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Hope in confinement: The Caribbean Calypso Challenge

Barbade,Saint-Kitts-et-Nevis,Trinité-et-Tobago,Saint-Martin (partie néerlandaise)
UNESCO Cluster Office for the Caribbean, Kingston

All of us have been staying at home for the last couple of months due to the outbreak of the global health crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic, which is currently dictating the lives of citizens in many parts of the world.

Therefore, we will take you on a virtual island-hopping tour through the English and Dutch Caribbean and explore how the region’s music culture thrives while in confinement at home.

Let’s start our journey on the small twin island Saint Kitts, which constitutes one country with its neighbouring island of Nevis: The Federation of Saint Kitts and Nevis. It is home to the Brimstone Hill Fortress National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the largest fortress ever built in the Western Caribbean.

Caribbeans, unlike any other culture, have the need to socialize, to hug, to embrace, to sing and dance. Now in times of COVID-19 lockdown, they have been deprived of all this.

This is where we meet Antonio Maynard, a “Calypsonian”, who has been active for more than 20 years in the calypso scene in St. Kitts. He has also served as Secretary-General for the St. Kitts and Nevis National Commission for UNESCO for 15 years and knows the local culture scene very well.

The Caribbean Calypso music once was brought from the African slaves to the Caribbean who were to work on sugar plantations in the 17th Century. The calypso chants allowed the slave workers to establish a communication between each other, while they were forbidden to talk. Once originated in Trinidad and Tobago, where it was sung in French Creole, it spread out over the Caribbean islands in the 19th century and became a popular Afro-Caribbean music until today, which is now sung in various local Caribbean dialects and languages.

Music unites the Caribbean people, inspires hope and fosters togetherness.

Calypso has developed its own styles across the islands, including mento, ska, soca music and extempo.
An extempo is improvised with a rhythmic speech on a given, mostly current theme in front of an audience that itself takes turns in performing. So-called “extempo wars” are competitions between artists whose success is measured by the wit and ingenuity of their performance. The most widespread melody is “Sans Humanité”, which became the most popular tune during covid-19.

Calypsonians are highly respected in the Caribbean. Their music reflects the people’s voices, stories, histories and emotions.

Let’s hop north to the island of Sint Maarten, where we will meet the current “king of Calypso”, Andrew Richardson, also known as King Baker Junior. He started the Quarantine extempo challenge, which has gone viral on social media.

“The Quaranteine Extempo Challenge has brought the Caribbean during this crisis together. The messages give people hope that this too will pass. I believe, once we get over this, that we can do wonders together, we can move mountains”. King Baker Jr

Junior Baker posted his own extempo rhymes on his facebook page, adressing safety and sanitation in times of covid-19. Nowadays, he receives many hundred messages and calypso-videos daily from Caribbean artists and citizens, which he shares on Social Media and on the Extempo Challenge Youtube-Channel. The Calypsos share messages of hope and information on the coronavirus, such as instructions on proper sanitation.

“Calypso is not only music, it plays a great role in the countries cultural heritage” explains Clara Reyes, Head of cultural department of the Ministry of Education, Culture, Youth & Sport of St. Maarten. Calypsonians are highly respected in the Caribbean. “They tell news through the music, lyricists, poets, a special rhythm, they are the story-teller of the country.” The Saint Humanity Rhythm of Calypso is often referred to the Haiku of the Caribbean, it takes only a few rhymes to create a lyric.

The Quaranteine Extempo Challenge has shown the importance to access to Intangible Cultural Heritage in the lives of many during times of crisis. Culture provides people a sense of belonging and solace from the difficult circumstances of the current times.

How to join the Quaranteine Extempo Challenge?

E-Mail for the Rhythm:

Contact: Catherina Schönhammer UNESCO Kingston

“Calypso is not only music, it plays a great role in the countries cultural heritage”

Les désignations employées et la présentation des textes et des documents référencés dans cette plateforme n'impliquent de la part de l'UNESCO aucune prise de position quant au statut juridique des pays, territoires, villes ou zones, ou de leurs autorités, ni quant au tracé de leurs frontières ou limites.