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Music of Trinidad and Tobago

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Title: Music of Trinidad and Tobago  
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Subject: Music of Dominica, Music of Jamaica, Music of Saint Kitts and Nevis, Music of Guadeloupe, Music of Martinique
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Music of Trinidad and Tobago

Music of Trinidad and Tobago
General topics
Related articles
Media and performance
Music media

Music television

Nationalistic and patriotic songs
National anthem Forged from the Love of Liberty
Regional music

The music of Trinidad and Tobago is best known for its calypso music, soca music and steelpan, including its internationally performances in the 1950s from 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, parang, 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.


  • History 1
  • Folk traditions 2
    • Bélé 2.1
    • Bamboo-Tamboo 2.2
    • Kaiso 2.3
  • Calypso 3
    • Early performers 3.1
  • Soca 4
  • Rapso 5
  • Extempo 6
  • Brass bands 7
  • Steel-pan and Steelband 8
  • Parang 9
  • Chutney music 10
  • Rock and alternative music 11
  • Western Classical 12
  • Hindustani Classical 13
  • References 14


The Cedula of Population of 1783 laid the foundation and growth of the population of Trinidad. The Spanish who were in possession of the island, contributed little towards advancements, with El Dorado the focus, Trinidad was perfect due to its geographical location. French planters with their slaves, free coloreds and mulattos from the French Antilles of Martinique, Grenada, Guadeloupe and Dominica migrated to the Trinidad during the French Revolution. The Spanish also gave many incentives to lure settlers to the island, including exemption from taxes for ten years and land grants in accordance to the terms set out in the Cedula. These new immigrants establishing local communities of Blanchisseuse, Champs Fleurs, Paramin, Cascade, Carenage and Laventille. Trinidad's population jumped to over 15,000 by the end of 1789, from just under 1,400 in 1777. In 1797, Trinidad became a British crown colony, with a French-speaking population. This exodus was encouraged due to the French Revolution.

Carnival had arrived with the French, indentured laborers and the slaves, who could not take part in Carnival, formed their own, parallel celebration called canboulay. Canboulay is the precursor for Trinidad & Tobago Carnival, and has played an important role in the development of Trinidad's culture.[1]

Official and elite unease over carnival revelry (which was considered violent and unruly) grew during the course of the next few decades, and in 1883 drumming was banned in an attempt to clean up carnival. This injunction came on the heels of a serious disturbance that occurred during the 1881 Carnival, known as the Canboulay Riots. Canboulays were processions during carnival that commemorated the harvesting of burnt cane fields during slavery, a process so labor-intensive that it had often involved forced marches of slaves from neighboring plantations to more efficiently harvest the cane (once burned, it requires immediate harvesting or it spoils). These canboulay processions were quite popular and often incorporated kalenda. The government’s attempt to ban the processions in 1881 resulted in open riots between Afro-Creole revelers and police, a turn of events that, not surprisingly, caused deep resentment within Trinidadian society toward the government’s use of power. The open resistance of Afro-Creole revelers, of course, redoubled concerns among government officials over this potential threat to public order and led to an alternative strategy—the banning of drumming—in 1883. To make sure that the point got across, stick-fighting itself was banned in 1884. An ingenious substitute for the drums and sticks, called tamboo bamboo, was introduced in the 1890s.[2]

Tamboo bamboo bands consist of three different instruments (each cut from bamboo): boom, foulé, and cutter. The boom serves as the bass instrument, is usually about five feet long, and is played by stamping it on the ground. The foulé, which is a higher-pitched instrument, consists of two pieces of bamboo, each about a foot long, and is played by striking these pieces end to end. The cutter, which is the highest-pitched instrument in the ensemble, is made from a thinner piece of bamboo (of varying length) and is struck with a stick. These three types of instruments combined to beat out rhythms that accompanied the chantwells and were a staple of carnival celebrations for many years (they were gradually rendered obsolete by the steel band).

