First Steps In Calypso

Someone just smiled for no special reason

Trinidad & Tobago Flag iCalypso was originally the national dance of Trinidad and Tobago, an island nation in the sunny Caribbean. Calypso music is particularly associated with the islands’ carnival, which takes place each year around Mardi Gras, or Shrove Tuesday. That’s pancake day in the UK. The local party-goers dress up in expensive costumes, dance on fancy floats and have fun long into the night.

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CarnivalThe Calypso beat is very energetic. It’s ideal for dancing and celebrating and it’s often accompanied by lyrics that are either cheeky and humorous, or else a protest against hardship, the government or a bad employer. The sound clip above is the story of a man’s girlfriend, Matilda, who steals all his savings from under the mattress and runs away to the mainland in Venezuela.

It looks like the smile’s come back into season
One of our favourite study pieces at Harp Academy is a fabulous  calypso called Tingalayo. The song is about a dancing donkey. Yes, you read that correctly! It’s really catchy. Ask your Harp Academy teacher about it?

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What makes calypso such fun is its special rhythm. It has four beats to the bar, but the rhythm is syncopated, which gives it an accent. A straight four beat bar would be one-two-three-four, one-two-three-four. This is too formal. When we count a calypso rhythm, it has a pulse that goes one-two-and three-four, one-two-and three-four. Say this out loud and repeat it a few times. Can you feel how the rhythm slips, or leans on the third beat? Drop your shoulder as you count through again!

Here’s Joe Cullen demonstrating the calypso rhythm on his drum kit. Take some time to listen to his explanation and take into account that there are variations to the basic calypso beat. Sometimes there’s a double jump; and-one-two-and-three-four, and-one-two-and-three-four. Alternatively we could use a 3 beat time signature to make things swing; onetwo-three, onetwo-three. Whatever the beat, the important thing is the relaxed and natural way the rhythm rolls.

Steel PanIt’s easy, doesn’t have to be a nice day
To help make calypso tunes swing, a calypso band often includes drums, bass guitar, electric guitar, horns and Latin percussion such as maracas and guiro. Typically, the triangle is an important part of the mix too. The triangle player is called the Iron Man. More traditionally, Calypso is played on steel drums, or pans. Here’s how it sounds:

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MaracasPans were originally cut and tuned from oil drums in the 1940’s and they come in different tunings. The lead pan is the tenor, also known as a ping pong because of its timbre. There are also alto, guitar and cello pans, and a bass pan known as a boom. Take some time to explore YouTube with an adult and investigate pan music. what do you notice about the timbre of the steel drums? What do players use to make their sound on the pans?

Just the only one you’ve got and it’s coming ready or not..Ackee 12, 123
Soca is a modern form of calypso. It means soul-calypso and it’s an energetic offshoot of Salsa and Calypso. It features urban drum patterns, horns, a Latin percussion, a throbbing bass guitar, repeated chord sequences and simple, rapping, lyrics about love and partying. Here’s an example:Star Fish

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Here’s a another great example of Calypso, which many of you will recognise. As you listen to it, try to tap out the rhythm. It’s softer than our last example and may take a moment to find: one-two-and three-four, one-two-and three-four. Stick with it! We’ve made things a bit harder on purpose. If you play in a band, you sometimes have to find your own way and learn to count the beat yourself!

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Finally, here’s here’s Ackee 1 2 3, by the English Beat. Enjoy!

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Key Skills

  • Calypso
  • Syncopation
  • PansCoconuts i
  • Timbre
  • Iron man
  • Soca