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What is Calypso?

Misconceptions are rampant and galore in Sri Lanka about ‘Calypso music’. But factually, a Calypso is a song from the Caribbean Islands (The West Indies) which gained popularity in the 1950s and thereafter. They are generally happy-go-lucky lighthearted renditions that tells the story about humor, bravery and anything connected to one’s personal lifestyle.

It could perhaps also be, that in order to win political rights and equality, the oppressed people had taken to the streets shouting slogans and banging saucepans, barrels etc. in protest, also contributing to the steel band sound concept popular in Caribbean music and Calypsos. Likewise, the trade in the 17th and 18th century saw many African slaves being sent to the Caribbean and US, forced to work in sugar cane, tobacco and cotton plantations for a meagre stipend. 

Their arrival with their own religious music also contributed. The drum culture (Conga drums came from Congo in Africa) eventually became a part of Caribbean life. The history is much long and interesting.

Caribbean Islands

The Caribbean islands located in the Gulf of Mexico comprise of Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, Barbados and many smaller islands. Many are unaware that Guyana belonging to the West Indies is situated in the mainland of South America, close to Venezuela! While most of the islanders are mixed with African (vastly the negros clan), Indian, Chinese, British, French ancestry, most of the Guyanese people are Asian and Aaryan in appearance (cricketers Chaderpaul, Sarawan, Rohan Kanhai are Guyanese – all this is more of history than music, you may say!)

Misconceptions about ‘Calypsos’

Also please bear in mind that just because you wear a batik dress with a straw hat, or pose by the seaside with a boat and a palm tree background with a guitar by your side, you are NOT a Calypso singer. Remember that there are NO CALYPSOS OUTSIDE THE CARRIBEAN. The group songs of the 70s are therefore NOT Calypsos.

Just as Scotch whiskey is exclusively from Scotland and Cognac from France, Calypsos are essentially from the West Indies.

The ‘Calypso tag’ has been wrongfully introduced in Sri Lanka mainly by the hotel industry and certain record producers and show biz men for their own benefit and profitability.

So do watch out for the article about Latin American group songs. Once you read it you will have a better idea of how group songs came into being in Sri Lanka.

It is however sad (and sort of funny), that many supposed to be ‘Calypso Bands’ doing the round themselves do not know what a Calypso is and what it represents. When requested to sing Calypso they end up with a group song or a Jothipala hit!

Latin American link to Sri Lankan group songs of the 70s.

Well known Latin American groups

During the mid-1950s and 1960s many musical groups singing in captivating 3 and 4 part harmony emerged in Central and South America – meaning from Mexico, down to the southern-most tip of South America which is now known as Latin America.

Perhaps the best known such group, ‘Trio Los Paraguayos’ led by Luis Alberto Del Parana emerged from Paraguay. There were other popular Latin American groups such as ‘Los Indios’, ‘Los Panchos’, ‘Los Machucambos’ as well.

How South America became ‘Latin America’

A bit of history is important to explain the story. During the early 1490-1500 era, Spain and Portugal, both neighbouring countries signed a treaty and ‘invaded’ South America – in the guise of exploration. Navigators Christopher Columbus from Spain, Vasco Da Gama, Alveras Cabraal from Portugal are some such famous explorers. They sailed across the Atlantic to South America. Columbus did so via the Caribbean islands on more than one occasion.

As time went by, the Spanish and the Portuguese settled down in South America and mixed with the local populace. These countries naturally acquired all Spanish and Portuguese cultures, including the Roman Catholic religion, music, church harmony singing and other habits and names – through mixed marriages. This is the reason for many South American people to have Spanish and Portuguese names such as Peiris, Mendes, Silva, Gomes, Cabraal, Fernando, Alphonso, Miguel, Xaivier, Rogrigo, Mirando etc.

Since both Spanish and Portuguese languages had evolved from Latin (ancient Roman), these South American countries later came to be known as Latin America.

What happened to Sri Lanka, historically?

The exact sequence of event that happened in South America happened in Sri Lanka as well. After the Portuguese invasion in 1505. Hence the ‘Fernando’, ‘Peiris’… etc. clan and Roman Catholism evolved here too. Not to mention the wine drinking and playing of the banjo, guitar as well.

Early influence of Spanish songs in our country

Radio Ceylon being the solitary media available at that time, often played these Spanish records on the English commercial service and relished by a section of avid listeners. Apparently these pleasant harmony sounds and guitar playing captivated musicians such as Neville Fernando, Merril Fernando etc. who took the opportunity to start similar groups in our country with their own musical talent. ‘Feranando Trio’, ‘Los Cabelleros’, ‘Amigos Romanticas’, ‘Los Muchachos’ and others emerged as a result.

The 6/8 beat – or the ‘Baila Rhythm’ (as popularly known)

You will observe that many such Spanish songs performed by the Latin American groups had the much loved magical Portugese Kaffirinnga ‘baila’ rhythm as well.

From all this it is evident that our ‘Kandayam Gee’ evolved and was inspired by the charisma of Spanish songs sung by Latin American groups.

Since music is a universal language, all types of it are essentially inter-connected. Hence, Calypso music could be regarded as a ‘distant cousin’. But Latin American group songs are ‘virtual siblings’, ever so much closer to Sri Lankan group songs of the 70s.

Priya Peiris

A vocalist, lyricist and a music composer, Priya is a member of the famous “La Bambas” harmony group of the 60’s. Blessed with a knack to identify young and budding talent, Priya has promoted many personalities in the music field. This versatile musician is also a knowledge hub when it comes to music and its origins around the world.

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One thought on “Calypso

  1. Hi Priya, wonderfully written, very informative. This makes me think you’re the ‘Google’ of local, Sri Lankan musical fraternity. We’ll be waiting for more.

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