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Monday, February 11, 2019

Spoken Word Griots: African Oral Tradition in Caribbean Music (Third Part) - Calypso

Spoken Word Griots: African Oral Tradition in Caribbean Music (Third Part) - #Calypso
by K. Omodele

African traditions and customs are in the heartbeat of Caribbean culture; so, its not surprising that the African tradition of storytelling drums so deep within many forms Caribbean music, none more so than calypso. Matter of fact, whenever I think of calypso, I think first about lyrics - the buildup, the punch line and the reflection. Niceness. As a wordsmith, I marvel at the wordplay of the great calypso storytellers. Whether the lyrics be somber-social, political or commentary; or, whether they're witty and precocious slackness, or just straight, belly-bussing comedy, this Caribbean music with its roots planted in the African oral tradition is art, pure art, plain and simple.

A Short History of Calypso Music

Like many forms of Caribbean or West Indian music, Calypso's roots were dug up from Africa, then transported to the Caribbean on slave ships during the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. The slaves in Trinidad and Tobago weren't allowed to speak to one another while they slaved in the fields, so they sang to communicate. They kept the freestyle (improvisational), functional elements of West African kaiso as a form of covert communication (separate from the overt language of the slave massa). This early predecessor to calypso was rebellious chanting about their conditions and the status quo, i.e. plantation life. They were songs with clever lyrics about social conditions and often mocked slave masters or political leaders.

The French Influence: Carnival and Canboule 

Spain had first colonized Trinidad, but up to the 1770s the population was small, less than 3000, two-thirds of them Arawak. In 1770, a Frenchman made a proposal that would bring the French, their slaves and some free blacks from the French colonies/islands of Dominica, Grenada, Guadeloupe, Martinique, St. Lucia, and St. Vincent, to heavily populate Trinidad, which would help develop the plantation economy. These French (and blacks from French islands) turned the slow, undeveloped, Spanish colony, into a culturally French dominated one. And they brought the carnival and canboulay festivities and traditions.

Kaisos were now performed by griots and/or chantwells (from the French word chantuelles) at canboulays (harvest festivals, from the French cannes brulées), which was the black alternative to carnival (which neither slaves nor free blacks could attend). As a result, Kaisos and canboulay music became the voice of the people and  were the music blacks performed and listened, under tents at canboulays. 

In the old West African ways, the chantwells  often told stories that challenged each other in competition, boasting and ridiculing, while also challenging the audience to "keep up" with witty wordplay and double meanings. Sometimes songs were quick to make fun of adversaries within the griot fraternity - like free styles battles and clashes today. In other cases, the stories would be didactic, or cleverly packed with sexual undertones, or just analytic or critical of the authority and power structure. These early calypsonians were skilled wordsmiths, slamming, slicing and nudging each other with sharp verbal skills.


Spoken Word and Storytelling 

When you check the various components that make up calypso, storytelling and commentary are functional. The calypsonian (the calypso singer) is most definitely a spoken word griot, a djele. He or she is a storyteller in the true sense, relaying his or her take on social and political issues of the society. That calypso derived from African oral tradition is obvious and undeniable when you consider this music's functionality.

"A Calypsonian is a poor man newspaper."
 "I consider the Kaisonian  as the old African storyteller..."

The Mighty Sparrow's Wanted Dead or Alive 

In Wanted Dead or Alive, The Mighty Sparrow commentated the socio-political climate of  the year 1979, in depth. 
The rule of the tyrants decline
The year, 1979
From Uganda to Nicaragua
It's bombs and bullets all the time

So they corrupt, so they vile
So it's coup after coup all the while
Human rights they violate
They thought they were so great
So in disgrace now they live in exile 
Gairy is a wanted man
Idi Amin is a wanted man
Shah of Iran tried so hard to survive
He, too, is wanted dead or alive

Strikes, demonstrations & wars
Injustice is always the cause
Politicians turn too soon from
Poor people into tycoons
Corruption must bring harass

South African Vorster resign in disgrace
Muzurewa take away Ian Smith place
The Uganda devil was easily cat straddled
Beaten up and chased - what a waste.

Gairy is a wanted man
Patrick John is a wanted man
The Shah of Iran try so hard to survive
He too was wanted dead or alive.

The shah had a short time to live
Because the Ayatollah don't forgive
When you see church ruling state
With pure vengeance and hate
Situation must be explosive

General Somoza from Nicaragua
Thought it was easy with the Sandinistas
With the help of Venezuela, Panama and Cuba
They kick him straight to America.

Gairy is a wanted man
Bokassa is a wanted man
Ali Bhutto try so hard to survive
He too was wanted dead or alive.

Grenada mongoose was bad and so brave
They send the old bishop straight to the grave
After that well Gairy skip town
With the diary of the Obeah gong
No more people to enslave

Trinidad neighbors expected more mayhem
Anytime anything can happen to them
Eric Williams taking a backseat to avoid
But everybody know he afraid a Karl

Gairy is a wanted man
Park Chung Hee was a wanted man
Acheam Pong fight so hard to survive
He too was wanted dead or alive
Calypso music carries the oral African traditions of storytelling, boastful tales and hilarious ridicule, and commentating social and political affairs. Calypsonians or Kaisonians are some of the most exciting griots and storytellers of Caribbean music. 

Spoken Word Griots: African Oral Tradition In Caribbean Music (Part 1)
Spoken Word Griots: African Oral Tradition in Caribbean Music - Calypso (Part 2)


Williams, Eric. History of the People of Trinidad and Tobago. EWorld Inc. Buffalo, NY.


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