The story of Banja and its development and its influence on calypso though the West Indies told by our guest contributor Roger Gibbs – who is Toronto based. Here we re-publish Roger Gibbs’ video presentation: Early Calypso in Barbados. In addition to the video Roger has also provided us with a transcript for those that prefer to read the story.
In producing this video “Early Calypso in Barbados“, I’d like to thank: Elombe Mottley, Hon. Anthony “Gabby” Carter, Sir Emil Straker and Richard Stoute for their generosity. Special thanks to Geoffrey Carrington for the mp3s of music samples.
Banja Music – Early Calypso in Barbados
The history of Calypso in Barbados begins around the end of WWII. Barbadian music goes back much farther and it’s called Banja music. In the 1800s and 1700s Banja had already formed and was being played in various ways, which I will give you a little background on, but by 1800, a time of revolution and great instability in the Caribbean, the same time when Trinidad was seized by the British from the Spanish, Barbados had already been for over 160 years an established and prosperous English colony with a population of nearly 100,000 (mostly enslaved), compared to Trinidad which had maybe 10 – 15,000 people. Bajans already had their own music, distinctive dialect, and different ways of celebrating; we did not have Carnival, but Barbados had its own unique culture. The first known song sung in English by enslaved African Barbadians was documented by Dr. William Dickson, who was Secretary to Governor Edward Hay in the 1780’s. It is called “Massa Buy Me“, a work song. The score was written down when he eventually returned to England and is preserved at the Gloucestershire Archives in England.
Massa buy me, he won’t killa me oh
Massa buy me, he won’t killa me oh
Massa buy me, he won’t killa me oh
For he kill me, he ship me regular.
Ay, ay, ay, ay, ay, ay, ay-ay-ay….
Ay, ay, ay-ay-ay… ay
For I live with a bad man, oh la
For I live with a bad man, oh buddah bo
For I live with a bad man, oh la
For I would go to the riverside regular
Sugar production completely dominated the island’s economy. Enslaved people danced and sang when the had the opportunity – on Sundays and on special holidays like Christmas and Easter, and at Cropover time. Here is a scene from the plantation to give you an idea of the activities that were going on.
You can see the shak-shaks and you can see the drum being played and people dancing; there may also be a triangle in the crowd. This type of music was already part of the culture of Barbados.
After Emancipation in the late 1830s – here’s a scene of a crowd of people coming down one of the streets of Bridgetown in celebration of the Emancipation.
After this time, the large masses of working people who were now freed, formed self-help organizations to survive the desperate times. These organizations had structures that were based on the British Navy because the person who started this model of organization had spent many years serving in the Royal British Navy; and likewise, the music had a lot of the similar influences of the military presence in Barbados – the use of the snare drum (kettle drum), the big bass drum played with a mallet, the triangle and the penny whistle.
This type of music you find also in St. Kitts, types of it in Guyana, and in the Southern States it is a big part of their folk music tradition – a military style of playing.
In Barbados it had a very distinctive sound because of the combination of the African rhythms they were using to create the music with these instruments. These bands were known as Tuk bands and Ruk-a-tuk music they were playing.
The type of music they would sing and play was influenced by the Church music of the day and also the military style of playing: it was very effective outdoors in drawing people and getting them excited and dancing.
To summarize, this period of Banja music, meaning any type of music that had a beat or had that African sensibility – it was frowned upon; Banja was a pejorative term at the time. It could be drumming or guitar playing or banjo playing – hence where the term “banja” comes from.
Calypso has the same elements – call-and-response; rhythmic sensibility; satire; and spontaneous improvisation (what Trinidadians call ex tempo).
At this time, in addition to the Tuk band drumming, the Church singing and the different types of dancing that were popular in Barbados, you would have also had a tradition of minstrel playing (minstreling).
People used to walk around with a single instrument, usually a guitar or a makeshift type of banjo or stringed instrument, singing and making up their own songs. All of this was called Banja music.
We know some of the names of these people who survived into the 20th century – Lindy Bradshaw, Seymour Shillingford Agard (b.1904), better known as Shilling.
(Lord) Dove, a pretend preacher who used to hang around the bus stand, move around Bridgetown and the South Coast singing his songs. He was good at making up songs and doing the same ex tempo that you find in Calypso.
You had Iron Barrow, the Hungry Man from Hillaby and a number of other characters who walked around and play their music.
In particular, there was Sam – “Sam the Guitar Man”, I call him because he inspired me to play the guitar when I watched him playing on Saturday afternoons at horse racing at the Garrison Savannah.
