The Kelly Strayhorn Theater was turned into a carnival when the queen of Calypso music Calypso Rose made her debut in Pittsburgh Saturday as part of the theater’s fifth annual East Liberty Live series. The evening brought the Caribbean culture to the forefront with music, food and dance.
“This event is significant because Pittsburgh has many people of Caribbean ancestry living in the city and surrounding region, but we rarely have an opportunity to build community together and celebrate our culture,” explained Bekezuela Mguni of the Ujamaa Collective, which partnered with the Kelly Strayhorn for the concert.
“The Ujamaa Collective is excited to celebrate and welcome the cultural icon Calypso Rose to Pittsburgh. We share a vision for creating visibility for Caribbean culture and tradition in Pittsburgh that will not only make Pittsburgh feel more like home to the hundreds, possibly thousands of Caribbean immigrants living in the city but also their children who are born here, carrying on that legacy living in the United States.”
Kelly Strayhorn Executive Director, Janera Solomon agreed with Mguni.
“I am excited about Ms Rose. She’s an legendary performer and the opportunity to see her on our stage is so special,” Solomon said. “As a female calypsonian she opened doors for today’s female reggae and calypso songwriters and performers. I grew up with her music. So it means a lot to me personally to see aspects of my culture in a theater for the everyone to enjoy. East Liberty is a vibrant diverse community and lots of people – those who love great music, and great performance or who wanted the chance to experience a bit of Caribbean culture certainly enjoyed this.”
Born McCartha Linda Sandy-Lewis in Bethel Tobago, Calypso Rose began writing songs at the age of 15 and turned professional in 1964.
She composed her first Calypso song in 1955 after seeing a man steal the glasses off of a lady’s face in San Juan. In the song she tells her fellow Tabogoians to stay home because Trinidad is not the place for them. Her family opposed her singing in carnival tents, but Rose felt that was where she flourished. She earned her moniker of Calypso Rose from carnival members the Spoiler and Piggy and Spike. She has written more than 800 songs and recorded more than 20 albums.
“I like to see people with happy and smiling faces. I give them a message with my music,” Calypso Rose said. “When I came into Calypso music, men were singing against the female. Calypso opened the eyes of the Trinidadian government and my songs helped give domestics better wages. That’s what I wanted to do: I want to change the world with Calypso.”
“I knew what I wanted to do in life and I didn’t let anything keep me down. I didn’t want Calypso to just be in Trinidad and Tobago I wanted to take it internationally because music is a universal thing,” Calypso Rose continued.
She started that universal quest in 1963 when she traveled the Caribbean Islands from Grenada to St. Thomas singing Calypso. She won the Calypso King contest and the Roadmarch in St. Thomas with her first song “Cooperation.”
Three years later she wrote the song, “Fire in Me Wire,” the first Calypso song ever sang consecutively for two years at the Trinidad carnival in 1966 and 1967. The song has since been translated into nine different languages.
The 1970’s blessed Calypso Rose with great success. Not only did she win the title of Calypso queen five years in a row–1972 to 1976– “Do Dem Back” became her first gold disc and she released “Constable Rose.”
She was the first woman to win the Trinidad Road March competition in 1977 with her song “Gimmie More Tempo.” She took the title again one year later with the hit ” Come Leh We Jam.” Rose won the Calypso King competition that year and the competition’s title was changed to Calypso Monach in her honor.
From then on the accolades kept coming. In 1978 Rose was given the Distinguished Achievement Award for the First Triple Crown Calypso Monach of the World by the Tobago Benevolent Society; 1979 she was honored with the Award for Magnanimous Contribution to the Culture by the Caribbean Arts and Culture Council; in 1982 she was made an honorary citizen of Belize in recognition of her work to raise the country’s international awareness on the cultural front. In 1987 Belize honored her with the National Belize Music Award 25th Anniversary of Independence Ward by Stag Beer & Vat 19 Rum. A year later the country gave Calypso Rose the Gratutude and Commendation for the Development of Arts and Culture in Belize by the National Arts Council in Belize.
In Belize they speak three languages–Spanish, English and a local dialect and the people were not getting along,” Rose recalled. “I wrote a Calypso song called ‘Belizeans Unite’ and that brought the country together. I write songs about a lot of different nationalities.”
Armed with her horn section, Rose brought the people of Pittsburgh together Saturday night.
“I’ve never been to Pittsburgh before, but I’m looking forward to giving my fans lots of fire. I’ll be giving Pittsburgh an hour and a half on stage of uptempo powerful songs,” Calypso Rose said before the performance.
Mguni was excited to help bring Calypso Rose to the Steel City.
“Having Calypso Rose in Pittsburgh gives folks a sense of home. Her voice, movements and melodies enlivened the audience and shared a musical sound that is unique to the Caribbean, but loved everywhere,” said Mguni who is working along with Kelly Strayhorn Theater Executive Director, Solomon to develop ideas and offer programming that celebrates, explores and highlights Caribbean culture.
“This woman has a major impact on the genre of Calypso, becoming a definitive voice while it was dominated by men. She is an ambassador of our culture sharing her experiences and talents with the world and is recognized as the Calypso Diva internationally. She is not to be missed.”
After Calypso Rose’s performance, DJ Carla Lieninger mixed the hottest Calypso, Soca and more at the after party held in the Kelly Strayhorn Theater lobby.
If you want more Calypso Rose, a documentary entitled “The Lioness of the Jungle” chronicles Calypso Rose’s life and musical journey will soon air on public television.
“PBS has the rights to it. It was shown in Belize at the film festival. The documentary is really something to see,” Rose said.”It should be shown on PBS soon, but people can write to PBS telling them that they want to see ‘Lioness of the Jungle.'”
When she isn’t touring, Calypso Rose is working on a yet-to-be named album, which she plans to release in 2014.
“It’s going to be a very dynamic album. We go way back in the old days with the rhythm of the drums and with horns, We are in the studio five days a week,” she said.
Rose will rely on the Internet to help push the message of her new record along to her fans.
“The Internet helps put out Calypso music. A lot of people hold on to the Internet, Everyone is on the Internet. It is a source of communication and it spreads the good news of the music and people can download any kind of music they want. You have to get involved with your fans because they keep you going.”
Although she shows no signs of slowing down at the age of 73, Calypso Rose is confident that there is a younger group of female artists poised to carry the Calypso torch into the future.
“A lot of young females are getting into Calypso music,” Rose said. In Tobago there is a contest to get young people into the music. When I first came into Calypso in the 1950’s it used to be four lines then it went to eight lines and now there’s Soca music, which is the soul of Calypso, but youngsters have taken the messages out of the music they need to bring back the message and the melodies and lyrics.”