YOU cannot talk about Tobago’s culture and not mention Lesley-Ann Ellis.
She’s been a dominant force on the island’s performing landscape for over four decades, thrilling audiences with her thought-provoking songs, lively folk dances and compelling dramatic presentations.
It’s not uncommon to see her relating a tale about Tobago’s rich heritage or singing a calypso about domestic abuse, crime or any of the social ills plaguing the society. You may even spot her dressed as a dame Lorraine gyrating to a soca tune or, in Baby Doll character, urging unsuspecting men to “mind” their children.
Over the years, Ellis, 55, has won many competitions, including Heritage Monarch, Scouting For Talent and Vintage Monarch. She also won the Tobago Calypso Monarch title on three occasions.
Ellis has performed with various cultural groups in St Vincent, St Lucia, Suriname, Carriacou, Canada, the US among other countries.
Saying she has no intention of calling it a day, the performer vowed to continue seeking avenues to promote Tobago’s culture.
“As long as I can walk, I will be on a stage,” Ellis told WMN, bursting into laughter.
True to form, Ellis is juggling several projects. She is participating in the Best Village Best Trophy competition with the New Edition Folk Performing Company.
The Mason Hall group has qualified for the folk and gospel finals of the competition at the National Academy for the Performing Arts on July 4 and 5.
Ellis is also preparing for next month’s Tobago Heritage Festival, a signature event on the island’s cultural calendar.
The cultural advocate has also been appointed chair of Carnicopia’s October Carnival where she is responsible for the calypso segment of the event.
Ellis said redoing the Sherwin Cunningham play, The Beast Within, is one of her priorities.
Cunningham, who died on March 12, 2022, was a talented playwright, songwriter and calypsonian. He was also one of Ellis’ closest friends.
She said The Beast Within is a play about life.
“Just what happens in life is what you can expect in the play and more.”
Cunningham, Ellis said, had always talked about completing the play, “So I took that one me personally to ensure that his dream comes through.”
She is hoping to complete the project in time for what would have been Cunningham’s 56th birthday on July 31.
Describing Cunningham as a great writer, Ellis said, “I used to call him the Tobago Tyler Perry. I don’t know his brain used to work. I used to wonder how he slept.”
Ellis, who begins pan lessons next month, said she is not at all daunted by her various projects.
“I just love the culture. It is rich and unique. It stands out among other cultures. We Congo, Bele and Jig, the way we talk and interact with people is just unique.”
Originally from Bon Accord, Ellis’ journey into the performing arts began at the Scarborough Secondary School, where she sang in the school’s choir under the tutelage of Vernella Alleyne-Toppin. There, she participated in the National Music Festival and later, the Best Village competition and Tobago Heritage Festival.
Ellis entered the heritage queen competition on two separate occasions with the Scarborough-based New Dimension Chorale and the Mason Hall Folk Performers, which Cunningham had formed many years ago.
Of the latter, she said, “That is when I started acting, singing and dancing. That is where I was multi-tasking. I was doing everything there.”
Ellis performed in a play with the New Dimension Chorale during a visit to St Vincent some years ago. Cunningham wrote the script.
“Every play Sherwin put me in I always getting the heavy bacchanal part. I don’t know why?”
Over the years, Ellis was also involved with the Scarborough-based Rising Stars Folk Performers and Roots, which she established with then dance tutor Clarence Nurse. The Plymouth resident, though, is perhaps best known for her contributions in the calypso arena, having been a three-time finalist in the Dimanche Gras competition. She said although she would love to win a Calypso monarch title, it is not a priority.
“Calypso for me is not about winning but getting the message out there.”
Ellis said people have always been able to relate to her calypsos.
She recalled making it to the Dimanche Gras finals one year with a song called Tonight, which dealt with domestic abuse.
“A woman told me, ‘Lesley-Ann, everything you said in that song is what my husband did to me.’ That is what makes me feel good – that I am reaching somebody and they could identify with what I am saying. It is not always about competition.
“You want to be in Skinner Park and in the finals. But after that life goes on. Calypso, for me, is about reaching the people and getting the message of your song out there.”
Nevertheless, Ellis, whose daughter Garve Sandy, has followed in her footsteps, said she prefers to act rather than sing.
“When I am acting I am just natural but when you are singing you have to put yourself in a mode because it is competitive.”
Eight years ago, Ellis’ vivacious personality and folksy manner caught the attention of the Trinidad-based Carvalho’s Cruise Services Ltd and she was approached to become a tour guide in Tobago during the cruise ship season. For her, the offer provided yet another opportunity to market the island’s heritage and she embraced it. Ellis said she makes a point of not only exposing the tourists to Tobago’s traditions, attractions and artforms but ensuring that they learn about them.
She recalled teaching a male tourist an extempo calypso and, at the end of the tour, he composed one about her.
“That shows me that they are learning.”
Ellis said she tries to make her tours unique and entertaining.
“Tours should never be boring. So I also sing because I love to make people happy and see them smile. It is about having fun while giving information.”
However, she believes the tours could be improved by having a steelband at Store Bay as well as food stations, at strategic spots, offering indigenous dishes.
“Tourists could learn about doubles and making a roast bake, fire below and fire on top. Our culture is not just about singing and dancing. Food is also an integral part.”
Ellis believes attempts are being made to encourage and promote an appreciation of Tobago’s culture.
“I see they have pan in schools so we are on the right track. You have to start in the schools to sell the culture because if we don’t put it on the curriculum we will be in trouble.”
She said she is already encouraging her godchildren to sing calypso.
“I am doing my part to ensure that the culture lives. We can’t depend solely on the THA. Each of us has to do something to assist in some way.”
Ellis believes Tobago-based calypsonians are not exposed to opportunities like their Trinidad counterparts.
Using the February Carnival as an example, she observed there was just the Windward Monarch competition.
“What about all of the other calypsonians, they would have prepared songs? What happens to that song that did not make it to the national calypso fiesta? You cannot use back that song so it come like a waste material.”
Ellis said the tents operating in Tobago basically host one show per season.
“I don’t think that is good enough when you have Trinidad tents that run from mid-February until Carnival. We would like to get at least a fortnight so that people can come out and experience what we have because we have the talent.”
She recalled that when she sang with the Revue, the tent ran for several days.
Ellis also observed that Tobagonians appear to prefer pan than calypso.
“When you have pan is a lot of people. So I don’t know if we not promoting the calypso enough. But something has to be done and if I can help in any way I will try my best to.”
She said she is trying to keep the Masters Kaiso tent, which Cunningham had managed, afloat. But funding remains a challenge.
“I am doing my bit to keep calypso in Tobago alive and if we had a personal sponsor, the Masters Kaiso tent would have been singing right through the year. Money is the issue as everything else.”
Ellis urged the THA to convene a meeting of calypsonians to thrash out the issues affecting the fraternity.
She believes Tobago must sell its monarch.
“Sometimes, we have a monarch and that comes and goes and nobody knows that we have a Tobago monarch. We need to continue with the promotion. Is not what you do is how you do it. So marketing has a lot to do with how people come out for a calypso show.”
Ellis said apart from prize money there can also be other incentives for calypsonians.
“I always have a dream to have a ‘Look like me, sing like me’ competition and I pray one day God gives me money to keep that competition.
“You have to look like and sing like a local artiste and they have to do some research on the local artiste I hope it will come through some day, one day.”