calypso, a form of folk song developed on the island of Trinidad and also popular in other Caribbean countries. Thought to have begun with 19th-century black slaves, calypso songs developed and continue to be used in the traditional pre-Lenten carnival. Drawing mainly on both African and European sources, the music uses varieties of some 50 traditional melodies and employs a ballad form in either 2/4 or 4/4 time with syncopated phrasing. Orchestration often includes drums, guitars, maracas, brass and wind instruments, and, since they developed in the mid-1940s, steel drums (originally modified oil drums). At first sung in a Creole French, calypso has been performed in a lilting patois-tinged English by colorfully named artists since the early 20th cent. Frequently improvised, lyrics are witty, mocking, colloquial, and topical, usually addressing current events or concerns. Calypso traveled outside Trinidad in the 1920s and 30s and, in a highly commercialized form, became very popular in the United States during the late 1940s and 1950s. Probably the most famous of the many 20th-century calypso artists are, in Trinidad, the Mighty Sparrow, and, in the United States, Harry Belafonte.
See studies by K. Q. Warner (1982, repr. 1999), D. R. Hill (1993), L. Regis (1998), and J. Cowley (1999).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.