Music of Trinidad and Tobago

The sizzling Music of Trinidad and Tobago is world reknowned. Its diversity stems from the unique cultural heritage of its people.


The derivation of the word calypso has never been accurately established though its closeness to the words 'Carieto' of Carib origin, the French 'Carrousseaux', the Spanish 'Caliso', and the West African 'Kaiso' a corruption of 'Kaito' meaning 'Bravo' suggests one of these sources or a mixture. The African source seems most likely because to this day whenever a good calypso is sung the crowd shouts 'Kaiso!'

The first Calypsonians date back to the eighteenth century but Calypso began to flourish at the dawn of the twentieth century. Early calypsoes were sung in Patois (broken French), but eventually English. Topics were mainly songs of protest and social commentary on events of the day.

For Carnival call and response type songs were composed known as 'leggos' which later were titled road marches. Musically, Calypso is written in cut time (a strong followed by a weak beat) as opposed to 4/4 time of pop and rock. It is highly syncopated and the phrasing quite unique. Calypso now spans a broad spectrum from social and political commentary usually at a slow tempo, to humorous, nationalistic, and up tempo party tunes.


'SOCA' is Calypso with rhythmic enhancements. It is characterised by the basic cut time of Calypso but features a syncopated intricate bass line as opposed to the 'walking' bass which is normally associated with traditional Calypso. The rhythmic enhancements provided by the percussion also add to the 'Soca' feel. There is also some variation in the playing of the kick drum, especially in the use of double beats, which has have introduced in recent years.

When first initiated by calypsonian Ras Shorty I, he experimented with the marriage of Indian and African Rhythms and arrived at the name Soca from the last two letters of Calypso and the first two letters of Calypso. The composition 'Endless Vibrations' by Ras Shorty I is typical of what was accepted as Soca in its early years. Over the years Soca has been interpreted to be Soul added to Calypso as many thought the 'so' to be the short for soul. It was also felt that the Soul input was necessary to make the music accepted internationally. Thus we have seen many changes to the music under the classification of Soca.

Today most arrangers agree that Soca is inherent in almost all party tunes created, and that it is incorporated in both the slow jam and up tempo tunes. Hardly any of the calypsonians today record a party tune that is strictly traditional and so all party tunes are classified as Soca.


The steel-drum (affectionately known as the "pan" in Trinidad) is the National musical instrument of Trinidad and Tobago as well as being the only new musical instrument invented in the twentieth century. The birth of the steelpan occurred in Trinidad and Tobago during the late thirties. Prior to this lengths of bamboo were used during street parades to beat out rhythms. These bands were known as 'Tamboo Bamboo' bands. In search of a cleaner sound, and to avoid damage to the streets, old biscuit tins and caustic soda pans were first used to replace the bamboo.
Eventually discarded oil drums were cut, beaten until sunk into a concave shape, grooved, heated and tuned. A range of instruments from the 'Tenor Pan' to the 'Bass' now comprise the full orchestra which plays from Calypso to Classical music. The pans with the shorter lengths (skirts) play the higher notes and the lower notes emanate from the pans with longer skirts. As many as thirty notes are fitted onto a tenor pan while the bass uses six or more drums each with three or four notes. The quality of sound is remarkable causing the uninitiated to view under the pan to see if an organ was hidden there.

In fifty odd years, the Steelpan has matured a great deal but the phenomenon is still in its' beginnings. Other coutries are adapting the Steelpan and claiming it for their own. Trinidad steelbands are touring the world on a yearly basis. Carnivals with live steelband music are sprouting up all over Europe and America. Today the steelpan is hearalded as one of the main attractions during Carnival in Trinidad. The steelpan is a drum made from steel, played usually with two rubber-tipped sticks or mallets, offering the full chromatic scale of notes. A melodic percussion capable of playing heated calypsoes, soft jazz and intricate classics...

The versatility of the instrument, the force of the community and the faith and dedication of the pannists are just a few of the magnificent attributes of the steelpan. Steelpan Competitions

Competitions such as Panorama, Pan Parang, Pan Chutney, Pan Ramajay to name a few where persons such as arranger/composer/pannist Jit Samaroo have gained well-deserved fame, are the norm. Soloists such as Robbie Greenidge, Othello Molineau, Len "Boogsie" Sharpe, Ken "Professor" Philmore, Liam Teague and Arddin Herbert, among others have gained followings on the international circuit. Bands such as Amoco Renegades, Pamberi, Skiffle Bunch and Phase Two Pan Groove now travel extensively to Europe, Japan, and North America. The National Panorama competition held at Carnival time in T&T attracts steelbands some with the maximum performer membership of one hundred and twenty! In T&T there are over one hundred registered steelbands and the governing body, Pan Trinbago has made clear its intention to support any initiatives that will take pan even more fully into the international market.


Chutney, the East Indian foray into party music has been taking T&T by storm. Chutney music uses East Indian folk tunes, movie tunes and even bhajans (religious songs), over a fast calypso or Soca based beat. Today English words are added to the Hindi and as the calypso element becomes stronger, the music is moving from a melodic Eastern core to a more harmonic Western base.

Originally the instruments used to accompany chutney songs were minimal; the harmonium for melody, the dholak (drum) and the dhantal (along metal rod struck with a small u shaped piece of metal bent at both ends) for rhythm. Studio recordings with an eye on the party circuit have increasingly incorporated use of keyboards and drum machines programmed with tassa (the exciting drums used in the Muslim Hosay festival) rhythms.

There are massive chutney "explosions" in Trinidad and Tobago and internationally, chutney greats such as Sundar Popo, Anand Yankeran and the Queen, Ramrajee Prabhoo are often billed by promoters to perform with calypsonians as well as on their own. Narsaloo Ramramaya, Research Officer at the Ministry of culture in Trinidad and Tobago has noted that the popularity of chutney has relegated local Indian classical singing to the background and a move is afoot to record the local folk songs to preserve them.

The Sai Baba Movement whose philosophy includes praising God through music has been instrumental in keeping the music alive. The members use of Kirtans (short four line songs based on the East Indian ragas) which are repeated at increasingly faster tempos to a pitch of ecstasy have exposed many to the music. Also see: Chutney Foundation of Trinidad and Tobago

East Indian Music

Mungal Patessar, noted Trinidadian sitarist has been taking East Indian music in Trinidad and Tobago into new realms. In his band "Pantar" he has blended the steelpan and the sitar. The seven member band incorporates the double second pan, the tenor pan, bass guitar, drumset, keyboard, tabla (Indian classical drums), and the sitar. The saxophone is sometimes added. The compositions include originals by Mungal and footballer/pannist Marlon Charles and arrangements of calypsos old and new with special emphasis on the work of the Grandmaster, Lord Kitchener. The result is an interesting Indo-jazz-calypso blend that has many keeping close tabs on its progress.
The East Indian Orchestras in T&T have also been making waves at home and abroad. Bands such as the BWIA National Indian Orchestra, Naya Zamana, Triveni Brass and younger bands such as Willie's Ice Cream Soor Sangeet take popular Eastern music to the people. Many of the band leaders are now studying Western music as well as the traditional Indian modes so that in this area as well, an interesting fusion is taking place.


The cultural exchange in T&T does not go only in one direction. Musicians such as Andre Tanker and his Contraband long noted for his experimentation with folk music, and Len "Boogsie" Sharpe pannist extradordinaire who has experimented with classical instruments and jazz riffs in combination with the steelpan, have both made effective use of East Indian modes and instruments. There is now a more popular movement towards the crossing of the barriers of Eastern versus Western music in T&T and the "EastWern" music that is emerging is very exciting.


As if this were not more than enough in a country of 1.2 million people, parang must also be given its say. After the Amerindians, Trinidad was claimed by the Spanish and settled by the French. They joined and many of the traditions intertwined as time passed. One of those traditions was the visiting of homes and the singing of religious folk songs at Christmas time. The French called them crèche or queche songs while the Spanish Christmas music was called parang. Parang eventually became more popular and today there are more than thirty active parang groups. When the English finally gained control of Trinidad, they found a flourishing French Creole community governed by Spanish laws and an interesting fusion of cultures.

Traditionally parang used a basic three chord structure, Spanish lyrics, Latin rhythm with a touch of calypso and instruments such as the cuatro, box bass, violin, maracas, and the guitar. Many groups are now giving a more heavily Latin flavor to the sound, fuller harmonies and adding instruments such as the pan and the keyboard. Groups such as San Jose Serenaders, Los Dinamicos and La Divina Pastora have been making forays into North and South America and to the Caribbean. Leroy Birch, PR of the National Parang Association has noted that while there are some recordings on the market as for instance, those done by Flores de San Jose, there is a need for more parang recordings. Many of the groups now play not only at Christmas time but throughout the year. As a result, they are writing songs for different events and in the process are creating their own special sound.


The music of Trinidad and Tobago is sizzling. In addition to the forms mentioned others no less important have moved to the fore. Rapso as embodied by Brother Resistance and the Network Riddum Band uses strong lyrics with a heavy rhythmic base to promote a sense of pride in self and country.


Signal Hill Alumni Choir in Tobago and La Petite Musicale in Trinidad with others have taken the country's rich folk music traditions to the world.


The music of Trinidad and Tobago is poised and ready to take its place internationally. Video production houses such as Heaven Inc. stand ready to produce quality music videos. Many of the recording studios have done research into the proper recording techniques needed for recording the diverse instruments and styles of the nation.

The need for marketing and distribution of recordings is ever-present and opportunities are there for those with the foresight to invest. Trinidad and Tobago, is thus a land of musical talent, diversity, and opportunity for those who realize that today is tomorrow, and take tomorrow in hand.

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