Music in Global America


Header image: Urbanmatter, West Indian American Day Carnival Association. Used with permission.


Trinidad and Tobago

The Republic of Trinidad and Tobago is one of  the twenty-three states and territories that comprise the West Indies.  "Trinbagonians" account for over twenty-five percent of more than three million Americans who can trace their recent ancestry to the West Indies. Most non-Latino immigrants from the West Indies, over seventy percent, were from Jamaica and Haiti as of 2010. The third largest population is Guyanese. Most West Indian Americans reside in New York City. 

The Caribbean Region is the source of the United States' earliest and largest Black immigrant group and the primary source of growth of the Black population in the U.S. The region has exported more of its people than any other region of the world since the abolition of slavery in 1834. [Wikipedia

Trinidad is one of the wealthiest nations in the Caribbean. The population is mainly comprised of blacks (the descendants of former slaves), East Indians (originally brought to the island as contract laborers from northern India), whites, and Chinese, many of whom are racially and culturally intermixed. [Nations Encyclopedia]

Spanish colonization of Trinidad began in the 1500s. By the middle of the eighteenth century the island was still the least developed colony in the Caribbean. Spain enticed settlers by offering land grants and tax exemptions, as long as the settlers were Catholic and swore allegiance to Spain. Thousands of French colonists and free blacks from the surrounding French colonies emigrated to Trinidad, bringing African slaves with them. Their experience in planting sugar led to vast plantations that required yet more slaves to be imported.

In 1802 Spain ceded the island to Britain. Under British rule Creole and all other non-British cultural expressions were attacked and made illegal. (Trinidad Creole, a mix of African languages, Spanish and French, developed as a means of communication between the slaves and their masters.)

Slaves were emancipated in 1834, free trade adopted in 1846, and more than 150,000 immigrants from India, China and Madeira brought in between 1845 and 1917. These indentured labourers came on short contracts, after which they were free to return home or buy plots of land. The Indians worked mainly on the sugar plantations and introduced the cultivation of rice there. []

The Spanish had killed all the indigenous people of Tobago by the time Dutch colonists arrived in the seventeenth century. The smaller island was fought over by European colonists until 1814 when it was finally ceded to the British. The abolition of slavery, natural disasters, and a weakened sugar market led to the collapse of Tobago's economy and in 1888 the island was amalgamated with Trinidad.

The population of Tobago was 60,874 at the 2011 census.  Tobago's population is primarily of African descent, although with a growing proportion of Trinidadians of East Indian descent and Europeans. Between 2000 and 2011, the population of Tobago grew by 12.55 percent, making it one of the fastest-growing areas of Trinidad and Tobago. Tobago's main economy is based on tourism, fishing, and government spending, government spending being the largest.["Tobago," Wikipedia]

In the 1920s labor organized and calls for representation and independence gained strength. But it was not until 1945 that universal suffrage was instituted and not until 1960 that the islands achieved full internal self-government. In 1962 Trinidad and Tobago declared independence. 


Calypso is a form of folk music that originated in Trinidad in the eighteenth century and spread rapidly throughout the West Indies.  The music originated amongst Trinidad's large population of former slaves.  Its complex, syncopated rhythm clearly reflects traditional African rhythms. The lyrics of the earliest Calypso songs were in Trinidadian patois, a remnant of the early French colonization of Trinidad.  Subsequently, when the British took over, the primary language of Calypso music became English.

From its earliest days, calypso music served as a forum for the expression of social and political views within the Caribbean. Remarkably, the criticism mounted by calyp-sonians was not limited to broad appeals against inequality, racism, poverty, and oppression, but tackled precise specificity laws, domestic policy, proposed legislation, foreign policy, labor relations, actions by public figures, and even speeches given by notable persons. Thus, in addition to humorous rivalries between singers, songs about the beauty of the land, and compositions with a ribald flavor, calypsos were composed with such titles as "Prison Improvement," "Shop Closing Ordinance," "The Commissioner’s Report," "The European Situation," "Devaluation," "Slum Clearance," "Reply to the Ministry," and, fittingly, "The Censoring of Calypsoes Makes Us Glad." []

Not unlike the griots of Africa, the calypsonians were often the most important and popular critics of the political situation and were able to keep leaders and public figures accountable through their lighthearted but very incisive accounts of indiscretions, poor choices, or dishonesty. Renowned for its magnificent carnivals, and for inventing the 20th century's only new acoustic instrument — the steel pan —Trinidad is also the birthplace of these great storytelling poets such as Lord Kitchener and Mighty Sparrow.  

Harry Belafonte

This recording artist brought calypso to the international stage in 1956 with his groundbreaking album Calypso, the first million-selling album by a solo artist. Calypso topped the charts for a staggering 31 weeks and stayed on the charts for 99 weeks, earning its current ranking of number four on Billboard's Top 100 list.  The hit songs on the album were "Jamaica Farewell" and "Banana Boat (Day-O)."  Both songs were written by Brooklyn native Irving Burgie, whose mother was from Barbados, West Indies and whose father was from Virginia. 

Harry Belafonte was born in Harlem in 1927. His mother was a housekeeper of Jamaican descent, child of a Scottish mother and black father. Belafonte's father was a Martiniquan chef, child of a Jamaican mother and a Dutch Jew. As a child, Belafonte spent eight years in Jamaica. Besides his singing career Belafonte gained an international reputation as actor, civil rights activist, and humanitarian activist. [Wikipedia]



How a steel pan (or steel drum) is made:

Steel pan soloist Jaden plays "Human Nature" (Michael Jackson, 1982):

 Ebony Steel Band Juniors win 1st Place in 2017 UK Junior Steelband Competition with Peter Ram's "Good Morning," arranged by David Ijaduola:


Ray Allen and Lois Wilcken, "Introduction" and Don Hill, "'I Am Happy Just to Be in This Sweet Land of Liberty' The New York City Calypso Craze of the 1930s and 1940s"  in Island Sounds in the Global City 

Ray Allen, "J'ouvert in Brooklyn Carnival: Revitalizing Steel Pan and Ole Mas Traditions" in Western Folklore 56 (Summer/Fall 1999)


Donald Hill and Roger Abrahamson, "West Indian Carnival in Brooklyn," Natural History 88.

Ray Allen, "Is Brooklyn J'Ouvert Dead?," CityLore, 2017.

Donald Hill, Calypso Callaloo: Early Carnival Music in Trinidad, Temple University Press, 2006.

Ray Allen and Lois Wilcken (eds.), Island Sounds in the Global City: Caribbean Popular Music and Identity in New York, New York Folklore Society and the Institute for Studies in American Music at Brooklyn College.

Gage Averill, "'Pan Is We Ting': West Indian Steelbands in Brooklyn," in Kip Lornell and Anne K. Rasmussen (eds.), The Music of Multicultural America, University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, 2016.

Holger Henke, The West Indian Americans, Westport: Greenwood Publ., 2000.


The group will not be able to fully cover all the suggested topics below. The emphasis should be on the first two listed. The remaining topics, if any/all are to be covered by the group, are great examples of hybridization; however, the focus should be contemporary popular music and the extension of Carnival traditions in the US, particularly NYC. 

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