Trinidad Society In The 1930’s and 1940’s

It may be a challenge for a young Trinbagonian to actually envisage  Trinidad society in the early part of the last century, not to mention the entertainment side of things. Today’s high tech; Internet, iPhones, computers, software, electric guitars, planes, cars, trains and even space technology has changed the face of the planet and Trinidad is no exception.

But back then there was no television nor Internet; there were no recording facilities or local radio stations. In fact if I am not mistaken, Trinidad got its first local radio station with the mass arrival of US soldiers during World War II. Prior to that, those who had a powerful radio apparatus could tune into international broadcasting from England, USA and South America etc. A gramophone (pictured below) was a luxury for those who could afford it, and you still had to purchase your records, which were mainly produced in Europe, the United States and South America.


Public announcement loudspeakers, were hung up at strategic places, mainly in populated areas so that the Colonial Government could communicate with its subjects. Silent films with subtitles were just going out of vogue and a Donkey cart was a normal mode of transportation for goods and people. Raleigh bikes were status symbols, and you could have attracted a lot of attention from ladies if you had a backseat where she could sit. Of course, public transportation like tramcars, trains, buses or cars were things that belonged to the larger more urbanized areas, and whether one could afford the fee was another question.  Lord Beginner & Atilla sing about Trinidad’s  urban development in their song from the 1930: “I’ere Now And Long Ago”

Here is a film on Trinidad in the 1930s.

In 1930, Trinidad was still to a great extent, a plantation-based society.

plantation 3plantation 2plantation 1

In the villages across the island French Patois was widely spoken and in some cases, only Patois. Though English was the official language not everyone spoke it fluently. There were also East Indian enclaves where Hindi was still a dominant influence. Up until 1900, most calypsos were sung in French Patois, but by 1930, English was the chosen language of the artist. Here is a calypso sang in patois:

Social Rejection of Calypso

Calypsonians had a long history of rejection by society in many forms and fashions. Despite these attitudes, it is still fair to say that by 1930 there was growing support from a cross section of society, especially the business community. This business interest together with a new crop of very talented calypsonians were key factors in the development and success of the calypso during the period between 1934 and 1950. This period is known as the “Golden Age Of Calypso” and is characterized by the development of facilities like the “Calypso Tent”, professionalization of calypsonians, access to recording facilities and business sponsorship for local and international promotion of the art form. World war 2 and the huge American GI’s presents in Trinidad were also significant factors in the development of the industry.

Lets hear what Lion himself had to say on this matter of social rejection: “Between 1840 and 1930 both the calypsonian and calypso were completely resented by all and sundry. Calypsonians were ostracised and “excommunicated” from every class of society, especially from the lower and upper middle class. These were the ones that resented, hated and despised the art and the artiste. The elites were a bit more tolerant. In fact they were the ones who came to the rescue of the calypso.

But the other two classes were adamant. They warned their children about talking to a calypsonian as though he was a criminal. They didn’t even want to live near to him. They flogged their children for singing calypsos or (for) even humming the melody. Yes, it was as bad as that.

So the only two groups of people that sympathised with the movement were those who lived in abject poverty, or the well‑to‑do (who enjoyed calypso) in a standoffish manner, so as to avoid being branded a disciple of the cult.

In spite of this stigma, the elites, nevertheless, began to invite the calypsonians from time to time to their homes as entertainers. By 1934 it became commonplace for calypsonians to be socialising with the aristocrats, even though they were invited as entertainers.” ( Lion’s manuscript

Calypso Pioneers 

In March 1934, Eduardo Sa Gomes the Trinidad agent for Brunswick Records sent Lion and Atilla the Hun to record in New York City. This event was one of the defining moments in calypso history. While Belasco and Houdini and others had recorded calypsos before in the USA, this was the first trip for calypsonians based in Trinidad to travel to New York on contract to record, and their success proved to be the start of a series of annual trips by select calypsonians. Within the next ten years, artistes like Executor, Tiger, Caresser, Invader, Growler, Beginner, Destroyer and others had recorded with Decca in New York. (Decca even sent recording facilities to Trinidad between 1938 and 1940. Hundreds of calypsos were recorded during  this period.) Here is a link to Atilla & Lion describing their trip to the US in 1934.

Depression & Sedition Laws

The “Great Depression” of the 1930’s brought adverse times to Trinidad and Tobago. Phenomenally high levels of unemployment, poverty, anti-colonial sentiment, civil and labour unrest, and the overhanging threat of war were all insensitive to encourage the colonial government to introduce Sedition Laws. These laws gave the authorities the right to censor and ban calypsos and the law was enforced.

Police patrolled the tents and other venues, and whenever an officer deemed their lyrics dubious, improper, immoral or seditious they would remove the singer from the stage. Attila, Lion, Tiger, King Radio, King Pharaoh, Executor, Pretender, Lord Butternut, Kitchener and others were subjected to this arbitrary harassment and arrests.

