Ray Allen is the first ethnomusicologist ARC faculty fellow. His work focuses on American folk and popular music within New York City music cultures. His latest project deals with the stylistic characteristics of calypso and soca in the 20th century. Allen’s work makes valuable contributions to understanding diasporic transnationalism, globalization, the politics of hybridity, and the relation between music and cultural identity. Allen complicates these theoretical frameworks by thinking through the contextualized lives and development of these musical styles. He has three major interventions into these areas of research. First, diasporic transnationalism is cyclical, reflected in the flow of calypso and soca between the Caribbean and New York. Allen also questions the center-periphery model of globalization theory by showing how Trinidad and Brooklyn each served as centers and peripheries at different points in the life cycle of calypso and soca. Finally, the power relations between sites of artistic emergence can have effects on musical hybridity, as seen in the mass marketing of calypso music in the United States. Despite the unity fostered through this music, there were still island specific identities, that are clearly reflected in the annual Caribbean carnival in Brooklyn, for example.
Allen traces the development of Harlem and Manhattan calypso music from the 1920s to the 1960s, and after that the emergence and decline of soca, which now tends to enjoy only seasonal popularity in New York. The mobility of Trinidadians across the Atlantic from Trinidad to New York was reflected in the circulation of Harlem calypso between these sites in the first half of the twentieth century, and audiences included English speaking Caribbean islanders, as well as Harlem Trinidadians. Through playing a selection of songs, Allen points out that the lyrics of this musical genre reveal that the songwriters and singers (including Wilmoth Houdini and Rupert ‘Lord Invader’ Grant) were inspired by their immigrant experiences. They drew from the Trinidadian tradition of using music as a medium of sociopolitical commentary. For the first time, calypso was generated by musicians in hybrid form: containing sounds from Africa, as well as new jazz sounds from the United States. Calypso began to reflect elements of everyday life in New York, including the movement of the Trinidadian community from Harlem to Brooklyn. It also incorporated local and universal political experiences, such as racism in the city, pride in African identity, and the growth of the Black nationalist movement globally. Allen traces the historical trajectory of calypso in the post-war period to illuminate the effects of capitalism and U.S. cultural imperialism in both its content and its production and distribution. For example, for the first time in 1956, calypso was appropriated for mass consumption through crossover appeal in the United States by record companies such as RCA, and sung by artists such as Harry Belafonte, who mimicked West Indian linguistic traits.
With the Hart Keller Act of 1965, there was a surge in Caribbean immigration to New York, and the center of the NYC Caribbean community moved from Harlem to Brooklyn. This growing community created a demand for calypso music, leading to the establishment of record stores and recording studios in Brooklyn. This led to a flow of calypso music written in Trinidad that was recorded and produced in Brooklyn where the technology was available. Two of these record stores still stand in Brooklyn: Straker Records and Charles Records.
It was during this time that the musical style of calypso began to change as well. Songs began to incorporate electric guitar with more prominent basslines. Elements of funk and soul were also incorporated. These novel sounds became known as Brooklyn soca. Soca lyrics were not as politically themed as in calypso, but were associated with party going and dance scenes. Soca was a thoroughly transnational musical style. Artists from Trinidad saw their songs recorded in New York while these records were then popularized and sold in Trinidad. For example, the acclaimed soca artist Calypso Rose was born in Trinidad, toured the world and the Caribbean, and was based in Queens. The rise of soca in the 80s and 90s is attributed to its pan-Caribbean audience across the islands and Brooklyn, as well as its influence from soul, funk, and disco. However, there was a lull in soca music sales in the 1990s due to CD piracy and music streaming services. As a result, soca is no longer recorded in Brooklyn, and its popularity is limited to the Caribbean community and the festivity of annual Caribbean carnival in New York City.
Written by Misty Crooks and Claudia Rey Crowie