Hail the Queen

By Raffique Shah
February 24, 2017

Raffique ShahI had planned to write on the resurgence of Calypso Rose since last year, when, having read about her successes in France, I decided to check YouTube to get proof of the pudding, in a manner of speaking. I have grown wary of boasts by many bards, more so those of the fast-foods Soca-ilk who make similar claims when all they have done is appear at carnivals or concerts up the islands or before diaspora-audiences in North America.

I have long argued that calypso music must penetrate the ethnic barriers, it must appeal to, at the very least, mainstream Americans and Europeans, meaning white people, before it can lay claim to being an attractive genre in world music. Bob Marley epitomised such achievement by taking Reggae to the world stage, by commanding huge audiences of many ethnicities, and having them sing along, sway, dance to his music even if they did not understand a word of his undiluted Jamaican-accented lyrics.

And while, like billions of music lovers around the world, I enjoyed every morsel from Marley, it bothered me that Calypso, which was far older than Reggae, and which had singers with voices and stage personalities superior to the Jamaican icon’s, failed to carve even a niche for itself, far less become a craze.

But I digress: I pulled up Rose in concert in France, and I was pleasantly shocked to see huge audiences of mostly white people not just listening to her, but dancing away to the slower calypso beat, almost entranced by what I thought was vintage Rose, but not fabulous Rose.

Having partied and pranced to “Tempo” back in 1977 (Ah going down San Fernando/Dong dey have plenty tempo) and “Fire fire, in she wire wire/Da me mucho agua, heat for so”, and many more great songs from the indisputable Queen of Calypso, I thought her performances in France were tame by comparison.

But the sea of happy white faces, bodies swaying to the beat, was what mattered most. In fact, it was all that mattered: Rose, backed by great music and support-performances from Manu Chao and his band (his is another intriguing story-check out his wonderful music on YouTube), all but mesmerized her audiences at different venues.

Further checks online revealed that she will again appear in concerts in France between April and September this year.

Of course, the crowning glory for the 76-year-old Queen came last Friday night in Paris when she won the Album of the Year award (World Music category) at the gala Victoire de la Musique event. I must confess I knew nothing about these awards until it was announced that Rose had been nominated for her album Far from Home.

I note that some have described the event as France’s equivalent of the Grammy Awards. Whatever it may be, the venue was classy, the audience large and impressive, and the ceremony elaborate. I don’t know if it was the norm, but it seemed to me that convention was broken when Rose, delivering two songs, brought the audience to its dancing feet-and earned an encore! Astounding!

The winning album contains 12 tracks, but thus far three have been popularised: Leave me Alone, Calypso Queen and Abatina. Machel Montano’s collaborative rendition of Leave me Alone must surely be up front for Road March honours, which would be quite a thing if it happens.

It would be the slowest-beat Road March since the Mighty Duke’s Thunder in 1987, and David Rudder’s Bahia Girl in 1986. Everything since, except perhaps Tambu Herbert’s three-peat winners (1988-1990) and Shadow’s Stranger in 2001, has been quicker-paced than the West Indies bowling duo Ambrose and Walsh’s deliveries, though not so memorable. In fact, even the throngs that partied to the “wine and wave” brands, cannot remember last year’s Road March, far less Super Blue’s of 1991 (Get something and wave!).

Relating the story how she penetrated the French market and registered a platinum album with calypso music, Rose said the fans demanded a slower beat and lyrics they could relate to-something that is alien to the hundreds of Soca-aspirants, and even the successful ones. They command the Carnival-attention of local fete-lovers and masqueraders, and their counterparts in the diaspora-and that’s it.

They seem not to understand that for entertainers, the world is their stage. This country is too small to sustain the success-and even that is relative-of more than a handful of performers. The talented must seek to earn a slice of the trillion-dollar pie in the Americas, in Europe, Japan, Australia, China, India.

Music is a universal language. Rose probably speaks and understands only a few French words and phrases. But she communicates in song with tens of thousands of French fans. Her next stops, no doubt, will be Germany, Holland…Russia.

At age 76, she is blazing a trail for other sensible and talented artistes to follow. Hail the Queen…of Tobago, Trinidad, and now France.

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