An Era Re-Visited: Trinidad & Tobago's Indigenous Calypso Music-First Recordings, First Live Performances, First Music Publishing, and First Recordings on Film from 1900-1950

By Sylvester, Meagan; Alfonso, Fabien et al. | ARSC Journal, Fall 2013 | Go to article overview

An Era Re-Visited: Trinidad & Tobago's Indigenous Calypso Music-First Recordings, First Live Performances, First Music Publishing, and First Recordings on Film from 1900-1950


Sylvester, Meagan, Alfonso, Fabien, McDowell, Heather Baldwin, ARSC Journal


Trinidad & Tobago's rich musical history dates back to the early 1900s with its first and major recordings having been documented during the period 1900s-1950s. As such, this article focuses on un-packing the history of the indigenous musics of Trinidad & Tobago (T&T). Highlights are provided of several firsts in the music--the first recordings, first live performances, first music to be published, and first music recordings on film. Folk songs were the first known types of music noted in the era under review. Prior to 1912 various bands were part of the local scene performing live at many different venues and for wide and varying audiences. However, it was in 1912 that documentation of the music recording history really began. As such, in that year a Trinidadian band known as "Lovey's Band," led by George Bailey, went to New York to record for both Victor and Columbia. [Lovey's String Band, 1890-1920: http://youtu.be/YGovSJkxzPw]

Following on in this vein, two years later Victor representatives visited Trinidad to record calypso and a variety of other local musical styles. The songs which were recorded in that early session by the Victor Company were calypsos sung by Jules Sims, with bamboo accompaniment, and by Julian Whiterose, with string instrument accompaniment. These were the first vocal recordings to be documented. [First vocal recording, "Native Trinidad Kalenda," Julian Whiterose and Jules Sims, 1914: http://youtu. be/2NwC7kqYzhg

Calypsos are folk songs which foretell the social, political and economic happenings of Trinidadian society. It can be described as an indigenous folk music whose roots stem from the plantation era when complaints, disunity and disloyalty was frowned upon. As such slaves developed a system of communication amongst themselves where they sang of their woes and their causes in hidden verses or double entendre, which sought to satirise the actions of their slave masters as well as create the great divide in communication between the slaves and the plantation owners.

First Recordings in Calypso

Calypso music has had a long history dating back to the mid-1800s and as such has enjoyed the importance of place and space to be representative of national, social and political realities within the Trinbagonian music landscape.

In the 1920s many recordings were made in New York. Those made within this period were instrumentals by Lovey (George Bailey) and Lionel Belasco. Belasco-lead string bands often included his cousin Cyril Monrose on violin and friend Gerald Clark on guitar or quarto. This exposure of Trinidadian musicians to the New York music scene gave credence to this local indigenous music as having world-wide appeal. [Lionel Belaso, "Juliano," 1933: http://youtu.be/RTZy0OMwLHM]

During the period 1910-1920s recordings of calypso were made in New York for both the Caribbean and Latin American markets, but by the 1930s there was a renewed focus on recording calypso for international markets. Atilla the Hun, The Roaring Lion, Lord Executor, The Growling Tiger and other known local calypsonians began to travel to New York to exploit their careers. [Guests of Rudy Vallee (Lion & Atilla) 1934: http:// youtu.be/shGJOUc_H58]

By 1939, New York became a regular playground for night life and calypso was often the music of choice amongst the many varied popular musics of the time. At that time blues, jazz and swing were the popular music of the era, particularly in New York, Chicago and New Orleans. For African Americans, blues and jazz were the musical forms of social commentary in the U.S. and this island music--calypso--added yet another "voice" to the musical options on offer. Based on the new audience for this "world music," the content and the lyrics began to reflect the signs of the times and lifestyles in New York, adhering to the role of calypso to act as a voice of social commentary. Much of the latter is actualised in the songs of the 'Calypso King of New York' in his 1940 album Harlem Seen Through Calypso Eyes. …

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