Musical styles - Trinidad and Tobago


Costumed drummer at Caribbean festival
Drummer at a Caribbean festival

Originally the national dance of Trinidad and Tobago, calypso is particularly associated with carnival. It has:

  • 4/4 time with syncopation
  • acoustic and bass guitar or band with trumpets, saxophones, electric guitars, drum kit and Latin percussion
  • often uses three-beat rhythms with two long beats followed by a short beat
  • often uses call and response
  • simple harmony
  • verse and chorus songs
  • topical, witty lyrics - often satirical

Here is a sample Calypso rhythm:

Steel band or pan music

Steel band music originated in Trinidad and Tobago during the 1940s. Steel bands often play calypso tunes but also play folk and classical music.

Men playing steel drums
Steel band performing, Trinidad, West Indies

Steel bands are characterised by:

  • instruments (known as pans), which were originally made out of oil drums
  • lead instruments known as tenors or ping pongs
  • different sizes of pan including alto, guitar, cello and bass (or booms)
  • a rhythm section for up tempo numbers including drums and percussion eg tambourines and maracas
  • sticks with ends padded with rubber bands
  • long notes played by rolling, a tremolo effect
  • complex and exciting rhythms formed by short rhythmic phrases and chords
  • smooth, expressive melodic phrases
  • syncopation
  • simple harmony

Listen to the opening of the traditional steel band song Island in the Sun played by the Red Stripe Ebony Steelband.

Island in the Sun


Soca means 'soul-calypso' and is an energetic, disco-influenced offshoot of salsa.

Soca is characterised by:

  • use of horns and Latin percussion with loud fast percussion beats
  • very loud bass guitar
  • repeated chord sequences
  • rhythmic nonsense words
  • lyrics about love and partying