Calypso has its roots in West African rhythms. Tossed up onto unknown shores and made to suffer the rigors of growing sugar, coffee, and cocoa, slaves took refuge in their songs and sounds. Held captive in a strange land, they reached for the familiar. Over centuries they used clever double entendres to simultaneously and surreptitiously entertain and mock their masters. Later they would use their songs to comment on social, political, and personal matters. The musical bed was slower than it is now, but its greatest importance was in giving those who weren’t entitled to a voice a method of speaking out. This is how calypso began.

Fast-forward through the indentureship of East Indians, World War II, and, finally, independence in 1962 to other sounds of the New World, arriving on radios and records. Blues, soul—via our close ties to the South American mainland, new music this way came and was welcomed with open arms. The most significant breakthrough happened in the early 1970s, when one Garfield Blackman—later Ras Shorty I, so named because he was quite tall—committed to merging Indian melodies with the African-inspired ones. This new thing he named soca.

It is soca that we hear, not just at Carnival but all year round. It is the rambunctious, frenetic offspring of the mellifluous calypso. It is not married to social commentary, though it dabbles. It is for partying. It is an adrenaline rush. It knows how to successfully introduce an electric guitar to an Orisha chant and make them get along.

We Trinidadians like to name things. We’ll subcategorize for the smallest distinction. So if you hear of power-soca, chutney-soca, groovy-soca, or any other hyphenated names, know that it’s meant to be a helpful indicator of something. It’s just not always easy to tell the difference. Just dance.

A very personal, limited, and did-we-mention-personal introduction to calypso and soca.

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  • 1
    “Calypso Music” by David Rudder
  • 2
    “Feeling the Feeling” by Mighty Shadow
  • 3
    “Fire in Your Wire” by Calypso Rose
  • 4
    “Jab, Jab” by Super Blue
  • 5
    “Om Shanti Om” by Ras Shorty I
  • 6
    “Fly” by Destra Garcia
  • 7
    “Fog” by Machel Montano
  • 8
    “Roll It Gal” by Alison Hinds
  • 9
    “Black Man Feeling to Party” by Black Stalin