Calypso! Carnival! Soca! Bake and Shark, Roti! These are the typical words associated with Trinidad and Tobago – two islands full of bright colors, lively music, and delicious foods. While Trinidad is rightly known as the Carnival capital of the Caribbean, the story behind the colors, music and food is long and complex.
Trinidad was originally settled by Amerindians from South America,but from Christopher Columbus’ arrival in 1498 until the Spanish defeat by the British in 1797 Trinidad was a Spanish colony. During the same period Tobago changed hands frequently; alternating between Spanish, British, French, Dutch and Courlander (Latvia) colonizers. Since 1962, the two islands have been the independent “Republic of Trinidad and Tobago”. However, the legacy of multiple owners lives on in the foods, music, and carnival culture.
The French brought Carnival to Trinidad, and calypso competitions at Carnival grew in popularity, especially after the abolition of slavery in 1834. While most authorities stress the African roots of calypso, in his 1986 book, Calypso from France to Trinidad: 800 Years of History, that veteran calypsonian, The Roaring Lion (Rafael de Leon) asserted that calypso descends from the music of the medieval French troubadours.
It is thought that the name “calypso” was originally “kaiso,” which is now believed to come from Efik “ka isu” ‘go on!’ and Ibibio “kaa iso” ‘continue, go on,’ used in urging someone on or in backing a contestant. There is also a Trinidadian term, “cariso” which is used to refer to “old-time” calypsos. The term “calypso” is recorded from the 1930s onwards.