NIGEL A CAMPBELL
Back in 2008, I first engaged professionally with Denyse Plummer, via her sister Arlene (RIP), to perform at an event the team at Production One Ltd was producing for UN Caribbean (then called UNIC-TT), Freedom Rain: The UN Concert for Human Rights.
Off the bat, you knew you were dealing with an old pro in the industry: serious questions about her hospitality rider, her broadcast rights, her contract with the promoter/producer were asked.
Denyse came on time, she mingled with fellow artists and fans – never betraying her right to privacy and security – she was not aloof. She sang three songs, including, of course, Nah Leaving.
Critically, she delivered. She was an entertainment boss that October evening, getting that young crowd to sing along loudly, and passing on her personal message on human rights.
Like many of the local popular artists I knew at that time, her fame had come years before. Back in the 1970s, I first heard her singing, with her distinctive breathy voice, the easy-listening pop of Olivia Newton-John and the burgeoning island pop that was making waves here and internationally. During the same time, Carol Addison-Lewis, Dennis De Souza, Michael Boothman and Kalyan were releasing albums. I remember Denyse's album Natural, produced by Carl "Beaver" Henderson back in 1978. Since that time, she has been a major act in the local music scene.
Of course, we all remember the baptism by fire in the calypso arena – pelted toilet paper, suck-up orange picked up off the ground, paper cup with ice and God knows what else – that she endured at Calypso Fiesta in Skinner Park in 1986.
That act of artificial rage, cathartic violence and psychological revenge – let's not sugarcoat it – while imprinted in the minds of many as a ritual hazing, was also the episode that cemented in my mind the importance and obligation of being a professional performer in this country.
There are calypsonians who would walk off stage if the audience booed, or tell patrons to “kiss my black Grenadian a--,” but her act of defiance of completing her first calypso, and coming back for her second song while dodging metaphorical and practical bullets of rage, converted an audience. It made an audience rock back and take notice, and, as we saw the following year, allowed an audience to respect her courage enough to show her toilet paper but not throw it! (She also had a better song that year.) And never throw it at her again!
That act, I am convinced, opened the door for any other "high-colour" performer singing calypso, and broadened the space for a new generation of female calypso and soca singers. Destra Garcia and all the modern female soca stars owe a major debt of gratitude to Denyse for easing their path into the entertainment world of local audiences that can turn from friend to foe in a single season. I would also suggest that Kes the Band line up to pay homage to Denyse.
And, as fate would have it, she would win the whole damn Calypso Monarch in 2001, never abandoning her role as calypso singer, performing artist – and tacit mentor to girls who look like her and who go on a local stage.
That metaphorical “turning the other cheek” aligned with her beliefs as she matured in the industry and moved into the gospel genre.
A professional all around – I can’t stop using that word – has passed, but her role as a pioneer on the local music recording and performing scene is not to be diminished.
Widely loved, always heralded, latterly respected, a consummate artist, Denyse Plummer is a presence that will never be ignored when the history of the local music industry is written.
Rest in peace, lady.
Nigel A Campbell is a music promoter, writer and aficionado