Title: "Whe' she go do" : women's participation in Trinidad calypso
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Permanent Link: http://ufdc.ufl.edu/CA00400129/00001
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Title: "Whe' she go do" : women's participation in Trinidad calypso
Physical Description: Book
Language: English
Creator: Gottreich, Anna S.
Publisher: Caribbean Studies Association
Publication Date: 1993
Subject: Caribbean   ( lcsh )
Spatial Coverage: North America -- Trinidad and Tobago -- Trinidad -- Caribbean
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Anna S. Gottreich

"Whe' She Go Do":
Women's Participation in Trinidad Calylpa

Paper Prospectus

This paper is concerned with women's participation in Trinidad Calypso, which is part
of my broader interest in gender and expressive culture in the Caribbean. This is
primarily a socio-historical study, which analyzes the role of women in Trinidadian
Calypso, focusing on female Calypsonians and their work. Attention will also be given
to the portrayal of women as subjects of "traditional" Calypso songs.

This study is "periodized" into three categories, which correspond to different stages in
the development of Calypso. Specifically, it examines the relative presence or
absence of women in these stages. The stages delineated are:

-the 1 9th Century "Jamet" Era, also referred to as the "cariso" phase of Calypso,
during which women as "chantwels" were quite active;

-the Victorian Era, associated with the alleged disappearance of women from the

-the Contemporary Era, a period subdivided into 1930s-1950s, 1960s-1980s,
and present -day women in Calypso.

Specific attention is given to changes in the socioeconomic status of Caribbean
women during these different periods, which may have bearing not only on the
perceived image of women as participants in Calypso, but on the content of their
songs. The 1960s-1980s period, for example, saw international Women's
Movements, the U.N.'s Decade for Women, the Black Power Movement, and other
-ocial movements in the Caribbean and abroad. Their influence brought about,
-mong many other things, a new awareness of women's issues. Consequently, during
this period, more women began to participate in Calypso, and there emerged a
definite female "voice" in the form. Of added importance is the fact that in the
contemporary female Calypso arena, this "voice" now comes from diverse cultural,
class and ethnic backgrounds in Trinidadian society, indicating the proliferation of
female presence in the form.

The general aim of my research is to illuminate the larger role of women in Calypso,
and specifically explore how women use what may be the most important form of
social commentary in Trinidad. Particular points to be discussed are women's issues
as evidenced in calypsos by women, a comparative analysis of their work with that of
their male counterpart, and the question of authorship, with respect to a "female voice"
in the form.

My study argues against the often-held assumption that women, at any particular point
"disappeared" from Calypso; it asserts that despite the predominance of male
Calypsonians, women have remained active participants in Calypso in some capacity
throughout all the eras examined. Women's historic participation and contribution to
the form has been generally neglected by researchers.

The theoretical foundation of this study is based largely on the work of Caribbean
feminist social science researchers, whose efforts culminated in the Women in the
Caribbean Project (WICP), an interdisciplinary approach to understanding the realties
of women's lives in the Caribbean region. Among the findings of the WICP are many
theoretical perspectives highly relevant and applicable to both the the role of women
as calypso singers and the images of women in calypso songs. These perspectives
range from women and family structure, to women and work, to male/female relations.
This latter subject is of particular interest to my research, as it attempts to understand
the ways in which women Calypsonians respond to the overwhelming sexual nature
of the traditional themes in calypso, and the fact that women have been, in a most
disparaging manner, the traditional calypso subject.

This study is based on research conducted in Trinidad in 1992, which involved
archival work (through the West Indian Collection at the University of the West Indies)
as well as personal interviews with women Calypsonians in Trinidad, and interviews
with scholars and others involved in Calypso.


Scholarship on the form has identified many different Calypso "subjects", ranging
from local politics and personalities to foreign events. Characteristically humorous
and satirical, Calypsos function as tributes to famous people, as blackmail (to the
extent that there are accounts of people paying Calypsonians not to sing about them)1,
and as political electioneering, with Calypso as a forum for opposition politics. Often
referred to as "the living newspaper" and 'the mouthpiece of popular feeling", calypso
functions as a principal vehicle to transmit meaning of particular events or situations to
its society, and is therefore one of the most important forms of social commentary in

Calypso song content may be strictly political, or purely imaginative. It may comment
on a true event or personality, or voice a personal grievance. When inquired as to the
meaning of the form, all Calypsonians interviewed in this study stated that its principal
function is to give a message. However, to understand the ways in which women, in
particular, use this form of message- giving, and what their specific messages are, it is
important to address the thematic foundation of calypso, in general. To better
understand the import of women's calypsos, they must be measured against their
male counterpart. What women are responding to through their art can only be
understood in terms of what (or who) there is to respond to, thus an understanding of
calypso "themes" provides a necessary framework from which to work.

Scholarship on Calypso has concentrated on different calypso "themes", ranging from
the strictly political, to Africa as a theme (Boyce-Davies)2, to race and social
confrontation calypsos (Rohlehr)3. Yet by far the most common Calypso subject, or
"theme" is women and sexual exploit, real or imagined. Traditional (male-composed)
calypsos are generally disparaging in their portrayal of women. Images of women in
calypso range from physical characteristics of dirtiness and ugliness, to woman's
unfaithfulness, her being overly sexual, or not sexual enough, to her manipulativeness
and her greedy nature. Prominent throughout these images is the advocation of the
need for violence to control her. ( "Black up dey eye, bruise up dey knee, And they will

1Daniel Crowley. "Toward a Definition of Calypso" Ethnomusicology Vol.3 #2 1959: "Occasionally a prominent
local person is approached with a calypso describing some pecadillo of his, real or imaginary, which is to be sung
that night in the tent...The asking price for suppression of the song is usually $300, but it is not known how many
Trinidadians value their reputations to this extent."
2Carole Boyce-Davies. "The Africa Theme in Trinidad Calypso". Caribbean Quarterly 84-86
3 Gordon Rohlehr. "Man Talking to Man. Calypso and Social Confrontation in Trinidad 1970 to 1984. Caribbean
Quarterly, 84-86

love you eternally" urges one song). As many researchers attest, when dealing with
the male/female theme, a large category of calypsos are devoted to the denigration
and degradation of the female (Warner, Rohlehr, Hodge,Senior), in which women are
"castigated as being ugly, dirty, stupid, vile, predatory, smelly, evil, etc"4 Mighty
Sparrow's "Jean Marabunta": "so she ugly so she stupid...this disgraceful
female/smells like saltfish tail", Mighty Spoiler's "Vincentian Doreen" : "Everybody
know you bound to fraid water/But if you bathe you bound to smell better"or Lord
Melody's "Antigua Girls": "I used to put a cloth bag over she neck/And then ah bathe
she with disinfect/Is only there and only then/Never me again" are some examples.
These images find much public favor, according to novelist and educator Merle
Hodge, who states, "the embarrassment of woman is part of the national ethos...In
Trinidad the calypsonian, the folk poet, is assured of heartfelt, howling approval when
he devotes his talent to the degradation of woman" 5

