Music of Trinidad and Tobago

Music of Trinidad and Tobago
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Calypso music and steelpan is what Trinidad and Tobago is best known for, including internationally in the 1950s through artists like Lord Kitchener and Mighty Sparrow; the art form was most popularised at that time by Harry Belafonte. Along with folk songs and African and Indian-based classical forms, cross-cultural interactions have produced other indigenous forms of music including soca, rapso, chutney, and other derivative and fusion styles. There are also local communities which practise and experiment with international classical and pop music, often fusing them with local steelpan instruments.



The modern music history of Trinidad and Tobago began with the arrival of Spanish settlers and African slaves who decimated the native Amerindian (Carib and Arawak) population, enclosing them in work villages called encomiendas, which were controlled by the Roman Catholic priesthood. The native population declined precipitously, and the Trinidadian government responded by welcoming white and non-slave African Roman Catholic settlers. French planters and their slaves emigrated to Trinidad during the French Revolution (1789) from Martinique, including a number of West Africans, and French creoles from Saint Vincent, Grenada and Dominica[1], establishing a local community before Trinidad and Tobago were taken from Spain by the British. A creole culture was formed, combining elements of hundreds of African ethnic groups, native inhabitants of the islands, French, British and Spanish colonizers. European Carnival had grew with the French. The slave population, fusing elements of West African masking rituals with European Carnival rituals, held their own canboulay to coincide with the harvesting of the sugar crops. In 1834, emancipation observances and Canboulay celebrations began to be merged following the beginning of apprenticeship (1834) and eventual emancipation of the slaves (1838). Beginning in 1845, major influexes of indentured immigrants from India and other parts of the world dramatically changed the ethnic composition of the islands. These indentured servants brought their own folk music, primarily from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, to the creole mix, resulting in chutney music. In addition to Indians, Syrians, Portuguese, Chinese and Africans came to the islands in waves between 1845 and 1917, and even after.

A parade during Carnival

Stick-fighting and African percussion music were banned in 1880, in response to the Canboulay Riots, where the colonial officials attempted to ban Carnival altogether. They were replaced by bamboo sticks beaten together, but these too were eventually banned. In 1937, however, they reappeared, transformed as an orchestra of pans, dustbin lids and oil drums. These steelpans are now a major part of the Trinidadian music scene, and are reportedly the only acoustic instrument invented in the 20th century. In 1941, the United States Navy arrived in Trinidad, and the panmen, who were associated with lawlessness and violence, helped to popularize steel pan music among soldiers, which began its international popularization. hi:L


Calypso music grew together with carnival. The music, which drew upon African (Kaiso) and French/European influences 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 1912, calypso was recorded for the first time and the following decade saw the arrival of calypso tent. During Carnival, calypsonians competed for awards like the Carnival Road March, National Calypso Monarch, Calypso Queen, 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 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.

si 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 of Calypso music mixed with musical styles from the Indians in Trinidad and Tobago called Local (Chutney) into soca, and a hip hop 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 Ras Shorty I's "Clock and Dagger" from Calypso music. Shorty added Indian instruments, including the dholak, tabla and dhantal and soon rivaled reggae as the most popular form of Caribbean music. A prolific musician, composer and innovator, Shorty experimented with fusing calypso and the East Indian rhythms of chutney music for nearly a decade before unleashing "the soul of calypso,"...soca music. Shorty had been in Dominica during an Exile One performance of cadence-lypso, and collaborated with Dominica's 1969 Calypso King, Lord Tokyo and two calypso lyricists, Chris Seraphine and Pat Aaron in the early 1970s, who wrote him some creole lyrics. Soon after Shorty released a song, "Ou Petit",[2] with words like "Ou dee moin ou petit Shorty" (meaning "you told me you are small Shorty"), a combination of calypso, cadence and kwéyòl. 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 who was born in Tobago and most influential in the drum and bass sound of soca, as well as Antigua with (Swallow) and from Barbados, the band (Square One Band), and added influences from African spirituals (Superblue), gospel (Lord Shorty, under his new name Ras Shorty I), reggae (Byron Lee & the Dragonaires), Indian music (Mungal Patasar) and funk (Lord Nelson). An important fusion was ragga-soca, which combined Jamaican ragga with soca. Bunji Garlin, KMC, Maximus Dan and Machel Montano & Xtatik were the most popular of the soca acts of the 1990s. In the last decade, Montano broke away to form Machel Montano HD, while a crop of new acts have emerged and dominated at the Carnival Road March or been strong popular contenders: Faye-Ann Lyons Alvarez (daughter of Superblue), Destra Garcia, Blaxx, among others.


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. The trio band 3canal is among the most popular modern proponents.