“Sam the Guitar Man”
Some minstrels were very accomplished musicians, and some could read music well, like Shilling and Lindy. They mostly played Banja, some Calypsos, their versions of popular songs of the day, and the original songs they wrote.
Bajans emigrated in great numbers to Trinidad and to British Guiana, and to other islands, places like Cuba, Panama, Brazil – you would find Bajans all over the Caribbean. Many of them embraced the Carnival and contributed greatly to the early development of Calypso in Trinidad. They, along with other English-speaking islanders, have been reported as being mainly responsible for patois-speaking Trinidad becoming an English-speaking country by the end of the 1800s.
The British take over around 1800 and what they find is a Creole patois speaking society, a French Creole society that had formed in the last 25 years as a result of the Cedula (1783) that was issued by the King of Spain inviting other Catholics to come settle Trinidad. It was their last-ditch effort to try to hold on to this small island and to other possessions they were losing to the British, who were becoming more assertive and wielding their immense naval power.
The Barbadian influence in Trinidad culture was quite strong during the 19th century. In the 20th century, it is the other way around – Trinidad is influencing Barbados.
There are many examples of Banja music – songs and melodies, ideas – being taken by calypsonians in Trinidad as the Calypso music starts to become a very popular idiom; the Carnival and calypso tents start to develop around the turn of the century and Barbadians again are influencing this development. Banja music they would have used in their songs; here are examples of a couple of songs.
One example is ‘Rum & Coca-Cola’, the big hit for the Andrews Sisters, credited to Lord Invader (Rupert Grant) and the music by Lionel Belasco. Invader had written and performed this song during the war and the song was taken back by one of the American entertainers who had been visiting – taken back to the United States and made a big hit with the Andrews Sisters – ‘Rum & Coca-Cola’.
So where did this melody come from? It comes originally from and old Banja or folk song from the early 1890s called ‘King Ja-Ja’.
The words changed, and you have now a calypso – a calypso that became world famous: ‘Rum & Coca-Cola’ for the Andrews Sisters.
The other example is a song by Bill Rogers (Augustus Hinds). Bill was a very popular entertainer and singer of Calypso, and also the creator of the music Guyana called Shanto. He had a big hit in Trinidad in 1935, he won a competition with this. So it’s one of the early competition-winning songs in Trinidad called ‘The Weed Song’.
There is a song from the 1890s in Barbados called ‘Da Cocoa Tea’. This is almost 50 years earlier that this song is being sung as ‘Da Cocoa Tea’.
Thus, you get the idea how melodies are moving around. This was a common thing in early Calypso – taking folk songs, taking little bits of songs from here and there from the popular traditions of Grenada, Guyana, St. Vincent, St. Lucia – you see this all around the repertoire of early calypsonians.
There are no recordings of early 20th century Banja. The earliest recording is by one of the minstrels – Shilling – who I mentioned earlier singing a song called ‘March Monkey’. ‘March Monkey’ is about a very hated policeman.
Calypso started to become heard in Barbados through the radio, the traveling back and forth between the islands and people bringing back songs – Calypso was now being heard and sung now by these minstrels and a few other singers who knew the songs, and by the end of WWI a Calypso community sprung up in Harlem, New York, and Barbadians also participated in this development throughout the 1920s and 1930s. Bajans continued to emigrate to find better opportunities abroad.
Lionel Belasco, the very famous bandleader, was actually born in Barbados, but he lived in Venezuela and in Trinidad and settled in New York, and he was one of the earliest recording artists of Calypso and is even attributed as being the person who influenced the growth and popularity of Calypso in the United States in that time.
By the 1930s Rediffusion, a wired service to bring music into people’s homes, is brought to Barbados and this Rediffusion has a big impact on people’s tastes and their ability to hear music from beyond their shores.
Rediffusion didn’t play a lot of Calypso. In their eyes this was common class music and not worthy of being played on Rediffusion; it had to be Classical or Church music or it could be popular American music, but a limited selection. It was not a respectable type of music – Banja or Calypso. After, Calypso was being heard in Barbados also on Radio Trinidad and later, on Radio Guardian.
By the mid-50s we’re getting into the era when Calypso was starting to be performed in Barbados in a more serious way. We see an important development in music and the distribution of music and that was the release of high-quality compilation Calypso albums – LPs – by the Cook label around 1954 – 1955 and featuring the Mighty Sparrow, Lord Melody and Lord Christo, and other singers, and it was this that had, all of a sudden, people hearing high quality of Calypso renditions in Barbados. That changed people’s perception of what Calypso was all about in Barbados.