Even studies which attempt to address other themes in calypso, readily admit that most
calypso material falls under this sexual/hostility theme. Patrick Hylton's study "The
Politics of Caribbean Music", focuses partly on the work of Mighty Sparrow (Slinger
Francisco). In identifying political commentary in his calypsos of the 1960s, he admits,
"so great is his leaning towards sex that, as we get to the years 1965-1967, we find not
one single socio-political song among his repertoire of over twenty songs."6 Although
this was not the tendency for all male Calypsonians of the time (as evidenced in the
many political and social commentaries one finds), it is important that this was true for
Sparrow, who was perhaps the most famous. Hylton's study examines over 100
song recordings by Sparrow since 1960, "but those bearing a political message can
be counted on the fingers." 7 Hylton later states: "One cannot help but wonder about
what was happening in the society since there is no reflection of any public discontent
in the songs of the leading Calypsonians..." 8 Furthermore, as suggested by Carole
Boyce-Davies in her comparative examination of the image of women in three genres
of Caribbean oral literature the proverb, the folktale and the calypso hostility,
aggression toward women and "overt misogyny" are more pronounced in Calypsos

4 Olive Senior. Working Miracles. Women's Lives in the English-speaking Caribbean. page 168
5Merle Hodge, "In the Shadow of the Whip: A Comment on Male-Female Relations in the Caribbean" in Is
Massay Day Dead? Orde Coombs, editor.
6 Patrick Hylton. "The Politics of Caribbean Music". The Black Scholar. September,1975. Page 25
7 These are: "Federation", "Slave", "Solomon Affair", "A Model Nation", "Dan is the Man" and "Sedition",
(according to Hylton).
8Hylton, page 25.

than in perhaps any other oral literature.9 Similarly, scholar Gordon Rohlehr has
stated that the calypso is of prime sociological importance to anyone who seeks to
study some of the attitudes of the West Indian male towards women. (Rohlehr, 1970).


Conflict is a key issue in calypso, as many researchers has observed, particularly the
conflict between men and women. But are the negative images of women promoted in
calypso, stemming from this "conflict", an accurate reflection of popular perceptions of
women? Henry and Wilson (1975) reviewed the status of women in Caribbean
societies and observed: "Role relationships between men and women are
ambiguous, unclear and consumed by strategies or 'games-playing'. Similarly, men
view women as both good, pure and 'pillars of Society' and at the same time as
treacherous and manipulative."1 o This seems consistent with the image of women in
many male-composed calypsos, in which woman as trickster is a common theme. As
Olive Senior observes, "matched against the calypsonian's bravado and contempt is
his fear of the female, whom he perceives as scheming and untrustworthy, and who,
when all else fails, will resort to trickery including obeah and black magic to bind him."
(Senior 1991:168).

Senior offers four different "categories" of calypsos within the context of male/female
themes: the "uneasy" relationship between the sexes, which is characterized by
mutual suspicion and exploitation, marked by the males' "pursuit, conquest and
desertion", (Rohlehr, 1970) ; male ego-inflation" calypsos (Warner, 1982); "pejorative
accounts of female acts" (women demanding money for sex, cuckolding the male,
trying to ensnare him with witchcraft, etc.) and the highly used themes of "denigration
and degradation" of the female, in which women are castigated as being ugly, dirty,
stupid, vile, predatory, smelly, evil, etc. Throughout these themes, the woman as victim
of male condemnation is also subjected to threats of violence. Perhaps the only
female image in calypso who escapes this treatment is the mother figure, as
evidenced in the many "Mother's love songs. (Mighty Destroyer's "You can have
diamonds, rubies and pearls. But a mother is the greatest thing in the world", or
Kitchener's for I can always get another wife/ But I can never get another mother in

9 Carole Boyce Davies. "Woman is a Nation..Women in Caribbean Oral Literature". Out of the Kumbla. Carol Boyce
Davies and Elaine Fido, editors."...While folktales and proverbs are biased against women, endorse female
subordination or malign women, the calypso is much more explicit and direct in its hostility to women" (page 175).
1 OFrances Henry and Pamela Wilson. "The Status of Women in Caribbean Societies: An Overview of
Their Social, Economic and Sexual Roles" Social and Economic Studies, volume 24, No. 2, page 165

my life", for example). However, even within the context of "mother" calypsos, it should
be noted that not all were favorable, as seen in Striker's "Mother's Day Song": ("M is
for the million things she gave me/O means that she is only getting old/But all my
mother used to give me heaven knows/is to kneel down on grater with plenty blows.")
Furthermore, as Rohlehr relates, "most of the calypsonians who so elevated the idea of
motherhood and wifehood and by extension the bourgeois ideal of the nuclear family,
also sang a far greater number of calypsoes about the glories of bachelorhood, the
burden of marriage, the inevitable infidelity of wives and indeed women in general,
and their own remarkable powers of seduction."(Rohlehr, 1991:226). In particular, .
women's fidelity is questioned at the level of her children. Mighty Terror's "Chinese
children calling me Daddy", for example, or Sparrow's "Child father" ("Child father will
they mamaguy me") or his "Dear Sparrow" ("...the baby born...the child resemble your
uncle Joe"). A woman's relationship with several men, by whom she produces
several children is viewed with disdain in many calypsos, but is seen by some
researchers as a "coping strategy" (Rohlehr) by which she finds support for herself and


Several researchers have examined the male/female conflict in Calypso. The pioneer
study by Elder (1968), focuses on various forms of hostility and male-to- female
aggression in calypsos, presenting psycho-sociological reasons, surrounding the
legacy of slavery, for the male's need to portray women in such unfavorable light. He
points to the matrifocal family in Trinidad as the basis for the male calypsonian's
struggle against maternal repression and frustration, asserting that "repressed anti-
female hostility underlies the aggressive derisive songs the calypsonian sings about
women, partly because she supplants his role in society, provokes his anger and
threatens him." 11 However, Roy Austin's later work "Understanding Calypso Content:
A Critique and an Alternative Explanation" casts serious doubt on Elder's findings. He
provides evidence which shows there was no matrifocal family system in Trinidad
during the period of Elder's study, and that men's status was higher than women's
throughout this period. Elsewhere, Gordon Rohlehr suggests that factors other than
matrifocality may account for the ways male/female relationships are portrayed in
calypsos, such as the guilt and conflict surrounding religious and moral ideals versus
actual behavior within the male/female relationship. He points to the American military

11J.D. Elder. "The Male/Female Conflict in Calypso" Caribbean Quarterly. vol. No. date?? page 37

presence during the 1940s as the time of a great increase in sex as a topic in

In a more recent song content analysis, concentrating on the negative treatment of
women in calypso, William Aho examined lyrics of 311 calypsos, during the period of
1969-1979. Though he found no clearcut trend, he found that overall one fourth of all
the calypsos dealt with male /female relationship, and nearly all of these were
negative to women. Keith Warner's examination of "male/female interplay" in calypso
also documents the predominant theme of male aggression toward women in calypso,
citing some of Mighty Sparrow's songs as examples. Warner examines various
aspects of Gordon Rohlehr's notion of the "phallic calypso". Furthermore, he posits
that the female calypsonian operates from a position of numerical and psychological
weakness, compared to her male counterpart. Merle Hodge expands on Elder's
earlier work, arguing that the violence, verbal abuse and humiliation of women
advocated in calypso is the males' emulation and appropriation, hereditarily, of the
hostility he learned within the plantation system. The influence or importance of the
matrifocal family in Trinidad and its result as a basis for male resentment of the female
(via the mother figure), is explored by Elder, Austin, Hodge, Lewin, and many others in
the examination of the negative images of women in calypso. This study takes into
account the debate over the matrifocal family argument as the basis for men's hostility
in calypso. This will be examined more closely in this paper's discussion on women's
role in the family, and the male/female relationship, with respect to the treatment of
these issues in women's Calypsos.

