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Main Features of Calypso Music

Updated April 17, 2017

Music lovers know Jamaica for its reggae and Cuba for its habanera, but Trinidad and Tobago claims calypso as its own style. The beats and harmonies of this genre of song and dance reverberate across the world today in concerts and carnivals, although its origins can be traced back centuries.

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Calypso began among the African slaves of the 18th century on the Caribbean island of Trinidad and Tobago. It took on its modern form in the late 19th century, however, and became a worldwide pop music phenomenon in the mid-20th century. It is the main musical feature of Carnival, the island's annual cultural celebration, which has counterparts in world cities such as New York, Toronto and London.

Form and Style

Singers traditionally improvised a calypso song to talk about the news of the day, especially controversial subjects that newspapers would not discuss. The lyrics often told stories, expressed opinions and mocked politicians, authorities and the higher classes. The melodies and harmonies mix the musical cultures of France, Spain and England--all nation that ruled over Trinidadians at different times in their history. Calypsos use a "call and response" form, where a soloist--the calypsonian--sings a line to be repeated by a chorus of singers. Brass and percussion instruments, such as trumpets and drums, typically accompany what the Canadian Encyclopedia describes as the "bright, syncopated, quick-shuffle rhythms" of calypso.


The first artists to sing calypso in English included Henry "Inventor" Forbes and Norman "Persecutor" le Blanc. At the height of the calypso's American popularity in the 1950s, Harry Belafonte and Lord Melody set toes tapping "from Maine to Miami, from Hollywood to New York," in the words of Trinidadian journalist Harcourt Thorne. Contemporary performers include Sparrow, Black Stalin and Maximus Dan.


"Jump in the Line" remains one of the best-known examples of calypso in the western world today. Trinidadian Aldwyn "Lord Kitchener" Roberts wrote the song in 1946, and Harry Belafonte made it a U.S. hit in 1961. Director Tim Burton used it on the soundtrack of the 1988 comedy-horror film "Beetlejuice," along with "The Banana Boat Song" ("Day O"), a traditional Jamaican song commonly heard in the calypso style.

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About the Author

Dave Koenig has written professionally since 2005. His writing interests include the arts, film, religion and language. Koenig holds a Bachelor of Arts in Biblical-theological studies from Manchester University and a Postgraduate Certificate of Education in religious studies from Lancaster University.

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