Meanwhile, the post-WWII emergence of steelpan had caught on very quickly in Barbados. Here is a picture of an early steelband. This is the Ju-C Steelband playing at the Port in Barbados.
And here is the Coca-Cola Steelband performing at a promotional give away product event for Coca-Cola launch in Barbados in the early 50s.
According to Al Gilkes, one of the island’s top journalists, by the late 50s steelband music was the order of the day and you had steelbands around every corner. However, it did not involve the level of violence like in Trinidad – there was competitiveness amongst the bands which were mostly located in St. Michael.
One of the famous Barbadians who made an incredible contribution to the development of the steelband as an orchestra as we know it was a man named Joseph Nathaniel Griffith.
Griffith was an outstanding bandleader. He was brought to Trinidad to lead TASPO (Trinidad All Steel Percussion Orchestra) to the big festival in Britain (1951 Festival of Britain). Griffith worked with the top players in TASPO and invented the whole array of bass drums using multiple drums – and the cello pans and so on, so he could get all the notes to arrange the music the way he wanted.
You will also recall the steelpan pioneer – Bajan Cecil, they called him. He was Cecil Ward of Sun Valley Steelband, and he worked closely with Sonny Williams.
The 1950s was the era of talent shows – variety shows where singers would sing all types of music, but several of them sang Calypso. These events took place at several cinemas, in particular the Globe and the Empire cinema.
They were others shows at the Plaza and the Royal Cinema was a very popular one, located in the Worthing area on the South coast. It became later in the 60s the Vista Cinema, and currently is has become a department store. Local entertainers found work in the few local hotels that were operating: the Paradise Beach, Miramar – and remember this was the 1950s – the Royal Hotel, the Caribee, the Winsdor and Marine hotel. The Clubs with ‘live’ entertainment were the Club Morgan – that was the big one – Coconut Creek run by and Englishman called Jack Teller, Zanzibar run by Darnley Greenidge; it was an after-hours club.
Darnley went on to run the most famous nightclub in Barbados probably ever – the Caribbean Pepperpot; the Blue Room in Bridgetown on Marhill St., the Coconut Grove – these were two run by a calypsonian called Lord Sivers; John’s Bar in Payne’s Bay (St. James) run by a gay man, the Barrel o’ Rum on Broad St.; and there was also Eastry House, the Cloud 9 which later became the Bearded Fig Tree, and an assortment of small bars and rum shops where singers would hang out – plus you had local dances at community centres and then on special occasions in Hi-Fi’s would be brought in and set up at Queen Park and the Steel Shed and there would be these big entertainment events.
Most of the singers of the day were performing the popular songs, but occasionally they sang Trinidad calypso. The first real calypsonians in Barbados were the Mighty Charmer and the Mighty Gerry. Charmer is Leopold Kirton, He was born in 1924 and passed away in 2014.
Mighty Charmer called ’The Big Shot Laugh’. It was a very popular, humorous song – a calypso from the late 50s.
There was Mighty Gerry performing his song called ‘Shamrock Ham’. It’s a song about a woman stealing a ham from a local supermarket. Gerry had a fantastic style of guitar playing. He could whistle like an absolute bird and he also sang beautifully.
Entertainers in the late 50s sang at the hotels and clubs; and you had others like Lord Sivers (Harold Sivers), Desmond Burke (b. 1935), who was more of a folk singer – Banja singer in the true sense.
Mike Wilkinson, who was a very powerful singer and who eventually emigrated to the United States. He was mostly a pop singer and a ballad singer, but he also sang Calypso. We even had a very young Gabby coming along in the early 60s by then.
There was Mighty Gabby and others were Lord Radio (Oliver Broomes) & the Bimshire Boys – one of the most successful entertainers and bandleaders in the tourist industry, playing around the hotels. They are featured on several early recordings as well. We had Froggy – Phyllis Collymore (1931 – 2012), and a few others.
It would be remiss not to mention at this point – a son of a Barbadian woman who left Barbados and went to New York. She was married to an American man from Virginia and their son left an indelible stamp on the popular music of the United States and the world. His name was Irvine Burgie.
Irvine Burgie wrote eight of the eleven songs on the Harry Belafonte’s iconic 1956 album titled Calypso, the very first album to sell one million copies. So Calypso has the distinction of being the first genre to sell over a million copies in the mid-50s and earlier on in 1946, being the genre to sell the most 45s – over a million copies – which was Ella Fitzgerald singing a version of ‘Murder in the Market. Her title was ‘Stone Cold Dead in the Market’.