The overwhelmingly negative portrayal of women ("in the crudest terms possible,"
according to Olive Senior) exposes a peculiar paradox of calypso and makes
women's role in the form all the more important to examine. As many scholars have
commented, in virtually every subject area, such as politics, unemployment, or social
injustices, the (male) calypsonian seeks to tell the truth, to reflect the public sentiment.
Curiously, it is only in the domain of female representation that woman has been
chauvinistically distorted, fabricated, constructed and fictionalized in ways that do not
reflect reality. The negative images of women promoted in traditional male-composed
calypsos seem contradictory to the intrinsic nature of calypso itself as a method to lay
bare certain societal certain "truths". Indeed, this paradoxical nature of calypso places
in direct question the often reiterated statement that the calypso "mirrors collective
attitudes" (Hodge 1975), as the very notion of collectivityy" has been so far clearly

based on a male standpoint. With women's participation in calypso, this "collective
attitude" itself seeks a redefinition as it must now include the female point of view.

Although it has been established that the overwhelming calypso subject is women
and sexual exploit, several researchers have pointed out that this was not always the
case. (Rohlehr, Hylton, Boyce-Davies). It has been suggested that before the 1940s,
Calypso's commentary was primarily political, as it was associated with the lower
classes around which Calypso developed.12 It was not until the 1940s and 1950s
that racy, truly sex-oriented Calypsos came into popularity. This period corresponds
to the establishment of a U.S. naval base in Trinidad, with its resulting rise in
prostitution, among other "kindred forms of perversion and immoralities" (Hylton).
Calypsonian Lord Invader's "Rum and Coca Cola" is a famous comment on this : "They
buy rum and Coca-Cola, Go down Point Cumana/Both mothers and daughters/Working for their Yankee
dollar". One might point out, however, that the male Calypsonian, too, was very much
"working for the Yankee dollar" in this period, as the financial benefit of staging
calypso "shows" meant that the Calypso material must be understood and appreciated
by this new foreign (American) audience, who understood nothing of local politics, but
everything about what Hylton calls "the old universal sex motif". A number of
calypsos by men during this period address the sense of general public resentment of
the American presence, but more specifically, they seem to address the particular
resentment of the Trinidadian male toward the situation of being sexually "displaced"
by the American Marines. Commentary in calypsos of the time, though in the realm of
the political (expressing anti-American sentiment), now depended very much on the
on the sexual. Sparrow's famous "Jean and Dinah" : "...It's the glamour boys
again/We are going to rule Port-of Spain/No more Yankees to spoil the fete..." is both a
political and sexual commentary, asserting the need for the Trinidad male to reclaim
his power over women, as evidenced in the last line : "But the Yankees gone, and
Sparrow take over now".

It is possible that women who were prostitutes (the "Jeans" and "Dinahs" of Sparrow's
calypso) were able to attain more economic independence as a result of the American
presence. This, too, would be resented by the men of the day, not because women
were prostitutes, but, as several songs suggest, because her services would cost
more! As calypsonian Spoiler's "Pork Seller of Maravella" attests: "Why she even

12This is evidenced in the fact that this period saw many attempts to censure calypso songs, as they were seen to
reflect the "aspirations and resentment of the subjugated masses in the colony" (Hylton) and were a perceived
threat to the elite status quo).

stated to Spoiler/That the price of her pork was ten dollar/But before the Yankee man
come round/The price was eighteen cents a pound." On a deeper level, perhaps the
male is expressing his fear of women's independence and potential power, gained,
albeit from selling herself.

Careful attention must be paid to the intertext of the calypso, as well as the implied
audience. The multi-valent nature of calypso is such that the song offers many
meanings at the same time. Thus, "Pork Seller" is a commentary on the rising prices of
necessities such as food but is also an overtly sexual commentary on the rising cost
of buying sex ("pork" and "porkie"is the metaphor for the female genitalia, and would
be known to any Trinidadian, but not necessarily to the foreign audience in the tents).
Thus, the image of prostitution promoted in the calypso, while linked obviously to
women's activities, through the market metaphor might also symbolize the
"prostitution" of Trinidad itself during this time, since the complaint in this song is that
both are costing the Trinidad male more. As the work of many scholars suggests, with
the American presence in Trinidad, there was created a tension between the
traditional social and political commentary calypso and the need to entertain for the
sake of entertainment alone ( Rohlehr, Boyce-Davies). The great number of men's
songs, especially in the 1940s and 1950s (and into the 1960s), which concentrate on
women and sexual exploit, most through images extremely negative to women, attests
to this. Calypso, once termed "the poor man's newspaper" by the early Calypsonian
Lord lere, changed from its primary function of information and agitation to one of
purely entertaining.

This is not to say that Calypsos were not sexual before this point, nor that political
Calypsos ceased to be created, after this point. Calypso has always been a fluid art
form, changing and returning to different repertoire through time. However, in
Calypso development, there is a definite period corresponding to the U.S. Navy
presence in Trinidad, which seems to have set in motion the commitment to this
predominant sexual theme, above all others, in the form. What is important to note is
that it was not simply sex as a topic in calypso which flourished during this period, but
the use of the sexual theme specifically to degrade women. As Carole Boyce Davies
suggests: "it is in his period that the 'female castigation' seems to have gained
prominence as a theme in calypso."1 3 The successful examples of Mighty Bomber's
"Unemployment" (1967):

13Carole Boyce Davies, The Africa Theme in Trinidad Calypso". Caribbean Quarterly 84-86

"I had it really hard/ The unemployment situation in Trinidad/Thousands of
people like me and you/So much responsibilities, but no work to do..."

or the rising discontent in Lord Valentino's "Barking Dogs"

"Hark,Hark, the dogs do bark/The beggars are coming to town/ The dogs,
the dogs are barking too long/It is a sign that something is wrong"

attest to the revolutionary sentiment which was particularly strong in the late 1960s
and 1970s. However, the predominant calypsos, and those which had the most
success publicly, were those whose themes aimed at thoroughly degrading women.
As Hylton's study attests: "A look at the Calypsonians of the 1960's will reveal that over
sixty percent of them were dealing with these themes. Women in particular were
singled out and greatly degraded, with emphasis being placed on their unfaithfulness,
sex habits, and their hang-ups." 14 It is of particular interest to this study to understand,
therefore, how women can participate in a form that is so disparaging, on the whole, to
her own gender.

