The exploration of calypso: Toussaint’s excursion into its ethnomusicology

Michelle Loubon, writing for Trinidad’s Guardian on the eve of carnival, reports on Michale Toussaint’s lecture on “Trinidad Calypso as Postmodernism in The Diaspora: Linking Rhythms, Lyrics, and the Ancestral Spirits.”
Toussaint’s paper examines how the Trinidad calypso has sought to maintain its relevance both to its society and within the global musical environment. Through an examination of its general rhythmic, lyrical, and African-based religious tenets, the discussion seeks to answer the question of how this primarily African-based musical genre has sought to reach out to the wider world while maintaining a relationship with its source community. Against this background, Toussaint examined one of calypso’s more discernable contemporary phenomena: a returning of the art form to its African roots through the incorporation by its artists and performers of a more pronounced level of African ancestral religiosity within the genre.

Calypso highlights societal changes
Toussaint’s interest in this subject emerges from three and a half decades of involvement in Caribbean music, 27 of those years as a performer, as well as a decade of teaching “African diaspora” history. The critical revelation from these experiences was the elemental significance of art forms for serious interrogation and explication of societal adjustment and transformation. Musical forms, for example, expressively mark changes in social direction. The calypso is one of the most social musical art forms and, through its own adjustment and transformation, highlights the changing modalities of the societies of the English-speaking Caribbean. Toussaint’s focus was on some of the recent adjustments of the Trinidad calypso, with all the implications for an understanding of the evolution of both the art form and the society.

Rhythms, Iyrics, and ancestral religiosity
Of necessity, Toussaint  began  from an appreciation of certain fundamentals concerning their relationship: firstly, that calypso has developed as a primarily Afro-based musical genre; secondly, that  it was  significantly  sustained through the involvement of this group. These are anthropological considerations: he claimed his was not a literary focus on the genre, but an excursion into its ethnomusicology. Toussaint sought to explore the Trinidad calypso as it exists, by bringing together three of the elements through which it continues to maintain its social relevance: rhythms, lyrics, and ancestral religiosity.

Postmodernism Calypso: World music
Calypso is today a genre far more appreciated before. The response is widespread, in that the art form has managed to reach the imagination of a greater cross-section of the society at home, and international audience. This “arrival” of calypso at home and abroad contributes to its postmodern experience. There was the dismantling of old concepts about the superiority of Western culture. At another level, the spread of calypso across the Atlantic was also the result of an adjustment of its form to meet market demands.

That was referred to as “world music”. It is also an indication that it is among many other forms occupying the periphery, and such ambivalence causes the art form to depend significantly on its moorings also. It has had to continuously sustain its legitimacy at its source, the Afro-Caribbean, while negotiating the world market, including the ancestral homeland and global African diaspora. Many issues and challenges are involved in maintaining Afro-based and global legitimacy, both of which are indispensable to sustainability and success.

The art form must service a constituency which has become multicultural, multi-ethnic, multipolar, and multinational, satisfying even competing needs for entertainment, information and philosophy while at the same time maintaining its core support. To cope with local and international requirements, it must keep in line with domestic as well as international musical and other trends.

Calypso functions
Calypso performs a number of key functions of which the calypsonian is conscious and which serve as motivation, although the needs of individual performers vary. The provision of entertainment and the proffering of one’s self as a voice on behalf of the people, and as “grand vizier” have traditionally been important. The genre, therefore, becomes the communicative medium for delivering on all these responsibilities, but places numerous identity issues and challenges before the performers. When calypsonians perform, they exhibit their notions about identity and consciousness.

Calypso and the masses: The lyrical basis of popularity
Calypso could only be regarded as popular music. It is pitched at the level of the masses and has hardly ever been organised or structured to facilitate a primarily esoteric or cloistered group. It  has remained popular because of the needs that it  satisfies, and, is, therefore, based on reciprocity with the masses. The relation can be immediate, occurring, for example, during a performance or rendition, or, over a longer term, through replay and recall. The music thrives on the exploration of the range of social themes that can bring the people and performers into interaction.

During live performances, “call and response” between the performer and audience is the natural mode of interaction. That calypso can address any matter is implied in the social convention which almost always permits the artist to sing on “whoever” or “whatever.”
Discusses socio-political issues
Songs of local or domestic significance treat with political and economic developments, social consciousness, race-based issues, and matters pertinent to nation-building. Calypsonians often veer into the international realm, focusing on global issues and themes. Again, there are negative and positive portraitures. The former assails war, super-power exploitation, and human degradation. It also ridicules elitism and questions the future of man. Positive appraising hails human achievements in science and technology, as well as personal achievements through which all of mankind also benefits. But calypso also asks metaphysical, and teleological questions, and its relations with the faith-based aspects of life are a gauge of the religious orientation of the society.

