Tobago Heritage Monarch labours in the culture vineyard

Shamika Denoon is a dancer, choreographer, dramatist, designer and Carnival bandleader. Photo by Sureash Cholai
Shamika Denoon is a dancer, choreographer, dramatist, designer and Carnival bandleader. Photo by Sureash Cholai

WHO says perseverance doesn’t pay off?

Ask Shamika Denoon and she’ll tell you that her victory in the Tobago Heritage Monarch competition on July 29 was the culmination of years of hard work, sacrifice, commitment and determination.

“I have laboured in the vineyard but I always remained true to my craft and my culture,” a beaming Denoon, 39, told WMN.

“I have worked hard over the years to get to this point. So the victory, for me, is like a stepping stone for greater things to come.”

Denoon has her sights set on winning the National Calypso Monarch title in next year’s Dimanche Gras show.

She’s made it to the semi-finals of the competition at Skinner Park, San Fernando, on five occasions, but never advanced to the Big Yard.

The calypsonian said the heritage monarch title has given her an added incentive to make that dream a reality.

“We were down for two years with the pandemic and I am looking forward to Carnival 2023. So the stepping stone now is to look to the Dimanche Gras. Everybody will be bringing their A game. So this will be an incentive and motivation for me to push even harder.”

At the Shaw Park Cultural Complex, Denoon was a runaway favourite.

She delivered an impassioned version of the Sheldon Reid composition Reignite D Flames, an uplifting calypso about reclaiming Tobago’s heritage after the pandemic.

The mother of three, who celebrates her tenth anniversary of singing calypso competitively later this year, said the song resonated with her.

“It is a reminder, telling us as a people who we are, because in order for us to know where we are going, we have to know where we come from.

“So that flame within us, that aspect of our culture, our uniqueness, we need to hold on to our customs and our norms, reignite it and hold on to it.”

Denoon said even though covid19 brought death and hardship, traditions will never die.

“We can always go back to traditions. That is why I mentioned in the calypso going back to the tradition of fire on top and fire below (for cooking). You don’t have to go out the road and buy bread, to spend money you don’t have.

“If we practise our traditions, we will make it because that is the flame within us. If we reignite that, we will succeed as a people. We just need to help each other and we will all rise together during the hard times.”

Denoon said the calypso was also a clarion call for parents to teach the heritage to their children.

The Bon Accord native praised Jesse Taylor, a cultural officer at the THA Division of Tourism, Culture, Antiquities and Transportation, for providing the material for the song.

She described Taylor as an ambassador for Tobago’s culture, saying he has always been one of her biggest cheerleaders.

“He was firing me up all along, telling me I have to sing and give it my all.”

She said throughout her career she has always made a point of consulting the island’s cultural icons for material for her work.

“It is important to me to get it from the persons themselves who were instrumental in the development of the Tobago heritage.”

Outside her performance in the calypso competition, audiences caught snapshots of Denoon’s talent at other events in the festival.

During the Emancipation Day street parade, she narrated a compelling ancestral piece as the procession made its way to the Store Bay Heritage Park, Crown Point.

Denoon also described the portrayal of one of the queens in the Junior Miss Tobago Heritage competition that same evening.

Her powerful vocals on the Ella Andall classic Bring Down The Power heralded Pembroke heritage presentation, Salaka Feast, on July 27.

An accomplished dancer, choreographer, dramatist, designer and Carnival bandleader, Denoon cut her teeth in performing at the Bon Accord Government Primary School.

She said her late teacher, well-known Tobago musicologist Michael Duncan. and his wife Cheryl quickly recognised her talents and nurtured it.

Duncan, whom she regarded as a mentor and friend, died on Wednesday.

“He has done so much for my development culturally. Before I sang on the night of the heritage competition, he and his wife called me and told me they know I can do it because I had kept my pulse on the culture.”

Denoon recalled Duncan, who was also one of the lead actors in the local soap opera Turn of the Tide back in the 1980s, had introduced her as a back-up singer in the calypso tents when she attended Scarborough Secondary School.