The 19th Century "Jamet" Era:

The early history of women's participation in Calypso is linked to one of the first
"stages" of calypso development in Trinidad, referred to as the "Cariso phase of the
late nineteenth century (Elder, Hill) Cariso songs have been described as lewd and
erotic, and "accompanied by obscene dancing"15. Carisoes were sung during breaks
between stickfightsl 6 and were apparently sung exclusively by women According to
"statements of old veterans of the late nineteenth-century carnival... the 'cariso' was
both a woman's song and dance performed in stickfighting yards as a sort of interlude
between duels by men with the hardwood sticks."1 7 Documentation on calypso song
development in the West Indies, from narrative sources of the 1840s mentions "the
chanterelle, or the female singer upon whom devolves the task of composing their
Belairs [songs of praise or derision] and of reciting them at their public dances."i 8
These singers, or "native improvisatori" were of central importance to the group

14 Hylton, page 25.
15 Errol Hill, The Trinidad Carnival. Mandate for a National Theatre, page 58
16 The term for this stickfighting activity, as well as for the song by which it is accompanied is kalenda, (also kalinda
or Calenda), otherwise known as "bois" (meaning wooden stick); It is a type of choreographed martial art,
sometimes violent, using hardwood sticks which are said to be "mounted" with magical powers. The form is related
to similar African-derived practices such as capoeira in Brazil
17 Errol Hill, page 58.
18 Errol Hill, page 58.

structure, and some were stickfighters, as well. Calypsos survive which refer to these
female underground characters, well-known for their brawling, drinking, and especially
singing and dancing: Piti Belle Lily, Alice Sugar, Ocean Lizzie, Mossie Millie, and
perhaps the most famous, Bodicea, are among the women referred to in Calypso
scholarship as "Calypso legends"1 9. This group formed the "jamet" class2o, the early
female Calypsonians who both sang and were sung about. Men were also part of the
jamet class. Interestingly, however, the term "jamet" in Trinidad today has come to
mean "prostitute", or a "loose woman", indicating that the surviving negative
connotation of the jamet reputation has been ascribed to women. According to
documentation of nineteenth century Calypsonians, Bodicea sang impromptu in a
graveyard during a brawl over the disintered and mutilated stickfight hero, Hannibal.
She accuses:

"Congo Jack vole tet-la Hannibal/U vole la mo, gade bakanal" ("Congo Jack
steal Hannibal's head/You steal from the dead, look, bacchanal.")

Her calypso "appealed to the crowd and they began to gyrate in the cemetery.
Bodicea's shrill voice whipped them into an unrestrained hilarity. The police came in,
Bodicea tore off her dress and waved it as a banner, still singing the captivating
ditty..."21 Bodicea was arrested along with others in the group. Cedric le Blanc later
recounts this incident in his calypso:

"It was shocking, it was shameful to see/Carnival in the cemetery...Bodicea
the jamette we all know/Is a real disgrace to we Cariso/.... Roaming all about
the vicinity/Cat and dog passing they mouth on she/Is better she die or
lock up in jail/She disgrace every woman in Port-of -Spain."

It is interesting that Bodicea both sang about those in her jamet culture and was in
turn, sung about (a common tradition in contemporary calypso). However, the derision
with which the calypsonian presents Bodicea, and presumably, other women of her
jamet status, indicates Le Blanc's attachment to the prevailing attitudes of women and
the concern with "moral" behavior of the time. His calypso indicates that even within
the early calypso culture, there is the suggestion by male Calypsonians that women
should not participate (or they risk being a "disgrace"). Through creating and
perpetuating in their own calypsos, negative stereotypes of women who were in

19 Andrew Pearse. "Mitto Sampson on Calypso Legends of the Nineteenth Century". Caribbean Quarterly,
volume #3 &4, March-June 1956
20 "Jamet", or "Jamette", from the French,"diametre"; meaning underworld or other half (as in a circle), hence,
below the level of social respectability.
21 Andrew Pearse. "Mitto Sampson on Calypso Legends of the Nineteenth Century". Caribbean Quarterly,
volume #3 &4, March-June 1956, pp. 260-270.

calypso, male Calypsonians joined society at large, in discouraging women's
participation .

Women's cariso singing during Carnival was threatening enough to merit The Port of
Spain Gazette's warning, in 1884: "..the obscenities, the bawdy language and the
gestures of the women in the street have been pushed to a degree of wantonness
which cannot be surpassed and which must not be tolerated...The growing generation
of young girls will become the curse of the country if these yearly saturnalia are
allowed to continue" 22 As suggested in a later (1935) calypso by Atilla, commenting
on this period:

"Carnival of long ago was real terrible/And the orgies reprehensible/In
those days women sang calypso/Like Soki, Mattaloney and Maribo/They
used to walk 'bout with boule de fe/I mean in the days of Camboulay/But
today you can hear Trinidad Calypso/ on the American Radio."

The calypso documents the Jamet activity at the time, but more importantly, it is a
testimony to women's participation. Again, this participation is associated with being
"real terrible". The last lines ("..But today..") indicate that calypso has since changed
for the better because it is accepted ("on the American Radio") but its acceptance
involves the castigation of women from the form. Clearly the images of these female
jamets presented both in the press at the time and in subsequent calypsos by men
suggest this. Thus, even if calypso documentation gives Bodicea and her female
contemporaries "legend" status, it is not necessarily a positive status. To address this,
it is of importance to measure such images against the social reality of the female
jamet of this time.

According to a study of women and crime in the last three decades of nineteenth
century Trinidad, deemed the "golden age of the jamettes", these lower class Creole
(Black) women "played active as well as supportive roles in all the violent activities in
Trinidad society."23 Reports of women inciting men to riot include "chantwells who
sang fighting songs to intoxicate male stickfighters as they prepared to do battle on
Carnival and other days."24 Many female gangs existed, whose rivalry and fighting
was comparable to the male stickfight gangs of the day. Because many of these gang
members were often arrested, records exist which shed light on their activities. In
1864, a band of women, the "Mourcelines", fought against another group, the "Don't

22 Cited in Rohlehr,1990, page 31
23 David Trotman. "Women and Crime in Nineteenth Century Trinidad." Caribbean Quarterly, volume 30, #3 &4,
24David Trotman page 68

care a damns". Both groups were armed with stones, knives and razors. They fought
each other, "with their frocks tucked up" in a battle which led to the arrest of twenty
women, "being unlawfully assembled and arrayed in a warlike manner."25 Members of
these female gangs took on men, as well, as evidenced in the famous incident of
Bodicea's beating up stickfighter Cutaway Rimbeau. Unlike men, most women who
were arrested were not, however, detained in the prisons of Port-of-Spain, but were
more often made to pay a fine. It is important to note, however, that these bands of
women were not randomly organized groups given only to senseless violence, as
described in various reports by the Chief of Police and others at the time, but were
sororities that served as friendship and support networks in the often difficult,
alienating urban environment of the time (Brereton). The judgement against them in
the press and elsewhere was hence, a biased reflection of the Victorian morality of a
growing middle class.

