Music of Trinidad and Tobago

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Musical genres, styles, eras and events

Music of Trinidad: Subjects
Canboulay Calypso
Chutney Steelpan
Calypsonian Calypso tent
Picong Parang
Soca Rapso
Timeline and samples
Anglophone Caribbean
Anguilla - Antigua and Barbuda - Bahamas - Barbados - Bermuda - Caymans - Dominica - Grenada - Jamaica - Montserrat - St. Kitts and Nevis - St. Lucia - St. Vincent and the Grenadines - Trinidad and Tobago - Turks and Caicos - Virgin Islands
Other Caribbean
Aruba and the Dutch Antilles - Cuba - Dominican Republic - Haiti - Martinique and Guadeloupe - Puerto Rico

The Caribbean state of Trinidad and Tobago is best known as the homeland of calypso music, including 1950s stars Lord Kitchener and Mighty Sparrow. Other forms of music include Carnival songs like lavway and leggos, as well as bongo music (which originated at wakes). Yoruban shango and Dahomean rada are also popular among the descendants of indentured servants in Port of Spain.

The BP Renegades, a steeldrum orchestra
The BP Renegades, a steeldrum orchestra

Calypso was developed on the island of Trinidad, and has since become one of the major musical ancestors of diverse styles, including reggae, soca and rapso. The musical genre began when African slaves were brought to the area to work plantations owned by Europeans, and the slaves were forbidden to talk to each other (in any case, they spoken dozens of different languages, so communication was inherently difficult). A creole culture was formed, combining elements of hundreds of African ethnic groups, native inhabitants of the islands, French, British and Spanish colonizers. The Spanish originally moved into the island in 1532, bringing African slaves. In 1783, the French began to immigrate in large numbers due to a Spanish rule encouraging Roman Catholics to relocate to the islands. With St. Lucia and Dominica taken by the British from the French one year later, in 1784, French immigrants came to dominate the island. In 1802, however, the French and African/Spanish creole population of the islands became a British colony, further muddying the cultural development of Trinidadians and Tobagans. Carnival had arrived with the French, and the slaves, who could not take part in Carnival, formed their own, parallel celebration called canboulay, where calypso music began its existence. In 1834, these two celebrations began a merger because the slaves were emancipated, while the islands' ethnic mix further diversified by the mass migration of Indians beginning in 1845. Most were indentured servants and brought their own folk music, primarily from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, to the native mix, resulting in chutney music.

A parade during Carnival
A parade during Carnival

Stick-fighting and African percussion music were banned in 1880, in response to the Canboulay Riots. They were replaced by bamboo sticks beaten together, but these too were eventually banned. In 1937, however, they reappeared, transformed as an orchestra of frying pans, dustbin lids and oil drums. These steel pans are now a major part of the Trinidadian music scene and are a popular section of the Canboulay music contests. In 1941, the United States Navy arrived on Trinidad, and the panmen, who were associated with lawlessness and violence, helped to popularize steel pan music among soldiers, which began its international popularization.


Calypso, probably derived from a similar West African musical style called kaiso, arose as a means of communication among the slaves; kaiso is still used today as a synonym for calypso in Trinidad and some other islands, often by traditionalists, and is also used as a cry of encouragement for a performer, similar to bravo or olé. Highly rhythmic and harmonic vocals characterized the music, which was most often sung in a French creole and led by a griot. As calypso developed, the role of the griot (originally a similar traveling musician in West Africa) became known as a chantuelle and eventually, calypsonian. Calypso was popularized after the abolition of slavery and the ensuing growth of the Carnival festivals in the 1830s.

Early performers

Early chantwells like Hannibal, Norman Le Blanc, Mighty Panther and Boadicea made names for themselves by criticizing the colonial government. In 1914 (see 1914 in music), calypso was recorded for the first time and the following decade saw the arrival of calypso tents, where calypsonians practiced and, eventually, new musics for Carnival were exhibited (including lavway and leggos). During Carnival, calypsonians competed for awards like the Road March, National Calypso Monarch, Queen Calypso, Junior Monarch and Extempo Monarch in contests called picong, when two performers trade bawdy and irreverent jibes at each other and the day's events. Soon, stars like Lord Invader and The Roaring Lion grew in stature (the 1930s Golden Age of Calypso) and became more closely aligned with the independence movement. Some songs were banned or censored by the British colonial government, and calypso became a method of underground communication and spreading anti-British information. The style thus developed was called oratorical calypso.

These early popular performers led the way for calypso's mainstreaming with artists like Lord Kitchener, Harry Belafonte and Mighty Sparrow. Belafonte, a Jamaican-American singing in American English, was by far the most popular internationally during this wave (his Calypso album, Belafonte was the first artist to sell a million copies), but his music was also extensively criticized for watering down the sound of calypso.

1947 saw Lord Kitchener and Killer forming the renegade calypso tent Young Brigade. The term Young Brigade soon came to refer to a specific group of calypsonians that used fictional narratives and humor with new, more dance-able rhythms. Kitchener was by far the most popular of the Young Brigade calypsonians, and he helped popularize calypso in the United Kingdom and elsewhere. Mighty Sparrow's first hit was Jean and Dinah, celebrating the departure of American military forces from Trinidad; the song launched a new generation of politically active calypso music, which soon became associated with the People's National Movement. Roaring Lion was also a major part of this vanguard in calypso music, and he became known for a traditionalist style that he maintained throughout his career.

