Stylistic Elements of Calypso Music Part I

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I remember a time when a chart would read “Latin” as the style for which the music was to be played.  Or perhaps a bandleader would announce that the next tune should be played with a “Latin” feel.  Unless something more specific was given, the rhythm section would usually play something that was kind of like a mambo/samba/cha-cha/maybe African type of feel.  In other words, the term “Latin” was a big musical umbrella for something other than swing.  It was a more syncopated rhythm, although the actual rhythm itself and the feel didn’t entirely matter.

Thankfully, those days are behind us for the most part (I think).  Nowadays, most musicians know the difference between “Latin” rhythms and dances.  Not only that but they are mostly familiar with what region they come from.  Now when the chart says “Latin” the question then becomes, “OK – is this Afro-Cuban, Brazilian, Caribbean, or what?”  Is it a Mambo, or Cha-cha-cha and if so what clave is it?  3-2 or 2-3?  Or is it rumba clave; perhaps a guaguanco?  If you say Brazilian, is it a Samba or Bossa Nova, or is it a Samba-Reggae feel, perhaps?

All of this knowledge can be credited to countless books, recordings, videos, and clincs devoted to bringing latin music to the forefront; and for good reason.  However, I have noticed personally that Calypso is one of those styles that doesn’t get as much “face time.”  I know some reasons why; I understand that worldwide it isn’t as popular as Salsa.  People here in the United States even learn how to dance the Samba when they take ballroom dance lessons.  Yet, no one is learning how to dance to calypso music. Granted, as we’ll discover, the artform is a much different “bird” than that.

Calypso music is very lyrical.  In fact one of the most important parts of calypso music is the lyrical content that each Calypsonian (artist/singer) comes up with.  Many are surprised to know that Calypsonians were the ‘original’ rappers!  They were doing freestyle (improvised) lyrics while competing against each other waaayyyy before the Sugarhill Gang and other hip-hop artists came onto the scene.  The lyrical content is usually very political in nature, as well as utilizing many double entendre in order to convey sexual overtones.  All this to say that most Afro-Cuban and Brazilian music is created for or because of a particular dance style (for the most part).  On the contrary, most calypso music is created to convey a message, or rather storytelling.  Now for me as a true fan of the music, and I’m sure others agree, I think Calypso is just as interesting, as well as being thought provoking, soulful, energetic, and full of passion.

I think that a good way to describe Calypso music is that it is folk music, first and foremost.  I think that it is important to look at it in that light, as it tells us that the music is born and completely integrated into or from a particular culture.  I’m not going to attempt to go into all of the history of where Calypso originated, as there is a myriad of places on the internet that you can discover for yourself.  What I’m more interested in is translating what Calypso music is, stylistically, and what it means to the modern day musician.

This is just part one of multiple blogs that I’ll have on the subject, as well as some upcoming videos and possibly other resources in the future!  For anyone already familiar with Calypso, these first couple of posts may be ‘old news’ to you.  For now I need to lay some proper groundwork for everyone that may not know much about the genre.  However, as I  get into this I want to put some ideas out there of some observations that I’ve made from my years of listening to the music.  Hopefully you’ll stick around and find some things that I say intriguing enough to have you join the conversation!

So for now, let’s consider this my “primer” to get into the subject.  You can also check out an earlier post on Calypso music which is my story of how I fell in love with the music, along with some listening suggestions.  In the future, I’m going to cover some more basics as far as what makes a calypso a “calypso,” understanding the artform (like knowing the difference between a calypso and reggae) and some more advanced topics like phrasing and interpretation.

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