Most people know Harry Belafonte for the iconic Banana Boat song and his appearances on both TV and film. However, much of Belafonte’s calypso style influenced reggae and ska records in Jamaica, which later influenced the UK’s 2 Tone ska movement. Above all else, Harry Belafonte is a fascinating man who is at the crossroads of both music and history.
Belafonte himself was born in Harlem to his two Jamaican parents. He later lived in Jamaica as a child and returned back to New York in his teenage years. After high school he joined the Navy and served in World War II, but Belafonte would ultimately return to New York to pursue a career in the arts. He was both an actor and a singer in his early years, but is best known for his activism and popularising calypso music. Belafonte met MLK in America and became central to the civil rights movement throughout the 1950s and 1960s. He is currently in his 90s and he is still organising protests throughout America. Belafonte has led an incredible life in which music is only a small part.
However, we are going to focus on how his popularisation of calypso music led to innovations in reggae music. The Jump Up Calypso record itself does not have a rich production history, but stands at the crossroads of dance hall, calypso, reggae and early ska music in Jamaica; therefore, it marks a very interesting time in music history. RCA Victor released the album in 1961, which was a few years before Desmond Dekker and the Aces, The Skatalites and Bob Marley’s first studio release. However, by 1961 Belafonte was already established with a number of hit records in Jamaica and internationally including Calypso in 1956 and Belafonte Sings of the Caribbean in late 1957. His popularity was so entrenched in Jamaica that early reggae bands often covered his songs when playing in dance halls and within the community. It is difficult to see where reggae and ska would be if not for Belafonte’s popularity and calypso sound. We will focus on the songs Jump in the Line, Kingston Market and Angelina. We will look at the musical and lyrical frameworks in these songs, and calypso more generally, and how they influence reggae / ska of the mid 1960s and beyond.
Now is the time where you put your music nerd t-shirt on, because we are going to talk about beat structure. Musically, Belafone’s calypso work is known for a specific song structure. Most calypso employs a three beat rhythm with two long beats and one short beat. Now, over time this structure evolved into stressing the downbeats in 4/4 time. For example, if you are going 1 & 2 & 3 & 4 the stress is put on the bold number and the “&” are ghost notes…..in other times it may be stress but on downbeats like 1 2 3 4. Now, an example of this beat structure is in Jump in the Line during the verses after the chorus. You can hear the clapping in the background going in time, but the guitar and keyboard hit the downbeats. This is the best part to hear it, because the horns are stripped back and you can hear when the guitar hits the downbeats in the hand clapping. Now, reggae and ska will run with this in what is called “ska stroke” or “skank” where they do not have Belafonte’s subtle guitar, but a pronounced guitar upstroke on the downbeat. So, this is an overly technical and complicated way to say that this song is amazing and will shape the future of ska music.
The next song Kingston Market may not have a pronounced musical connection to reggae and ska, but has strong thematic links. Jamaican folk and calypso often sing about social issues and stories about the common people / marginalised people in society. Bob Marley follows most closely in this tradition with his songs about slavery, political corruption, injustice and life in Jamaica. Belafonte also carries on this tradition of Jamaican folk by singing about everyday life in the Kingston Market. He sings abut the people passing through and paints a picture of the importance the market has in social life in Kingston.
Finally, Angelina is a great song that highlights another great example of the “ska stroke.” Listening to the horns, energetic vocals and percussion on the downbeat you can really hear the influence on ska music. Angelina is such a fun song about a man coming home from sea and how he wants Angelina to play music for him, because she is the only one for him. Desmond Dekker and the Aces will release their music only a few years after Jump Up Calypso‘s release and you can hear the influence in their music. Angelina is a great song that shows a bridge from Belafonte’s work in 1961 to musical structures ska will turn up to 11 from 1964 moving forward.
Even though Jump Up Calypso is not Harry Belafonte’s best selling record, it is the record that marks a move in the 1960s from calypso’s overwhelming popularity to the runaway locomotive that will be reggae and ska by the end of the decade. Moreover, the 2 Tone ska movement in the UK during the 1980s will take the skank rhythm structure even further with punk aesthetics. However, ska and reggae can both trace their musical foundations back to music popularised by Belafonte. I implore you to listen to Jump Up Calypso and hear it for yourself.
Listen to Jump Up Calypso