Just as in the case of many other traditions, it is difficult to find the roots concerning the origin of the calypso. The song is closely connected to Carnival, the festival which the former slaves took over from the white upper class and popularised after emancipation in 1838; the term calypso, however, was only linked to the song around 1900.
Three attributes characterise Trinidadian music of the early 19th century: firstly improvisation (an ability which is still highly regarded, although the calypsonian today usually composes and rehearses his or her songs), secondly the flattering or satirical-critical lyrics, and thirdly the offending exchange of words which the singers used to do (which later became the calypso-war). Here, the first calypsonians seemingly generated much from the musical traditions of their west-African ancestors, who also knew songs of flattery or abuse.
The original form of the calypso was closely connected with the urban subculture of Port-of-Spain, which the freed slaves formed around 1860. In the shacks and slums of the lower class ‘bands’ gathered men, women and children, who sang, danced and performed stickfights (the so-called ‘kalinda’ or ‘calenda’). Each band had a leader, the ‘shatwel’ (or ‘chantwell’ or ‘chantuelle’, from French ‘chanterelle’), whose task it was to sing provoking songs in order to offend opposing stickfighters of another band, or to encourage the own. In the weeks before Carnival and during the Carnival procession the bands were particularly active.
Carnival was a valve for tensions within the society. The members of the bands carried out conflicts in a ritualised form: physical clash in the stick fight, verbal combat in the calypso, longing or hatred for another person or class in the masquerade. This ritualisation worked as stabiliser for society - as rituals generally do.
Just like stickfight and disguise, calypso was a ritual. It ‘tested’ a band’s cohesion within the context of the subculture, shielded it externally and united it internally.
The context of calypso changed in the second half of the 19th century. On one hand the colonial government and the white upper class feared and shunned the ‘Jamette’ Carnival more and more; 1881 and 1884 saw bloody encounters between bands and police during the kambulé processions. On the other hand economical circumstances, increasing literacy and Anglicization of the country led to the formation of an educated middle class in Port-of-Spain, whose communicative needs influenced the Carnival rituals. The modality of the calypso changed tremendously under this influence. Ernest Brown in article ‘Carnival, Calypso and Steelband in Trinidad’ gives the following reason:
"Realizing that they would lose a substantial opportunity to make money if the festival were totally eradicated, businessmen opposed the destruction of Carnival and worked to transform it into more acceptable forms. Bourgeois tastes became much more important, and there was an increase of bourgeois influence upon the emerging national culture."
The middle class couldn’t identify any longer with the rituals of the shatwels and their songs, and since this class grew in numbers, ‘clashes with the lower class’ became more frequent. Those clashes occured in various forms, e.g. a banning of drums and of masking in public, press articles expressing disgust with the fact that calypso is still sung in Creole and not in English, or the censoring of calypso lyrics. The rituals changed: tamboo-bamboo replaced the drum, masks started to be carried on sticks, calypsos were sung in English from 1899 (the language was now so widely understood that it could be used in a popular song), and censorship was circumvented by improvisation (the ‘double entendre’).
Calypso left the jamette society of east Port-of-Spain and was performed to and by members of middle class through the institutionalization of tents and competitions. The rituals changed in order to maintain their functions: to serve as a catalyst, to unite the audience within and to strengthen their culture against the outside, for example the Colonial establishment.
The tents, which started as bamboo shacks in barrack yards in which the bands practiced their songs and their disguises, became nightly meeting spots. As they got increasingly popular, stage, seats and entrance fees were added. What had been a place to rehearse the ritual, became after World War I a place to ritualise the rehearsed.
The calypsonians were still leading the Carnival bands just like their predecessors, the shatwels, but their songs got more and more formalised and functioned as a ‘poor man’s newspaper’. Where earlier the calypso tested the social coherence in a band, it now promoted the coming together of very different groups. Jacob Elder expresses this as follows in his PhD thesis ‘The Evolution of the Traditional Calypso’:
"The two groups, Whites and non-Whites, were being provided with a common ground on which they could meet. Brierly lamented that 'it is now possible to find young men from the White society joining in the ribaldry of the low class Negroes'. He did not live to see the levelling of race and class barriers which was to take place through the medium of music.”
In the first two decades of the 20th century, calypsonians became internationally recognized (mainly in the USA), began to produce recordings and had their songs broadcasted by a newly emerging medium: the radio. Calypsonians got professional and began to draw capital from their songs, and the ritual context of the calypso shifted more and more into the background in favour of its formal aspects. As Ernest Brown writes:
"The recording industry, however, also placed demands on calypso, requiring that the subjects of songs be understandable to American audiences and that calypso ensembles resemble those current in popular music from the USA. African percussion bands such as tamboo bamboo had no place in this scheme of things. Under the influence of mass media, middle-class Trinidadians developed a taste for jazz and other American popular music."
American jazz music was imitated, because it was ‘black’ and internationally recognized, and because it offered a role model which was acceptable for the urban middle class with its bourgeois ambitions. The bands of the street Carnival grew and needed louder instruments. Similar to the New Orleans Carnival these were wind instruments, which from then on became the instrumentation of the calypso: the ‘brass band’ was born. Only in rural areas tamboo-bamboo and the traditional instrumentation with Venezuelan string instruments were maintained for a long time. As Brown writes:
"In urban areas, tamboo bamboo bands were replaced by percussion bands that transformed the flotsam and jetsam of an industrial society - brake linings, trash cans, paint cans, and biscuit tins - into musical instruments. Eventually these metal percussion bands developed into the steelbands that we know today."
The development of the radio in Trinidad led to another re-positioning of traditional music. Calypso got an economical function, which was reinforced after World War II, when Carnival was recognized as a tourist attraction and commercially promoted. As Brown writes further:
"Calypsonians came under increasing pressure to develop greater technical facility with western instruments In Trinidad itself, nightclub patrons wanted entertainment, not political satire and news report. American audiences wanted songs about things they could understand. A new generation of singers de-emphasized picong, satire, and politics, preferring to concentrate on sex and fantasy, and to describe events that were not limited to a particular place or time."
The ritual meaning, which the calypso only represented for a certain group of society, vanished with its spreading by the mass media. Instead, a formal meaning, which all recipients of the media attributed to it, became focussed on and changed the genre in order to adapt it to the conditions of broadcasting. Calypso became a myth: based on the formal aspects of melody, instrumentation, language and lyrics, it was no longer bound to the actuality of the rite of the tent or the street.
Because it became a formalised myth, Trinidadians were able to identify with calypso regardless of their respective socio-cultural background. Reduced to its form, calypso today can still fulfill its important function as an offer for identification. With industrialization and the immigration of hundreds of thousands of people from the Lesser Antilles and Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago’s society became very heterogeneous. However, in its formalised, ‘mythical’ form, calypso continued to be society-stabilizing: it serves Trinidadians and Tobagonians to identify with their country.