Caribbean Sounds: Calypso

Culture Facts

Where: Developed in the Caribbean and has spread throughout the western world
What’s it about: Folk music and dance, and upbeat satire on social problems
Sounds: Using percussion, guitars and bands of steel drums


A form of folk music and dance of the Caribbean, calypso developed in Trinidad, West Indies, where it is associated particularly with the pre-lent celebration of carnival. Before the carnival begins musicians try out their songs nightly before audiences in the capital city, Port of Spain. The most popular are used during the carnival.

Frequently improvised, the words of calypso songs are witty and humorous and convey popular attitudes on social, political, or economic problems. They usually concern topical or satirical themes, and they are characterized technically by arbitrary shifts in the accentuation of everyday English words. In Trinidad, calypso music is generally sung to a guitar and maraca accompaniment that establishes a complex rhythm with the singer incanting a style based on the rhythms and drum sounds of native African music.

Since about 1945, steel drums have also been used, often played in bands. Steel drums came about when excess oil drum left over from trade were in the island. Instead of disposing them, the Islanders decide to recycle the drums as a poor man musical instrument. The oil drums were pounded into shape and tuned in different sizes, from bass to soprano, to create a percussion instrument with a unique metallic harmonies, synonymous with the Caribbean experience. The drums have been exported to black communities throughout the world and are popular in schools an an instrument that anyone can learn to play. The classic calypso tune you will often hear at a show is Yellow Bird. 

The music is always in standard 4 beats to a bar, and is based on about 50 standard calypso melodies. For the form of carnival street dance called “jump dancing,” rhythms are provided most often by steel drums.

Calypso dance was also imported into the west and upgraded to a ballroom dance which resembles the rumba, and the music often is performed with conventional dance-band instruments, far from the free and easy nature of true calyso.

By Noreen Mustapha