Two weeks prior to her 79th birthday, Calypso Rose — who has broken down barriers for women in calypso, soca and other Caribbean genres throughout her 64-year trailblazing career — will once again make music history. Rose is the oldest artist and the first calypsonian to be booked for a full set at Coachella. Rose will perform on the Gobi Stage on both weekends (April 12 and 19) of the Indio, California festival, backed by an eight-piece band comprised of African, American, Caribbean and French musicians. She is also one of just eight artists who were filmed in their homelands for mini documentaries that will be included in the Coachella Curated weekend two streaming program.
In March, Coachella co-founder Paul Tollett, accompanied by a production team, flew to Trinidad to experience the island’s world-renowned carnival, interview Rose and learn more about the culture that birthed calypso and its energetic descendant, soca. “It’s been so fun listening and hanging out with Calypso Rose over the last few months. Can’t wait to see her perform at Coachella,” Tollett said in a statement to Billboard.
Rose has toured the world, amassing a vast international fan base, especially in France. Her 2016 album Far From Home (Because Music) co-produced by award winning Belizean/Canadian Ivan Duran and Barcelona based multi-lingual rebel rocker Manu Chao, was certified platinum in France and won the 2017 Victoire de la Musique award (the French equivalent of a Grammy) for World Music Album of the Year. In December 2018 Rose was honored with the Grand Prize for World Music at France’s SACEM (Society of Authors, Composers and Music Publishers) Grand Prix annual music awards.
Calypso Rose was born Linda McCartha Monica Sandy-Lewis in Bethel Village, Tobago (the smaller island in the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, a.k.a. T&T) on April 27, 1940. Known for utilizing risqué double-entendres, hallmarks of many classic calypsos, Rose has also been an unwavering proponent in expressing the female perspective on such issues as domestic abuse (“Solomon,”) exploitation (“No Madam,”) and spousal infidelity (“The Other Woman.”) In 2018 Rose’s “Leave Me Alone,” featuring soca superstar Machel Montano and Manu Chao, became a rallying cry for women’s rights to harassment free public spaces at Trinidad’s carnival and beyond. Her powerful vocals — feisty, warrior-like yet warm and engaging — remain remarkably intact. Having written over 800 songs, Rose has helped to define the calypso art form while shattering the genre’s gender biases.
In a recent interview with Billboard in her Queens, New York home where she was recording tracks for her forthcoming album with producer Ivan Duran, Rose shared a story about a celebrated male calypsonian who repeatedly usurped her allotted performance time in the calypso tent (venues where Calypsonians perform during Trinidad’s carnival season). “I used to close the calypso tent and he would come on before me and just keep singing until the people started walking out. Many times, I didn’t get to go on because of that dog! But all I went through opened the door for the female calypsonians because I was the only woman in it for years.” Days after our interview, the numerous awards, plaques and trophies proudly displayed in Rose’s living room, emblematic of a lifetime devoted to advancing calypso, were shipped to Tobago. The memorabilia will be part of a permanent interactive exhibition at the Fort King George, The Icons of Tobago Museum, which also highlights the contributions of Rose’s close friend, the equally beloved calypsonian, Winston “Shadow” Bailey, who passed away in October 2018.
To alleviate the financial pressures her parents faced with 11 children, Rose was adopted at age nine by an aunt and uncle and was raised in Trinidad. She composed her first calypso “Glass Thief” at 15, after witnessing a robber snatch a pair of spectacles off of a woman’s face. She took the calypso name Crusoe Kid and successfully auditioned for the managers of the Young Brigade Calypso Tent. The tent managers promptly changed her name to Calypso Rose because “the Rose is the mother of all flowers,” she says. “That’s how I started as the only female calypsonian among the males, Lord Melody, Radio, Lord Caresser and (her mentor) the Mighty Spoiler. All of them have passed away,” she sighs, “but Calypso Rose is still here.”
