Ever-blooming Calypso Rose

She’s a musical legend: the first woman to win T&T’s Calypso Monarch title, beloved by generations of Caribbean listeners. Now her latest album is winning her fans across Europe, and taking her sixty-year career in an unexpected new direction. Joshua Surtees profiles the inimitable Calypso Rose

Photo courtesy Rituals MusicCalypso Rose CDCalypso Rose CDCalypso Rose CDFrans Schellekens/Redferns/Getty ImagesA gruelling schedule of live performances across Europe in the summer of 2016 helped drive Calypso Rose’s newfound success. Nurphoto/Getty Images

On a grey, drizzly night in Rouen, a packed concert tent is rocking to a calypso beat. It’s an odd juxtaposition. Rouen — a part-gothic, part-medieval, somewhat spooky French city, two hours from Paris in the Normandy countryside — was captured by the Vikings in the ninth century, saw Joan of Arc burned at the stake in 1431, and was destroyed by the Nazis in 1940. But none of these historic unpleasantries are uppermost in Calypso Rose’s mind, as the brassy, mesmeric, Caribbean sound of her band chases the city’s ghosts away into the chilly evening. She fixes her audience with a mischievous grin, pulls back the sides of her long, gold-trimmed, green satin jacket, and gyrates her waistline.

At the height of a painful summer for France, Rose seems determined to bring joy into the lives of the locals. And it works. From the moment the first notes ring out until the midnight curfew brings the show to an end, thousands of people — young children, cool hipsters, middle-aged music-lovers, and elderly grandparents — have been warmed up by the African-tinged rhythms of her new album, Far From Home.

For seventy-six-year-old Calypso Rose — born Linda McArtha Sandy-Lewis in the village of Bethel in Tobago in 1940 — the new album and the astonishing success it has brought her in France and across Europe represents a renaissance in what has been a remarkable sixty-year career. She began writing songs at the age of fifteen, performing them in calypso tents during the Carnival season in Port of Spain, and became the first woman to win the Calypso Monarch title, after years of male dominance.

Far From Home is expected to go platinum in France by the end of 2016, and Rose has toured the country extensively this past year, picking up new fans along the way. She has performed to tens of thousands at some of Europe’s biggest festivals, made regular appearances on national television, held the number one slots in the charts of France’s biggest music retail chain and its most popular radio station, and become the first Trinidad and Tobago recording artist ever to have a gold album.

Her manager Jean Michel Gibert, the mastermind behind the three-year project that went into making the record and releasing it with an intense marketing campaign, feels Rose is embarking on a whole new phase of her career.

“She’s really in demand in Europe,” says Gibert. “The festival shows at Roskilde [in Denmark], Esperanzah [in Belgium], and Solidays [in Paris] were huge, huge crowds. You can see the reaction of the crowds singing her name for five, ten minutes after the show. What is happening is hopefully similar to what happened with Cesária Évora, Miriam Makeba, Celia Cruz, or Buena Vista Social Club,” he adds. All of the artists he namechecks emerged from countries usually ignored by the US-dominated music industry, and went on to become global stars.

“We’ve got the green light for that kind of success,” Gibert says. “It’s a lot of work for her, and we hope of course that her health remains good and we will try to protect her a lot. It’s very exciting that she’s in demand. She’s an extraordinary human being, and very adaptable to what is happening to her. She surprises me all the time.”

 

Far From Home was recorded in Belize by producer Ivan Duran in 2013. The songs on it were co-written by Duran, Rose, and Trinidadian musician Drew Gonsalves, whose band Kobo Town is based in Toronto. After the recording sessions were finished, Gibert introduced Rose to the internationally acclaimed French musician Manu Chao, who was so taken with the vibe and energy of the album, as well as the septuagenarian calypsonian who created it, that he agreed to mix the album in Spain.

“Jean Michel knew Manu Chao,” Rose tells me in the offices of her record label, Because Music, in Paris’s ninth arrondissement, close to the buzzing North African community around the Barbès-Rochechouart metro station, and the striptease clubs of Pigalle. An independent label, Because Music has cutting-edge contemporary acts like Major Lazer and Erol Alkan on its roster, as well as legendary artists like JJ Cale, Baaba Maal, and Amadou & Mariam.