Extempo, or extempo calypso, or calypso war, is a lyrically improvised (freestyled) form of calypso. An annual competition takes place at the Trinidad and Tobago Carnival for the title of Extempo Monarchthe art form was first recorded in 1940s in Trinidad but it started long before this time,it was in the plantation where the slaves use to mimic the slave-drivers.(by keron luke)

Brass bands

Since 1986 saw the rise of David Rudder, brass bands have began 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. This festival has been discontinued since its last showcase at the "B2B Bunji and Brass" event in 1997.

Steelband and Parang

The BP Renegades, a steelpan orchestra

Steelband and pan music have achieved great popularity in Trinidad, and was developed circa the 1930s in Laventille, Port of Spain.[3]

Latin American-derived seasonal Christmas music called Parang traditionally involves singers 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 popularity over the years.

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. With chutney music getting to be such a popular kind of music in trinidad, people are beginning to become more aware of the background and culture that Trinidad beholds. Many of the chutney artists that are known within the west indian culture are from and many still live in Trinidad. One of the most popular and up and coming artist who is really making a name for himself in the chuntey/soca world is Ravi B. Ravi B has taken this genre of music to the next level. The lyrics, melodies and fast-paced beats that Ravi B. and many other artists use in their songs, come from and are based on trinidian culture and household tradtions. Trinidad has a variety of different types of music that people all over the world loves to listen and dance to such as reggae, soca, calypso, and now chutney. The country of Trinidad has a lot of heart and values, and through their music people all over the world can learn about its cultural background.

Rock & alternative 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. However, there is much hope that the standard of Rock music would increase in the nation and be recognized on a global scale as there are promising bands such as "Red Vellum Razorblades" who are making a name for themselves in the Rock community.

Western Classical

There is a long tradition of western classical music, both instrumental and choral, dating back to the colonial era under the British. The Trinidad & Tobago Music Festival is a primary showcase for these art forms. Choral groups, steelband and traditional western orchestras, smaller ensembles, music schools and programmes, and others stage shows[4] at venues around the country, particularly at the Queen's Hall in Port of Spain; the University of the West Indies (St. Augustine Campus); Central Bank Auditorium [under renovation as of August 2011]; Simon Bolivar auditorium; churches and cathedrals; and at the new National Academy for the Performing Arts (NAPA), which completed construction in late 2009. Popular proponents of the Western Classical form include the Marionettes Chorale, Lydian Singers and UWI Festival Arts Chorale; the National Sinfonia and the National Steel Symphony Orchestra; and the Classical Music Development Foundation, among others.

Hindustani Classical

Historically, the indentured laborers who came from India brought with them the form of authentic Indian Classical Music. A form of local Indo-Trinidad classical music was later created. However, organisations were able to keep the pure classical form alive. Bharatiya Vidya Sansthaan, under the guidance of Prof. Hari Shankara Adesh, was the first institution to provide courses in the authentic classical artform of India. After which, more schools began to open such as, the Sangeet Mahavidyalaya and Shiv Sangeet School of Music. Other artistes who had the fortune to study in India or with teachers who came to the west, started teaching at different venues of Trinidad. Some of these prominent artistes are Pandit Mangal Patasar (Sitar), Shivannad Maharaj (Violin, Harmonium, vocals), Dexter Raghunanan (Tabla). Much support was offered by the Government of India and the High Commisiion of India to Trinidad and Tobago. In history, Trinidad and Tobago have witnessed concerts featuring authentic Hindustani Classical performances free of charge as a technique to spread the word of the artform which was quickly developing. History was made again as the first ever certification course in pure Hindustani Classical music was started at the University of Trinidad and Tobago's Academy for the Performing Arts in 2010. The courses are held at the UTT'S campus on the grounds of the National Academy for the Performing Arts. The course is one of the first of its kind out of India and is being taught by the Head Professor, Dr. Ruby Malik of the Agra Gharana and studied under Gurus Ustad Shabbir Ahmed Khan, Ustad Yunus Hussain Khan, Ustad Latafat Hussaun Khan (ITC Sangeet Research Academy, Kolkata) and was awarded her Ph.D in Music by Agra University. Also teaching is Mr. Rana Mohip and Mr. Prashant Patasar. Rana Mohip studied at Gandharva Mahavidyalaya under the guidance of principal Pt. Vinaya Chandra Maudgalya (GM's then principal), Shri Vinod Kumar and Shri Madhup Mudgal (present principal of GM) and Mr Prashant Patasar is the son of well known Trinidadian sitar artiste, Pandit Mangal Patasar. He was initiated into music by his father then studied under Gurus Nandlal Jadoonanan, Pandit Chote Lall Mishra, Pundit Sharda Sahai and Shri Nirmal Mandal. Prof. Rajesh Kelkar (disciple of Pt. Dinkar kaikini & Pt. Madhusudan joshi of Agra gharana) of historic Maharaja Sayajirao university of Baroda (India) also visited frequently and promoted Indian classical music in various villages.


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