Grenada is located in the Windward Islands in the southern half of the archipelago known as the Grenadines in the West Indies. The island is approximately 90 miles (145 km) northeast of Trinidad and Tobago and 70 miles (110 km) south of St Vincent. Like other islands in the Grenadines, Grenada is a product of a volcanic chain, which is evidenced in its rugged and mountainous terrain, its fertile volcanic soil and an inactive volcanic quarry, Grand Etang. Dubbed the ‘Spice Island’ because of its production of nutmeg, Grenada is divided into six parishes - not including the sister islands of Carriacou and Petit Martinique, which also comprise Grenada, the Caribbean state.
Before the arrival of Christopher Columbus, the islands were inhabited by various Amerindian peoples. The Ciboney, members of the Arawak nation, were among the earliest settlers. By the fifteenth century, a large wave of Caribs conquered the Ciboney and named the island Camerhogne. When Columbus arrived in 1498, the island was briefly renamed Concepcion. There is much speculation as to the next naming of the island. Many believed that Spanish sailors rejected Columbus’ name in favor of Granada due to the resemblance of the island’s mountains to the Sierra Nevada in Spain. Depending on the colonial power, the island went from the Spanish Granada to the French la Grenade to the British Grenada.
Colonizing Grenada was not an easy task. Columbus was met with fierce resistance from the indigenous Caribs, who kept the island uncolonized for 150 years. In 1650, a French expedition arrived and established a settlement under questionable circumstances. In an attempt to reclaim the land, the Caribs clashed with the French on numerous occasions. Those who did not die at the hands of the French ended up leaping to their death off a precipice in Sauteurs, in the north of the island. The few surviving Caribs intermingled with the incoming African population, forming Maroon societies in some of the most inaccessible areas of Grenada.
Without an indigenous population to enslave, and without European indentured servants, the French and, later, the British turned to Africa for their free labor. During the slave trade, the islands changed hands frequently in power struggles between the French and the British. The British were given final authority over Grenada - including Carriacou and Petit Martinique - in the 1783 Treaty of Versailles. Although the slave trade was abolished in 1833, the planter class attempted to maintain various systems of servitude from the mid- to the latter part of the nineteenth century. This included unpaid apprenticeships, and the practice of importing groups of indentured servants from parts of Africa and laborers from India. In 1877, Grenada became a crown colony. In 1967, it became an associate state within the British Commonwealth before gaining independence in 1974.
In 1979, Grenada came to international prominence when Maurice Bishop of the New Jewel Movement (NJM) led a bloodless coup and established the People’s Revolutionary Government (PRG). In 1983, a more hard-line Marxist wing within the PRG assassinated Bishop and several of his supporters. Subsequently, in October 1983, the United States, with token support from other Caribbean nations, invaded and occupied Grenada until December 1983, when a pro-US government took over.
The history of Grenada evolved out of oppression characterized by European conquests, slavery, colonialism and neocolonialism. It is this oppression, as well as Grenada’s proximity to Trinidad and Tobago, that helped shape the dominant popular musical genre in the country, calypso. By the 1940s, Trinidad had become the Mecca for calypso. It therefore set the standards for the genre, as well as establishing the acceptability and the status of the calypsonian. This left the early calypsonians in Grenada with possibly two choices: (a) to be on a competitive level, assimilating many of the innovations that were occurring in the music in Trinidad; and/or (b) to migrate to Trinidad in the hope of achieving regional and international success. Grenadian migration to Trinidad (whether temporary or permanent) did have some impact on the music in that country, in that many Grenada-born calypsonians helped to put the spotlight on Trinidad’s distinctive calypso - for example, Small Island Pride (Theophilus Woods) and Sir Galba (George McSween). Perhaps the best known of these Grenada-born calypsonians is the Mighty Sparrow (Slinger Francisco), considered by many as the Calypso King of the World. These two islands - Grenada and Trinidad - have always had a symbiotic relationship when it comes to calypso and its development.
Calypsos are songs with a distinctive rhythm, and with music and lyrics that originate in eighteenth-century freedom and/or work songs of the Englishspeaking Caribbean. Early songs that are believed to be the precursor of calypsos were called kalinda (also appearing in the literature as carrousseaux or chantuelle) and sung in French patois. Kalinda and, subsequently, calypso resulted in the blending of African (call-and-response) and European (French ballad and Spanish string-band music) cultures in the New World. These early songs were sung extempore and frequently focused on trading insults and keeping unpopular neighbors on the plantation in check. Eventually, the lyrics would be used as social and political commentary and satirical forms of protest. In Grenada, kalinda was sung at various functions, such as the opening of rum shops (usually on Saturdays), and as an accompaniment to stick fighting (McQuilkin and Panchoo 1994).
