For calypso-lovers, there’s only one place to be on an August Friday evening: the London Calypso Tent.
The ‘tent’ is, of course, no such thing. For the past 11 years, the arena for double-entendre, picong and lyrical bacchanal has been the stage of The Tabernacle in Powis Square. The term harks back to the days when calypso was the Caribbean’s rebel music, looked on with suspicion by the colonial authorities. In a ‘hall’ of bamboo poles roofed in palm leaves and lit by flambeaux, the singers would engage in musical combat, poking fun at authority and each other. Lyrics that hit the spot, flashes of verbal dexterity and cleverly extemporised verses were rewarded with shouts of “Kaiso! Kaiso!”
Like so much else connected with Carnival, calypso’s roots lie in African soil ‑ in work songs, praise songs, and songs and chants that accompanied dances and masquerades. Pinning down the music’s origins more precisely is challenging, but it’s likely it developed in the Caribbean as a creolised hybrid of different traditions from various parts of Africa. Bear in mind, too, that some Africans freely migrated to Trinidad after Emancipation: compared with the slaves, these arrivals would have been able to retain more of their own language and culture, including music and dance. Other musical influences reached Trinidad from neighbouring islands, particularly Martinique, and from Venezuela.
The music’s very name is a clue to this tangled history. ‘Calypso’ dates only from the late 1890s, before which it was known as cariso or caliso, a Spanish word for a topical song. Earlier still, many researchers argue, it was kaiso, derived from a Hausa word meaning ‘bravo!’. The word lives on, as people still call out “kaiso” at the London Tent after a particularly fine performance.
There’s no definitive record, of course, of the sound and lyrics of the earliest kaiso/caliso. However, there were two broad types of song to be heard in the streets and backyards of 19th-century Port of Spain.
The typically African pattern of call-and-response, often used for work songs, became the accompaniment to carnival groups on the road. The revellers would repeat the same basic stanzas as a chorus, known as a lavway or leggo. Post-carnival newspapers were full of complaints from ‘respectable’ citizens about the day-long repetition of these less-than-tuneful battle cries!
The other variant, the belair, was sung by a chanterelle or chantwell, who carried on the tradition of the West African griot (equivalent to a European troubadour). Lyrics were central to the success of a belair, which extolled the virtues of a group or an individual (perhaps a patron) and mocked enemies, sometimes in terms so devastating that the target of the singer’s scorn felt obliged to leave the island! In contrast to lavways, some belairs were “exquisitely melodious”, according to one 19th-century writer. Until 1900 all these songs would have been sung in French Creole (patois). Traces of the language survive today at Carnival, for example in fete, for a party, and J’Ouvert.
The two types of music took different forms because they served different purposes, and they live on today in soca, the high-energy, dance-focused modern counterpart of the lavway, which is the ‘motor’ that keeps Caribbean carnival moving. The descendant of the belair is of course calypso – clever, satirical, humorous, provocative and sometimes outrageous. In singing truth to power, the modern calypsonian takes on the mantle of the chantwell and the griot.
Up to the First World War, a calypso tent was no place for respectable folk, but that gradually changed thanks to a ticket collector on Trinidad’s railways. Walter ‘Railway’ Douglas was a chantwell, the leader of the Railroad Millionaires mas band and something of an entrepreneur. For the 1921 Trinidad Carnival season he opened a thrice-weekly calypso tent roofed with railway wagon tarpaulins instead of palm leaves, replaced uncomfortable bamboo benches with proper chairs, lit his premises with gas instead of flambeaux and distributed advertising flyers on the railway trains! Douglas’s gamble paid off: the middle classes started attending, standards of composition and performance rose and newspapers began to take more notice of the calypsonians and their music.
By this time, calypso had reached Britain, as several chantwells serving in the British West Indies Regiment were stationed on the south coast in 1917 before being posted overseas. By the 1930s the music began to reach a wider audience thanks to Ken ‘Snakehips’ Johnson’s West Indian Dance Orchestra and Decca’s calypso recordings.
Calypso in Britain got a boost when troopship Empire Windrush arrived at Tilbury Docks on 22 June 1948. On board were calypsonians Lord Woodbine (Harold Philips), Lord Beginner (Egbert Moore) and the celebrated Lord Kitchener (Aldwyn Roberts), who stepped off with a calypso on his lips ‑ the optimistic and catchy ‘London is the Place for Me’.
In the Fifties, the world was gripped by a calypso craze, and the Mighty Sparrow (Slinger Francisco) emerged as the genre’s biggest star. Sparrow regularly visited the UK, and others settled here, such as Roaring Lion (Rafael de Leon), Mighty Terror (Cornelius Henry) and Lord Invader (Rupert Grant).
The innate competitiveness of calypso took root here too. In 1957, Terror, singing ‘I Walk a Million Miles’, was crowned Britain’s first Calypso King at Chelsea Town Hall. Calypsonians also featured in an annual series of indoor ‘Caribbean Carnivals’ organised by Trinidadian journalist and social activist Claudia Jones from January 1959.
Tastes in music changed, however, and by the mid-60s calypso once again found itself on the margins in Britain, ignored by broadcasters. Locally based singers continued to appear at West Indian dances and shows, and from 1976 official calypso contests were held annually around carnival time. The initial competition was won by the Mighty Tiger (Ashton Moore), but, true to form, he never received the promised £100 prize money! For years, Tiger and Lord Cloak (Errol Brown) dominated the calypso honours, interrupted only by Lucky (Patrick Humphrey), Soca Baby (Betty Alexander) and Voodoo Queen (Patricia Gillian).
Eventually, the singers decided they had been cheated by unscrupulous promoters for long enough and founded the Association of British Calypsonians, with Tiger as its president. On 7 August 1992 the stage at the Yaa Asantewaa Centre hosted ABC’s first-ever London Calypso Tent.
Under Tiger’s benign dictatorship, and against the odds, the tent survived and thrived. Standards of composition and performance improved immeasurably, until audiences outgrew the much-loved, but rather ramshackle, Chippenham Mews premises. In 2008 the tent moved to The Tabernacle. With Tiger’s passing in 2017, the ABC became the Association of Calypsonians UK and is now the more inclusive Association of Calypsonians and Soca Artistes (ACASA). Its purpose – to champion what Tiger called “the first music of the Caribbean” and its UK-based practitioners – remains the same.
Today, the London Calypso Tent remains the only one in Europe. From the moment the Divettes take to the stage and the ABC Band strikes up, the atmosphere in the hall crackles with anticipation. Britain’s talented calypsonians keep alive this marvellous artform that for more than two centuries has been pricking pomposity, mocking the powerful, challenging injustice and making the audience laugh.
That change and continuity help explain why the London Calypso Tent is as vital a part of London’s cultural calendar as it has ever been. Come and hear for yourself what makes it so special. The climax of the UK calypso season is the Calypso Monarch Finals, which is always held on the Thursday before Notting Hill Carnival.
To celebrate its 25th anniversary, ACUK/ACASA published a commemorative book, Calypso in London (ISBN 978 0 947890 09 4), which includes an excellent essay by renowned historian John Cowley on the story of the music’s arrival in Britain. It can be obtained online at https://www.acukheritage.co.uk/product/calypso-in-london/
Credit: Stephen Spark