Of Lament and Prophecy: Voices of Caribbean Oral Poetry

May 1, 1997

Judith Zwolak

"Day-O, Da-Day-O." Mention calypso music and most of us will likely launch into a rousing version of the "Banana Boat Song." Gordon Rohlehr, this semester's Mellon professor who is visiting from Trinidad and Tobago, tells students in his Caribbean oral poetry course that there is much more to this lively art form than Harry Belafonte's 1957 classic.

"Calypso is a living, oral poetic form," he says. "It's the performed word, the sung word. It's a performance; it's gesture; it's what you do with your body." Calypso, which is native to Trinidad, also usually communicates a social or political message. "Using humor, calypso comments on male-female interaction, politics, race relations, multiethnicity, those kinds of things," Rohlehr says. "It's very contemporary."

Calypso is one of a number of oral-poetry forms Rohlehr discusses in his class on calypso and cultural performance in the Caribbean. A professor of West Indian Literature at the University of the West Indies in St. Augustine, Trinidad, Rohlehr has studied calypso extensively and says it has characteristics indicative of oral poetry throughout the region. "Caribbean oral poetry is special; it's a poetry that asks to be performed," he says. "It also has a strong narrative line. It portrays things that are very relevant to current social events."

Born in Guyana, Rohlehr has studied and lived in the Caribbean, United States and Europe--earning his doctorate at the University of Birmingham in England. He has taught at the University of the West Indies in Trinidad since 1968. As a Mellon professor, Rohlehr spends one semester on Tulane's campus conducting research and teaching a course.

John Patton, associate professor of communication, nominated Rohlehr for the professorship, established in 1974 by the Andrew W. Mellon Program in the Humanities. "Dr. Rohlehr is the most outstanding scholar on the history of carnival and calypso in Trinidad," Patton says. "He sees links between music as a social form and politics, gender and cultural identity. His work is the most detailed scholarship we have in this area and is extremely well known nationally and internationally."

In addition to calypso, Rohlehr's course this semester also touches on themes of elegy and lament, a category of oral poetry found in several cultures, including African and Hebrew poetry. "It's astounding when you realize the enormous amount of poetry in the Caribbean that can fall under the category of lament," Rohlehr says, adding that poetry throughout the Caribbean allows a public mourning of societal problems.

"There are themes like urbanization, the implications of moving from rural areas to towns that's been going on since the 19th century," he says. "In Kingston, Jamaica, for example, about a million people live in a 30 square-mile space. A lot of social ills are created by this enormous density of population."

Themes of prophecy and warning are also common to Caribbean poetry and are highly influenced by biblical texts, Rohlehr says. "Both in calypso and in Jamaican poems, there is a figure of a prophet or a person who has a vision of society, of the future and sometimes of the apocalypse," he says. "There is a secular apocalyptism emerging out of people's contemplation of politics, society and culture."

A discussion of contemporary Barbadian poet Edward Brathwaite rounds out Rohlehr's course. "Brathwaite's poetry is rooted in the oral tradition," Rohlehr says. "He sees himself as a diasporan African who understands aspects of the Caribbean and African-Caribbean tradition. He is a historian by vocation as well as a poet. He doesn't make a distinction between the two. Indeed, within the African tradition, the poet was the historian."

As a resident of Trinidad, where calypso originated, and a student of the forms and functions of this type of oral poetry, Rohlehr decided to ground his course in the beginning of the semester with a discussion of calypso. Beginning the course during carnival time also had an impact on this decision.

"Calypso is very strongly related to the carnival tradition," he says. "New Orleans also has its very deeply rooted carnival tradition. And since Trinidad is multiethnic in almost the same sense that New Orleans is multiethnic and has had to incorporate all of these forces into society--with a ritualized enactment of the process via carnival--I thought that it would be good to start with this and make comparisons."

After seeing presentations from Tulane students on Mardi Gras in New Orleans, Rohlehr found ample parallels between the Mardi Gras celebrations here and the Trinidad carnivals he knows so well, particularly relating to the display of African motifs. He will discuss these issues at the Mellon lecture on April 24 (see calendar). His talk is entitled, "Assuming the masks of power: A comparison of aspects of the performance styles of the carnivals of Trinidad and Tobago and New Orleans."

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