The Early Calypso Stars Coming to New York City

Calypso is a style of Afro-Caribbean music that originated in Trinidad and Tobago during the early to mid-20th century. The roots and rhythms can be traced back to West African Kaiso, along with the arrival of French planters and their slaves from the French Antilles in the 1700s. Today the musical art form can be heard internationally, with many Caribbean islands presenting their own interpretation of what a Calypso song should sound like.

In the early 1900s the largest number of black immigrants settling in the Northeast (New York City) was from the English-speaking Caribbean. These immigrants were only 1.3 percent of the New York City population and faced intense racism, but by 1923 they became a 12.7 percent of the city’s population. Many of these immigrants were young, unmarried men. Calypso was not far behind.

According to many sources, the first Calypso records were made in 1914 and the Calypsonians who visited New York recorded throughout the 1920s. The giants at that time were bards the likes of Johnny walker, Sam Manning, Wilmoth Houdini, Atilla the Hun and Roaring Lion. New York became the Mecca for calypso away from Trinidad and Tobago. United States record labels Decca and Bluebird sent engineers with mobile recording devices to Trinidad annually and would record material that would later be released in cities globally. London was a major market at the time for calypso hits, but New York always was the home away from home for the genre. Atilla, Lion, King Radio, Lord Beginner and Growling Tiger were all recording in New York City, immersing themselves in the “Yankee” culture. It is important to note that by them immersing themselves on this side of the ocean, they were introducing the Caribbean to a new way of life causing the start of the Caribbean migration we see today.

Calypso told of the struggles of a people. The New York recordings saw the same stars almost presenting a new way of living through songs. Calypso had arrived and the cultural landscape of New York City would never be the same.

by Keran Deterville.

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