“ They want to see your whole anatomy, they want to see what you doctor never see. They want to do what you husband never do, still you ain’t know if these scamps will hire you. Well if is all this humiliation to get a job these days as a woman. Brother they could keep their money, I go keep my honey, and die with my dignity!”
– Singing Sandra, Die with My Dignity
Calypso is an authentic Trinbagonian pastiche. It is almost impossible to imagine a true examination of cultural creation in Trinidad and Tobago that does not include calypso. If you mean to truly understand Trinbagonian, and by extension Caribbean culture beyond what may be skimmed from the top, it is important to delve into the genre. The lyrics and harmonies will create a deeper understanding of a Caribbean identity composed of quintessential variance. Likewise, calypso provides a sonic focal point for insight into the Caribbean woman’s existence.
It is argued that a lot of what makes up masculinity is immersed in socio-sexual ideas of performance, and this is mirrored in the domination men have in the public arena of calypso. The overall picture has been greatly influenced by masculinity, as men have historically defined the cultural landscape of this art form. Most scholarly accounts of modern calypso link it back to two vocal traditions – the lavway and the calipso – which are both related to the Trinbagonian kalinda or stickfighting tradition of the early eighteenth century. These traditions are characterised by a call-and-response song challenge which is usually led by chauntels (typically the stickfighters who partake in physical contest) while displaying machismo or masculine prowess. Invariably, most chantels/stickfighters were male and mention of the chantuelle (female fighter/singer) was obscured.
As the aural particularity of the calypso song emerged through the nineteenth century, female calypso singers continued to be overshadowed. The calypso arena was abundantly reserved for men due to the severe repression of female public performance mandated by an unduly gender-biased Trinidadian Victorianism. The emergence of the new, syncretic art form of calypso, characterised by elements passed down from the lavway and the calipso, maintained a distance from the direct involvement of women, which was an illustration of the woman’s life situation at the time. According to Gordon Rohlehr’s analysis in “I Lawa: The Construction of Masculinity in Trinidad and Tobago Calypso,” the calypso music genre most elaborately articulated archives of Trinbagonian masculinity. This left little space for women to voice their opinions and cultivated a genre which made women a topic to be spoken about rather than to be actively included. In the Caribbean, mainstream cultural and gender-political attitudes to sexuality tend to be expressed through popular culture, with reference to representations of the female body. So much so that the commodified representation of the bodies of Caribbean women has been stereotyped for its sensuality, due its major part to songs which highlight the objectification of women.
In light of this, the history of the female calypsonians demonstrates the determined spirit of the Caribbean woman, her overwhelming resourcefulness, her creativity and her capacity to adapt and excel within relatively new and unfavourable frontiers. Entering the twentieth century, the Trinbagonian society still did not tolerate female calypsonians. This was not just an isolated situation, but was also connected to the colonial bias against both women and the local arts. The time of being eclipsed by male calypsonians to present day has been one of exceptional growth for women in calypso and their impact on the national stage. Previously, women were restricted and there was a strong negative stigma associated with singing calypso, so much so the Lady Trinidad, who was the first woman to record a calypso had to cut her career short in the early 1900s because society deemed it unacceptable for women to sing calypso. In comparison, we have come a long way, as today women from all sectors of society are encouraged and are eagerly seeking to enter the calypso scene.
One significant player in changing the one-sided reflection of calypso was the National Women’s Action Committee (NWAC). NWAC is the women’s arm of the National Joint Action Committee. It hosted the first National Calypso Queen Competition in February 1985. The women of NWAC paved a way for opportunities to be created for many other women to take part in this unique art form. Women such as Denyse Plummer have built the foundation of their professional careers on the National Calypso Queen Competition. NWAC can be seen as a testimony to the progress made by women in Trinidad and Tobago over the past few decades.
Women have not limited themselves. They have been greatly impacting the development of the art form, bringing new life through attention to presentation, composing, and singing styles and topics. Female artistes such as the legendary Calypso Rose have added great value to the genre on the international scale. Linda McArtha Sandy Lewis (Calypso Rose) was born in Tobago in 1940. She began singing calypso professionally in 1964, a time when the society did not pay due respect to the female calypsonian. However, she arose as a major role model in the genre, challenging conventional views and making her mark on the calypso stage. She was the first woman to win the National Calypso Monarch title and the National Road March title and held on to this status for twenty-one years.
Inclusiveness allows for greater diversity and a more holistic look at the total Caribbean society. Although there is still some way to go, the way women and femininity is treated as a topic in calypso has evolved over the years. It is worth saying that even in the early days of the chauntelle or lead singer, there were female calypsonians such as Sugar Alice, Lady Trinidad, Cariso Jane, and Lady Irie. Contemporary female calypsonians include Calypso Rose, Singing Francine, Denyse Plummer, Singing Sandra, and Ella Andall. These Calypso women lay the foundation for the development of young female calypsonians and the ongoing evolution of calypso music. Calypso women will continue to captivate audiences and chant the stories of life as a Caribbean woman.