The 1930s saw contests between tents become a standard part of carnival, and in 1939, Growling Tiger was crowned the first calypso monarch of Trinidad (for his song, entitled “The Labor Situation in Trinidad”). Carnival festivities, then, split into two kinds of venues during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, occupying both the street and more performance-oriented calypso tents. Both of these spaces, however, were the preserve of the lower class and of Afro-Creoles. Calypsonians were considered potentially dangerous by elites and government officials because they commanded large followings and could sway public opinion with their songs. The streets were also carefully monitored, setting up an atmosphere within which calypso and carnival were embraced by the lower class and kept at a distance by elites. The Afro-Creole middle class, moreover, working toward upward social mobility and thus concerned with aligning itself with the elite, also attempted to distance itself from carnival and calypso.

Beginning in 1845, major influxes 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.

Folk traditions

Recorded in the hills of Trinidad, here is a fascinating juxtaposition of three music and music / dance practices of non-urban dwellers derived from African roots. Bamboo-Tamboo evolved out of the ban European colonizers imposed on drumming: dry, hollow bamboo poles were cut to varying lengths to produce different pitches when thumped against the ground. These bamboo instruments are used to accompany or speak about calinda (stick fighting). Belair (bélé) is a dance of older women accompanied by drums and shakers, often danced all night long; whereas Kaiso, has its origins in West Africa and was brought over by the slaves who in the early history of the art form used it to sing about their masters.


In the late 18th Century when the French plantation owners and their Creole slaves came to Trinidad and Tobago, they brought with them a life style of "joie de vivre" to their plantations. At that time, the French held many balls at the Great Houses where they enjoyed doing many of the courtly dances of Europe.

The house slaves, in their moments of leisure, took the dance to the field slaves and mimicked the dance of their masters. The slaves who worked in or around these houses quickly copied the style and dress. They showed off by doing ceremonious bows, making grand entrances, sweeping movements, graceful and gentle gliding steps which imitated the elegance of the French. The rhythmic quality of the bélé drums added spicy and yet subtle sensuality to the movements. There are more than 14 types of bélé dances including the Grand bélé and Congo bélé, with each performed to its own rhythms and chants.


Stick fighting and African percussion music of were banned in 1881 from Trinidad Carnival, in response to the Canboulay Riots. They were replaced by bamboo sticks "Bamboo-Tamboo" beaten together, which were themselves banned in turn. Bamboo-Tamboo evolved out of the ban European colonizers imposed on drumming: dry, hollow bamboo poles were cut to varying lengths to produce different pitches when thumped against the ground. In 1937 they reappeared, transformed as an orchestra of frying pans, dustbin lids and oil drums. These steelpans or pans are now a major part of the Trinidadian music.

The first instruments developed in the evolution of steelpan were Tamboo-Bamboos, tunable sticks made of bamboo wood. Tamboo-Bamboo bands also included percussion of a (gin) bottle and spoon. By the mid-1930s, bits of metal percussion were being used in the tamboo bamboo bands.


Kaiso is a type of music popular in Trinidad, and other islands of the Caribbean, such as Grenada, Barbados, St. Lucia and Dominica, which originated in West Africa, and later evolved into calypso music.

Kaiso music has its origins in West Africa (particularly in present day Nigeria) and was brought over by the slaves who (in the early history of the art form) used it to sing about their masters. The people would also gather in "kaiso" tents where a griot or lead singer would lead them in song. Many early kaisos were sung in French Creole by an individual called a chantwell. Kaiso songs are generally narrative in form and often have a cleverly concealed political subtext.

After Emancipation of slavery, the Chantwell would sing call-and-response chants called lavways lionizing and cheering on champion stickfighters. This form of music gradually evolved into the modern calypso.


Calypso music grew together with carnival. The music drew upon the West African Kaiso and French/European influences, and arose as a means of communication among the enslaved Africans. kaiso is still used today as a synonym for calypso in Trindad 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.

Modern calypso, however, began in the 19th century, a fusion of disparate elements ranging from the masquerade song lavway, French Creole belair and the stick fighting chantwell. Calypso's early rise was closely connected with the adoption of Carnival by Trinidadian slaves, including canboulay drumming and the music masquerade processions. The French brought Carnival to Trinidad, and calypso competitions at Carnival grew in popularity, especially after the abolition of slavery in 1834.