The possible reasons for violence among women, so distasteful to the ruling elite
during this period, who frequently commented on their behavior, has not been fully
explored; being generally considered as a female appropriation of male "macho"
combative behavior. Women's socioeconomic status in the colonial plantation
economy at the time must be considered. Like their male counterparts, women were
subjected to changing economic conditions, such as the legislation regulating
plantation and non-plantation laborers surrounding the sugar crisis in the late
nineteenth century. Women who tried to escape the plantations were held fast by the
Masters and Servants Ordinance, as well as many other ordinances which controlled
marketing activities in urban areas. Women's violence may be viewed as a form of
protest to their being victims of certain laws enforced as a mechanism of labor and
economic control. It has also been asserted that this violence stemmed from the brutal
conditions of slavery. During the slave era, women "responded to the violence of
slavery with as much violence as physique and their social position allowed".26

Patterns of violence remained in the post-emancipation era, during which time women
were highly visible, from 1838 to 1869, "in the forefront of the affrays and riots that so
typified that period of transition." 27 Working class women were subject to charges
ranging from indecent behavior, riotous and disorderly conduct, to obscene and
profane language. The language charge is viewed by some researchers as a

25David Trotman, page 68, quoting from Police Report Record at the time.
26David Trotman page 68
27David Trotman page 68

reflection of the cultural gap between the elite and working class, as the elite
attempted to impose standard English on a multi-ethnic society. Similarly, historian
Bridget Brereton comments on the power of the language of lower classes. She
considers patois, which was the mother tongue of most lower-class blacks throughout
the nineteenth century, as both a "defensive and an offensive weapon" as it was "not
understood by most policeman, magistrates and officials..." 28 Brereton posits that for
this very reason, calypso remained primarily in patois until the end of the century.
Furthermore, commenting on the historic subtle use of language in calypso, Gordon
Rohlehr describes the early calypsonians' verbal delight in being able to subvert the
system through their art. He suggests that calypsonians employed a coded language
to bypass certain moral structures imposed by the upper classes. 29 The manipulation
of language in calypso to convey hidden meanings is still a primary characteristic of
the form.

The obscenity charge is viewed by Brereton as a reflection of "the far more casual
approach to sex which characterized the masses as compared to the 'respectable'
classes." 30 Although historians have pointed out that many of those women who were
part of the jamet bands, generally were prostitutes 31, the study by Trotman suggests
that many women of the lower classes were forced to register (falsely) as prostitutes,
as they were subject to the "Contagious Disease Ordinance". Any woman accused of
prostitution, or even found with prostitutes (especially if frequenting the stick yards
where the chantwells sang) was forced to register as such, and was subject to periodic
medical examinations, as well. It is apparent that these Jamet women as a group,
though small, formed a significant portion of those in nineteenth century Trinidad
society who were continually before the courts or in the prison. They were "isolated,
labelled criminal, and continually harassed by the law."32 The history of jamet women
during this era is important to consider in gauging the images of such women, as
presented in the press and in calypsos, with the social reality in which they found

28Bridget Brereton, Race Relations in Colonial Trinidad, page 174.
29Personal interview with Gordon Rohlehr, June 1992.
30Bridget Brereton, page 174.
31"The women would generally be prostitutes, active or retired, dressed in the traditional Martinique
costume, always masked. At some times, and in some places, they exposed their breasts." Bridget
Brereton, page 170
32 David Trotman, page 71

The few surviving songs of these first female Calypsonians make a strong case for the
argument that women used calypso very early on to address women's issues. Decried
were such themes as physical abuse, abandonment, and the plight of prostitution -
topics not generally treated by male Calypsonians of the same period. The
"Mattaloney" to whom Atilla refers, for example, was Sophie Mattaloney (also Lady
Mattaloney), who sang on being pregnant and abandoned (1906):

"...Deux mois loye a sous tete-ou/Pas sa trouver papa ish-ou/Estomac-li
bas, bas, bas" /Pas sa touver pap ishe-la (...Two months' rent you have to
pay/And you can't find your child's father/ Her belly drop low, low, low./And
she cant find her child's father..").

An earlier woman's calypso (documented as pre-1890s) by an unknown (female)
composer is a woman's testimonial on prostitution :

"A year ago I was a girVA young girl in my mother's house/This year I am a
woman/Fighting to make a living for myself/Aie Aie/Shake your body and I
will give you/Naughty girl/ Shake your body and I will give you..A hefty

A social conflict of moralities came about between the elite "establishment" morality,
and that of the streets. Accordingly, stickfights and carisoes were officially banned in
1884. This resulted in the kalinda stickfighting form being driven underground in order
to survive; where men then began to appropriate the women's songs, substituting the
physical violence of kalinda with a verbal violence in song, thereby altering the cariso
form from its origin as a woman's song.

Since the 18th century, Carnival in Trinidad had been the elegant affair of upper -class
Creole whites. After Emancipation in 1833, however, the ex-slaves and lower classes
began participating in great numbers, transforming a rather sedate religious holiday
into a lively festival. Accordingly, the upper classes withdrew from Carnival, as it
became "taken over almost entirely by the jamets of the urban slums." 33 While these
groups or bands centered much of their activity around Carnival time, it is important to
note that they existed the whole year round, as many early newspaper accounts have
attested. The kalinda, or yard stickfighting was the earliest important context for
female participation, as yard or band chantwells. The jamet Carnival, with its kalinda,
camboulay 34 and other public scenes, outraged "respectable" Trinidad. As Bridget
Brereton suggests, in her exhaustive study of nineteenth century Trinidad, jamet

33Bridget Brereton, page 169.
3Kalinda, or kalenda, is both the name for the song and the stickfighting ritual such song accompanies.
Camboulay is from "Cannes Brulees" a torchlight precession, associated with Carnival

carnival was "a reversal of all the judgements and values of respectable society".35
But its function was clearly more important than to simply disgust and outrage the
upper classes. For the lower class, uneducated, unemployed and discriminated
members who formed the jamet bands, Carnival was their outlet, not simply for dance
and celebration, or keeping alive African -derived traditions such as the kalinda, for
example, but for expressing protest and struggle against dominant social powers.
Carnival was the primary focus of the Afro-Creole sub-culture in Trinidad, representing
an important means of expression for the lower class black people who participated.
As Brereton suggests, perhaps Carnival's most vital function was that "the festival
became an arena in which class antagonisms were worked out".36 This arena was
most certainly the only one available in the early colonial period of Trinidad which
would have allowed the lower classes their "voice". The calypso tradition is thus an
urban phenomenon, stemming from the historical period discussed above. Although
its form, like the Carnival with which it is associated, may have changed over time, its
function still embodies this public "voicing".


The preoccupation with "respectability" surrounding Carnival in the nineteenth century
(beginning with Emancipation in 1833) and the early twentieth century, created social
pressures which discouraged women from involving themselves in Calypso. Victorian
ideals of the period created a heightened sensibility of Calypso (and Carnival),
associating it with lower class morals and behavior. Especially during the period of
1870 to 1920, education played a central role in reinforcing this Victorian moral
structure. As primary education spread through the urban areas, the Church was able
to exert influence through church schools. As Gordon Rohlehr suggests, the
disappearance of jamet culture and the coming of Victorian morality was a function of
education, and education was a function of religion. The jamet morality thus became
in direct confrontation with "straight" society morality. 37 For women, ideas of
"respectability" imported with the colonial order stressed getting married, staying at
home and raising children. That this was not, in reality, possible for the majority of
women in Trinidad society of the time, did not diminish its highly esteemed state. Erna
Brodber, in her study documenting stereotypes of Caribbean women through time,
suggests that the jamet woman may have been well aware of this Victorian ideal, and

35Bridget Brereton, page 169.
36 Bridget Brereton, page 169.
37 Personal conversation with Gordon Rohlehr, June 1992.

that her behavior, which so shocked her society, was a reaction to her acute
awareness of her inaccessibility to this ideal: "The Trinidadian woman was perceived
as a being who operated within the home and family. This was indeed the reality
throughout time for all except the very visible group of immigrants and dislocated
blacks who crowded into the cities. It was possible that even here the norm was
known and accepted and that the counter activity of such economically depressed
women as the 'Jamette' sprang from frustration at their inability to realize the norm." 38
Although the 1890s and 1900s saw many movements to make Calypso more
acceptable to the ruling elite, it was not until the 1930s that women as a group would
be publicly recognized in the calypso arena as singers.

