Friday, February 10, 2012

Off The Beaten Track: Calypso, Tell me a Story

Sangeeta Nancy Boondoo, an attorney with the government of Trinidad and Tobago, is a student of life. She's always on the lookout for something new and interesting to learn and do. She loves to travel, and though she hasn't yet been to India, the land of her ancestors, it's at the top of her list to visit someday. She loves to go to the beach, take nature hikes, and bake. She does not like to cook, but she collects cookbooks anyway, along with all kinds of other books. A girl after our own heart...

Calypso music, like the steel pan and chutney music, originated from my beautiful, small country of Trinidad and Tobago, and unfortunately, it is a largely unappreciated art form in a world filled of “production-line” type music. Calypso music had its birth amongst the Afro-Trinibagonian slave population and is reported to have been a means of communication between the slaves in a time when their communication with each other was severely limited by the plantocracy, who were no doubt afraid of a slave revolution, which occurred regularly on other Caribbean islands. Calypso music has since developed to become witty social commentary set to music, and over the years, has served as historical records of events, whether local or global, capture Trinidad and Tobago’s attention. As we approach Carnival in Trinidad and Tobago, the local highlight of the calypsonian’s year, I thought it appropriate to share a few of my favourite songs and explain the stories they tell.

One of my all time favourites is Lord Invader’s “Rum and Coca Cola.” Yes, you read right – Lord Invader’s, not the Andrews Sisters. Here’s Lord  Invader’s original version:

Apparently, Lord Invader’s intellectual property rights got infringed way back in the 1940s. If you want to read about it, you can at: 

What does this song have to do with our history? Well, firstly, Trinidad and Tobago, though a British West Indian colony, has always had ties with the United States.  In 1941, the U.S. and Britain signed the Lend-Lease Agreement, also called the Bases-for-Destroyers Agreement. As part of this agreement, the Americans got 99-year leases of the deepwater harbor on Trinidad’s north coast, along with three army bases, one each at Chaguaramas, Wallerfield, and Carlsen Field. Thousands of Trinidadians worked at these bases for higher wages and in better conditions than they were accustomed to. My grandmother spoke fondly of my grandfather’s experiences while working at the Carlsen Field base. There were also the female Trinidadians who worked in an entirely different manner – as prostitutes, entertaining the Americans and Canadians who were stationed here; they too made higher wages than the other islanders. 

Lord Invader was inspired by this situation, and the fact that the Americans used to chase (drink) the local rum with their Coca Cola at limings (hangouts) such as Point Cumana. The wages of the prostitutes was apparently so high that mothers would pimp or even join their daughters in the profession, “working for the Yankee dollar,” as Lord Invader eloquently put it.

In 1936, Attila the Hun sang “Roosevelt in Trinidad,” a lively calypso recording the visit of then U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to Trinidad. Roosevelt was on a secret mission to Casablanca, and because of the tumultuous period before World War II, he flew the longer route through Trinidad as part of the secrecy. The calypso extolled Roosevelt’s virtues. Listen to it here:

It is said that Roosevelt became a fan of calypso music after hearing this song. Wouldn’t you too if you were flatteringly portrayed in song?

Jumping a few decades later into 1967, Lord Kitchener sang the popular “Take Yuh Meat Out Mih Rice,” a conversation between a Bajan (a citizen of Barbados, a Caribbean neighbor) and a Trini (short for Trinidadian), complete with the accents. Trinidad and Tobago and Barbados have shared a long love-hate relationship, and in this calypso, the Bajan and Trini, unable to make it alone and being hungry, decide to pool their resources to make a meal of meat and rice, the Bajan contributing the rice and the Trini the meat. After the meal is finished cooking, the Bajan continuously diminishes the Trini’s contribution as a justification for reducing his own share. Over the years, Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago have had disputes over maritime borders, cricket, and flying fish. Why flying fish? Well, the Bajans alleged that they have fished flying fish, the national icon of Barbados, off the coast of Tobago since the seventeenth century. We Trinis, for the most part, do not take too kindly to the Bajans passing of our fish as their own. In the opinion of many, this calypso song, though decades old, still applies. It’s sure to put a smile on your face! Take a listen:

One of the best calypos around is Ras Shorty I’s “Watch Out, My Children,” released in 1997. In the 1990s, the country’s drug problem began to surface. After meeting some young boys high on cocaine and looking as if their lives had been wasted, Ras Shorty I was inspired to write this song. Interestingly enough, the United Nations International Drug Control Programme chose the anti-drug anthem in 2002 as its theme song. It is timeless and beautiful, and if you listen to no other calypso on this list, I ask that you at least listen to this one:


There is a tremendous amount of calypso music, though my list is short and does little justice to the great art form. Calypsos have recorded much international history, such as about the Russian Space Station, Edward VII’s abdication, the first nuclear weapon, and a visit by the famous German airship, Graf Zepplin, to Trinidad in 1934 on its way to the Chicago Fair. While calypsonian musicians have stopped naming themselves “Lord,” the stage names are still unusual, and the music continues to tell our story and define us as a nation.


  1. Thanks for sharing this wonderful music and history with us today, Sangeeta! I'm familiar with calypso only from Harry Belafonte, and I'm very pleased to learn more. I didn't realize how closely it reflects the country's history and social struggles. I love art forms that do those things and make me want to learn more about a place. Your post makes me want to book the next flight to Trinidad. How popular is calypso still in Trinidad and Tobago? And is it unique to your country or are there forms of it in other Caribbean nations?

  2. I am happy you enjoyed it Heidi. Harry Belafonte's version of calypso is a shadow of the art form, I remember as a child not being able to rationalise him being referred to as a calypsonian, he is so different to what we are brought up on.
    Calypso is very popular, in its purest forms and in its variations - soca, extempo, groovy-soca and soca-chutney. Calypso/Soca Monarch Competitions for school children to adults are a very important part of our local Carnival Season and the local entertainment scene, and while it is popular across the Caribbean Trinibagonian calypsonians dominate the industry. We have had German and American calypsonians too!! Trinidad and Tobago, for all its imperfections is a lovely country and we would love to have you visit!!!

  3. I really love calypso and I'd never heard the history of the Rum & Coca Cola song. Thanks for the post! I've only ever been to Port-of-Spain for 24-hours, but I used to pass through the Trinidad airport regularly on the way to Suriname and it's still one of my favorites, with the green hills in the distance.

    1. Thank you Edith! I am ashamed to admit that most Trinbagonians do not know the history of the Rum & Coca Cola song, I only learnt the full extent a couple years ago after doing my own research. The green hills are lovely, especially when you fly over them in cloudy/overcast weather. Perhaps next time you can stay longer in Trinidad and Tobago!

  4. Sangeeta, what a super interesting post (and wonderful music!). Thank you so much for sharing the history about some of the artists and songs. I do believe I have a newfound love for calypso music. Thank you!

    1. Alli,thank you!! If you would like I can recommend some others for you to listen to.

  5. Yes, please, that would be fabulous!

  6. A bit late, but I hope you enjoy these, its a mix of old and contemporary:
    Mr. Fete (The word "Fete" is used to describe a huge party held during the Carnival season. The singer says that given how many fetes he has attended call him Mr. Fete, Trinis love to Fete!) -

    Single Forever (The singer sings about his carefree life and swears that he will be single forever, he won the 2012 Chutney Soca Monarch Competition) -

    Wotless ( We pretty much aren't worth much in terms of productivity during Carnival Season hence the local slang "wotless", also a winning song)-

    AH Trini (Here the singer boasts of being a Trini, it is true though most people like how we cook, walk, talk )-

    Nah Leaving (In this one the singer sings that no matter the difficulities there is a lot of beauty in living in Trinidad and Tobago and she is not (Nah) leaving)-

    Never Ever Worry- the name says it all -

    and Cricket Lovely Cricket - In celebration of the west Indies Cricket team's first test series win over the former colonial masters England, a classic!!