The Queen who became King; Calypso Rose always breaking barriers
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OUR AMBASSADOR5™ SERIES SHOWCASES 5 QUESTIONS/FACTS WITH A CULTURAL AMBASSADOR WHO IS ACTIVELY PROMOTING CARIBBEAN CULTURE THROUGHOUT THE WORLD.
By Marissa Williams
She does not take herself or her many accolades too seriously. Yet, there is never a minute in her presence that you doubt the royalty flowing through her veins. She has shattered glass ceilings, completely changed the geography of the calypso landscape and undoubtedly faced many challenges doing so. Yet, when you’re around her she only evokes emotions of pure joy.
Being in the presence of this cultural icon was a reminder of the importance of honoring those who have cleared a path for Caribbean music on the global stage. She has performed with main stream artistes before some of us were born and received countless honors around the globe. And now, she looks on with a gracious smile, allowing the legacy of her hard work to live on through the talent and ambition of younger artistes. Her work and that of her peers laid the foundation from which the ‘take soca global’ movement is building upon and I salute her contribution!
I first met Calypso Rose (born McCartha Linda Sandy-Lewis) a few years ago while promoting her performance at the Agape Restaurant & Event Center in Atlanta. At the age of seventy plus (70+) she was putting me to shame with her boundless energy. What you see of her on stage is but a small taste of what she exudes in real life. Yet, underneath all her charisma, humor and effervescent energy, you sense the quiet strength of a woman who knows her place in this world and who is truly content with where she is. She has a deep understanding of her historical roots and a gift for sharing knowledge & history without you even realizing it because you’re either dancing with her, singing along with her or laughing at one of her jokes. And, I am ashamed to say, that until I started prepping for her interview,
the massive impact this Tobago born calypsonian had in the calypso arena had escaped me. By the end of her trip, I was left in awe of the many doors she has opened for people like Alison Hinds, Destra Garcia, Denise Belfon, Fayann Lyons and a host of others to walk through. To me she is the epitome of the words pioneer, cultural ambassador and Queen.
BREAKING GLASS CEILINGS
During her interview, Calypso Rose reminisced fondly on her days competing in the Calypso Monarch competition. She laughed at some of the backstage antics she experienced and spoke fondly of her brotherly relationship with another cultural icon, The Mighty Sparrow. Her calm recollection belied the fact that she is well known for totally disrupting the then male dominated calypso fraternity. In 1968 she won the Road March with the song ‘Fire,’ but the title was taken from her with the excuse that the three (3) verse calypso was too short and then eventually the truth came out that the judges didn’t want to give a woman the title in front of a man. That did not stop her. She was the first female artiste to win the coveted ‘Calypso King’ crown back in 1977. From then, the organizers of the annual championship were ‘strongly encouraged’ to change the title to ‘Calypso Monarch’, while Rose went on to win the prestigious event for five consecutive years with songs like ‘Gimme more Tempo‘ and ‘Come Lewee Jam‘.
‘I am a powerful woman. Nothing could stop me then in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s and nothing can stop me now…I passed through three heart attacks and I am still here today, I survived cancer and I am still here today….I am like a river overflowing its banks. You try to stop me-I will find room to pass.‘
HER JOURNEY INTO CALYPSO
Watching her documentary made me think that I knew the Queen. But of course; I was wrong. The depth of Calypso Rose and her myriad of life experiences simply cannot be captured on a mere camera. The daughter of a fisherman, Calypso Rose was one of ten children, who at the age of five was sent to live with relatives in Trinidad. She spoke with love of her aunt Edith Robinson, who took care of her, spoiled her and ‘grew me up in a dignified manner.’ She spoke calmly and matter- of- factly about a childhood trauma that shaped some of her life perspectives. Nineteen Fifty Six (1956) was a momentous year in her history. At that time Dr. Eric Williams became the first Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago. It was also the time when Calypso Rose wrote her first calypso. And when those two separate but historic moments collided, it was the true beginning of her journey into calypso. She sang her song ‘Glass Thief‘ after seeing a man steal the spectacles off of a lady’s face in the Trinagonian town of San Juan. Dr. Eric Williams saw her perform the song at one of his official ceremonies and was impressed. He told her she should be singing in a calypso tent. And so it began. Her original sobriquet was Crusoe Kid inspired by Robinson Crusoe who discovered Tobago. Her fellow calypso tent members are credited for giving birth to the name that we now all know her as- Calypso Rose meaning the mother of all flowers.
‘LIONESS OF THE JUNGLE’ – A PBS DOCUMENTARY FEATURE FILM:
Well known director, Pascale Obolo, spent four years gathering material for his PBS documentary on Calypso Rose aptly dubbed, Lioness of the Jungle. He and his team recognized that this decorated diva definitely had a story to tell with her more than 800 recorded songs, her work on behalf of women’s rights and her travel around the world promoting calypso music. He travelled with her to Paris, New York, Trinidad and Tobago and to her ancestral home in Africa to explore and illustrate the many facets and influences to this phenomenal woman. In the film you see how much Rose has won her right to be a multi faceted woman and why she so vigorously champions women’s rights whenever she can. There is a point where she totally flattens any argument that women who perform on stage or on the streets for Carnival are ‘loose’. Rather she concludes
I am an African. The rhythm of the drums and the soul in my body give me the movements so I got to move….On stage ….some think I am drunk or high but no…. I am drunk yes with the music. With the vibrations in my soul. It is culture. It is art and part of me.
HER ROLE AS AN AMBASSADOR
Calypso Rose continues to have an impact on not only the Caribbean music scene,but, the world stage. She has performed with other musical legends like Miriam Makeba, Tito Puente, Mahalia Jackson, Michael Jackson, Roberta Flack, Bob Marley and many others. She has collaborated with the likes of country singer , Dolly Parton, to illustrate her range. And, among her many accolades, she has been awarded Keys to the City by the mayor of Ontario, Canada, Inducted into the Tobago Walk of Fame as a charter member, Recognition for Achievement in Human Progress from the Concerned Citizens of Liberia Organization, Gratitude and Commendation for the Development of Arts and Culture in Belize by the National Arts Council of Belize..and the list goes on.
ACCOLADES (Some Of…)
- 1978: Distinguished Achievement Award for the First Triple Crown Calypso Monarch of the World by The Tobago Benevolent Society.
- 1979: Award for Magnanimous Contribution to the Culture by the Caribbean Arts and Culture Council.
- 1982: Named an honorary citizen of Belize in 1982 in recognition of her work to raise the country’s international awareness on the cultural front.
- 1983: Top Female Calypsonian by the Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C.
- 1984: Queen of Soca and Calypso Award by Super Jocks Records.
- 1985: Best Female Recording Artist Award by C.E.I.
- 1986: Recognition for Achievement in Human Progress from the Concerned Citizens of Liberia Organization.
- 1989: Humanitarian Award by Sunshine Music Awards.
- 1989: Recognition for contribution to the steelpan by the Calypso and Steelband Music Awards.
- 1990: Nafeita Lifetime Achievement Awards.
- 1991: Most Outstanding Woman in Trinidad and Tobago by the National Women’s Action Committee.
- 1993: Inducted into the Tobago Walk of Fame as a charter member.
- 1993: Honored by the Mayor of Catherines, Ontario, Canada, with the keys to the City.
- 1999: International Caribbean Music Award’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
- 2011: Africa Festival Lifetime Achievement Award