Calypso Soundscapes: intimate acoustics and defiant language in Kamau Brathwaite and Mighty Sparrow

Harris, Mark. 2017. 'Calypso Soundscapes: intimate acoustics and defiant language in Kamau Brathwaite and Mighty Sparrow'. In: Caribbean Insecurities, The British Library. The British Library, United Kingdom 25-26 June, 2017. [Conference or Workshop Item]

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Abstract or Description

The comingling of defiant sounds and language in calypso is key to understanding histories of the Caribbean. What acoustics propel Kamau Brathwaite’s Arrivants and ‘Calypso’ as sonic dissections of colonial rules for acceptable speech and sound? The familial environmental acoustics that impact Brathwaite’s writing reveal alternative paradigms of intimacy and precarity compared to the found sounds of 1970s Vancouver composers Hildegard Westerkamp and Murray Schafer, to whom the term ‘soundscape’ is credited. Similarly, from the late 50s, Mighty Sparrow’s voice and lyrics draw from urban environmental sounds to undermine a secure colonial culture. He constructs Mr. Herbert and Simpson by incorporating conversational fragments of Port of Spain residents sharing close quarters of limited privacy. A song like Dan Is The Man In The Van, that mocks the banality of colonially prescribed school literature, offers the timbre of half-yelled, half-sung phrases that hurl sonic aberrations and mischievous concepts into an irreverent reinvention of English language.
Are Brathwaite’s and Sparrow’s irruptions of language and noise into poem and song a kind of Caribbean ‘minor literature’ that for Deleuze and Guattari is always deterritorializing language, is always political, and always embodying the common voice? Brathwaite refuses the distinction between poet and calypsonian, crediting the latter with providing the rhythmic pattern for his own verse structure. He reads the ‘Atumpan’ section from Masks in rhythmic mimicry of Ghanaian drums and sings the opening verse of ‘Calypso’ to demonstrate its musical origins. The sonic cues for these derive from sounds made by family members, like his uncle’s uneven gait or his mother singing a slave song. Brathwaite traces the drums all the way to Barbadian environmental sounds where they join calypso as a Caribbean version of Jacques Attali’s ‘composition’, the communally generated musical resistance to popular commercial music and to performances representing existing power structures.

Item Type:

Conference or Workshop Item (Paper)

Additional Information:

The url for the British Library listing—


Kamau Brathwaite, The Arrivants, Mighty Sparrow, Simpson, calypso, Caribbean literature

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11 May 2017Accepted
26 June 2017Completed

Event Location:

The British Library, United Kingdom

Date range:

25-26 June, 2017

Item ID:


Date Deposited:

16 Nov 2017 09:57

Last Modified:

29 Apr 2020 16:41


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