Because of the lack of public support or recognition of women in calypso, this era is
generally associated in Calypso scholarship with women's "disappearance" from the
form. However, it is the intention of this study to emphasize that the suppression of
Jamette Carnival did not necessarily mean that women disappeared entirely from the
calypso arena. If it is accepted by historians, and scholars of calypso that the dance
and music forms practiced by both male and female jamets were driven underground,
it must be postulated that at least some women of the jamet class remained active in
their roles. The numerous articles in Trinidad newspapers commenting on their
"indecent behavior" which appear throughout the late 19th and early 20th century
strongly suggest that despite the Victorian ideal of womanhood (the reason usually
given as to why women "disappeared"), these female jamets remained very much
present, much to the dismay of elite society who frequently commented on their
behavior. The fact that no songs by women during this time have survived does not
mean that women were necessarily absent from the form. It must be emphasized that
the elites sought to discourage alljamet activity, through the relentless banning of
musical events and arresting of any offenders. (In fact, when the Kalenda was officially
banned in 1884, it was the women who openly protested the ban "with open obscenity
of word and gesture... They were anything but silent; they sang their songs even more
fiercely than usual." (Rohlehr 1990:54). Thus, it seems questionable that these
forceful, independent women would somehow fade away, even if the men, deprived of
their martial activity (the kalinda), did appropriate the women's music, as so many
researchers have pointed out. Men were just as likely to be discouraged from
practicing musical traditions as women, and it does not follow that men continued but
the women suddenly disappeared. On the contrary, it seems more probable that

38Erna Brodber. Perceptions of Caribbean Women, Women in the Caribbean Project (WICP). Volume
4, page 51.

women of the lower classes remained in the lower classes than that they somehow
elevated their status. What is of concern of course, is whether they sang. This seems
probable, since the men with whom they allied themselves continued calypso and
other song traditions. Moreover, Gordon Rohlehr has plainly stated that these
"legendary women...did not disappear after the suppression of 'Jamette Carnival' in
the 1880's. Their ranks were forever being replenished from neighboring islands" (my
emphasis). This suggests that there was a definite continuum in female jamet culture,
due to the many women migrating from other islands to Trinidad. If it is true that jamet
women did not disappear, then they most likely participated in whatever singing, music
or dance traditions were being practiced at the time, including calypso.

Aside from women as singers, there is an additional area, largely undocumented in
calypso scholarship, in which women (of the middle class in particular), were involved
in the calypso arena on an economic level and had an important role in maintaining
the tradition. With the advent of calypso performances in "tents" (which first started in
1903), middle-class shopkeepers and cinema proprietors provided both capital and a
place to perform. Interestingly, many of these early financiers of calypso were
Trinidadians of East Indian descent, (also Chinese) and apparently, among these
were women. According to newspaper reports, among the examples of the East
Indian support of Calypso was one Margaret Samaroo, pictured and listed as "cinema
owner"; also mentioned is "Mrs. Lucky, owner of a Fyzebad cinema", as well as "the
manageress of Ideal Cinema, an Indian woman"39 When the ruling class withdrew its
support of Calypso, it was the Indian community which provided significant
sponsorship of Calypso. The San Fernando area became a principal center of
Calypso activity, where staged shows were conducted year-round. It is important to
note that during this period, a large concentration of the population in San Fernando
and the surrounding villages was East Indian. Over half the audience in the Calypso
shows were presumed to be Indian 40 and it is probable that women as the
establishment owners or overseers were part of this audience. If so, they may also
have had some influence on the Calypsos of this time. Further research on the role of
East Indian Women in Calypso development would have important implications for
understanding particular ethnic and gender dimensions in both calypso performance
and popularization. Though this is beyond the scope of this study, it is clear that these
women as Calypso "benefactors" had an important role in preserving the Calypso

39 The Roaring Lion (Rafael de Leon)."The Great Indian Help to Calypso", newspaper article in Sunday Guardian,
March 27, 1988
40 The Roaring Lion "..60 percent of the audience in such calypso shows was Indian."

tradition, and their presence during the early twentieth century merits their inclusion in
female participation in Calypso.


Along with more middle class participation in and support of Calypso and Carnival,
this period marks the public recognition of women's "re-emergence" as Calypso
singers. Among them, four "pioneers" stand out: Lady Trinidad, Lady lere, Lady
Baldwin and Lady Macdonald.

Lady Trinidad (Thelma Lane) had a career in the mid -1930s and is acknowledged as
the first woman to sing on stage in 1937. She began with "Yankee bands" singing
American pop music. She did not write her own material, and she never recorded any
calypsos. "Old Man's Darling" and "Advice to Every Young Woman" were her popular
calypsos at the time. It is important to note that during this period, women did not sing
on the turmoil which was part of Trinidad's political landscape at the time, and which
by contrast, her male counterpart strongly vocalized, in Calypsos on hunger, the strike,
the federation etc. For example, in the 1940s, themes about the "Mother country" and
the "Allied Forces" were popularized by male Calypsonians. Although a critical look at
local politics began to be taken by male Calypsonians, there seems to be no
corresponding comment from the women Calypsonians of the time. Grass-root
women's organizations were also active during this time, and yet there is no surviving
women's calypso commenting on this. Lady Trinidad sang during the apogee of the
labor movement in the 1930s, yet there is no documentation to support that she ever
sang on the subject. However, the argument can be made for the fact that Calypso (by
men or women) did not have to be political to be listened to, and in the early stages of
women's "re-emergence" as Calypsonians, their importance was perhaps more by
their example than their lyrics.

For a time, Lady Trinidad remained the only female calypsonian until Lady lere came
into the calypso arena. Of additional importance is the fact that neither Lady Trinidad
nor Lady lere wrote her own material, which suggests that at this time, men still had
control over the content of women's songs. As has been reported in a recent panel
discussion on women's role in calypso by the University of the West Indies women's

group, even in the 1920s "...women Calypsonians, like Lady Trinidad and Lady lere
were essentially added attractions to the tents and not artistes in their own right".41

Lady lere (Edna Thomas nee Pierre) began singing with her husband, Randolph
Thomas, Lord lere4 2. Theirs was the first husband & wife calypso duet in Trinidad. Her
songs have been characterized as having "that motherly, loving touch and good wife
image"43 However, her first Calypso "A Warning to Mothers", which is often given as
an example of this "motherly loving touch" seems to be much more a commentary on
the unchecked (accepted) behavior of boys, and the need for girls to be protected
against their advances :

"Better keep your eyes on your daughters/ from the age of seven now,
they are wise/And the immorality they try to equalize/Don't let them out of
you sight/These force-ripe men they are too bright"

It has been suggested that Lady lere came on the calypso scene only after her
husband, Lord lere, was unsuccessful; as a last resort to save his own reputation, he
included his wife, who then became popular on her own: "It was lere's failure in the big
tent ..that forced him to bring in his wife and later team up as a duet...The public,
according to lere, had acclaimed Lady lere as the better singer, so they stopped the
duet. She it was who sang 'Sit Down Strike' claiming that a female strike is worse
than a male strike"(Liverpool). The reported subject matter of this calypso indicates a
change in song content from Lady Trinidad's era, and the marks the start of a growing
trend of female-perspective calypsos. In "Love Me or Leave Me" (1952), she asserts
that men's infidelity should not be tolerated:

"The men in town /Ah finding
it dey blooming eyes is too long.. You got to love me or leave me/or live
with Miss Dorothy/The time is too hard/for me to mind a man that is bad."