Contemporary calypso began to develop slowly after the abolition of slavery in 1833, evolving well into the 1920s from songs that were sung during carnival. During this time there were a number of changes to the music as well as to the institution of calypso and carnival. For example, carnival as an entertainment spectacle gained more credibility among the middle class; and English, which was viewed as a mark of sophistication in the British colonies, became the primary language of calypso. The songs became highly syncopated and were more often written in an eight-line verse than in the previous four-line verse associated with road marches. Calypso radically changed to an indoor form of music with the establishment of the calypso tent, and with the recordings of calypsonians which could be heard on radio and played on record players in Grenadian homes.
In the 1930s and 1940s calypso entered its golden age, marked by recordings made by US companies in New York (for example, Columbia and Victor) or under the RCA-Trinidad label and exported to the United States, Europe and West Africa. Grenada’s golden age is said to have begun around 1933 when Papa Edmund began singing on the steps of his parents’ home in the village of Grand Bras and in the town of Grenville in St Andrew’s Parish. Edmund and his contemporaries - Evergreen, Stollmeyer, Invader, Chandler and Banana, for example - worked with string bands as lead singers (commonly referred to as chantwells). It is from these chantwells that the modern-day calypsonian emerged, as well as the picong (the teasing or ridiculing of popular figures). A derivative of the French word piquant, picong evolved as a cutting or stinging exchange between a string band and its chantwell, and an opposing band’s chantwell. These bands challenged and ridiculed each other face to face in a contest. In the mid-1950s the chantwell became known as a calypsonian, and the string bands eventually came to take a back seat to the singer. Even so, calypso was still a small industry on the island and in the region. Change would come to Grenada with the growth of the calypso tent, the introduction of electric sound, more rigorous scoring of music, movement from local parish-based to national calypso competitions, and the development of a more sophisticated audience.
In Grenada, there are still many debates as to who introduced the calypso tent to the island. Some regard Papa Edmund as a leading contender for organizing calypso competitions in St Andrew’s in the 1940s, while others credit Lord Melody (Fitzroy Alexander) for establishing the first recognized calypso tent on the island in the late 1950s (McQuilkin and Panchoo 1994). Calypso tents revolve around a renowned calypsonian who manages and shapes the tent’s style. Probably one of the most profound shapings of a tent’s style occurred two years prior to the PRG’s rise to power in Grenada. In 1976, Flying Turkey (Cecil Belfon) was singing in a calypso tent called King ‘n’ Hell. Belfon and some of the more progressive calypsonians were experiencing difficulty with the tent leader’s general direction. Shortly after Maurice Bishop won a seat in Parliament, Belfon visited Bishop to discuss forming a breakaway tent. Thus, in 1977 Belfon formed a new, revolutionary calypso tent referred to as ‘We Tent,’ meaning tent of the people (McLean 1986).
Besides calypso tents, calypso is also tied into the annual competitions that provide monetary rewards and coveted titles. These include the Calypso Monarch, Junior Monarch and Calypso Queen, given to the best singers. There is also the Extempore Monarch title, given to the calypsonian who can best compose extemporaneously, and the Road March Monarch title, given to the singer of the song that is played most often on the parade route on carnival day. These national competitions evolved from local parish-based contests between string bands and chantwell to a national competition in which a panel of five judges scores the calypsonians in five categories: lyrics, melody, originality, rendition and presentation (McQuilkin and Panchoo 1994).
As part of Grenada’s cultural heritage, calypso is heavily dependent on the masses for its success or failure. Initially associated with the lower classes, calypso has gained respectability across class lines. However, there is still a struggle for acceptance among religious conservatives, who from time to time single out the profanity and vulgarity in many of the popular ‘party songs’ associated with dance or performance. The double-entendres in calypsonian Squeezy’s (aka Strongman Squeezie - Christopher Antoine) ‘To Cock Ah Hole’ in 1987, ‘Put the Ting in Ah Plastic’ in 1988 and ‘Pull It Out’ in 1991 make him both a target and a success depending on the reading of various audiences (McQuilkin and Panchoo 1994). But not all party songs are laced with sexual innuendoes. A clever lyricist can mask social commentary. As a cultural critic, the calypsonian is the African griot, the storyteller and historian who testifies and speaks the truth. The lyrics are often designed to provoke laughter and poke fun at human frailties, analyze male-female relations, which are often sexually charged, stir agitation and explore a country’s economic dilemmas and internal contradictions. Always keeping their pulse on the hot-button issues, regionally as well as globally, calypsonians can draw attention to the deep-seated imbalances in the North-South discourse through their lyrics (McLean 1986).
