Interview: Calypso Rose (December 2016)

Songs mean the world. It’s especially the case when a singer, Calypso Rose, is the very first woman to perform the music of a particular commercial genre: calypso. With every one of her answers to my questions, Calypso Rose sang her songs to me during our interview, as if to illustrate her thoughts. Often, I do agree with the fact that the best answer to my question was a song. ‘Listen, closely, to my song, young man, the way the words line up, the way they suit the melody, and you will be answered your questions.’ She seemed to be hinting this to me with an informed laugh.

When not in song, she answered the questions that I asked with vivacity. What a past hers was! A past as impressive as her present. She is still the reigning queen of calypso, all the while having been and being other things; things as interesting as wearing a crown. She had an obvious knack for living: books and books of anthropology perhaps will not spell out the living that can come from a mix of song, self-assurance, and relief that comes from having done what one believes is right.

As she sang to me, I could only think of Caribbean poet Darvetige writing “Omabarigore / the city that I have created for you / by taking the sea in my arms / and the landscape around my head.” I was hearing a woman’s hard-earned knowledge about both the world and self, put first to melody, then to lyric and finally to a complete song (to life). We spoke about her upbringing, calypso, her new album Far From Home, but mostly about the songs that she has written.

I’ve read that you grew up in a village. What was your upbringing like? Was it where you first learned music?

The village was Bethel, Tobago. It was a small village and life was very quiet. Tobago is a small island. There was one church, and one school split into two schools for younger kids, starting at age five, and then for older kids. There was hardly any music in my life at that time, since there was no electricity either for television or for radio. My dad had a radio that he used with a car battery, with a bamboo pole attached to the car battery. It broadcasted western music states like Texas, which is why in Tobago we have had a singing cowboy.

Were there any childhood songs, sang by your mother for example, that you remember?

She sings, “One a tono, two a milo, three and four and five solo.” My mother used to sing me that song. Solo is a soft drink. I do not remember its name. Tobago was a very little place with little parlours. Tobago is only 116 square miles. At the time, there were no buses, just donkeys.

I am guessing that you learned music when you moved to a city?

I was adopted by my uncle’s girlfriend at the age of nine, and moved to Trinidad. I called her Auntie. Auntie had a gramophone, the sort where you had to grind it up. We would play her calypso albums and she taught me how to dance to them. I learned calypso by letting the melodies come to me and finding words that suit the melodies.

Doctor Eric Williams won the election in 1955. I was with Auntie in Tobago when he was speaking by the old market in Scarborough. “Go and sing, go on sing,” one of my friends told me. And so, I sang a Calypso that I wrote about Tobago boys. Doctor Eric Williams loved my calypso. It was then that I decided to join a calypso tent, where calypsos are show-cased.

Calypso is for the devil, according to Dad. I could only begin to compose and sing calypso when I moved to Trinidad.

What has been the aim of your songs?

I would say something good for the tent, that makes others laugh, but something dear to me. Let’s take the song “A man is a man”. She sings, “but any man could give you satisfaction...” It is from the conversation I heard that women were having about wanting a certain type of man. From it I wrote a song about any sort of man being able to satisfy a woman, regardless of race or of profession.

Is it meant to be a philosophical song?

Yes, it is. She sings, “a man is a man…”

What is your favourite song that you yourself have composed and performed?

I would say that it is “Fire in me wire.” She sings, “I saw this old lady running…” It all began while I was in the Virgin Islands. Under the shower, I thought about a lady’s house which had caught on fire. It was a house made of bamboo roots; a patch house. A melody came to me, and then after some time it slipped out of my mind. Sometime after, I was doing a show in Barbados. In my hotel room, an idea came to me that was the song that I had been writing, and I wrote a second verse. Finally, I wrote the third verse in Trinidad, and released the song in 1966. It has been sung in nine different languages.

What’s a second favourite song of yours that you yourself have composed, if you don’t mind me asking?

She sings, “I can’t this feeling… / my heart is reeling…”. “Come Leh We Jam” is another favourite of mine.

Your most recent album is Far From Home. What did you care to accomplish with it?

With Far From Home I am much more excited by what I have accomplished. It is an album that has almost gone platinum – I have been able to sing to people all over through it. It is what I mean by the title: I am far from home, in the air, going from show to show, Spain, Germany, New York, but I am nonetheless in connection with others musically, and that is important as a Caribbean person. It is a very important Caribbean album in terms of it being able to reach a wide audience.

We are talking while you are in New York, where you are certainly far from home, but what is your favourite song that you have written about home?

She begins to sing, “O Tobago, beautiful as you are…”, “O, Tobago,” is my favourite song about home.