“Manu Chao is on the same label, and he sells millions and millions of records. Jean Michel brought Manu Chao to Trinidad last year for Carnival to meet with me,” Rose continues, “and we spoke for about three hours. All we were speaking about was music, music, music, music.

“He plays the cuatro and the guitar, he’s down to earth, he doesn’t let anybody know that he’s highly up there [as a recording artist] and I admire him for that,” she says. “He put some fantastic touches and vocals on virtually all the songs.”

The touch of Chao’s global fusion sound is evident in the highlife, salsa, and flamenco-style guitar parts and subtle chants of the backing vocals he added to the album at the mixing stage. But the groundwork to the polished final product was laid down in Central America, in producer Duran’s Stonetree Records studio, in the Belizean town of Benque Viejo del Carmen, close to the border with Guatemala. “There’s a definite theme going through the whole album, and we were aware that this had to be the album for her,” Duran says, mindful of the fact that it’s rare for an artist to get her first international breakthrough record at the age of seventy-six.

“I grew up listening to Rose” he says. “Here in Belize, she’s like a hero. I always saw her as a superstar. When I had the chance to work with her, I didn’t have to think twice, it was a pretty big deal for me. But even though I knew her songs, I didn’t have a Calypso Rose album in my collection — there was something missing. So I wanted to make the Calypso Rose album that everyone will remember. Not for one or two hits, but for a body of work that will immortalise her career.”

As Duran talks more about the cultural importance of Rose’s success in Europe, it becomes apparent just how much thought, energy, and passion the Belizean has invested in helping her achieve what she has worked hard for, for so many years. “When we started working on this project with Drew, we had to dissect what are the key elements in Rose’s trajectory — what made her special, what she represents for the Caribbean, and this long trajectory of doing calypso and then more electronic soca in the 1970s and 80s. We tried to pick all these different elements and include them in the album,” Duran explains.

“But you can have a great album and still not make an impact. What has happened in France is nothing short of historic for Caribbean music. Not to take anything away from Sean Paul or Shaggy, but anybody can have a hit — this is a genuine interest in an artist and, by extension, the region. This is bigger than music, this is a cultural connection, a discovery of something that people didn’t know existed. You have to go back to guys like Bob Marley or Jimmy Cliff to find people that awakened that interest in Caribbean culture.”

Rose’s irresistible charm is half of the reason she’s been taken to the hearts of a younger generation of European fans, some of whom probably don’t even know what calypso music is. Rose speaks barely any French, except what she says she learned from her great-grandmother, who arrived in Tobago from Guinea in West Africa: “un, deux, trois, quatre.” But although there is a language barrier, there is clearly something in her personality that breaks down walls. It’s an essential quality to have, because even though the album’s lyrics deal with serious content, befitting calypso’s role as a form of social commentary, the majority of her French audience are simply hearing party tunes and uplifting melodies. The opening track on the album, “Abatina”, is about domestic violence and the perils of marrying for money. “I Am African” and “Far From Home” explore the identity conflict of being in touch with your African roots while feeling homesick for the Caribbean, while “No Madame” — originally written in the 1970s — deals with the mistreatment of poorly paid domestic servants.

Despite the language barrier and the fact that Trinidadian artists have scarcely broken the surface in Europe — calypso as a genre has long been forgotten since its heyday in the 1950s — Rose was definitely the surprise hit of summer 2016. Driving through Paris one Saturday afternoon in May, the two Trinidadians in the back of my car suddenly cried out, “Calypso Rose!” causing me to almost swerve into an oncoming Citroën. They had seen her instantly recognisable face on an advertising hoarding, and were baffled. They made me drive around the block, back to the same spot, so they could take in the meaning of it. “Is she playing a concert?” they wondered. When they found out she was in fact in the middle of a tour, with another tour scheduled for September and October, their excitement was uncontainable.

But back home in Trinidad and Tobago, news of Rose’s success took months to filter through. To raise the profile of the project, Gibert recruited Jillionaire (Trinidadian DJ Christopher Leacock of Major Lazer) to produce an EDM remix of “I Am African”, and asked soca superstar Machel Montano to record guest vocals on the single “Leave Me Alone”. A North American tour is on the cards for 2017, and of course next Carnival will involve some special performances.

