I’ve spent many hours listening to everyone from Harry Belafonte to Alison Hinds to Lord Melody in order to bring you this list of Calypso chord progressions.
While Calypso isn’t a part of my normal playlist, I am being drawn more and more into the joyful sounds of the genre. It shares so many similarities with a favorite genre of mine (Mariachi), that I have formed a quick bond.
Every style of music seems to have hits that use the I, IV, and V chords, but Calypso seems to utilize these chords more frequently, and more completely. So let’s take a look at some of the chord progressions that define this wonderful variety of music.
1. I V I V
Our first chord progression comes from probably the most well known Calypso song ever written “Banana Boat (Day-O)” by Harry Belafonte. The recording of this song that I’m familiar with is almost exclusively performed with vocals. There’s some kind of drum or maybe a string bass behind the vocals, but overall it’s a very raw song.
Chords from the song: F sharp major, C sharp major, F sharp major, C sharp major
2. I IV V IV
This is from another super famous Calypso song, “Hot Hot Hot” by Arrow. I have a memory of going on a cruise to Mexico (I’m from the U.S.) and hearing this song being played out on the pool deck of the cruise ship. Also, this
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Chords from the song: F major, B flat major, C major, B flat major
3. i VI IV v
I found this one in “Roll It Gal” by Alison Hinds. It’s one of the more modern songs on my list and I think I would categorize it as Pop Calypso. It accomplishes its modern sound with the assistance of synthesizers and heavily edited drums and vocals. However, the vocals are clearly in the Calypso style which maintains the same joyful sound of most traditional Calypso vocals.
Chords from the song: F minor, C sharp major, G sharp major, C minor
4. I V I IV I V
This Calypso chord progression comes from “Jean and Dinah” by Mighty Sparrow. While listening to this song I began hearing similarities between the Mariachi genre. The prominent acoustic guitar, the horn section and the chorus vocals all create a familiarity for me (I’m a big Mariachi listener). So naturally I love this song.
Chords from the song: B flat major, F major, B flat major, E flat major, B flat major, F major
5. I IV I IV
As I listen to more and more Calypso music, I’m realizing that Calypso is the King (or Queen) of the I, IV and V chords. It’s almost as if these three chords are a defining characteristic of the genre. This progression comes from “Carnival Proclamation” by Lord Melody.
Chords from the song: A sharp major, D sharp major, A sharp major, D sharp major
6. I III7 VI ii V
This chord progression comes from “Yes Yes Yes” by Calypso Mama. This is the most unique chord progression I’ve come across so far in the Calypso genre. In fact, the song almost sounds as though it’s not Calypso at all. You could just as easily categorize it as R&B or Jazz, and I’m sure there are influences from these genres.
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Chords from the song: G major, B dominant 7, E major, A minor, D major
7. I V V7 I
This Calypso chord progression comes from “Rum and Coca Cola” by Lord Invader. The song was later made very popular in the West when it was covered by the Andrews Sisters.
Chords from the song: F major, C major, C dominant 7, F major
8. I IV V I
This Calypso chord progression is another taken from the great Harry Belafonte. It’s from “Jump in the Line” it’s one of the most dance-able songs I’ve ever heard. I’m noticing the different levels of percussion in this song. I can hear the continuous drum line, just constant sixteenth notes, then I start to notice the maracas and the deeper almost kick drum-esque tom that hits on the beat. Really wonderful percussion work in this one.
Chords from the song: C major, F major, G major, C major
How To Write Calypso Music
Of course a chord progression is never going to be enough to write music in a certain style. While listening to several hours of Calypso music to make this list of chord progressions, I took note of several things that seem to make the music unique.
Here are my thoughts on the common themes in Calypso music:
- The I, IV, and V chords seem to be more prominent in Calypso than any other genre I’m familiar with.
- A chorus of backup singers seems to be common
- The steel drum is one of the defining sounds of the genre
- Also, Calypso seems to often have something like a drum line carrying the beat. Bands may have a steel drum, a drum kit, some hand drums (bongos, congas, etc.) and a few sets of maracas. There are many layers of percussion sounds in Calypso.
- Often a happy, joyful disposition to the sound and lyrics
Of course within any genre there will be nuances between groups and songs. And as I’ve mentioned in this article, you will often hear influences from other styles of music. I was surprised to hear a lot of similarities between Calypso and Mariachi. I also heard plenty of R&B parallels.
No matter what style of music you are being inspired by, it’s always important to add your own flare. So never be afraid to experiment and use themes across genres. Make your music your own unique blend.