In addition to this on the spot vigilance, the authorities demanded that they “vet” all lyrics before any record was cleared by customs. If this demand was not met, one risked the authorities seizing or destroying their records on arrival. Often singers would apply in advance before recording.

In 1937, the Commissioner of Police and Customs, dumped the entire shipment of Lion’s Netty Netty records in Port of Spain Harbor on the grounds of ‘immorality. “Sally Water” was also banned; both songs were deemed improper and immoral.  Netty Netty’s refrain, “Give me the thing you got in your belly” was considered lewd, and “Sally Sally water sprinkled in a saucer” was a bit too much for the authorities of the day. According to Lion: “If they banned  that, then what would they do today?” (Manuscript). Here is a YouTube link to the original recording of Netty Netty in 1937.

Let King Radio enlightens you about the “Sedition Law” of his era in a calypso called “They Want to License my Mouth”. Here is the link to King Radio’s calypso,

 World War II & American GI’s land in Trinidad

Carnival was banned between 1942 -1945, but entertainment thrived throughout the island and so did calypso. In 1941 there were two US bases in T&T and approximately 2-3000 soldiers based here. Japan bombed Perl Habour in December 1941 and at that point America entered the War. The German’s U-boat war was thus widened to the East Atlantic and the Caribbean. The American’s deployed significant forces to the Caribbean region Trinidad included. By late 1942 there were about 225 bases and 135000 Americans stationed in T&T. Our population then was ca. 430000 of which about 100000 were children. This was a significant 1 to 3 adult ratio, and of course the presence had an immediate and long term impact.

These soldiers who were earmarked for combat had an insatiable appitite for entertainment of all veriety. This new, receptive and massive audience turned out to be a blessing in disguise for the entire entertainment industry, calypsonians included. They were in great demand, they sang at the US bases, theaters, Cinemas, Bar, parties etc. Besides boosting the calypso industriy locally the GI’s exposure to calypso assisted in popularizing it in the USA, as in the case of the historic “Rum & Coca Cola” by Lord Invader. Here is the original version of this song by Lord Invader – 

This is a link to the Andrew Sister’s version:

Trinidad & Tobago and the Caribbean played a very significant role during World War 2 and one can perhaps ask what role was that? And, if I say that we actually contributed to winning the battle of the Atlantic, a battle no side could afford to lose. I remember reading somewhere that perhaps the three most significant and decisive battles of all the theaters during WW2 was El Alamein in Egypt , Stalin Grad and the Battle Of The Atlantic. Which ever side lost one of these battles would inevitable lose the war. Kindly listen to this interview with the curator of the Chaguaramas Military Museum, he can perhaps convince you better than I can.

Calypso goes global

In 1930’s, calypso was more or less unknown beyond the borders of La Trinity. Calypsonians took it from Trinidad through the Caribbean and then on to the cosmopolitan cities of the USA and Canada. There it was recycled and adapted to a US market. Several of the songs that were recorded by local calypsonians between 1934 & 1950 have been covered or sampled by top international artists. (Songs like, Love Alone(Lord Caresser), Ugly Woman(Lion), Matilda(King Radio) Roosevely In Trinidad(Atilla) Out The Fire (Lion), Monkey(Tiger/Lion/Beginner), Rum And Coca Cola(Lord Invader) Maryann(Lion) He Come From The Glory(Lion) and I can continue.) They have been played in movies and even reached the number one spot on the Billboard Chart and RnB charts years later.

Calypso became a craze in the USA, calypso was vouge and fashion, clothes, hats etc. This Calypso craze came to its climax internationally with Harry Belafonte in ca.1956. Belafonte’s album called, Calypso, reached number 1 on the Billboard album chart, and it was the first album to ever sell a million copies in a year.

belafonte album

Picture taken from

(One can always discuss whether Belafonte’s Calypso album was all calypso) but regardless the album was a milestone accomplishment not only for calypso as a genre, but also for the recording industry in the USA. Link to Harry Belafonte –

Nation Builders

By 1945, Calypsonians had put calypso and by extension Trinidad on the world map. But by doing so they also helped forge our cultural identity and sense of self. These pioneers have definitely contributed to the nation-building process of our twin islands, and that is priceless.

Today most Trinbagonians identify, in some form or fashion, with calypso, soca, chutney soca, carnival and pan, especially if we migrate. How does one measure these contributions in dollars & cents? Kindly try to define a Trinibagonian and see if you can leave out the word calypso or pan?

It is with this 1930’s social, political, economic and technical backdrop, that one must analyze the amazing achievements of the Golden Age calypsonians.  To conclude, it should be fitting with a couple lines from the 1998 Calypso Monarch winning song “Beneath the Surface” by Mystic Prowler.

They had the stuff that great men are made of

It’s the stuff you can miss unless you look beneath the surface 

Here is the link to Mystic Prowler “Beneath The Surface”

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