In the late 50s, the Jaycees, a Black middle-class social service organization, one of the national organizations that was starting to replace the many smaller Landships organizations of the working class – and they started a Carnival inspired by the Trinidad model, and the first large-scale Calypso competition was won by Mike Wilkinson. Here is Mike singing his winning song from that time – ‘Ah Coming Up’.
In 1961, Little Baron (real name Lewis Sealy), won with ‘Bachelors Beware’, and Producer (real name Maurice Ashby) won in 1962 with a song called ‘King Dyal’.
In 1963, the title was won by Sir Don (real name Don Marshall).
Don who recently died in 2018 won with ‘Tax Dodgers’ and ‘20th Century Husbands’. He became one of the dominant figures in Barbados in Calypso throughout the 60s and 70s, having his final performance in 1981 – Sir Don. He also won the Calypso Monarch in 1965 and in 1975. In 1964, the Mighty Charmer won with ‘A Tribute to Kennedy’ & ‘A Tribute to Dr. Eric Williams’.
Other calypsonians and other singers of this era were Sugar, Mighty Big Boy (Colbert Bailey), Desmond Burke, who have mentioned; a young singer called Richard Stoute. He went on to become a very popular local entertainer.
You had the Mighty Dragon – real name Edrick Jordan and you had the Mighty Romeo – Charles Smith was his real name. One of Romeo hits was a song called ‘Brother Fuzzy, a song about a priest bringing a mas’ band to the carnival.
Placing 3rd in 1961 was a young singer who they called Man Face Bishop. His real name was Dalton Bishop. He took the stage name Jackie Opel. Jackie was a consummate showman – great singer, great dancer – and got his big break when Sparrow came to perform in Barbados in 1962.
Jackie Opel was invited by Sparrow after seeing him perform, to accompany Sparrow’s tour to Jamaica. He ended up staying in Jamaica for a while and became a founding member of the legendary Skatalites. He influenced Peter Tosh and Bob Marley. Bunny Wailer said Jackie was one of the best singers he had ever heard. Tragically, he died aged 32 in a car accident in Barbados. In the late 60s, Jackie also created a new style of Barbadian music – a new beat – and he called it Spouge – but that’s another story.
After Sir Don’s won the crown in 1965 with ‘Granny’s Proverbs’ and ‘Dear Mary Bray’, the Carnival was halted. It was becoming a little too rambunctious on the streets and there was a lot of complaints from the very conservatives Barbadians and the churches and for whatever reason – the Jaycees were also not well equipped to handle such an event – and this brought the Carnival to an end, unfortunately.
In 1968 Gabby won a competition held at the YMCA – now these were individual promoters putting on Calypso shows, picking up the baton, so to speak – and people like Mark Williams and Al Gilkes, who I mentioned earlier, and some other promoters were holding local Calypso shows. You had this competition that was held at the YMCA and Gabby won with this hilarious song called ‘Heart Transplant’; and again, in1969 he won with ‘Family Planning’ at the Globe Cinema.
1970, 71 and 72 there were no competitions. The era of bands was starting to unfold; it was really picking steam. This was a time when there were all types of bands in Barbados playing throughout the hotel circuit because the tourism industry was thriving. You could find ‘live’ music and ‘live’ bands at every club, at every small and certainly at the big club venues and big hotel venues.
I hope you enjoyed the presentation. Thank you for the opportunity to speak. Next time we’ll look at Calypso from the 70s and 80s to give you a better idea of how the music evolved and what it contributed to Calypso internationally, and changing the sound of Calypso worldwide.
Our guest contributor is Roger Gibbs – a Barbadian-born singer/songwriter/musician who lives in Toronto, Canada
Roger grew up in a musical family and began his career in Barbados singing with Caribbean dance bands in the 1970’s. He joined as lead singer of the Sandpebbles (brother John played with them), a popular Calypso band that had a string of hits, recorded three albums, several singles and toured extensively throughout the Caribbean, Canada and USA.
He shared the stage with many Caribbean stars such as the Mighty Sparrow, Lord Kitchener, Byron Lee and the Dragonaires, Johnny Nash, Tomorrow’s Children, Kalyan, the Tradewinds, the Merrymen (his older brother Chris’ group), and many others.
Roger studied music theory through the Associated Boards of the Royal Schools of Music and has pursued a life-long interest in traditional music of the Caribbean.
Based in Toronto since 1986, Roger has recorded two solo CDs – Spirit of Calypso (1999), Calypso Classics on Guitar – vol. 1 (2004); two CDs with his band Shak Shak – Hot So (2012) and Shak Shak Party (2017); and a collaboration CD with his brother John Gibbs titled Bim – Folk Songs of Barbados (2015).
Roger can be contacted via: