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A young girl plays a steelpan drum, houseplants in the foreground and background, and a wooden mask on the wall.

Here I am playing steelpan for the first time in my uncle's living room in the United States.

Photo courtesy of the author

  • “Calypso Is We!” Life Lessons in the Music of Trinidad and Tobago

    Yuh goin’ an get ah lil noise later!

    This was a common announcement from my next-door neighbor when he was going to play music loudly past 10 p.m. for birthdays or other special occasions. Every weekend in D’Abadie—about fifteen miles east of Port of Spain on the island of Trinidad—since I was a kid twenty years ago, this neighbor played through records, tapes, and CDs of calypso and steelpan. His tastes took him as far back as the early calypsonians like Atilla the Hun and Roaring Lion to Kitchener, Sparrow, and Calypso Rose.

    Saltfish, nothing in de world sweeter than saltfish.

    Sparrow’s lyrics wafted through the air and caught the attention of my six-year-old mind. “Saltfish isn’t sweet,” I thought. I knew for sure because I had buljol for breakfast that morning, and the only thing that was sweet was the tea I drank with it. I hurried inside and asked my mother what the calypsonian meant. The look that washed across her face was a mixture of surprise and dismay. But she quickly brushed it off and explained that sometimes when you put zaboca (avocado) in the saltfish, it tastes sweeter than without it. That made sense, because I didn’t like zaboca in my saltfish. (I learned much later that saltfish has a sexual connotation!)

    My mother quickly realized how calypso, a genre that I liked, could play an integral role in my upbringing. Its lyrics not only suggesting cooking tips but also delivered life lessons, offered maternal advice, and instilled moral values in me. As young women venturing into adulthood, we were warned about predators in their various forms, and from adolescence to this day, I am reminded, “What Sandra say? Let them keep dey money, you go keep your honey, and die with yuh dignity.

    A man sits in front of a silver stereo and book full of CDs.
    Lennox “Knoxy” Bain, my next-door neighbor, with his music system and a small display of his collection of music. Above the music system, is part of the window that music would flow through each weekend.
    Photo courtesy of the Bain family
    A young Black girl sitting on the ground, framed by the exterior of a Mickey Mouse tent.
    Three-year-old me sitting in my tent on the other side of Knoxy’s window. I would come out here with my toys to listen to the music.
    Photo courtesy of the author

    As the years went by, my neighbor’s taste ran to my generation of artists: Iwer George, Blue Boy (now known as Superblue), and Machel Montano. His record collection was the soundtrack to my weekend chores, and I often caught myself singing along to each song, slowly learning the lyrics by heart.

    My curiosity about calypso and its power only grew, which led me to add the course “Calypsonians to Remember” as a part of my undergraduate degree. It ultimately became the subject of my master’s thesis. The stories I was told as a child about calypso needed to be put into context, and who better to help than one of Trinidad’s most knowledgeable music educators, Dr. Desmond Waithe. These calypsonians, he told me, were creatively tactful, especially those who employed techniques like double entendre, and I had to learn not only how they did it but why.

    For me, this genre of music, gifted by Trinidad and Tobago to the world, is indicative of the warmth and vitality of our nation’s people, so studying these songs enlarged the love I have for my culture. Their lyrics entertain and often instruct us on how to live. Calypso and steelpan (steel drum) musicians broadcast the rhythms and rhymes at the heart of Trinbagonian society.


    The genesis of calypso lies in the West African jeli, a person whose role is to preserve the historical narratives and genealogies of their communities through song while accompanying themselves on a stringed instrument, usually the kora. Rich in rhythm and melody, the jeli tradition was carried by enslaved Africans to Trinidad and Tobago. Calypsos were sung in French Creole until the English language began to dominate the island nation. 

    In learning about calypso, which Dr. Waithe described to me as “folk poetry set to music,” I found that the everyday lessons and commentary the songs provide have shaped how Trinbagonians view the world and how the world views us. Lyrics become engrained in our vernacular. The soundtrack of dinners and parties— if “de fete have a good DJ,” we should all be in attendance—these lyrics provide Trinis at home and abroad with a sense of belonging, national pride, and a temporary reprieve from daily hardships. They tackle societal problems, editorialize the acts of our political leaders, and celebrate both those who migrate away from our islands and those who choose to stay. The lyrics (usually parts of the chorus) of a calypso and its up-tempo descendant soca, which the younger generation finds so appealing, become proverbs, bursts of native wisdom.

    The typical Trinbagonian is very proud of our “red, white, and black”—the colors of our national flag—but even more so when we reside abroad or as we say, when we foreign or away. You can see the colors in the form of fuzzy dice hanging from rear-view mirrors, stickers on back windshields, tattoos on our arms, and designs in our jewelry. On August 31, Trinidad and Tobago’s Independence Day, or any other day of the year, you’ll hear us describe ourselves as “Trini to de bone!” This mantra is a line from, and the title of, a 2003 calypso written by Ian Wiltshire and sung by David Rudder and Carol Jacobs.

    Percussionists on a truck bed, moving through a crowd of people. The base of the Washington Monument is in the background.
    A Caribbean-style Carnival procession at the 1988 Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the National Mall, featuring the Trinidad and Tobago Steelband of Washington, D.C.
    Photo by Dane Penland, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

    For more than 200,000 Trinbagonians in the United States, it has become a ritual to return home for Carnival—the celebrations preceding Ash Wednesday, known for lively processions, colorful costumes, and nonstop music. In the chorus of the 1982 calypso “Lorraine” by Explainer (Winston Henry), eager Trinis worldwide echo the sentiment of their friends and family as they leave frigid winters for the Caribbean breeze: “doh cry ah leavin’, ah cyah miss dis jammin.”

    Despite an escalating crime rate and an oft-apathetic government, most Trinbagonians choose to remain in our twin-island homeland. Elders sometimes say they are nah leavin’” and even go so far as to say, “is here wey conceive meh, is here ah go dead.” Many of these phrases were already in the vernacular of our people but were fortified in the lyrics of “Nah Leavin’,” written by Christophe Grant and recorded by Denyse Plummer in 2001. Plummer said her hope for the calypso was to remove the focus of negativity from the minds of citizens and highlight the positivity coming out of the nation.

    “There is so much positive coming out of Trinidad and Tobago: our culture, the foods that we eat, our sense of humor, our beaches, the love of the people, our cool, humble, slow life,” Plummer told me in an interview. “I needed to focus on these things and not the negative. That is why the lyrics of ‘Nah Leavin’’ resonated with so many people living in Trinidad and abroad. I know of people who heard that song, packed up their bags, sold out everything, and came back to Trinidad. Trinidadians who took Trinidad for granted and thought it was time to get out of here listen to that song, and it became a part of all their parties and all their functions, and they started longing for home like they never had before. I think it’s such a beautiful thing that we can focus on the positive and not the negative.”

    Plummer also mentioned the effect this calypso had on foreign listeners. It brought about a sense of awareness to the beauty of Trinbago so much so that, upon arrival, they seek out “the steelpan, go maracas for the bake and shark, the pelau, callaloo, Carnival, the joy of the people, and upliftment of it all.”

    Sometimes, the catchy rhythms and lighthearted melodies of these songs stand in stark contrast to the seriousness of the issues they address. In the early days of Trinidad’s calypso in the 1900s, the genre was considered the “poor man’s newspaper” since many enslaved Africans were illiterate. In the 1960s, that description evolved into “editorials in song”—a term coined by calypsonian the Mighty Duke in 1968—and today, calypso is simply known as the “people’s newspaper.”

    A man in white jacket and women in frilly bikini costumes holding small umbrellas dance on stage.
    Mighty Sparrow
    Photo courtesy of Kevin Burke

    One day, as I walked past Sacred Heart Boys’ Roman Catholic Primary School in Port of Spain, I saw a nostalgic smile creep across the face of an elderly woman as she watched boys running and playing. Shaking her head and smiling, she glanced at me and said, “School days are happy, happy days, eh,” a lyric from the Mighty Sparrow, born Slinger Francisco in 1935. Nothing provides a brief escape from the harshness of our various realities like the simplicity of youth.

    A sentiment we feel widely across the twin-island republic is to nurture, educate, and protect the nation’s children. There is an urgency for their success, for them to become upstanding adults. However, the call for children of African descent, particularly boys, to defy the odds set against them and become successful is loudest. Many elders take it upon themselves to lead the wayward youth to a more fulfilling life.

    To the group of young Black men limin’ (hanging out with friends) at a street corner or underneath a mango tree, smoking and drinking, an elder woman admonished, “Little Black boy, go to school and learn!” Once I witnessed a mother and her child walk by a socially displaced person. After allowing the child to give the person some money—a lesson in charity—she taught them another lesson. Out of earshot of the person, I heard her whisper, “Yuh see the thing they call education? That is the key to get off the street and stay out of poverty.” In both instances, the words of wisdom came from the lyrics “Little Black Boy” (1997), a calypso by Winston “Gypsy” Peters.

    In Trinidad, politics is a topic that people love to talk about when they are not denying its existence. Interested in hearing an unsolicited opinion on the ruling government or an in-depth discussion of the political climate of the country? The University of Woodford Square, located in the heart of Port of Spain and opposite the Red House (where the parliament is held) would be your first stop.

    A grand Beaux-Arts style building with a red exterior and green palm trees in front.
    The Red House in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago
    Photo by Anthony Mendenhall, Wikimedia Commons

    As long as I can remember, whenever I passed by Woodford Square—especially at lunchtime and after work—I would see four men sitting at a bench, two on either side, playing dominoes and discussing politics. Always, these men would have a comment for or on the parliamentarians departing the Red House. Most infamously, “allyuh kicksin’ in parliament man!” is a line from a calypso by Explainer. Every politician at some point in their career has been accused of joking around, playing de fool, or not taking the people’s issues seriously. Simply put, the rest of the world’s “skylarking,” or “folly” is what Trinidadians call kicksin’.

    Much of the music of Africa and its Diaspora has indelibly influenced American music and popular culture. Bunji Garlin’s soca “Differentology” appeared in an episode of the popular ABC drama Grey’s Anatomy in 2013, and more recently “Trini to de Bone” was the title of a Season 3 episode of FX’s Atlanta. With the inclusion of our music into these television shows, the lyrics are no longer only in our vocabulary but that of anyone who witnesses our culture in its various forms. And as seen in Atlanta, the young boy’s vocabulary is filled with Trinidadian dialect, which he learned from his Trinidadian nanny. As the years go by, current soca songs will become the “Golden Age of Soca” for future generations, and these melodic parables will live on within our dialect, carrying on the language and sentiments of yesteryear.

    As an international student, listening to calypso and soca was the only way to quell the nostalgia I felt for home and the sadness of missing my annual ritual of Carnival. Living beyond the shores of my twin-island home, what was once a simple love for my culture has become a sense of identity and national pride. These calypsos contain pearls of wisdom passed from generation to generation, each citizen carrying with us these proverbs full of guidance for the future and a connection to a golden era in which most of us never lived, yet we carry it inside us.

    A band in matching pinkish floral shirts and white pants on an outdoor stage, under a matching pink tent. A crowd sits watching them.
    Band from Trinidad and Tobago at the 1974 Folklife Festival’s African Diaspora program
    Photo by Reed & Susan Erskine, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

    Kimberley Watson is a Trinidadian scholar in ethnomusicology with interests in the music and culture of Trinidad and Tobago, Black protest music, music of the African Diaspora, and oral histories. She extends her gratitude to her interviewees and Dr. Megan Rancier for encouraging her to write this essay.

    Author’s note: I dedicate this story to Dr. Desmond Waithe, the person responsible for my love of calypso, as he filled my years at UTT and beyond with his stories and the history of Trinidad and Tobago and our many cultural art forms. “Waithey oye! One day we go sit down an' ole talk like we used to, til then may you RIP.”

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