A Very Brief History of Calypso and Soca Music


(Excerpted from The Bassist’s Bible: How to Play Every Bass Style from Afro-Cuban to Zydeco (2nd ed.), by Tim Boomer. This material originally appeared in slightly different and shorter form in The Drummer’s Bible (2nd ed.), by Mick Berry and Jason Gianni. All chapters in both books begin with brief histories of the styles covered.)


Caribbean music is the result of the fusion of many different musical cultures, including South American, Cuban, African, North American, and even European. The compositions, rhythms, and instruments (such as the signature steel drums) which characterize Caribbean music, sometimes referred to as “Island Music,” usually reflect a celebratory atmosphere. In keeping with Island Music’s upbeat, danceable nature, most Caribbean music is rather simple rhythmically and does not usually stray outside of 4/4.

This chapter explores the most commonly played styles within the broad Caribbean-music classification: Calypso, Soca, Ska, and Reggae.

The role of the bassist in all of these styles is supportive—there is always a strong groove that reflects the music’s upbeat mood. As well as providing a solid foundation, some Carribean bass lines can be melodic, duplicating the guitar or vocal lines, most typically in Soca and Reggae.


Calypso’s roots are in the song forms of French Patois culture (a French-Creole dialect in the Caribbean, notably in Trinidad). While Calypso started as a type of folk music, it developed into a verbal call-and-response form, alternating between the leader (the “griot”) and the ensemble. While the style originally featured political and social commentary, it has evolved into dance and party music. Trinidadian musicians Rupert Grant (Lord Invader), Aldwyn Roberts (Lord Kitchener), Egbert Moore (Lord Beginner) and Omni Mundle (Lord Composer) were primary exponents of Calypso in its early days. It became widely popular outside of the Caribbean in the 1950s and 1960s with the success of musician/composer Harry Belafonte, who like Lord Composer also played Mento, a precursor of Calypso.

To fully appreciate Calypso and the related style, Soca, it is important to become familiar with the history of steel drums, which are largely responsible for both genres’ characteristic sounds. During British colonial rule of Trinidad in the 1800s, hand drums were used as a form of communication by neighborhood gangs. However, due to a steady increase in violence, culminating in the Canboulay Riots of 1881, the government outlawed the use of these drums. As a result, Trinidadians turned to a variety of materials to take the place of the banned drums. One common replacement was bamboo sticks (“tamboo bamboo”) which were pounded on the ground during parades and ceremonies. These were soon prohibited as well.

Regardless, the people continued searching for objects they could use to create music, including garbage can lids, old car parts, and empty oil barrels. Eventually, these metallic found-instruments became the basis of musical gatherings called “Iron Bands.” In the late 1930s, someone discovered that hitting a dented section of an oil barrel produced a particular tone, and people began to experiment with different shapes, resulting in the original steel drums, now referred to as “pans,” which were convex like a dome rather than concave like a dish. Ellie Manette, a steel drum maker still active in the United States, was the first to hammer out a pan, giving the drum its familiar concave form. Over many years, steel drum makers have perfected the quality, tone, and appearance of the instrument, which has led to its finding acceptance in the present-day percussion family. Three of the most prominent contemporary steel drum artists are brothers Andy and Jeff Narell, and The Mighty Sparrow. Jonathan Scales, a young American steel pannist, has played with bassists Oteil Burbridge and Victor Wooten.

Calypso tunes are harmonically uncomplicated, chords are usually simple triads, and grooves are often felt as 2/4 but are written both as 4/4 and 2/4. True Calypso songs tend to have a walking bass line, although they often contain fills.


Created in Trinidad in the mid-1970s, this adaptation of Calypso is credited to Garfield Blackman (aka “Ras Shorty I” and “Lord Shorty”), who had a career spanning four decades. He played in steel bands as a child, then progressed into Calypso, and then invented Soca.

Its incorporation of African and East Indian musical elements initially made Soca controversial among purists who considered it a corruption of Calypso. Soca is distinguished from Calypso by its faster tempo, a heavier beat with a “four on the floor” bass drum pattern, and a more syncopated bass line. However, the newer Soca style retains Calypso’s party-type lyrics. A well known example of Soca is “Hot Hot Hot,” written by Montserrat musician Arrow, and later covered by David Johnsen (aka “Buster Poindexter”), which sold 12 million copies.

Soca found immediate success with its dance audience, and has retained its popularity. Some Calypso players, such as Lord Kitchener, made a successful transition to Soca. Others, such as Lord Pretender, hold it in low esteem. When interviewed for the Calypso/ Soca film, “One Hand Don’t Clap,” Lord Pretender expressed his contempt for the paucity of lyrics in Soca: “A man sing a line, the music play five minutes.”

Soca now embraces a variety of substyles such as Chutney Soca, Ragga Soca, and Rapso (a combination of Rap and Soca), all having a similar rhythmic foundation. Popular Soca artists include Super Blue, Iwer George, Colin Lucas, and Ronnie McIntosh, Shadow, The Mighty Sparrow, and more recent artists such as Machel Montano, Shurwayne Winchester, Denise Belfon, Destra Garcia, Maximus Dan and Michel Montano.

Soca bass grooves are syncopated, with room for improvisation. The bass may play along with horn punches or play in octaves with the vocalist. “Four on the floor” patterns (bass drum hits on all four beats) are in part what separates Soca from Calypso (which typically has a syncopated bass drum pattern).


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