During the 1970s, calypso's popularity waned throughout the world, including the Caribbean. Derivatives include an uptempo version mixed with musical styles from the large Indian minority in Trinidad and Tobago and American soul, called soca, and a hip hop and dub-influenced style called rapso both became popular in Trinidad and other islands. Soca was by the most influential in terms of international sales, since rapso's crossover appeal to mainstream tastes has been extremely limited. Old-time calypsonians and purists, however, preferred rapso's continuation of the lyrical ambidexterity that helped make calypso the world-famous, innovative art form it has become; many criticized soca's perceived watering-down of calypso, including veteran calypsonians like Chalkdust, who asked "Are we to put water in the brandy, singing just two or three words [that mainstream audiences] can understand and dance to?" Indo-Trinidadians began popularising chutney music during the same time period. In the mid-1970s, artists like Sundar Popo made the music mainstream.


Soca is said to have been invented in 1963 (see 1963 in music) by Lord Shorty's "Clock and Dagger". Shorty added Indian instruments, including the dholak, tabla and dhantal and soon rivaled reggae as the most popular form of Caribbean music. Soca reached its modern form by the early 1970s under the influence of American soul, disco and funk music, which reached Trinidadian artists when they began recording in New York City; by this time, most of the Indian-derived elements had been removed from the genre. Shorty's 1974 Endless Vibrations and Soul of Calypso brought soca to its peak of international fame. Less lyrically revolutionary than traditional calypso, soca has remained mostly focused on good times throughout its history, though artists like Gypsy (whose 1986 "The Sinking Ship" helped remove the People's National Movement from the Trinidadian government) continued calypso's socially-aware traditions. Soca's popularity grew through the 70s and early 1980s, finally becoming an international chart-topper after "Hot! Hot! Hot!", a 1983 release by Arrow, who hailed from Montserrat and not Trinidad. Arrow soon proved himself to be one of the most innovative soca artists of the 80s, incorporating zouk and other influences into a series of best-selling singles. Other artists of the 80s put new islands on the soca map, especially Shadow and Tobago, as well as Anguilla ( Swallow) and Barbados ( Square One), and added influences from African spirituals ( Superblue), gospel (Lord Shorty, under his new name Ras Shorty I), reggae ( Byron Lee), Indian music ( Mungal Patasar) and funk ( Lord Nelson). The most important fusion was ragga-soca, which combined Jamaican ragga with soca. Bunji Garlin, KMC, Magadan and Machel Montano & Xtatic were the most popular of the ragga-soca bands of the 1990s.


Rapso has become the most influential of these two main descendants of calypso; it arose as Black Power and Pan-Africanist thought spread in Trinidad. Lancelot Layne is said to have invented the genre with his 1971 hit "Blow Away", while Cheryl Byron brought rapso to calypso tents in 1976. The term rapso first appeared in 1980 on Busting Out, an album by Brother Resistance and his Network Riddum Band. Rapso has currently become one of the most prevalent expressions of music on Trinidad itself, but is largely absorbed into calypso during Carnival celebrations and contests. The 1990s saw a more politically and spiritually-conscious form of rapso, which has been infused with soul and reggae music, as well as native J'ouvert, an early introduction to Carnival which consists of percussionists using makeshift materials to hammer out a beat.


Extempo, or extempo calypso, or calypso war, is a lyrically improvised form of calypso. An annual competition takes place at the Trinidad Carnival for the title of Extempo Monarch.

Brass bands

Since 1986 saw the rise of David Rudder, brass bands have begun to dominate the Carnival competitions. Brass bands had long been a part of Trinidad's cultural heritage, but Rudder popularized the genre and helped inspire the founding of the Caribbean Brass Festival in 1991.

Chutney music

At the same time, chutney became a massive force in Trinidadian music, arising from the island's Indian population. It has now become mainstream across the islands and elsewhere in the Caribbean, and has spawned its own subgenres, including ragga chutney, chutney-hip hop, soca-bhangra, bhangra-wine and chutney-bhangra.

Steelband and Parang

Steelband and pan music have achieved great popularity in Trinidad. Latin American-derived seasonal Christmas music called parang traditionally involves serenaders moving throughout homes or districts playing staple instruments, such as the cuatro (a four-stringed guitar), the maracas (indigenously known as chac-chacs), and the guitar. Chutney-soca and chut-kai-pang (chutney, parang and calypso, mixed with Venezuelan-derived rhythms) have also achieved some popularity.

Rock music

Trinidad and Tobago has an underground rock and heavy metal scene with many small shows being held throughout the year. The largest of such shows is the annual Pop Music Awards held at the Tsunami nightclub in Chaguaramas and the Samaan Tree Rock Festival in Aranguez.

The band that has had the most international success thus far is probably The Orange Sky, led by Nigel Rojas they have sold over 10,000 records in the caribbean alone. jointpop, led by Gary Hector, has a strong local following and has won significant acclaim from Trinidadian critics. Other active bands include Tripped and Falling who has experienced quite significant success in Trinidad, and are now doing well in England., Tremor, Kryl'ja, Skid' Nevely, Abaddon, Flying Crapaud, Anti-Everything, Incert Coin, Vox Deus, Modulus Eigenvalue, Spectral Vibes, Enlibra, Blood Red Clover and Inebriate.

Lesser Antillean music

Anguilla - Antigua and Barbuda - Aruba and the Netherlands Antilles - Barbados - Dominica - Grenada
Guadeloupe - Martinique - Montserrat - Saint Kitts and Nevis - Saint Lucia - Saint Vincent and the Grenadines - Trinidad and Tobago - Virgin Islands

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