Feisty singer, winding storyteller, feminist pioneer and Caribbean cultural icon, it’s more than 40 years since Calypso Rose was first crowned calypso queen - and her new album Far From Home finds her in no mood to give up her throne.
“No man alive or dead could take the crown off mi head,” she sings in typically sassy and emphatic style.
You’d better believe it for Far From Home is the most expansive and forward-looking album Calypso Rose has made in a storied career that began in the calypso tents and carnival parades of Trinidad more than half a century ago.
“I’ve been breaking down walls ever since I was small,” she sings – and at 75 years young, she’s still doing it with as much gusto and determination as ever.
Sparklingly produced by Ivan Duran and with the mercurial Manu Chao sprinkling his own unique magic dust on the tracks, the new album finds her turbo-charged for a 21st century global audience and garnishing her classic sweet-and-spicy calypso/soca sound with rhythms and melodies from Africa, Central America and across the Caribbean. It’s an album of upbeat dance tunes and carnival anthems, although the songs also pack a powerful message with lyrics about such subjects as domestic violence (“Abatina”) and women’s rights (“No Madame” and “Trouble”).
Then there’s the gloriously autobiographical “Calypso Queen”, written for her as a tribute by Gonsalves, and “I Am African”, an homage to her roots and to her great grandmother Martha Paul, who came from Guinea as a slave. She died when Calypso Rose was seven but she remembers seeing the ancient matriarch kneeling every evening at sunset towards the sea and praying to her African ancestors.
The songs are peppered throughout with pugnacious personal observations about her long life and career. “They used to call me small island girl, now I travel the world”, she sings at one point. “They say I reign too long, forgetting my constitution is strong”, she admonishes elsewhere…
“Calypso is for dancing and partying but it’s also for storytelling, like being a reporter. You can dance but you must also listen. You can’t have one without the other,” Rose explains.
She was born McArtha Linda Sandy-Lewis on the Caribbean island of Tobago in 1940. One of 11 children, at the age of age nine she was sent to live with an aunt and uncle on the neighbouring island of Trinidad to ease the strain on the family budget.
The pain of separation was softened by her aunt’s shared passion for music and she was soon hanging out in the calypso tents and following the carnival parades. “I did not become a singer of calypso; I was born into calypso", she says.
By the age of fifteen she had written her first hit song, “Glass Thief”. Initially singing as the Crusoe Kid, by the time she turned professional in 1964, she had been dubbed Calypso Rose.
Among her early hits were the suggestive “Fire In Me Wire”, which has since been recorded in eight different languages, and 1970’s “No Madame”, which generated political controversy by criticising the treatment of domestic servants in Trinidad and urging them to rebel against bullying employers. The song caused such a furore that Eric Williams, the Trinidadian prime minister, summoned a cabinet meeting. “From there the law was changed and domestic servants got a fair wage,” she says proudly. She reprises the song with a fresh arrangement on the new album.
“No Madame” is one of more than 800 songs she’s written over the last 60 years and four more of the dozen songs on Far From Home are her own compositions, including “Leave Me Alone”. “I was having such a good time, it’s me saying ‘leave me alone, I ain’t going home’, she says.
By the mid-1970s her reputation had spread far beyond Trinidad. Bonnie Raitt covered her “Wah She Go Do” on her 1972 album Takin’ My Time and Rose shared stages with the likes of Bob Marley and Tito Puente as well as performing alongside all of the top calypsonians from Lord Kitchener to the Mighty Sparrow.
She first won the annual Trinidad Road March - the top honour awarded to the song played most often at the judging points along the parade route during carnival - with 1975’s “Do Dem Back”; but in the male-dominated world of calypso, the title was stripped from her and given to Kitchener instead.
Undeterred she was back in 1977 when she won again with “Give Me More Tempo” - and this time she was allowed to keep the prize. At the following year’s carnival her song "Come Leh We Jam" won the ‘Calypso King’ competition, forcing the organisers to change the title to ‘Calypso Monarch’ in her honour.
“They couldn’t rob me anymore but then I bow and say thank you and take my music abroad,” she says in explaining why in 1983 she moved to New York City, where she joined a burgeoning ex-pat community of Trinidadians. She’s lived in the US ever since, although she goes back to Trini every year for carnival.
The early 1980s also saw her first visit to Belize, where she met her future producer, Ivan Duran, and recorded the hit songs “Leh We Punta” and “Fire In Belize”, paying tribute to the punta rhythm of that country’s Garifuna people. It led to her being made an honorary citizen of Belize.
Petulant, energetic, vehement, jovial, gregarious… there aren’t enough words to describe her performance on this new album “Far From Home” on which she generously dispenses her joie de vivre with the voice of a young girl.