exotic’ terms as a form of happy, light and upbeat ‘tropical’ music. Back in Trinidad and Tobago itself, calypso, and its steel band musicians, faced tough censorship and even brutality, especially as calypsonians became increasingly vocal in their support for the independence struggle, and their songs expressed deep discontent with colonial suppression and educated listeners to help raise racial and class consciousness.

After independence, Eric Williams, the first Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, instituted a programme aimed at protecting the country’s diverse cultural traditions while also promoting its newer popular music forms. The mas celebrations were reinstated in the form of Carnival, today referred to affectionately as the islands’ annual ‘national theatre’, and feature a vast array of musical, artistic and cultural practices in its ‘jump up’ dance parades, masquerades and processions, with calypso in prime place; it is performed all across the festivities but also in a highly competitive form inpicong (calypso competition tents) where singers bring their best wits and barbs to battle it out to be crowned Monarch (man) and Queen (woman) of calypso and of Carnival.  The celebrations are now primarily an expression of national heritage and diversity, though they still invoke the carnivalesque transcendence of inequalities, such as a temporary release from anxieties around economic deprivation. The steelpan was promoted as national tradition in the creation of the Trinidad All-Steel Percussion Orchestra and the integration of steelpan and calypso training in the national curriculum, which undoubtedly contributed to the rise of more than 200 celebrated professional steelbands on the islands during the 1970s. Based on the calypso model, a network of national competitions help maintain, develop and nurture traditional musics, including general traditional forms, through schemes like the Best Village Competition and the Tobago Heritage Festival, but also specific forms, as at the Panorama (Steelband) Competition (as part of Carnival), the Steelband Music Festival, the Calypso Competition, the Annual Classical Indian Singing Competition, the Tassa Competitions and the Parang Competition.

The independence climate also initiated new trends in both Afro- and Indo-Trinbagonian communities. A relatively clear division emerged between ‘jump up’ dance calypso, which is fun, catchy and upbeat but rather lyrically vacuous, and ‘message’ calypso, which is more traditional in its wandering melodies, narrative storytelling and social comment. Chutneydeveloped as a crossover party genre between traditional Bhojpuri folk and devotional songs, Hindi filmi songs and calypso. Its roots goas far back as the 1940s, but it became a popular form of entertainment in the 1970s. This embodiment of modern Indo-Trinbagonian identity draws on the Indian traditions for its musical style, with fast dhol drum rhythms driving its pulse, and calypso for its praise/ridicule and social comment, though this perhaps also has roots in the teasing Bhojpuri folk songs sung at weddings.


Subsequently, Lord Shorty and Shadow pioneered soca, an offshoot of calypsothat, combining the words ‘calypso’and ‘soul’, took a looser approach to calypso. It broke away from standard song structures, instead creating songs led more by pan-Caribbean style and pan-African identity than localism, more by danceability (rhythm and dance) than textual context (song) and more by hi-tech electric sounds than acoustic instruments. It essentially emphasised the party side of calypso, dominated by hard percussive beats, very loud bass, influences from American funk and disco, rhythmic non-lexical words, catchy refrains and lyrics about love, dancing and partying.

In a sense, both traditional musics and new fusion forms are continuing to embody the cultural mix of Trinidad and Tobago, as divergent paths towards the same spirit on these islands of diversity.

James Nissen (The University of Manchester), April 2017

Sources & Reading Suggestions

Carnival in Trinidad [Documentary Film] (Harry Ransom Center, 1953).

Children of Soca [Documentary Film] (Maturity Music, 2007).

Chutney in Your Soca [Documentary Film] (Neorama, 1996).

Kaiso for July 27 [Documentary Film] (Neorama, 1991).

PAN! Our Music Odyssey [Documentary Film] (Maturity, 2014).

Birth, Kevin, Bacchanalian Sentiments: Musical Experiences and Political Counterpoints in Trinidad (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008).

Brereton, Bridget et al., ‘Trinidad and Tobago’, Encyclopedia Britannica Online, 2017, <>.

Constance, Zeno, Tassa, Chutney & Soca: The East Indian Contribution to the Calypso(Port of Spain: Jordan’s, 1991).

Cowley, John, Carnival, Canboulay and Calypso: Traditions in the Making (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

Crichlow, Michaeline, Carnival Art, Culture and Politics: Performing Life (London: Routledge, 2012).

Dudley, Shannon, ‘Dropping the Bomb: Steelband Performance and Meaning in 1960s Trinidad’, Ethnomusicology, 46 (2002).

Dudley, Shannon, Carnival Music in Trinidad: Experiencing Music, Expressing Culture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).