Beginning with the We Tent, calypsos became a primary vehicle for exploring broad political issues, unraveling revolutionary idealism, and indirectly educating the masses on their moral responsibility to reconstruct Grenada. Belfon and the other progressive calypsonians became part of the revolutionary vanguard. In ‘Innocent Blood’ (1981) Belfon laments the innocent lives lost in international revolutionary struggles and, in particular, the deaths of three young children who became martyrs as a result of a bomb meant for Bishop and members of his cabinet, while in ‘Knowledge’ Peter Radix conducts a full-frontal attack on calypsonians still catering to the legacies of oppression and colonialism. In ‘Sweet Grenada’ (1982), The Lion, a Carriacounan singer, articulates his own self-awakening and the aspirations of the masses, and in boastful confidencebuilding warns the United States that Grenada was fully prepared to handle any confrontation from the superpower (McLean 1986).
It would be inaccurate to suggest that political consciousness and challenges to inequities were only evident under the PRG. Grenada calypsonians, like their regional counterparts, provide a voice for the voiceless, and use their calypsos as a form of protest for the oppressed and as a powerful vehicle for cultural political expression. Black Wizard’s (Elwyn McQuilkin) ‘Uncle Sam’ (2001), ‘New World Order’ (2001) and ‘IMF’ (2001) articulate the intense oppression from the core to the periphery. And King Ajamu’s ‘Trouble in the World’ (2000), ‘The Children Need Love’ (2000) and ‘Do It for the Children’ (1990) challenge the moral principles of adults as guardians of children.
Calypso is certainly the lifeblood of Grenada. Yet the island’s musical tastes are varied, ranging from Jamaican reggae to ragga-soca - the fusion of Jamaican reggae and Trinidadian soca into a rhythm that is faster than reggae but slower than up-tempo soca - to French-Caribbean zouk and US jazz. Key elements in the shaping of popular music in Grenada have been the influence of the regional market and the need to meet the expectations of the tourist trade, which Grenada relies upon for foreign exchange. While calypso gets most of the attention as an indigenous form of musical expression, there are other forms of popular music that warrant attention. One example is provided by the string band music to be found on the island of Carriacou.
Carriacou, with a population of about 6,000, has put the spotlight on Grenada by reconstituting the string band music that had been an integral part of the local culture during the Christmas season. String bands would serenade inhabitants as the bands moved from house to house.
In the face of enormous migration and the concern that Carriacounan culture and national identity were being engulfed by more popular global and regional music such as hip-hop, reggae and steel band, Bentley Thomas launched an annual Parang Festival in 1977. The organizing arm of the festival is a community-based group, the Mount Royal Progressive Youth Movement. This group has become a major social and cultural institution in Carriacou, as well as a charitable organization funding education, health and other needy causes (Miller 2003).
The Parang Festival consists of a competition for string bands from villages in Carriacou, Petit Martinique and Grenada. In 1987, the competition was extended to artists from neighboring islands. Dressed in elaborate outfits, bands of approximately eight members compete in three areas: Friday night a cappella Christmas Carols (referred to as ‘Hosannah Band’); a Saturday night old-time calypso picong (referred to as ‘Lavway’) that reflects the political, social, historical and cultural life of the people; and a Sunday evening string band competition.
String bands typically use percussion instruments - bass drum, guitar, Venezuelan cuatro (a small four-string instrument), violin, mandolin, banjo, tambourine, maracas, triangle, sandpaper blocks, bottle and spoon - as they try to create a sound that is more authentically located within Carriacounan experience than the parang sung in Trinidad, which evidences a Venezuelan influence. Miller (2003) notes that most string bands incorporate a clave timeline into some part of their performance, as well as an interlocking polyrhythmic relationship between the cuatro and the banjo, a style referred to locally as ‘roll and chop.’ The cuatro ‘chops’ - an offbeat, accented strum - while the banjo ‘rolls.’ ‘Rolls’ are executed through the extremely fast strumming of chords (Miller 2003, 60).
