Cortijo and Calypso


This week I read an excellent newspaper article about the involvement of legendary bandleader Rafael Cortijo with Calypso music.

In this blog I’ll provide a historical framework to it.

Cortijo, the Calypso, and the Antillean Connection

“Cortijo, el Calypso y la Conexion Antillana” is the title of the article written by Ana Teresa Toro for Puerto Rican newspaper El Nuevo Dia (in Spanish; see link below). The article explores Cortijo’s musical curiosity with this rhythm, and how his connection with people and musicians from the Lesser Antilles influenced the use of it on his band.

Toro explains how Calypso was born in the mid-19th century in the island of Trinidad, and from there its popularity spread through the rest of the Caribbean. It made it all the way up to Vieques, but for some reason, it never got a firm foothold in the main island of Puerto Rico.

Although Ana Teresa Toro explains that the Puerto Rican island of Vieques did adopt Calypso and is a part of its idiosyncrasy, I’ll add that the same is true of the island of Culebra, Puerto Rico. The Banco Popular Christmas Special of 2014 “Que Lindo es Puerto Rico” highlighted this with an explanation of how it got to Culebra and Vieques, and a song performed as if it were the festivities of New Year’s eve. (you can read my blog on that Christmas special HERE)

Calypso, a Historical Context

Cortijo y su Combo 1st album cover with Calypso song
The 1st album of Cortijo y su Combo was “Invites You to Dance” which included “Calypso, Bomba y Plena”, and “El Bombon de Elena”.

As other Afro-Caribbean rhythms, Calypso has its origins in Western Africa in the mid-17th century, with its roots connecting to the Kaiso and Canboulay music. The French slaves brought its seed with them to the colonies in the Lesser Antilles, and it was said to take its more contemporary form in Trinidad-Tobago and Venezuela.

In Puerto Rico, as in most places, Calypso is associated with a festive environment experienced in the West Indies and the cruise ships that travel there. This same concept was borrowed by Harry Belafonte for his famous “Banana Boat” song (more on Belafonte later).

But this concept of Calypso being just festive music is only partly true.

Although the Trinidadian slaves did use it with the excuse to animate the Carnivals that the French brought and allowed to have on the colonies, they mainly used Calypso as a way to communicate news and slam the Colonial government policies, even after their liberation (which occurred in 1834, much earlier than in the United States).

Because French creole was the language of use, the English colonial government began to censor the songs in suspicion of its use against the government. The government began to translate the songs, but to no avail, as the Trinidadians began using “double-speak” to slip the messages right under the noses of the British authorities.

So it turns out that Calypso was more a form of protest music than a festive one, although the former use did not deter from the latter.

…and Back to Cortijo

Cortijo was known for his musical and business cleverness. He created his own band, Cortijo y su Combo in 1957, with Ismael Rivera, Rafael Ithier (eventual founder of El Gran Combo) and Roberto Roena (eventual founder of the Apollo Sound) among others.

This occurred on the heels of Belafonte’s big hit “Banana Boat” in 1956, included in Belafonte’s album “Calypso”. Perhaps coincidentally, or perhaps because Cortijo liked to play in places like Aruba and Panama where Calypso had a strong presence, he included the song “Calypso, Bomba, y Plena” in his very 1st album “Cortijo Invites You to Dance” (1957).

This song is referenced in Torres’ article, and I’ve included it below so you can hear how Cortijo adopted it to his sound.

Rafael Cortijo played a starring role in the history of Latin music. Therefore, Torres’ article revealed a lesser known part of Latin music history. It is definitely worth the read!

Cortijo’s “Calypso, Bomba y Plena”

Link to “Cortijo, el Calypso y la Conexion Antillana”

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