Dudley, Shannon, Music from Behind the Bridge: Steelband Aesthetics and Politics in Trinidad and Tobago (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).

Fairley, Jan, ‘Calypso’, Grove Music Online, 2017, <>.

Fraser, Mark, ‘The Indo-Trinbagonian Influence on our music’, Trinidad Express Online, 4 April 2017, <>.

Garcia, Michelle, ‘Carnival: When Culture Attracts Tourism’, Association of Caribbean States, <www.acs-aec>.

Glazier, Stephen, ‘Spiritual Baptist Music of Trinidad’, Smithsonian Folkways Online, 1980, <>.

Grant, Cy, Ring of Steel: Pan Sound and Symbol (London: MacMillan, 1999).

Green, Garth and Philip Scher, Trinidad Carnival: the Cultural Politics of a Transnational Festival (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007).

Guilbault, Jocelyne, Governing Sound: The Cultural Politics of Trinidad’s Carnival Musics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007).

Hill, Donald, Calypso Calaloo: Early Carnival Music in Trinidad (Gainesville: University Press, of Florida, 1993).

Hill, Donald, The Trinidad Carnival: Mandate for a National Theatre (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1972).

Houghton, Edwin and Chris Leacock, ‘Soca ball: the Stars of the Trinidad and Tobago Carnival’, The Guardian Online, 8 March 2011, <>.

Ingram, Amanda, ‘What is Parang?’, Wesleyan Online, <>.

Isaac-Flavien, Janice, ‘The Translation of Carnival in Trinidad and Tobago: The Evolution of a Festival’, Tusaaji: A Translation Review, 2 (2013).

Khan, Andrew, ‘Pop music: the sound of the charts in…Trinidad and Tobago’, The Guardian Online, 4 April 2012, <>.

Kronman, Ulf, Steel Pan Tuning: A Handbook for Steel Pan Making and Tuning (Stockholm: Musikmuseet, 1991).

Loubon, Michelle, ‘The Exploration of Calypso’, The Trinidad Guardian, 19 February 2012, <>.

Manuel, Peter and Michael Largey, Caribbean Currents: Caribbean Music from Rumba to Reggae (Philadelphia: Temple, 2016).

Manuel, Peter, Tales, Tunes, and Tassa Drums: Retention and Invention into Indo-Caribbean Music (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2015).

Munro, Hope, What She Go Do: Women in Afro-Trinidadian Music(Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2016).

Munro, Hope, What She Go Do: Women in Afro-Trinidadian Music (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2016).

Myers, Helen, ‘Trinidad and Tobago’, Grove Music Online, 2017, <>.

Myers, Helen, Music of Hindu Trinidad: Songs from the Indian Diaspora (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1998).

Plummer, Robert, ‘Trinidad’s music pirates of the Caribbean’, BBC News Online, 9 January 2008, <>.

Ramnarine, Tina, ‘Trinidad and Tobago’, in Simon Broughton, Mark Ellington and John Lusk (eds.),The Rough Guide to World Music (London: Rough Guides, 2000).

Rohlehr, Gordon, Calypso and Society in Pre-Independence Trinidad (Port of Spain: Rohlehr, 2004).

Stewart, John, Drinkers, Drummers and Decent Folk: Ethnographic Narratives of Village Trinidad (Albany: State University of New York, 1989).

Stuempfle, Stephen, The Steelband Movement: The Forging of a National Art in Trinidad and Tobago (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1995).


Sources of Images

Header Image: Flickr

Map of Trinidad: Britannica

Stamp depicting Raleigh’s ‘discovery’ of Tobago: LiverpoolMuseum


Phagwa:United National Congress

Hosay:Best of Trinidad

Bélé dancers from Siparia: Darryle Pereira, Ministry of Community Development, Culture and Arts

Tobago reel: Tabago Art

Spiritual Shouter Baptist Church: Sascha Wilson, The Trinidad Guardian

Use of bells: Avybonita, Destined for Greatness

Parang group Los Alumnos de San Juan: Trinidad Express

Tassa drummers at wedding: Trinidad & Tobago Sweet Tassa

Traditional Mas Characters: Carnival Institute of Trinidad and Tobago

Modern kalinda fight at Trinidad Carnival, 2011: Trinidad Carnival

Tamboo Bamboo band:

Lord Kitchener: The Home Spun Show

Trinidad All Steel Band: BBC, 2012

Epic modern mas celebrations in the Trinidad Carnival: Trinidad Carnival

Sundar Popo: YouTube

Machel Montano, Soca at Trinidad Carnival: Jermaine Cruickshank, Soca News