Distributed by Women Make Movies, 462 Broadway, New York, NY 10013; 212-925-0606
Produced by Jean-Michel Gibert, Thierry Planelle, and Philippe Djivas
Directed by Pascale Obolo
DVD, color, 85 min.
Sr. High-General Adult
Music, Gender Studies, Race Studies, Women Studies, Calypso, Ethnomusicology, Popular Music
Reviewed by Vincent J. Novara, Curator, Special Collections in Performing Arts, University of Maryland
Date Entered: 8/3/2012
It took a powerful woman to lead the charge for female calypso performers into the typically male-dominated genre of Afro-Caribbean music – a woman whose energy, exuberance, and passion, particularly when performing, enabled her to succeed and thrive when circumstance dictated otherwise. Calypso Rose achieved international acclaim selling hundreds of thousands of recordings, touring widely, and earning the title “Calypso Monarch.” Born McCartha Linda Sandy-Lewis in Tobago in 1940, Calypso Rose’s ancestors were slaves taken in the nineteenth century from Guinea in western Africa across the Atlantic to Tobago; her father was both a fishermen and a Baptist minister. Seventy at the time of filming (and the survivor of two bouts with cancer and three heart attacks), she now lives in New York close to some of her extended family.
The documentary is composed of various sources of footage: newly filmed and existing. Performance footage – incomplete, though extensive – comes from concerts, “Calypso tents,” festivals, carnivals, and television broadcasts. There is also behind-the-scenes studio footage capturing some of her creative process. Travel footage follows Calypso Rose to her childhood home in Tobago, her adolescent home in neighboring Trinidad, her current home in New York, recording sessions in Paris, a personal pilgrimage to Benin, and other destinations connected to her performance appearances. (It is remarkable that the excellent audio fidelity is consistent throughout, especially considering the variety of eras and sources for the footage.) Interviews with family, friends, fans, politicians, and scholars complete the narrative.
Calypso Rose does not make a secret of the intense personal experiences (some traumatic) that inform her emotional development as a woman and musician. Her voice, though charming, is not a notably exceptional instrument, but what sets her apart from other calypsonians is the joyful spirit that she brings to her performance and songwriting. A prolific composer of over 800 songs, she begins her creative process on guitar before turning the song over to the arranger she is collaborating with at the time. Calypso Rose appears to exist in a constant state of song, improvising songs in response to any moment: seeing a friend, recalling a memory, or visiting one of her hometowns.
Many aspects of Calypso Rose’s life are uncovered and offered for examination, including upbringing, friendships, gender issues and identity, her deliberate celibacy, mentoring and inspiring younger female calypso performers, and major medical issues. The film also examines how spirituality and ritual was central to her childhood and home life, and later to her status as an ordained Baptist minister. Professionally, virtually no information is provided on her managers, promoters, and key musical collaborators, leaving a significant portion of this story untold. Indeed, if Calypso Rose were self-managed through her lengthy career, that would make her biography all the more compelling.
Another point that is not entirely clear pertains to calypso competitions. There is no discussion on how the competitions function or the consequences of losing. It is only evident that Calypso Rose was a champion several times, and the awards required modifying to accommodate such a powerful female figure entering the fray.
Overall, Calypso Rose is an enjoyable and inspiring documentary. This title belongs at any academic library supporting ethnomusicology, popular music studies, race studies, and women studies; public libraries in communities with strong immigrant populations from Trinidad and Tobago should also acquire this DVD. For more on this topic, viewers may find interesting One Hand Don’t Clap (1991, Riverfilms), a documentary by Kavery Dutta about calypso music that features Calypso Rose. However, for a fairly comprehensive study of her history, this documentary will prove highly effective.