Has Rose’s European success surprised her? “They made ten thousand of those posters,” she says, laughing. “The music I’ve put out there for the public, they love it. People email me saying things like, ‘Mama Rose, I want you to be my grandmother.’ That is so powerful.”

Speaking about her age is almost unavoidable, given that she’s had one of the longest careers in the music business. How does she cope with the relentless promotional schedule? She gives me an example of the work it requires.

“We went from Paris to Strasbourg, then from Strasbourg to Berlin. Worked Berlin that same night. Then we flew, made two stops to change planes, and got in to Brest. I had two hours’ rest, then hit the venue and performed to forty-five thousand people. The taxi from the hotel took so long to pick us up that I had to get on stage at five-thirty and we only got to the venue at five-fifteen. I had to hustle, hustle, and get changed. Normally before I go onstage I have to hold the hands of the musicians and give God thanks — give some prayers before hitting the stage. It was hectic. I was supposed to go back to New York in July, but more jobs keep coming in.”

She knows how to keep her energy up, though. “Anything that’s from the sea,” she says enthusiastically. “Fish, sea moss. A lot of people ’fraid the sea. I doh ’fraid the sea, I love the sea. My father had two boats, he was a fisherman. And every evening after school we had to go to Mount Irvine Bay to take down the bake for him. My mama had to make the bake for him because they were out all night fishing, they would go out in the evening and come back in the morning. So we had to run from school, pick up the things, and take them down to the bay: sugar, lemon juice to drink. The sea gives you energy.”

She has no complaints about her work commitments or travel demands. The only thing she doesn’t like about being away from her beloved Tobago, or from New York, the city which has been her home base since 1983, is how difficult it is to find ingredients to cook with. “I like to cook my own food,” she says. “Here in Paris, I can’t get my provisions to cook, I can’t get my piece of pork to stew, I can’t get my split peas to make soup — the yellow ones are good for the brain.”

She talks about her encounters with Lord Kitchener, the legendary Aldwyn Roberts, in his Calypso Revue tent in the 1960s, revealing that in her youth she had a speech defect and she avoided talking in Kitchener’s presence, as her nervousness at the great calypsonian’s proximity rendered her virtually speechless.

It’s touching to hear this confession. A big part of her humour and persona is built around the kind of bravado that calypso masters are schooled in, though it is always completely obvious that her real personality is kind, caring, and extremely generous.

As Ivan Duran puts it, “She’s such a beautiful person. Even if she doesn’t know you, you become family almost immediately. Every time I speak to her she says hi to my mom, hi to my wife and the children. That’s why everybody wants her to succeed. Everything she does, she transmits love, so it’s hard not to fall in love with her.”

 

A Rose with a crown

When the young McArtha Sandy-Lewis began her musical career at the end of the 1950s — singing first as Crusoe Kid and later as Calypso Rose — calypso was still men’s business. The Andrews Sisters may have had a hit in North America with their version of “Rum and Coca-Cola”, but back in Trinidad and Tobago, the calypso tents and the Carnival stage were dominated by male singers whose boastful machismo was an essential part of the performance. There was every reason for Rose to lose heart. Instead, she persevered, slowly winning the respect of audiences and then her peers, over a decade and a half.

Her 1966 song “Fire in Me Wire” was a runaway hit, and from 1972 to 1976 she won the Calypso Queen title five times in a row. But 1977 brought an even bigger breakthrough, and the song was “Tempo” — an indisputable hit with the masses during the Carnival season, winning Rose her first Road March title, the first time the accolade was won by a woman. The following year, she went one better: not only repeating her Road March win, with “Come Leh We Jam”, but dominating the stage at the Calypso King competition, the most prestigious arena for calypsonians. As Rose was crowned on Dimanche Gras night at the Queen’s Park Savannah, it was obvious the competition had changed forever — for one thing, the winner would henceforth be known as the Calypso Monarch. She chose not to defend the title, but she’d already broken through the barrier. History was made.