Calypso drew upon African and French influences, and became the voice of the people. It allowed the masses to challenge the doings of the unelected Governor and Legislative Council, and the elected town councils of Port of Spain and San Fernando. As English replaced patois (Creole French) as the dominant language, calypso migrated into English, and in so doing it attracted more attention from the government. Calypso continued to play an important role in political expression, and also served to document the history of Trinidad and Tobago.

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 such as 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.

These early popular performers led the way for calypso's mainstreaming with artists including 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 (with 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 called 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 such as 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.


The Godfather of Soca is Garfield Blackman, rose to fame as Lord Shorty with his 1963 hit "Clock and Dagger" and took on the name Ras Shorty. He started out writing songs and performing in the calypso genre. In the 1970s, he began experimenting with calypso by blending it with the local chutney. Shorty added Indian instruments, including the dholak, tabla and dhantal. A prolific musician, composer and innovator, Shorty experimented with fusing calypso and the other Indian inspired music including chutney music for nearly a decade before unleashing "the soul of calypso,"...soca music.

Shorty was the first to really define his music and with "Indrani" in 1973 and "Endless Vibration" (not just the song but the entire album) in 1975, calypso music really took off in another direction. Later in 1975 Shorty visited his good friend Maestro in Dominica where he stayed (at Maestro's house) for a month while they visited and worked with local cadence artists. You had Maestro experimenting with calypso and cadence ("cadence-lypso"). Sadly a year later Maestro would die in an accident in Dominica and his loss was palpably felt by Shorty, who penned "Higher World" as a tribute.[3]

In Dominica, Shorty had attended an Exile One performance of cadence-lypso at the Fort Young Hotel, 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", with words like "Ou dee moin ou petit Shorty" (meaning "you told me you are small Shorty"), a combination of calypso, cadence and kwéyòl.[4] Shorty's 1974 Endless Vibrations and Soul of Calypso brought soca to its peak of international fame.

Soca developed in the late 1960s and grew in popularity in the early 1970s. Soca’s development as a musical genre included its fusion with calypso, cadence, and Indian musical instruments—particularly the dholak, tabla and dhantal—as demonstrated in Lord Shorty's classic compositions "Ïndrani" and "Shanti Om".

Soca has grown since its inception to incorporate elements of funk, soul, zouk, and dance music genres, and continues to blend in contemporary music styles and trends. Soca has also been experimented with in Bollywood films, Bhangra, in new Punjabi pop, and in disco music in the United States.


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 as well as artist Ataklan are 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 Monarch. The art form was first recorded in the 1940s in Trinidad but it started long before this time, it was in the plantation where the slaves used to mimic the slave-drivers (by keron luke).

Brass bands

Since 1986 saw the rise of David Rudder, brass bands have begun 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.

Steel-pan and Steelband

The BP Renegades, a steelpan orchestra

One of the most significant contributions of Trinidad and Tobago to the world of music was the invention of the steelpan. This instrument is the only acoustic instrument that was invented in the 20th century.[5] The pan evolved from music the slaves on the islands created to use as part of the carnival festivities.[6] The first steel-pans were made from oil drums. The players would beat on the end of the oil drum with bamboo to produce music and found that the areas of the drum that were hit the most frequently developed a higher pitch. From this discovery the players learned that they could change the pitch of the drum to create different notes.[7] The steel-pan is created by hammering a 55-gallon drum to produce the full chromatic range of scale notes.[8] After the drum is hammered into the shape of a concave bowl, individual notes are grooved out into the bowl of the drum.[9] The traditional steel-pan was hammered out by hand, but with the instrument gaining popularity and world-wide demand, manufacturers have experimented with more efficient methods including Spinforming, Flowforming, Aquaforming and Marforming.[10] A typical pan contains 2 ½ octaves, with each note being a hammered out groove in the pan that produces a distinct note.[11] Steel-pan originates from low-income communities and was at first associated with violence and lawlessness. The upper class looked on steel-pan players with disdain until Dr. Eric Williams, leader of People’s National Movement and the man known as father of the nation, increased the acceptance of steel-pan in the mainstream music scene by encouraging corporations to sponsor steel bands, giving the bands more respectability in society.[12] Today, steel-pan is the national instrument of Trinidad and Tobago and is used world-wide.


