South Of The Border


by Norbert Goldberg

Along with reggae, calypso is one of the most popular rhythms of the West Indies. Although its roots are African, calypso originated in the plantations of Trinidad. Along with the rhythm, it consisted of words and melody often improvised on the spot, relating social and current happenings. Presently, calypso is usually associated with steel bands which can be heard throughout the Caribbean. The steel drum, one of the more recent additions to the percussion family, originated in Trinidad shortly after World War II. Steel bands consist of about twelve musicians playing up to thirty drums of different sizes. Usually these bands contain a set drummer as well as assorted percussion. The rhythmic pattern of the conga drum is one of the most recognizable trademarks of calypso and can serve as a framework for the rest of the percussion instruments.south of the border 1_79_1

The right hand plays the lower tones which are the important accents in calypso. The sixteenth note anticipation before the second beat is reinforced by the bass drum, its rhythm being another trademark of calypso.
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By superimposing the conga rhythm over the bass drum pattern, a basic calypso beat is achieved. Play the right hand on the cowbell, and the left alternating between the snare (rim-shot) and the small tom-tom.
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Calypso can vary in tempo from moderate to very fast. The above rhythm could be used for either tempo when no other percussion is available and where an authentic feel is desired. Interesting variations can be achieved by changing the cowbell rhythm and modifying the left hand slightly.
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Having mastered these beats one can subtly change the feel by bringing in different bass drum and hi-hat variations. In moderate calypso tempo, straight quarters with the bass drum is a recent change which lends a less syncopated effect to these beats. Adding an eighth note on the “and” of the second beat is another option and reinforces the tom-tom accent.
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The hi-hat can now be brought in, adding further nuances to the calypso beat. One affect which works very well is a splash on each off beat. This is executed much like a bass drum stroke, clashing the cymbals together and quickly releasing. One can also close the hi-hat on the off beats, splashing occasionally, or close on each beat. Below is a working example of a calypso beat which includes some of the variations mentioned.
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The off beat splash is based on another variation of the calypso beat, which also has the hi-hat playing on each off beat, except this time, it’s played with sticks.
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The beat is similar to the hustle which seems to be directly related or perhaps an outgrowth of the calypso rhythm. For instance, you may recall a popular tune called “Rock the Boat” whose calypso influenced beat was and still is very popular.
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*Alternate hands on the hi-hat.
The above rhythm if played with the syncopated bass drum accents, is basically the same as the one often used by drummers in steel bands. This beat can be made even more exciting by opening the hi-hat at certain points and by placing some of the hi-hat beats on the snare drum or tom-toms. The hands are still playing straight sixteenths, but the placement is different.
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Considering the fact that so many of today’s rhythms are often interwoven with Latin and other ethnic elements, one must realize the value of learning not only the techniques, but understanding the origins and evolution of the rhythms being played.