HER cheerful presence, mischievous grin and bold spirit reached out to warm the hearts of all the people who came to hear Calypso Rose in concert on February 28 at the National Academy for the Performing Arts (Napa) in Port of Spain. Filling the air with rousing renditions of some of her hit songs, the calypso doyen took people on a wonderful journey down memory lane and proved that at heart she is indeed ever young, and ever strong, despite her 79 years on Earth (well, technically she’s 78 but she will be 79 in April).
But don’t think for a second that Calypso Rose’s concert was a case of total sweet nostalgia. Queen Rose sang on varied themes, from unjust labour conditions to saucy sexual longings to ancestral grief on behalf of her departed African great-grandmother.
“I've been breaking down walls / Ever since I was small / They could stand up tall and strong / Like a wrecking ball I go knock them down”, sang Rose as part of her song Queen Rose, delivered in a gruff, gutsy, dread old-time kaiso style as a kind of female robber talk, boasting of her warrior qualities to one and all.
Born in Bethel, Tobago, in 1940, Rose’s full name is Rose McCartha Linda Sandy Lewis, and she wrote her first calypso at the age of 15 after seeing a man steal glasses from a woman in a market. Her father was a Spiritual Shouter Baptist preacher. Since her teenage years she’s composed more than 800 songs, she’s performed with Bob Marley and the Wailers in New York in 1967, she was Trinidad’s first Calypso Queen in 1974, and she has enjoyed a career that continues to flow and grow. One of the highlights of her career has been receiving the February 10, 2017 Victoires de la Musique Award for Best Album in the World Music category, for her 2016 album Far From Home. That album achieved platinum sales status in France in 2017.
Rose’s first song of the night was Young Boy (published December 2018), a cheeky collaboration with Machel Montano. In quietly rollicking manner, and flavoured with Spiritual Baptist, vintage calypso and dub influences, this risqué song reverses the standard machismo and age prejudices in the Caribbean with Rose trying to convince a lady, Angela, that after dealing with so much stress in her previous marriage, she should go get herself a young man: “The younger the youth / the stronger the juice” is one line, clearly showing that Rose does not let age stand in the way of sexy lyrics or fantasies!
Next up was Leave Me Alone (published 2016), another collaboration with Montano. After the intermission, Rose emerged resplendent in white and red jacket and trousers, with sparkly white flat shoes that by the end of the night she had kicked off her feet. She launched into the bubbly song I am African (from Far From Home, 2016), followed by what was possibly the most moving song of her concert, a song in remembrance of her great-grandmother.
“My great grandmother was kidnapped, bought and sold and lived in Tobago, and she was from French Guinea, Africa. I knew her when she died, I was five years of age, and I wrote this calypso in her honour. She died in Tobago. We don’t know her real name. But her master’s name was Paul…” said Rose, before singing Back To Africa. It’s a sad lament sung from the point of view of her great-grannie who is longing to return back to her home to Africa, but the distance is too far.
An upbeat, ska rhythm brought spirits up again with her next song, Far From Home (2017). The music video for this song is a delight – you can see Rose piloting a light aircraft, zooming above Caribbean skies (link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H23T9t94BhY).
She then launched into No Madame, a song she first sang in 1974 as a protest to then prime minister Dr Eric Williams about the abysmally low pay of Trinidad domestic servants: “I working like an elephant / for just $20 a month”. Next it was woman power time, with the song Queen Rose, and at 11.35 pm, Rose walked off the stage right into the audience as she sang her 1977 Road March More Tempo, to huge audience response. People crowded gently around her as she sang. The concert closed with her final song, Fire Fire, which she delivered with great clarity and energy, even extemporising a new line into the tune: “Donald Trump on fire!”
Though Calypso Rose was the star of the show, Nailah Blackman and Machel Montano were other highlights. A sultry, sensual Nailah Blackman performed in teeny weeny shorts, strappy high heels, a cheerful bright yellow jacket and sported long waves of red hair. She commanded the stage with confidence and had great vocal delivery, the vibrant fullness of her distinctive twanging voice filling up the warehouse-like space of Napa hall with waves of song, starting with her October 2018 released song, Iron Love, which celebrates the power of percussive iron sides at Carnival. She also sang O Lawd Oye (released December 2017) in soulful Afropunk style, and a medley of brief snatches of other songs, including Iron Bazodee (Square One and Alison Hinds, 2011) and Sugar Bum Bum (Kitchener, 1978). She then sang her popular dance song Baila Mami (released April 2017) to honour and introduce Calypso Rose on stage at 9.53 pm.
Machel Montano next appeared like a soca ninja in a headband and orange-red track suit-type outfit. He obligingly acted as a receptive Young Boy for the song of that same name, before giving a signature high-energy performance, starting with his mellow love song Toco Loco (released November 2018), and then revving things up with the rapid beat of the Dominican bouyon-flavoured, rough chanting song Famalay (published February 2019, a collaboration of Montano, Skinny Fabulous and Bunji Garlin), which sounded more like an aggressive rapso chant than a song with any melody. Montano’s sheer enthusiasm had the laid-back crowd finally rising from their seats and dancing, their hands in the air, not an easy feat to achieve at Napa.
Other guest performers were Olatunji Yearwood with three songs including his 2015 soca hit Ola; Neval Chatelal and Nishard M (Mayrhoo) singing their 2019 chutney soca song Fyah and treating the audience to short duets of melodious Indian chanting; Nesta “Sekon Sta” Boxill whose vocal scatting and rippling jumpy dance rhythms proved infectious, especially his song Aye Yo from 2017; and SuperBlue (Austin Lyons) who sang Soca Baptist and Ethel.
The concert was produced by Randy Glasgow Productions and held together by MC Philomena Alexis-Baptiste, a humorous character played by actress Deborah Maillard. Philomena, dressed as a humble maid with mop in hand, cracked jokes, chatted and teased the audience. She ably introduced the acts, and put everyone at their ease with her earthy comments and sometimes ribald antics.