For a small island like Grenada, indigenous music or music adopted from other parts of the world becomes part of the economic lifeline of the population. For example, the local Parang Festival not only serves to maintain local cultural autonomy in an increasingly global environment, but is also crafted as a huge tourist draw that aids economic development. The same can be said for the Big Drum in Carriacou and the Grenada Spice Jazz Festival.
The Big Drum or Nation Dance introduced in Carriacou by slaves in the early eighteenth century is part of an African religious tradition that has persisted through time. It incorporates dance, music and song, which are performed by a chantwell and a group of about 12 singers and drummers. The Big Drum ritual is a vital aspect of Carriacounan life. The ritual is invoked to celebrate good fortune, the launching of a boat, a wedding, a funeral or any event that enhances social status. The drums, originally made from old rum kegs and goatskin, were, until Grenadian independence, banned by the British, who saw them as a threat to Christianity and feared they would incite rebellion. However, because attention was focused on the larger island of Grenada, and because European landowners on Carriacou were largely absent, the Big Drum was preserved. It is now performed for tourists (McDaniel 1998). The Big Drum event begins with the singing of the chantwell. This singing is then followed by a choral call-and-response pattern. While the chorus continues singing, the two bass drums (boulas) enter, to be followed by the solo drum (kata). Intense improvisation between the drums brings on the dancing. The maracas (chac-chac) - played by the leader - can enter at any time (McDaniel 1998).
Since the 1970s jazz has had a loyal following among a handful of Grenadians, including musicians. Nonetheless, interest in it has been difficult to sustain in a climate that is dominated by calypso and reggae. Yet, in the 1990s Grenadian jazz was on an upward swing. Firstly, the Grenadian Jazz Society, a non-profit organization promoting jazz and encouraging Grenadians to listen to and appreciate jazz, was established in 1994. Secondly, there was a cadre of local jazz musicians (for example, Bumpy St Bernard, Curleen Duncan, Steve Scipio, Enoch Mitchell and Lincoln Morgan) who began to make serious contributions to the development of the music industry in Grenada. As a result, hotels started holding jazz nights, Grenadian television began to tape local musicians’ performances for broadcasting, and a weekly radio program, Jazz with Michael Pitt, a founding member of the Grenadian Jazz Society, began to be broadcast. Thirdly, a local promoter, Preston ‘Ras Dakari’ Holas, managing director of the 3D Company, inaugurated the six-day Grenada Spice Jazz Festival in 1998. Holas saw the jazz festival as a revenue generator among tourists. However, keeping jazz alive seems to have been an uphill battle. In 1999, the level of interest in jazz was fluctuating and, as a result, the Grenadian Jazz Society disbanded. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the Grenada Spice Jazz Festival also seemed to be going through its own growing pains (Jim Rudin, interview with author, 10 March 2004).
Grenada’s indigenous popular music has been shaped by the islands’ proximity to, and longstanding relationship with, Trinidad, as well as by its African, Spanish and French roots. A variety of non-indigenous musical styles have also taken root, the trend being for music emanating from any one Caribbean island not to be restricted to that island. Thus, borrowing, adapting and transmitting popular music across cultural boundaries is common. Since Grenada does not have a music industry of any significance, musicians continue to travel as they did in the past to record or perform regionally or internationally. However, within the various genres of music that converge in Grenada, calypso is still a formidable form of musical expression. And while soca or soul calypso - with its rhythmic enhancements - emerged as the party music of choice at the beginning of the twenty-first century, calypso could still command a respected position among Grenadians. At best, calypso blends hedonistic pleasure (as witnessed by Inspector’s (Elimus Gilbert) ‘Jouvert Jam’ and ‘Drunking Party,’ from the Mr Entertainer album) with powerful indictments of oppression (as evidenced in Black Wizard’s ‘IMF’ and ‘Uncle Sam’). The latter constitutes a set of oppositional cultural practices that can mobilize awareness and understanding of inequities, providing for the indigenous population a musical resource that can be used to educate the masses struggling for justice on the one hand and escapism on the other. Calypso, therefore, constitutes a broad spectrum of social and political commentary, from its slower tempo to the more pulsating humorous, nationalistic and party songs.