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Calypso madness

Barbados "Crop Over" festival is a world-class event, a dionysian celebration of music and life.
Revelers at the 2004 festival in Barbados
Revelers at the 2004 festival in

The back-up dancers wore short shorts. The hard thrum of fusion calypso coaxed the crowd to heave as one sweaty mass, as testosterone radiated from the stage. The scene was, in a word, sexy. Edwin Yearwood, singer for the popular, edgy Barbados band Krosfyah, in the modern day version of flicking one’s Bic, urged the hot and bothered concert-goers to hold all up their cell phones. Barbados’ National Stadium glowed. The crowd was entranced. Crop Over was in full swing.

This year’s Crop Over festival is, well, over. Born centuries ago out of the exuberant rum-doused celebrations slaves were permitted to throw at the end of long, hard slogs harvesting sugarcane, the music-primed party is the biggest event on the Barbados cultural calendar, and the time to visit the island. National spirit soars, Caribbean rhythms of soca and calypso permeate the air, and as is tradition, political commentary bubbles under the surface of every conversation.

Scattered family members and friends like to return home for Crop Over, with everyone happily getting caught up in a string of competitions—Pic-O-De Crop with the crowning of the Calypso Monarch, Cohobblopot’s grab bag of local talent, and the colorful Grand Koodement, where miles of outrageous spangled costumes and lots of posterior pride are on display. To outsiders, the let’s-live-it-up-while-we-can mentality is infectious, and therefore one of the best reasons to book early for Crop Over 2005 (end of July-early August).

The Music of Barbados

So it's too late to do Crop Over this year, but you will certainly hear Bajan music at some point in your trip to the island. What's it like? While the average person will probably be familiar with Eddie Grant, of 1983 Electric Avenue fame, or the recent hit Who let the dogs out? by the Baha Men, Bajan music is actually much more complex than these two pop songs would suggest. Here’s a mini-guide to key Bajan, and Southern Caribbean, music terms:

  • Calypso: Calypso's roots can be traced back hundreds of years and pinned to the arrival of the first African slaves to Barbados and other Caribbean islands like neighboring Trinidad. Calypso, which experienced a kind of revival in the mid-1970’s, has a quick step double meter, and perhaps most importantly, lyrics that marry storytelling with searing social commentary.
  • Soca: The short term for “Soul-calypso,” uptempo Soca is a hybrid for of dance music that was developed in 1963. It blends of the two kinds of music, both of which originated in the West Indies, with the earliest songs coming from the shores (and then sound studios) of Trinidad and Tobago. Firm percussion beats are added to the lilting sound of calypso to make “soca.” Raggasoca adds Jamaican-flavored reggae into the mix.
  • Rapso:  Rapso is the inevitable blend of “rap” and “calypso,” an influential form of music that was born out of the Black Power and Pan-Africanist thought Trinidad in the early 1970’s, although the term wasn’t widely used until 1980. Politics and spirituality entered the rapso of the 1990’s. However, during the traditional celebrations of Crop Over and Carnival, modern rapso is often abandoned in favor of more classic interpretations of calypso.
  • Kaiso: Experts think kaiso is the grandfather of calypso. Its style is similar, specifically characterized by strong rhythms and harmonic vocals (once sung in French Creole). Kaiso was used as a means of communication among the slaves. Like “bravo,” the term kaiso is also used as a cry of encouragement for a performer.
  • Spouge: Unique to Barbados, this music style relies heavily on guitar, mandolins, and drums. In recent decades is falling from popularity, but island purists are trying to bring it back.