For the past 56 years Calypso Rose has commanded the stage and the attention of her audience with her powerful voice and social and political commentary laced with satire. And she has continued to hold her own in the once male-dominated calypso environment.
Calypso Rose (born McCartha Sandy-Lewis) broke the gender barrier at age 15 and has penned over 800 songs over the last five decades.
She has also performed around the world, including Canada which, she says, is one of her favourite countries.
“I love this place and Toronto has always been one of my preferred destinations because I have relatives and friends living here and the response to my presence on stage and my compositions have always been resounding,” said the calypso icon who was in the city last week for the North American opening night screening of Calypso Rose: The Lioness of the Jungle at the sixth annual Caribbean Tales Film Festival at Harbourfront Centre.
She says that her love for Canada was enhanced when then St. Catharines Mayor Joseph Reid – who died three years ago – presented her with the key to his city while on a visit to Tobago in 1993.
“I figured he was aware of my music that included a calypso I composed about Quebec Frenchmen loving to wine,” the 71-year-old recalled. “It was quite an honour to be recognized with the key to a Canadian city and I still cherish the moment.”
The 85-minute Pascale Obolo-directed documentary, one of several Caribbean-themed films screened at the Caribbean Tales Festival which runs parallel to the Toronto International Film Festival, was produced by French-born Jean Michel Gilbert who has been a Trinidad & Tobago resident for the past 20 years.
“Rose is an extraordinary Caribbean woman,” said Gilbert who was in Toronto for the screening. “She is very accommodating and easy to work with which is not surprising because she’s a show-woman.”
The documentary was shot over four years – in Paris where she recorded her last album, Calypso Rose; in Queens, New York where she has resided since 1983; in Tobago where she was born; in Trinidad where she was raised from age nine and in Ouidah in Benin where thousands of Africans were forced into slave ships.
The success Calypso Rose now enjoys did not come easily. She overcame a speech impediment to become the first woman to win the Trinidad & Tobago Road March competition in 1977 with her song Tempo. She defended her Road March title the following year and captured the first of five straight Calypso crowns, forcing the Trinidad & Tobago government to make the change from “Calypso King” to “Calypso Monarch” in 1978 after she made history as the first woman to ever to win the accolade.
She is also the only performer to capture the Road March, National Calypso Queen and Calypso Monarch crowns in the same year.
A two-time cancer survivor, Calypso Rose recently revealed a dark secret that has haunted her for years.
As an 18-year-old, she was badly beaten and brutally raped by three men in Barataria while returning home from a People’s National Movement (PNM) political rally in 1958.
“I was a junior member of the party and it was about eight o’clock in the evening when I was viciously attacked,” recalled Calypso Rose who also suffered a broken right arm and three fractured ribs. “But more painful than that ordeal was that I was painted as the villain and not the victim who suffered such a horrible experience. That was pathetic.”
She has also endured a painful and heavily publicized family loss. Five years ago, her gay nephew Michael Sandy succumbed to head injuries after being beaten and run over by a vehicle in a hate crime in Brooklyn, New York. He never regained consciousness and was taken off a respirator a day after his 29th birthday.
Calypso Rose is one of 13 children born to a Grenadian mother and a Barbadian Spiritual Baptist minister father who she claims inspired her musical career.
“The African spirit, rhythm and beat have been with me from birth,” she says.
She wrote her first calypso, Glass Thief, at age 15 when she witnessed a bandit snatch a pair of glasses from a woman in a Trinidad market. She was shocked by the incident, saying “nobody stole in Tobago at that time”.
Castigated by women parishioners who objected to a woman singing calypso, Calypso Rose gained their acceptance and respect after Hurricane Flora killed 18 people and inflicted considerable crop and property damage in Tobago in 1963.
“I composed a song about the hurricane for the tent in 1964 and after every verse, I sang ‘Abide With Me’,” said the honorary citizen of Belize. “The same church women who a few months earlier said that I did not belong in the calypso arena were now saying I am doing something good.”
Her best known hit, Fire in Meh Wire, has been recorded in eight languages by various artists and she’s the recipient of several honours, including the British Empire Medal of Merit and the Citizens of Liberia and Caribbean American Heritage awards.
“Calypso Rose is renowned not just in Trinidad & Tobago, but around the world as the Mother of Calypso,” said T & T High Commissioner Philip Buxo. “Her passion and artistry represent the best of Trinidad & Tobago’s culture, its energy, its vibrancy and its joy. She’s an exceptional ambassador for Caribbean music.”
Very few would disagree.