The term "mind", meaning support (financially) is important here, as the song is also a
commentary on the sexual dimension of the economic position in male /female
relationships (the man's dependence on the woman is acceptable as long as he
remains faithful). This song has been deemed one of the earliest voices of female
protest, and "was very much a slogan for the oppressed women of the Caribbean as a

41 As reported in the coverage of the panel by the Trinidad Guardian's article "Women should get more involved",
November 1985.
42"lere" is the Arawak (Amerindian) word for "hummingbird" and is the indigenous name for Trinidad, which is
known as "Land of the Hummingbird".
4Hollis Liverpool, Kaisonians to Remember. Juba Publishing, Diego Martin, Trinidad 1987

whole and of Trinidad in particular."44 In addition to infidelity, male aggression is
lamented in another calypso from the 1950s:

"You cook dey food/And you wash dey clothes/When dey come home
vex/dey does give you blows".

Another female calypsonian from the period of the Second World War was Lady
Thelma, who resided in New York, and produced a best-selling calypso, "You Gotta
Have Power", a commentary on the nightly blackouts approved by President
Roosevelt. Although the 1950s saw more women's involvement in calypso, progress
was slow. In 1956, the first Calypso Queen competition was won by Lady lere, but she
had only one challenger, Pearl White, of whom nearly nothing is known.

In summarizing this first "stage" of female calypsonian re-emergence as tent
performers, it seems that women were not perceived as Calypsonians in their own
right, and functioned more as "added attractions" on the calypso stage.45 Most sang
with men, often their husbands, and did not write their own material. Despite this
probability, it is essential to note that in examining their calypsos, the subjects these
women "sang" on invariably took the women's side of the issue, as evidenced in their


The decade of the 1970s signified a new era in Trinidad. Discontent was brewing over
high oil prices, the Black Power movement of the U.S. was appropriated by a new
youth culture, which expressed itself against continued colonial domination. There
was an influence of American slang in calypso. Calypsonian Shorty experimented
and introduced "Soca", (from "soul of calypso"), a dance/party music style, which
sparked debate by some in the calypso arena (Raphael de Leon, calypsonian
"Roaring Lion", for example, who was the Public Relations officer of the Calypso
Association) who argued Soca was not Calypso. The "Yankee craze" of disco was
prevalent. In addition, especially in the 1970s, there occurred great social changes
affecting the status of women, which may have important links to the great turnout of
women in calypso during this period.

44Keith Warner, Kaiso! The Trinidad Calypso, page 105.
45According to novelist Merle Hodge, who was a lecture panelist in the Calypso Research Project, organized by
the Institute of Social and Economic Research at the University of the West Indies, November, 1985.

The U.N.'s Declaration of International Decade of Women, from 1975-1985, the Black
Power movement of the late 1960s and 1970s, and the International Year of the
Woman in 1975 brought about an interest in women's issues. New efforts were made
in the Caribbean region to recognize the role of women in society. Groups such as
the Business and Professional Women's Group, the University of the West Indies
Women's Group, the National Committee on the status of Women, and the
Housewives Association of Trinidad & Tobago were formed. In Jamaica, the Sistren
Women's Theatre Collective emerged in 1977, the first of the autonomous feminist
women's groups comprising primarily working class women. Sistren's highly
acclaimed work, which makes use of women's life histories through drama for
consciousness -raising and entertainment is one of the first important examples in the
region of women in the arts. In addition, in Trinidad, the National Women's Action
Committee (NWAC) was formed, speaking out on the need for women's "freedom",
(but continued, however, in their literature, to view men as the heads of family). The
NWAC organized Calypso Queen competitions in order to encourage women to
participate in Calypso. In the 1986 contest for example, Lady Hotspot (Eastlyn Orr)
urged more women to come together in the calypso arena and to specifically compose
songs on men. Her calypso advised women, "If they sing about Mary, we could sing
'bout Harry and say he sorfie, sorfie, sortie, sorfie"46 Thus, calypso was becoming
recognized and encouraged as a viable way for women to challenge and even
change certain social patterns and power structures, particularly surrounding gender,
in this case through reversing the stereotyped images of men (and thereby, women) in
attacking the male's most glorified calypso subject, his sexuality. This decade also saw
the advent of Soca Parang and Indian Soca, examples of indigenous cross-cultural
experiments in Calypso. The involvement (and success) of female Calypsonians
Drupatee and Denyse Plummer bridged the ethnic/class/cultural gap for the first time,
between French Creole and Indo-Trinidadian cultures in the form.

The true ascent of women in Calypso begins with Calypso Rose (McArtha Lewis), who
actually began singing calypsos in the 1950s, when the only other female calypsonian
was Lady lere. Calypso Rose is profiled in this chronological section because it is
during this period that she was most successful, setting the precedent for all other
women to participate. Of added importance is the fact that Rose composes her own
material. Other female Calypsonians of great importance during this time were Singing
Francine (Francine Edwards), and Calypso Princess (Veronica de Labastide). In the

46Sorfie, also sofy, or sof man, means effeminate, spineless, or sexually impotent.

late 1960s through the 1970s, these three women were the dominant female voices in
Calypso. Rose and Francine sang independently, while Calypso Princess was
encouraged by her husband, Calypsonian Lord Blakie. Princess, belly dancer-turned
calypsonian, sang in the chorus in the same tent where Rose made her debut in 1969.
(Original Young Brigade, which was Sparrow's tent). Princess debuted in her
husband's Victory Tent. "The Private"(1972), "Sweet Man Blakie" (1973) and "Any
Man is My Man" (1978) are some of her songs, written primarily by her husband.

The success of female Calypsonians often depended on the support of men who
dominated the tent atmosphere. Sparrow, in particular, gave many female
"newcomers" their start. Not surprisingly, the most successful women Calypsonians
patterned themselves after men, in stage performance and singing style.47 Rose and
Francine, although independent, were regarded as female versions of Mighty Sparrow
and Lord Kitchener, the two great male Calypsonians of the day. This seems
consistent with the previous "linking" of women to the image of their husbands,
exemplified by Princess and Lord Blakie, (and earlier, by Lord and Lady lere).

Although the 1970s marks the emergence of Pro-Women calypsos, it is important to
examine the different ways this ideal is played out by the female Calypsonians.
Calypso Rose presents many strong-woman images, most of a sexual nature, but it is,
for the first time in Calypso, a woman's viewpoint of that sexual nature, a commentary
on her own sexuality. "Carlyle", for example, boasts of female sexual prowess, in a
"conversation" form; the man avers:
"When you hungry and you want meat to buy you does look for me"
[To which the woman challenges.
"And if you're a real strong man/Hold the leg in your hand/ And eat like
Santa Claus/Carlyle! The whole hog is yours! "

"Brown Sugar" is another assertion of female sexuality:
"Come any hour/For your sweet brown sugar/You would not regret/With
the sugar you going to get/Put your hands around my waist/And you
going to get the taste/Don't doubt what ah say/i have plenty sugar down

This theme is also evidenced in Calypso Princess' "I want a Good Husband" (1969):

47Carole Boyce Davies comments on Calypso Rose, who,"for years had a distinctly androgynous
appearance; her stage performance was similar to some male calypsonians like the Mighty Sparrow,
including dancing and projecting the microphone as phallus.." in "Woman is a Nation..Women in Caribbean
Oral Literature". Out of the Kumbla Carol Boyce Davies and Elaine Fido, editors. Page 183.

