In the Politics of Calypso, Crooners Hitting an off Note? ; beyond Banana Boats and Lost Loves, Trinidad's Calpyso Was Born of Political Protest. but Now There's Protest over a New Strain of Singers

By Erlich, Reese | The Christian Science Monitor, March 27, 2001 | Go to article overview

In the Politics of Calypso, Crooners Hitting an off Note? ; beyond Banana Boats and Lost Loves, Trinidad's Calpyso Was Born of Political Protest. but Now There's Protest over a New Strain of Singers


Erlich, Reese, The Christian Science Monitor


Calypso singer David Rudder strides defiantly on stage dressed in a flowing white dashiki and copper bracelets. The audience cheers as he launches into some of his best known songs.

"Somebody clean out the weed real fast. But somebody letting the cocaine pass," goes the song "Madman," a protest against corrupt officials who uproot local marijuana plants while letting cocaine cartels ship the more lucrative drug to US markets.

A far cry from Harry Belafonte's "Day-O" and other feel-good tunes, Mr. Rudder's songs aren't odes to lost loves or banana boats. Following in a longstanding calypso tradition, Rudder's music criticizes government corruption. But while calypso has always been a means for citizens to critique the political elite, some singers are crossing a longstanding boundary and using their songs to advocate for the political parties.

But not Rudder. "The calypsonian stands on the outside of things," he says. "You should not be a tool for any government or party."

The roots of calypso reach back to the early 1800s, when black slaves began improvising rhyming lyrics set to syncopated rhythms.

Through clever word play and double entendre, the songs criticized slavery and British colonial rule in the West Indies. Because their press was censored by British authorities, Trinidadians later used calypso to convey anticolonial political messages to ordinary people.

"It was like an editorial in song," says Rudder. "One phone call could stop an article going in the newspaper. Nothing could stop the calypso mouth from saying what should have been printed."

The tradition of populist, social criticism continued after Trinidad and Tobago won independence in 1962.

"Calypsos have been seen as a major social force in the country," says Jocelyne Guilbault, an ethnomusicologist at the University of California, Berkeley, who is in Trinidad working on a book about its music.

Politicians, for one, closely follow the calypsonians' lyrics to look for political trends, says Member of Parliament Patrick Manning, head of the opposition People's National Movement (PNM). …

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