Calypso Rose among thorns

She took on the masters of calypso – and won. Garry Steckles sings the praises of the pioneering Calypso Rose

Calypso Rose. Photograph by Andrea De Silva

Mention Calypso Rose to just about anyone in the calypso world, and the response will inevitably be laden with superlatives. The greatest female calypsonian of them all – and right up there with the greatest men. A class act, on and off the stage. A musical treasure. People who know her, it seems, have nothing but good things to say about an exponent of the calypso art form whose career spans a remarkable seven decades.

It wasn’t always thus.

To get where she is today – and this is what makes her truly special – it wasn’t enough for Rose to be merely an accomplished and prolific songwriter with a gift for the sort of melodies you can’t get out of your head – the one that’s been buzzing around in mine, morning, noon and night for the past few weeks, is called “Back to Africa”, a sweet reggae song from her latest CD. It wasn’t enough for her to have arguably the most powerful voice in all of calypso, albeit one with an underlying warmth that comes to the fore in her latest release, a self-titled album that deliberately veers away from Rose’s stock-in-trade full-tilt soca and calypso. It wasn’t enough that she’s an outstanding stage performer in a genre that’s not exactly short of them. It certainly wasn’t enough that almost from the outset of her career she was writing and singing songs that were eventually to be recognised as calypso classics.
Rose, you see, embarked on her life as a calypsonian at a time when the music scene in Trinidad, her adopted home – she’s a proud Tobagonian by birth – was, to all intents and purposes, exclusively male. And it didn’t help that a woman’s place in Caribbean society in general in those days was nowhere near front and centre.

Times, thank goodness, have changed. And through the medium of calypso Rose has played a significant role in those changes. She made it to the very pinnacle of her profession, not only competing with the guys but doing it better than all but the very best of them: she’s generally mentioned in the same breath as legends like Sparrow, Kitchener and the Roaring Lion, and in calypso there’s no more rarified company.

Rose, as she’ll tell anyone who asks, wasn’t the first female calypsonian. That distinction belongs to Lady Iere, who was one half of a successful musical partnership with her husband, Lord Iere, that dated back to before World War II.

But she was probably the second, and certainly the first to achieve noteworthy success.

To earn that recognition, though, Rose had to fight, and fight hard. Good though her songs might have been in the early days of her career, in the late Fifties, throughout the Sixties and well into the Seventies, she was consistently ignored when it came to prestigious accolades such as the Trinidad Carnival Road March and Calypso King (as it was then).

As Rose herself puts it, “I put licks on all the men, and it would be too embarrassing …embarrassing for them, so they deny me the rights. They deny me the rights of owning what is mine.”

Her sentiments are echoed by Denyse Plummer, one of the many women whose successful careers in soca owe so much to Rose’s pioneering grit and determination. Says Plummer: “In Calypso Rose’s day, it was a disgrace to be a woman in calypso. It was very hard.”

Eventually, after years of seeing her songs, often clearly the most popular with the masses, relegated to also-rans in competition, Rose’s persistence paid off. The year was 1977, the song was “Tempo”, and it won the coveted Road March title at Trinidad Carnival. The following year, 1978, Rose went one better. She won the Road March again, with “Soca Jam”, and also, singing the absolutely gorgeous “I Thank Thee” and “Her Majesty”, became the first woman to be crowned “Calypso King” – a title that was quickly changed to Calypso Monarch.

She promptly withdrew from competition, but the changes she had set in motion were to continue, and while women were still in a numeric minority among calypsonians, they were no longer automatically reduced to the status of second-class citizens. Denyse Plummer and Singing Sandra (twice) have won Calypso Monarch crowns, and it’s perhaps no coincidence that they’re the two female calypsonians whose names crop up most frequently when Rose talks about women performers she admires. Fay-Ann Lyons has claimed three of the last seven Road March titles, including 2009 and 2008, while Sanelle Dempster and Patrice Roberts (in a duet with Machel Montano) have won one each.

As for Rose, she’s still the unchallenged queen of calypso, she’s probably never been more in demand for live appearances, and she featured prominently in the wonderful  and widely acclaimed documentary film, Calypso Dreams. Geoffrey Dunn, the co-producer of Calypso Dreams, got to know Rose well while he was filming in Port of Spain, and I asked him to share a few thoughts about her. Over to you, Geoffrey:

“We were suite mates several times in Port of Spain, at both the Normandie and the Pelican Inn, and she was always a gracious and fun-filled presence. A total joy. We followed her around Port of Spain one day with a camera, and it was a delight to see her interact with her fans. It was a unique mixture of royalty melded with the common touch.

“As a performer, she is a consummate professional, always engaging her audience, always giving 110 per cent. She works it. Her songs capture the Zeitgeist of the Caribbean from a woman’s perspective, which is rare, of course, in calypso.

“She had to fight for everything she earned in the early days. She wasn’t the first female calypsonian, but she was the first to seriously challenge the men. They denied her the Road March in 1969. She came back and won it anyway.

“She paved the way for a new generation of female calypsonians, like Singing Sandra and Denyse Plummer, but she also paved the way for the likes of soca stars Destra Garcia, Denise Belfon, Fay-Ann Lyons and Alison Hinds. I truly hope they comprehend what she did.

“Rose never compromised her integrity for her artistry. Ever. To me, she ranks right up there with Kitch and Sparrow and Lion as one of the great calypsonians. She is a living treasure.”

Thank you, Geoffrey.

But, most of all, thank you, Calypso Rose.