Shamika Denoon says Calypso Rose, Ella Andall and Tigress are among the singers who influence her. Photo by Sureash Cholai

“Before I was a solo singer in the calypso tents, I was a back-up. So I was the lead vocalist in many of his arrangements. His passing has left a great void.”

Denoon recalled a scenario where her talents were tested.

"I remember one music festival we were running late and Mr Duncan said he needed someone who could dramatise and is also a vocalist so that the other children could feed off the energy. Automatically, he just selected me.”

She said under Duncan’s tutelage, she became a cultural ambassador for Tobago at 11, having attended cultural exchanges in Guyana, Canada and other parts of the world.

At Scarborough Secondary, Denoon was also a founding member of what was known then as the Youth Quake Folk Performers.

The group came about during a teachers' strike in the midst of preparations for a Best Village competition.

“We were so enthusiastic about performing and we weren’t getting the support from the teachers. So we decided to form our own little group to prepare for the competition and to teach the younger ones coming up.”

Denoon joked that since those years she has never left the stage.

“I am involved in 99.99 per cent of the activities in culture in Tobago, from January to December.”

Saying she has dedicated her heritage calypso victory to Duncan, Denoon said people who have excelled in their respective fields must be honoured while they are alive and can appreciate it.

“They need to smell their roses before they pass on.”

Although the calypso monarch title has eluded her, Denoon continues to make her mark in culture.

She has won calypso monarch competitions in Laventille, La Horquetta and San Juan as well as the T&T Idols. She also won the Tobago Junior Band of the Year title in 2012.

Denoon said late Tobago musician Sherwin Cunningham, Calypso Rose (McCartha Lewis), Ella Andall, David Rudder and Tigress (Joanne Rowley) have influenced her work tremendously.

She also admires the work of late calypsonian Singing Sandra (Sandra Des Vignes Millington), Leslie-Ann Ellis and Giselle Fraser Washington, who placed second in this year’s heritage monarch competition.

Denoon said assistant secretary in the Division of Tourism, Culture, Antiquities and Transportation Megan Morrison has always supported her career.

Asked how she fared during the pandemic, Denoon said she experienced “a serious tabanca.”

Her work in the dance group Sisters in Culture, which she founded some years ago in Canaan/Bon Accord, was particularly affected.

“I am also a dancer and choreographer and during the pandemic, I could not teach, I could not perform. I could not do anything, so that really affected me because the stage has always been my life.

“I was yearning for that performing space because when I perform, I express who I am and my feeling.”

However, the self-professed “Carnival baby,” who also has her own mas band Vogue Promotions, said she launched a jewellery business during the lockdown.

“Covid came right after Carnival 2020. So I was seeing all of this cloth and beads and it was haunting me. Although I was locked down, I said I cannot just be stagnant. I have to find something to do. So out of this, I took all of my beads and cloth and started a jewellery business.”

She said the business has been flourishing.

“I used that lockdown as a platform to further enhance my skills. because I am very good with my hands.”

Now that in-person events have resumed, Denoon is looking to the future with renewed hope.

She was overwhelmed by the participation of young people in the heritage festival.

“I was simply blown away. There were performers in Pembroke who were between two and five years old dancing. They were in the rehearsals, faithful and dedicated. So I was glad to see the younger ones playing a part in their heritage."

The October Carnival, Denoon believes, could not have come at a better time.

“I am very much passionate about October, because it would give us the recognition to showcase what Tobago has and can do.”

She said Tobago is fast becoming the events capital of the region.

“So if we can strengthen it from a Carnival aspect, we will target domestic tourism, the Caribbean diaspora and even that international space so that we could be recognised .I am hoping that October can be a stepping stone to a Carnival that will be of great significance to Tobago’s culture.”

In the meantime, Denoon is busy preparing for her performances in the Best Village competition. She is participating in the African devotional and local fusion categories on August 17 and 18, respectively.

“Tobago brought their A-game this year. We are in numerous categories.”


"Tobago Heritage Monarch labours in the culture vineyard"

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