Calypso beat fills the air at Holocaust Museum

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Guest commentary

About a year ago, I met an engaging gentleman, Dick Spottswood. We were both at the WGCU studios for interviews. He was there with a local bluegrass music group and I was there for an interview about our exhibit, “American Cartoonists, Nazi Germany and the Holocaust.”

Spottswood mentioned he thought I might be interested in learning about a collection of calypso music with which we was associated.

Calypso music? Did he have me confused with someone else? After all, I work at the Holocaust Museum.

But he got my attention and a few weeks later I sat down with him to learn about Trinidad, calypso and World War II.

Little did I know where this chat would lead.

Calypso music is associated primarily with Trinidad and was influenced by the French, Spanish and English colonizers, as well as African slave songs. What we recognize as calypso today came into being as part of the pre-Lenten festivities of the French, called “carnival.”

By the early 1900s, calypso music was being performed in “calypso tents” and the lyrics ran the gamut of social satire, political commentary, humor and sexual innuendo.

In 1914, the first recordings were made and by the 1920s and 1930s, the singers were performing regularly in the United States. Some of the biggest names of the day were Attila the Hun, Roaring Lion and Lord Invader. Early recordings were made by Victor and Columbia records, but the songs from 1938-1940 were captured by Decca Records.

Through many of these songs, the performers showed their perspective and opinion of Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini and the activities of World War II.

This summer, the Holocaust Museum & Education Center of Southwest Florida created an original exhibit dedicated to these songs and their singers — “Calypso: Singing the News of the Day.”

The exhibit will be on display until the end of July and we invite our community to come in and learn about this intriguing element of history as it relates to World War II.

Also on display this summer is an exhibit connected to another Caribbean county, the Dominican Republic. “Sosúa, The Dominican Republic: A Refuge from the Holocaust in the Tropics” highlights the role of the country as the only one willing to offer refuge to Europe’s Jews after the Evian Conference.

Dominican President Gen. Rafael Trujillo offered settlement to 100,000 Jews and 5,000 visas were offered. However, in the end, only 645 Jews went to safety in the Dominican Republic.

Although life was difficult as these families transitioned from professional life to agricultural life, they were not subjected to anti-Semitism and were allowed to flourish both culturally and religiously. Few Jews are left in the now-resort community, but it will always be known for the role it played in saving lives during the Holocaust.

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