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Calypso Fantasies: Beyond Island Shores

The "King of Calypso," Harry Belafonte.
Keystone/Getty Images
The "King of Calypso," Harry Belafonte.

The calypsonian of old combined the bawdy wit of a lovelorn English bard with the improvisatory praise instincts of an African griot. For me, the concept was driven home when my father took me to Trinidad as a 10-year-old, and I watched a roadside calypsonian whip up a rhyming verse comparing Dad to John F. Kennedy, whom he remotely resembled.

This was not long after the era in which Harry Belafonte introduced his stylized take on calypso into millions of American households. The music's friendly syncopations and playful, romantic lyrics presented an inviting Caribbean aura that has endured remarkably well.

Calypso is still big in Trinidad, although nowadays it takes a back seat to the more hyperactive soca style (short for soul-calypso). These five songs survey the way Trinidad's signature music style has been adapted, reshaped, packaged and marketed around the world.

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Harry Belafonte

Harry Belafonte is Jamaican-American, but his 1956 album Calypso did as much for Trinidadian music as Paul Simon's Graceland did for Afro-pop 30 years later. The first album to sell one million copies, Belafonte's release gave calypso a folk-era sheen with sing-along vocal harmonies and optimistic warmth.

Bobby Benson And His Combo

Just as Belafonte was popularizing calypso in 1950s America, the genre had a burst of popularity in Anglophone West Africa -- tied to Trinidad via the shared experience of British colonialism. Nigerian singer Bobby Benson, on his way to becoming a star of highlife music, scored his first big hit with this brassy calypso ditty. The instrumentation is a legacy of big-band swing, an important precursor for both calypso and highlife.

Nat King Cole (Damian "Jr. Gong" Marley & Stephen Marley Remix)

Nat King Cole originally performed this idyll about life in Trinidad accompanied only by a single conga drum. Musically, it had more to do with the funky Latin sound called boogaloo, which emerged in New York in the 1960s, but the calypso fantasy was there. Now, the song returns full circle to the Caribbean in this dancehall-tinged remix by Damien and Stephen Marley.

Andy Narell And Relator

Andy Narell was born in New York, but he's made his career introducing the Trinidadian steel drum into all sorts of unexpected contexts, most notably jazz. Here, he teams up with veteran calypsonian Relator (named the Calypso Monarch in 1980) to revive the spirit of calypso's heyday. Realtor's old-school charm and Narell's arranging and improvisatory flourishes save the session from drowning in reverential quaintness.

Calypso Rose

World-music producers are ever on the lookout for artists of a certain age who still have the chops and charisma to deliver the spirit of a bygone time and place. Calypso Rose fits the bill perfectly. She now lives in Queens, N.Y., and recently recorded this "comeback" international release in Sweden and France. The band sounds a tad perfunctory, but Rose still has the sassy, girlish edge required of a calypso diva.

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