Panamanian Calypso - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Panamanian Calypso

Panamanian Calypso

By Aliyya Swaby

A calypso band plays on Main Street during a Transfer Day parade, Charlotte Amalie, Saint Thomas Island, Virgin Islands
SourceJames L. Stanfield/National Geographic/Getty


Because joy and joyful noises are completely and totally expert at soothing the soul.

By Aliyya Swaby

Ringing Bell (that’s his name, folks) starts the song off, slow and sonorously: “In the island of Jamaica, everybody love banaaaanaaaa…” 

The members of Grupo Amistad chime back in chorus: “Banaaanaa!” 

A quick beat and then the drummer starts the rhythm and the banjo twangs. The calypso band’s rehearsal is underway.

Carried to the West Indies by African slaves, the genre of calypso spread from Trinidad through the Afro-Antillean diaspora throughout the 20th century. In Panama, by the 1950s, it had rooted in Bocas del Toro, Colón and Panama City, regions with large black populations.

At 83 years old, “Ringing Bell” — Manuel Barnes — is one of the oldest calypso singers left in Panama. In the 1970s, he started performing during Carnaval celebrations in Colón, first playing the ukulele and then singing in major theaters.

With few of Panama’s pioneering calypsonians still alive, aficionados are seeking new ways to bring the genre back to the mainstream.

Ethnomusicology professor Leslie George founded Grupo Amistad in 1990 with four members, which later ballooned to eight, featuring a guitar, bass, conga drum, ukulele and saxophones.

One of several calypso bands in Panama City, Grupo Amistad performs traditional Trinidadian songs in Caribbean English and several Panamanian versions in Spanish. George, for his part, is interested in exploring the “deformation and perturbation” of folkloric musical forms over time.

For Trinidadian blacks, that meant using a mix of satire and braggadocio to respond to the dismal post-slavery conditions and economic underdevelopment they faced.

“So the root actually is African tradition, with a touch of the language of the colonizers, the musical structure, some of the dance forms, and all of this interwoven with their feeling and reinterpretation of where they’re coming from,” George said. Panamanian calypso is morphing to fit the times: The Afro-descendant precursor has influenced the isthmus’ most famous homegrown genres, including reggaeton and salsa.

But the real joy of calypso lies in improvisation. Calypsonians traditionally gathered in their neighborhoods to face each other in “rhyming” contests — call it the Panamanian rap battle. Children used to learn from watching and emulating local lyrical masters, but the music has since left the streets.

Today, the soul of the music lies more often in a classroom than on the streets. In the northwest region of Bocas del Toro, once a major calypso hub, a local singer and composer is developing a program to “rescue” traditional calypso by teaching public school students to play the ukulele. Luis Manuel Palacios teaches his classes how to read music — which would have been unheard of in earlier years of the genre.

A large wave of Caribbean workers migrated to Bocas del Toro to work on the banana plantations in the 1920s, and they brought calypso with them. They played in the streets, in bars, and in restaurants, from night until morning — for audiences of all ethnicities. Only a few Bocatoreño calypso groups have been active recently, including Los Beachers, an iconic Panamanian group that started in the ’70s.

Perhaps, even amid the flood of tourists, the Bocatoreños can hold on to some of their roots. But then again, there’s something special brewing — after all, this is the kind of music that’s always been evolving. Which is precisely why we’re watching out for what it does next.

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