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A Rose in name & nature

A Rose in name & nature
Simon Lee
Published: May 11, 2009

The Ambassador-at-Large for Liberia is in a mood as expansive as her smile. Although she’s just celebrated her 69th birthday, her eyes set in an oval African face sparkle with all the vitality and mischief of the little girl born to Altino Sandy, fisherman, Spiritual Baptist minister and village ram goat of Bethel, Tobago back in 1940.

McCartha Linda Sandy-Lewis, Diva Calypso Rose, could never be accused of coyness and with characteristic frankness and a touch of pride admits father Altino, whose family hailed from Happy Hill, Grenada, fathered 13 children in wedlock (Rose being fifth in succession) and, as a fisher of souls and women (“he used to give the ladies fish and provision”), at least seven outside, nearly equalling Roaring Lion’s tally of 23.

A father’s love

The childless Rose speaks fondly of her father, “He couldn’t read or write but he was a good preacher.” When she asked him how he knew the bible so well, his response was, “Dey does come an teach meh in de night.”

Anyone wishing to understand the powers that move and motivate Trinidad’s first female Calypso Monarch, must recognise the central role the Spiritual Baptist faith plays in her life. She was “offered up” as an infant and then baptised “in the chilly waves at Scarborough” aged 11. Known as “Mother Rose” to fellow Baptists, she has made the “mourning” spiritual retreat five times. She explains the mourning ground as, “When you want to cut yourself off from the carnal world, to rejuvenate spiritually, to seek more wisdom and knowledge.” She draws the analogy between Christ’s 40 days in the wilderness and the Baptists’ mourning. Her retreats have brought her seals, or keys to knowledge and roles as healer, shepherd and mother.

Mama Africa

Besides the Creole faith of her father, she’s been profoundly influenced by her grandmother, who came in a slave ship from Guinea and who she remembers sitting at dusk, pipe in mouth, facing the sea at Mt Irvine, looking back to her ancestral homeland across the Atlantic. It’s surely no coincidence that the opening track on her recently released eponymous international album is Back to Africa.

Her rooted faith may also explain the extraordinary phenomenon of a girl with a speech impediment (shared by her father and all her siblings), who has literally conquered the world. Insular-minded Trinidad may be oblivious to the fact that on the world stage Rose is regarded in the same cachet as divas like the late Miriam Makeba, salsa Queen Celia Cruz, Cuba’s foremost singer Omara Portuondo (who she performed with earlier in the year in Marseilles) and the Cape Verdean Cesaria Evora. Rose is undoubtedly animated by both sacred and secular power. In one sense she regards her singing as a gift of healing. She recalls a Mother’s Day concert in Los Angeles when she was announced and as the curtain went up she saw “40 white people in wheel chairs” frontstage.

Caught unawares she “flew back offstage” but composing herself returned and “When I injected my music, I saw the wheelchairs moving.” At another concert in Miami during her calypso medley finale, she saw a woman “catch a power” and came off the stage to give her water, turn her and return her spirit to the kingdom of this world.

Queen of OYB

Adversity merely seems to strengthen some, and the little girl who had a stammer to match Kitch’s, would sing and write her thoughts, laying the foundation for her compositional skills. Unlike many of her fellow calypsonians she’s always written her own lyrics and was paid a superb compliment by Winston “Joker” Devines, the man responsible for penning so many winning kaisos, “You are the greatest calypso composer of all time; I didn’t need to write any for you.”

It was Dr Eric Williams who encouraged her to enter the calypso world and she served her apprenticeship in Spoiler’s Young Brigade Tent on Nelson Street, Port-of-Spain. “I was the queen of the Young Brigade. Everyone came to see this thin foot, dry, dry woman flyin’ across the stage.” She remembers the master of calypso surreal composing technique snapping Three Plumes matches and the extended tours “from Blanchisseuse to Point and Toco.”

That is life

The disappointment of being “robbed” of the Monarch title in 1968 and the Road March with Do Dem Back in 1975 only served to strengthen this gutsy Tobagonian, “It gave me the power to go on, it didn’t daunt my spirit. I will show them I’m above them, the powers will keep me on the mountain top.” So said so sung, her 1977 victory was vindication and “I come back in 1978 and tear them up.”

If some find it incongruous that such an obviously spiritual woman can sing and move with such a visceral take on sensuality, smut and double entendre (she thoroughly scandalised the highbrow audience at London’s Barbican Centre back in 2005) for Rose there is no dichotomy, “That is life” and she quotes from Ecclesiastes, “A time for everything.” Even the experience of being brutally raped by three men while still a young woman has not soured her, although she admits, “You never get over that.” She dismisses this painful memory with an uproarious laugh and tantalises, ‘It have sweet sugar dong deh, I still get calls!”

Cultural ambassadress at large

As large as life itself the local stage could not constrain or sustain her. She relocated to New York after becoming Calypso Monarch, is adored throughout the Caribbean, was made an honorary citizen of Belize and still represents Liberia world wide as cultural and UN ambassador. Thanks to Jean Michel Gibert of locally-based Maturity Music and Sony France, better late than never Rose has been launched on an international career. Her album topped World Music charts in Europe and she is featured in the British publication Songlines. Ignored by the organisers of the recent summit, she left a fortnight ago for the Big Apple, a European tour and the final shoots in Africa for a documentary on her life.

Having recovered from breast cancer in the 1990s she has no time for negativity, “My own people have mistreated me because I’m a woman but the world has recognised me. “I don’t hold any hostility. Forgive them and keep on smiling…As long as the Lord gives me health and strength I’ll be onstage entertaining, doing my best for humanity, so other females can follow in my footsteps.

Trinidad and Tobago News

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