Calypso Rose is a figure of historic dimensions in calypso. A series of firsts follow her name as a woman in calypso with a more than 50-year career that shows no sign of stopping. In 2016, she has gone beyond the normal confines of the global calypso spread—inside the Americas, North and South—by being the recipient of the WOMEX 2016 Award, and a gold recording artist in France.
The catalyst for the renewal of her global popularity and her exciting commercial entrée into music markets in Europe is her new album Far From Home released regionally by Maturity Music (Jean Michel Gibert/Trinidad) and Stonetree Music (Ivan Duran/Belize) and internationally by Because Music out of France/UK.
The music on Rose’s album harkens back to the melodies of early calypso with covers of songs by Roaring Lion, Lady Iere and Lord Pretender and new songs that reflect and integrate the zeitgist of the fabled golden era of calypso of the early to mid-twentieth century with the aural milieu of a modern era. Producer Ivan Duran recruits Drew Gonsalves, chief architect of Toronto-based proto-calypso band Kobo Town, to shape the songs and sound of this record. Fixed beats in the tempo and rhyming couplets in the lyrics make for pleasant listening, singing along and dancing.
The melodies on songs like “Abatina”, “Calypso Queen”, and popular single “Leave Me Alone” spring from the simple re-minor (pronounced “ray minor”, which is D minor) harmonies evident in the calypso style of the earliest recordings, and hang on Rose’s septuagenarian voice, a mix of power and fragility. These calypsos fit the singer without attempting to create any radically different framework for the Calypso Queen of the World.
This review, by its nature, is from the perspective of the island native accustomed and knowledgeable of calypso and Rose’s place within the genre. An objective analysis of this album, however, would also consider the merits that serve the function of any commercial recording: to sell copies more than to display the art of calypso. The record labels’ “aesthetic formula was directly shaped by the commercial imperatives of achieving airplay by developing a crossover sound,” to quote professor of popular music, Mike Alleyne. One can’t fault that.
A lynchpin for the outward vision of the production and marketing of this new album is the presence of French-Spanish anti-establishment agit-rocker and music rebel, Manu Chao. He is global pop’s most important star, a Bob Marley-like figure, and he stamps his “third world troubadour” persona on these songs, which all have his name on as co-writer, additional producer or arranger, the perquisite of a modern music business. Chao’s name lends a kind of hoped-for certainty that this music finds a listener base in markets outside the norm for calypso, namely Europe and Latin America.
We hear on some of Rose’s compositions—“Zoom, Zoom, Zoom”, “I Am African” and “Wah Fuh Dance!”—the urge to break free and jam in that old soca way, but this is not soca. This is World music: exotic and hedonistic to the foreign ear. The spirits of Ed Watson and Art DeCoteau are hemmed in sonically and emotionally. Authenticity gives way to commodity.
World music, that label that bundles the “other” music into a category for sales and unique marketing, is both a godsend for and a mockery of calypso. It is said that the “world music” genre has allowed artists to gain international record sales, tour income, boosts to their self-esteem and local economies and often their very culture, in organised commercial international markets.
The repackaging of Calypso
The image of Rose on the album cover is a cartoonized version of an original Richard Holder photograph obscuring the true image of artist. Vintage calypso records imagined calypso music as un-peopled where the singer was in the background and the idea of hedonism, the hint of sexuality, the thrill of the exotic, and the caricature of the tropics were given prominence. Sinewy dancers, puff sleeved natives in straw hats and come-hither women graced album covers in the main.
Miles Davis and James Brown have had their faces removed from album covers and replaced with White models to sell their product in the US. Calypso Rose was removed from a cover of her 1968 album Queen of the World, not to be replaced by an inanimate object, but re-imagined as a dougla siren.
The commercial streamlining of the music which sanitizes its “emotional dynamics” to render it homogeneous and formulaic is also noted. Both self-styled “tropical gangster” Kid Creole & the Coconuts (Annie, I’m Not Your Daddy) and neo-swing band Squirrel Nut Zippers (Hell) were imitating Cab Calloway and bringing early calypso melodies into pop music in the 1980s and 1990s, and were selling plenty records. Far From Home brings the sonic aura of those acts into the 21st century.
This music is the revival of the cult of nostalgia, not solely of the style of the calypso music, but of the veteran artist making new waves in the global music industry almost as an anecdote to a storied career. Ageing third world music stars are resurrected late in their careers, are scrubbed, repackaged and discovered by a new audience. In the 1990s, Cesaria Evora, The Jolly Boys, Buena Vista Social Club enjoyed late career international acclaim and performance opportunities outside their homelands. (Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones, ironically, don’t get bundled into this category.)
In 2016, Calypso Rose has an opportunity to join this illustrious company of global stars whose light has never diminished despite being unseen by the world for decades. A secret no more, an adoring public awaits as she steps on the world stage far from home.
- A version of this article appears in the Trinidad and Tobago Guardian published as, “Rose taps into global nostalgia.”
© 2016, Nigel A. Campbell. All Rights Reserved.