BY DANIEL WARD | FROM THE SUMMER 2023 ISSUE OF UKULELE
As this winter’s storms raged, my wife, Heidi Swedberg, and I had the delightful opportunity to teach ukulele on a Caribbean cruise. We like our musical itinerary to complement the travel route, and I was inspired to reach deep into my musical pockets for an authentic Calypso strum.
As my studies concluded at the University of New Mexico years ago, I found myself in an unusually lucky place musically. I was studying classical guitar, flamenco, and jazz, and playing with world music groups at night. The amount of experience with rhythm that I gained was truly a gift, and I am forever grateful for that time. One of the groups I played with had a heavy focus on calypso, and it was really fun. The strumming style I learned is a very basic rhythm, but once mastered it becomes an effective tool for many styles.
This lesson will focus on Trinidad and Tobago–style calypso, which is quite different from the “island-style” strum that many ukulele folks use to play some calypso songs. To keep things clear, I’ll teach you both of these strums and put the former to use in an original song. I’ve also provided a list of albums by essential calypso artists, so you can do a deep listening dive.
A Brief History
Calypso music originated in Trinidad and Tobago and came from African Kaiso and Canboulay music. Early calypsos were sung in French Creole by griots (storytelling musicians), who later became known as calypsonians. In the 19th century, calypso music formed as a fusion of musical elements into the early-modern style. These elements include the masquerade ceremony, Bélé folk dance, Calinda stick fighting, and even Venezuelan paseos. Calypso also owes its early rise to the adoption of Carnaval by the French in Trinidad, and grew in popularity after the abolition of slavery in 1834.
The first recordings that are identifiably calypso were made in 1912 and 1914 by Lovey’s String Band and Julian Whiterose. The real golden era of calypso happened in the ’20s and ’30s, the style and phrasing solidifying into what we know today, with artists like Lord Kitchener, Mighty Sparrow, and Harry Belafonte bringing the music to mass audiences.
That Certain Strum
As usual, the accompanying video lesson will be extremely helpful to learn and hear the strums, and I highly recommend a quick review of my “holding down the groove” lesson from the Summer 2018 issue of Ukulele, which outlines how to evenly strum any pattern with ups and downs.
First let’s look at the “island strum” that is sometimes confused with the original calypso strum. In Example 1 the pattern is down-down-up, up-down-up with a fan on the second downstroke. The fanning sound can come from the back of your nails or some combination of rolling down with your thumb and fingers. I’ve seen many variations that all work fine, so experiment to find your favorite way.
The Trinidad and Tobago calypso strum is seen in Example 2. Place your hand flat across the strings for the first stroke, then pull up with your index finger and continue down-up. That’s it! It might take some careful and slow practice to get this one even and up to speed, so start by playing every step quite mechanically and then ease up as it goes faster.
The big pothole on this strum is bouncing up after you stop the strings with gentle open-handed tap. Be sure to stay down on the stop and pull right up with your index on the next beat. The stop is right on the first stroke, so it also cuts the sound of the last “up” and restarts the rhythm. A good way to get used to this pattern is to play a simple down-up-down-up pattern a few times and then add the tap as you go. The strum is complete when you can easily play tap-up-down-up, tap-up-down-up over and over lightly and evenly. The real key is learning to do this strum lightly as you speed it up, and it can go very fast!
Catch the Beat
My song “Catch the Beat,” shown below, makes extensive use of the Trinidad and Tobago calypso strum. This song is a medium-tempo calypso in cut time; the eighth-note strumming can go quite fast, but it needs to stay relaxed. To get the right groove, start very slowly and feel free to use the easy down-up, down-up more often at first as you get the taps going. The song sounds great a little slower, too, so take your time getting the strum to blossom. Since the tap shortens the ring of the strings, the strum will have a special lilt or accent to it that follows the downbeats. If I say it out loud it sounds like this: da-da-dit, da-da-dit, da-da-dit, with the tap on the downbeats. It sounds excellent by itself, but really has some magic to it when you add bass and percussion.
Mastering the Trinidad and Tobago calypso strum will help with all sorts of other strums, like the flamenco rhumba, soca, reggae, and other syncopated styles. It also builds important technique for steady and even time in any strum. Remember: all strums are a combination of ups and downs, so give in and let your hand relax—almost like shaking water off after doing the dishes. Enjoy the music!