The Subversive Power Of Calypso

The Subversive Power Of Calypso

Its bouncy beats and tuneful melodies often serve up serious, even subversive, messages. The music demands more careful listening, writes Benjamin Ramm.

Outside the Caribbean, calypso music is regarded as carefree, light-hearted, even frivolous. Yet calypso is among the most political of all musical traditions – a form that combines joyful cadences with serious and often subtle social commentary. Originating in the struggle for emancipation, the genre is characterised by its witty and imaginative treatment of themes as diverse as racism, the Cold War, and the cost of living.

In 1881 Britain banned percussion in the Caribbean – so steel pan music was born

Misconceptions about calypso stem in part from the commercial success of Harry Belafonte’s 1956 record Calypso, the first LP album to sell over a million copies. The most famous track, Banana Boat (Day-O), is not actually a calypso, and the album is a celebration of Jamaica, even though calypso originates on the other side of the Caribbean, in Trinidad. In one of the first globally broadcast Carnival competitions in 1993, calypsonian the Mighty Chalkdust performed Misconceptions to challenge the “false images” of the island (“we are not part of Jamaica / though we sing reggae, that’s not our culture”) and its music (“so when you hear Belafonte and Mr Poindexter / that is not kaiso [calypso], that is brandy mixed with water”). Continue reading

Tipu’s Tiger

Tipu’s Tiger


Tipu’s Tiger (also Tippoo’s Tiger), c. 1793, Mysore, painted wood with metal fixtures © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Tipu’s Tiger (also Tippoo’s Tiger), c. 1793, Mysore, painted wood with metal fixtures (The Victoria and Albert Museum, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London)

An extraordinary object

Tipu Sultan’s mechanical, musical tiger has long been one of the most well-known items in the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. A large automaton (a machine that can move by itself), the tiger is shown in the act of attacking a European man. When played, the man’s left arm flails and the organ emits the sounds of the roaring cat and the cries of its victim. Perhaps what is most striking about the tiger is its change in ownership and meanings: it was made for an Indian ruler who spent much of his adult life fighting the British, and it later became a tool for imperial propaganda in Britain.

Tipu Sultan and tigers