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: http://www.rumandcocacolareader.com/RumAndCocaCola/main.html
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.