In Trinidad and Tobago the Latin American-derived seasonal Christmas music called Parang is about more than just Christmas carols. Parang is about general merrymaking and festivities around Christmas time and the food, dancing and music is all a part of the parang. The singers of parang visit the homes of family and friends and sing Christmas-themed songs in Spanish accompanied by instruments, usually the guitar, cuatro, maracas (known as chac-chacs on the islands), mandolin, bandolin, violin, bandola and sometimes the cello.[13] Parang is mostly performed during the Christmas season but is also used at other festivals throughout the year, including the Santa Rosa Festival, the velorio del cruz, and the Sebucan festival. Parang includes both religious and non-religious songs and melodies set against the parang instrumentation. Parang festivities typically involve dancing and there are two primary dance styles, the slower castillian waltz and a quicker gavilan style.[14]

Chutney music

Indians arrived in Trinidad and Tobago in 1838 as indentured laborers on the sugarcane plantations, to fill the labor void left by the abolition of slavery.[15] The growing Indian population on the island developed the musical style of chutney. This musical form based on Indian rhythms was named chutney because it is hot music, its use of double entendres and fast and repetitive rhythms make its listeners want to dance.[16] Chutney uses a mixture of East Indian folk tunes and even bhajans (religious songs), Western and African instruments, usually the dholak, the harmonium and the dhantal, to accompany its fast paced soca or calypso beats.[17] Chutney music is a mixture of Indian tunes influenced by calypso and soca rhythms, and it has been blended with many of the other varieties of music on the island. Artists like Apache Waria and Terry Gajraj pioneered ragga chutney. Chutney has also developed into chutney-bhangra, chutney-hip-hop, soca-bhangra and bhangra-wine.[18]

As chutney music’s popularity grows, people are becoming more aware of the mixture of cultures present in Trinidad and Tobago. Many of the chutney artists that are known within West Indian culture are from Trinidad. Sundar Popo has was one of the pioneers of chutney music, he is famous for first blending chutney with calypso and soca and increasing the popularity of the genre.[19] The instruments used in chutney were those that were approved for women to play, making chutney be seen as a woman’s music genre. Since then, chutney has grown from a woman’s genre into a leading player of the pop music scene with men and women both participating in nationwide competitions.[20] Chutney music is a reflection on the culture of Trinidad and Tobago, its blending of Indian, Western and African elements is a representation of the backgrounds that are mixed together to form the culture of Trinidad and Tobago.

Rock and 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.

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[21] 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 and was opened by the Eastern Youth Chorale in late 2009. Popular proponents of the Western Classical form include the St Augustine Chamber Orchestra/Trinidad and Tobago Youth Philharmonic (the largest symphony orchestra and largest youth orchestra in the English-speaking Caribbean), Marionettes Chorale, The Eastern Performing Arts Fraternity and The Eastern Youth 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 Commission 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 that 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 (GM) under the guidance of 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 artist, 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 and Pt. Madhusudan joshi of Agra gharana) of historic Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda (India) also visited frequently and promoted Indian classical music and culture in various parts and villages of Trinidad with missionary zeal.


  1. ^ French creole influence on calypso music. YouTube. Retrieved March 6, 2014. 
  2. ^ "Zouk:EXCURSIONS IN WORLD MUSIC". 1993. p. 111. Retrieved 20 January 2014. 
  3. ^ "origin of soca Music". socawarriors. Retrieved December 3, 2005. 
  4. ^ Jocelyne Guilbault. Zouk: world music in the West Indies. Retrieved April 10, 2012. 
  5. ^ Waithe, p.41
  6. ^ Waithe p.42
  7. ^ Waithe p.43
  8. ^ Lewis, 1993
  9. ^ Lewis, 2010 p.6
  10. ^ Lewis, 2010 p.4
  11. ^ Hansen p.1
  12. ^ Waithe, p.45
  13. ^ Taylor, p.15
  14. ^ Ingram p. 2
  15. ^ Ramnarine, p.529
  16. ^ Ramnarine,p.528
  17. ^ TIDCO, 1996
  18. ^ Ramnarine p.530
  19. ^ Constance, 1991
  20. ^ TIDCO, 1996
  21. ^ Discover Trinidad & Tobago"Trinidad Arts & Culture" at
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