Advent of gospelypso
By Christian standards, the calypso was initially regarded as devil music, particularly by Christendom of the British Caribbean society and beginning in Trinidad and Tobago with the Roman Catholic and later the Anglican and nonconformist churches in succession. Today, however, there is more widespread acceptance, and a particular form, gospelypso, has emerged in some local non-conformist denominations. It is similar to vintage kaiso and soca, except its lyrics focus on Christian conversion and the good news of redemption. Gospelypso, is therefore, a new type of praise song.

Afro-consciousness emerges
Afro-consciousness in calypso music makes positive references to, and at times strongly identifies with the causes of the ancestral homeland and the diaspora, although in the past there were negative ideas about the supernatural, which, through an association with obeah and witchcraft, was ridiculed in humorous calypsoes. Therefore, while there have always been manifestations of religious consciousness, it has not always been easy to determine what level of religiosity.

Research in African literatures
Long before the arrival of gospelypso, Rastafari calypsonians were extolling, as they do now, the Afro-Zionism of Brother Valentino. Rastafarianism is, however, significantly syncretic with Christianity. And yet, the focus on Ethiopia can take believers back religiously to an ancestral African view and cosmogony that antedates Judeo-Christianity. Still, there was a freer and normative affirmation of Christian religiosity in the society compared to the treatment meted out to other faiths.

Wakening the ancestral spirits
Much ambiguity surrounds the orientation of many who are now openly affirming African religiosity in the form of Orisha. As part of this, the Trinidad calypso is now speaking to African religiosity through a fuller embrace of the Orisha by a number of popular performers. The new departure is particularly telling, the assertive approach being adopted by some of these artists.

Andre Tanker and David Rudder were among the first to significantly bring to the public domain their close association with this religious faith. Tanker spoke often about the influence of the Orisha on his music. He opened up his understanding of Africa, the world and life, with strong ancestral rhythms and reverence for Africa in his songs. In Bahia, David Rudder uses his encounter with a talented Brazilian female dancer to attention to the connections between Salsa and Rhumba, and Trinidad. But the connection is soon extended beyond the music into the realm of religiosity and across the West African diaspora through Rudder’s allusion to “Yoruba’s ancient holy city.”

In the calypso, Rudder would draw her attention Trinidad’s music culture: “In Trinidad and Tobago we have the same vibration.” He in turn recognises a global diasporic culture, attributing this to common religious roots: “Ile Ile If e, she make me to understand” (Rudder). In a subsequent interview, he discussed his familiarity with the Shango Baptist faith and its influence on the music. There is an easiness and eagerness which belies the subjugation and abuse historically experienced by those who took it upon themselves to be closely associated with the Orisha/ Shango Baptist faith.

Conclusion African rhythms influence calypso
Tousssaint said: “We (T&T) are currently witnessing an unprecedented level of Orisha religiosity in the Trinidad calypso. African consciousness has always been intrinsic to the music, and positive references to Africa and the diaspora have always formed part of the expression.

“African rhythms rooted in ancestral religious tradition have always influenced the music. However, in the almost 100 years of recorded calypso Trinidad, nothing in its repertoire approaches today’s strong affirmation in religiosity across the diaspora and the world community. “Those familiar with the history of Trinidad will know that for centuries the Orisha/Shango faith operated in an environment of racial prejudice, taboo and suspicion. Toussaint noted that in attempting to take the music forward, some among its key proponents are seeking to strengthen the spiritual connections between the ancestorland and the diaspora. Calypso continues to pursue globalisation through consolidation of its legitimacy at its ancestral source. Given this, calypso lyrics offer negative or positive appraisals, or both.

“A negating appraisal derives its strength from the currency of the situation and, like positive ones, engages the society in terms of morality and logic. Some lyrics focus almost entirely on providing humour, forming sense from nonsense and vice versa.”

For the original report go to

One thought on “The exploration of calypso: Toussaint’s excursion into its ethnomusicology

  1. Interesting post.
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    calypso: Toussaint’s excursion into its ethnomusicology |
    Repeating Islands is simply no different…

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