An African derived music, calypso originated in Trinidad circa 1900 as topical songs sung during the carnival season. The first calypso recordings were made between 1912-1914. Calypso tents, so named for the tents that covered the stages, sprang up around Trinidad’s capital Port of Spain in the 1920s; by the 1930s through the late 1950s, calypso had become a widely influential music in America. Nat King Cole, Maya Angelou and actor Robert Mitchum, among others, made calypso records; Harry Belafonte’s Calypso (RCA, 1956) was the first million selling album of any genre.
Calypso Rose wasn’t the first female calypsonian nor the first woman to join a calypso tent lineup, but she is, indisputably, the most widely-recognized female artist from T&T; she’s a recipient of the country’s highest honor, The Order of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago (ORTT). However, prior to ascending to her throne, Rose endured scathing criticisms; a Trinidadian newspaper derisively referred to her as the “queen of smut.” “I had so much opposition in the late ’50s and ’60s; my father thought calypso was the devil’s music,” Rose reminisced. “I got called into several meetings with female church groups asking me, why are you singing calypso? Women should not do that! I told them God gave me the talent to write and sing and I will continue doing it as long as the good Lord gives me breath. Then I walked out.”
Rose recalled being told by carnival authorities that despite the popularity of her 1966 hit “Fire In Me Wire,” a woman would never win the carnival’s annual Road March competition. In 1975 she dropped “Do Dem Back,” her first gold record (in T&T) but again lost the Road March title, supposedly by one point, to Lord Kitchener. Rose persisted and made history in 1977 with “Gimme More Tempo,” still a staple of her live performances, as the first female Road March winner. In 1978 she released “Come Leh We Jam,” “I Thank Thee” and “Her Majesty” and earned three carnival crowns: Road March, Calypso Queen and Calypso Monarch (renamed from the Calypso King contest after Rose’s victory;) forty-one years later, Rose remains the only female artist to have accomplished that feat.
For the first single from her new album, Rose revisited her 1992 composition “Young Boy,” this time as a collaboration with Machel Montano, with additional lyrics by Drew Gonzalves of Toronto based Caribbean band Kobo Town and St. Vincent’s soca phenomenon Gamal “Skinny Fabulous” Doyle. Over a lilting calypso rhythm (produced by Ivan Duran, with Machel Montano and Kubiyashi) Rose advises an older woman who has endured a cheating husband to get involved with a young man. “Last year, I did a show in France and a 19-year old boy jumped on stage, started dancing and he said ‘Grandma, I want to marry you,'” laughs Rose. “I thought, I have to bring back ‘Young Boy.'” Rose and Machel performed “Young Boy” before 30,000 people at Machel’s annual Machel Monday carnival concert and at Rose’s own concert at Trinidad’s National Academy of the Performing Arts, garnering thunderous responses each time. The duo then traveled to Tobago to shoot the song’s video. Directed by Richard Voisin with artistic direction by Samy La Famille, the video for “Young Boy” debuts here.
Machel will join Rose onstage at Coachella to perform “Young Boy,” which he says represents a benchmark for calypso and soca. “For the Calypso genre to survive this long, for Coachella to recognize and give respect to the music created in Trinidad and Tobago, it’s like putting a flag down on the moon. For Rose to be doing this at almost 80, is significant on a world scale. It is important young people look up to Calypso Rose, especially young girls, as they set their goals and seek out their dreams,” observes Machel.
In May, Rose will begin a four-month European tour in Paris. She travels to Trinidad in August and has U.S. dates tentatively scheduled for September; she returns to France in October and will likely tour Japan for the first time in late November. “Rose likes the fans, the excitement, and this is probably the happiest time in her life. I try to streamline her schedule so it’s not too much, my role is to essentially say no more than yes,” says her worldwide manager Jean Michel Gibert, who was born in France and has lived in Trinidad for the past 25 years; Gibert co-manages Rose in T&T with Lorraine O’Connor.
Calypso Rose has not only overcome career challenges, she has survived breast cancer, undergone heart surgery to insert a pacemaker and triumphed following a procedure to remove stomach cancer, which caused her lungs to collapse and lose four pints of blood. Rose said she died that day, then came back to life. “That’s how I know the good Lord still wants me here,” she offers, “because I have a job to do: bring joy, peace and harmony to my fans and to the world.”