"Ah making an applicatior/To get a good husband/Friends ah tried so
hard/To get ah good man in Trinidad/But ah so unlucky/All who ah tried
done dead out already/So all you men you just listen to me/If you fit you
have Princess already....So you see my position/Ah trying hard to get a
good husband/from town to south, if you see me sweat/up to now I aint
get a good man yet/If you think you too big for me well you lost/You don't
see ah built like a circus horse".
'Ah know in that crowd they ah go get one tonight/Ah don't care about
anybody/Like ah feeling him already/Don't get in a rage/As ah finish sing
you meet me back stage."

Although most likely composed by her husband, this calypso is an affirmation of
woman's sexual desire, and potential sexual insatiability, a theme much-embraced in
the reverse "traditional" form (on male sexual insatiability) in Calypsos by men. This
calypso compares with Sparrow's "Mr. Rake-and-Scrape":

SI'm a busy man with no time to lose/Ah don't pass my hand, ah don't pick
and choose/so any kind'o woman, one foot or one hand/Dey cannot
escape from me Mr. Rake-and-Scrape."

Furthermore, his "Village Ram" boasts:

"..Not a woman ever complain yet wid me/Ah aint boasting but ah got
durability/ And if a woman ever tell you that I/leave she dissatisfy/She lie,
she lie/ say she lie".

Rose has been referred to as the "chief purveyor of smut"4 8 for her sexually charged
calypsos, and yet male Calypsonians, whose material of this time were equally if not
more racy, are rarely held in an unfavorable light for producing it. One researcher has
commented on the unfavorable reception Calypso Rose has received in her role as a
calypsonian. She was often criticized and "had to survive through rumours of
lesbianism" 49. Rose articulated female desire, and was therefore labelled somehow
"deviant' in her society. Yet Rose was wildly popular for her racy calypsos, the same
calypsos for which she was seen unfavorably. This irony points to the double standard
of male/female success and accepted behavior both in the calypso arena, as well as in
the larger social setting. Other calypsos by Rose present more than a recognition of
female sexuality, asserting the need for respect and equality for the female partner:

"..I could understand why a woman must have a outside man/A man does
want to run like rat/And have his wife to abide by that/And every night he is
having a ball/And when he reach home he aint kissing the wife at all..."

48 Nesha Haniff. Blaze a Fire Siqnificant Contributions of Caribbean Women. Sister Vision Press 1988. "Women
in the Arts" chapter, page 67.
49Carole Boyce Davies, page 183.

In addition, there is a recognition of the physical obligation in
"Every woman dey want/An usin we at dey convenience/den dey turn an'
say/Dey cant trust a woman today/A Man does leave his wife aloneThree
days he ent see his home/At de end dey does have to bawl/dey ent know
a woman never bawl at all" ("Whe She Go Do').

Fulfillment of physical desires of the women is addressed in a similar manner in
"Mister Goodridge", to whom she claims she'll remain faithful despite his infidelity as
long as he "brings back the sugarcane home". Many of Rose's songs address the
issue of women's denied sexuality, and reverse, in an ironic twist, the inherent
stereotype of the sexually assertive man, in that, although the woman may now act on
her desires, she is nevertheless, unfulfilled. Calypso Princess' "Any Man is My Man",
and "Application for a Good Husband"( "..Friends ah try so hard/to get a good man in
Trinidad/...All who ah tried done dead already") as well as Lady Excellence's "Master
Johnny ("... But for one thing I had to leave him/I did love him bad/But at bedtime I does
feel sad/I didn't know what was wrong/That man will sleep from night until dawn") also
promote this image of the male who can't satisfy. 50

It is important to note that not all of Rose's calypsos lean on the sexual theme. Some
songs present commentaries which are purely political, such as ""Don't Blame the
Doctor", for example (1975), in support of the then- Prime Minister Eric Williams, or her
"Me En't Goin"', a political stand on the freedom of speech. In her song, "No Madame",
Rose took on the plight of the working class Domestic servants in Trinidad, thereby
also addressing a "woman's issue", as Domestics are invariably female.
"Matrimony" is a statement of her enjoyed economic independence, an independence
gained through her success as a calypsonian:
"I am working for a good salary/Eating and drinking like anybody/People
advising me to stop singing calypso/Settle down and get married."

The message articulated, of a woman's freedom through earning her own living,
counters the perception of marriage as being necessary to provide security. In

5Research concerning male attitudes toward sexuality suggests why the insult in this type of calypso, though
playing on a universal male sexual stereotype, is particularly stinging to the West Indian male. For example, a study
carried out in Barbados revealed that the West Indian notion of masculinity has a built -in concept of satisfying the
woman: "A man's reputation is not based on 'conquest of the 'inaccessible' woman, but on his success in sexual
performance" and that males' "preoccupation with sexual activity is unlike machismo, very profemale". Constance
Sutton and Susan Makiesky-Barrow. "Social Inequality and Sexual Status in Barbados", in The Black Woman
Cross-Culturally, Filomena Steady, editor. Page 492.

addition, it is a call for legitimizing women's calypso singing as a viable means for that

In her work, Calypso Rose's challenge to male feelings of superiority may be viewed
as a return of the "Jamette" figure of the 19th century. Her calypsos represent a female
rebellion against social ideas which have historically denied women anything but a
passive role. That she represents the woman's viewpoint is perhaps best understood
by her own comment:
"Many of my calypsos were written from stories that women themselves told me. I try to write about the
sufferings of women as much as I can. When I first started out it was the women who criticized me most.
Now look how time change eh. Women's clubs and so invite me to speak. When my calypsos don't make a
hit it is as if I am lettin them down."51

Rose's calypsos are important because she sings against expected patterns of
behavior. Although many of her calypsos may be viewed as a female reiteration of
male sexual aggressiveness, and do not address the oppression women faced
outside of the sexual relationship, they are nevertheless an important assertion of
feminine power and independence.

With the subsequent progression of female participation in Calypso, one notes an
emerging feminine articulation of independence and equality which is no longer
bound to the sexual realm. The work of Singing Francine (Francine Edwards) is an
example. Many of Francine's calypsos are important commentaries on both being a
woman and being a woman calypsonian. "Woman's World" (1976) is a call to the
male calypsonian for equal treatment as a performing artist:

"We are equal on the scale. You the male, I the female/So think reasonably. You cant dominate me./lf I
could sing like you and dance like you/To prove I have the nerve/I don't know what again I have to do/To
get the prize I deserve".

The "prize" refers to woman winning the calypso contest over the man, yet it is
interesting that still her success is through an emulation of the male performance
("sing like you and dance like you") rather than a recognition of woman's performance
on her own terms (which is more the case in the contemporary arena). Also

5 1 Nesha Haniff, page 67.

suggested is the notion that for a woman to appropriate such male behavior takes
"nerve". Other songs by Francine presenting strong social commentary include "Black
and White" (1975), which addressed the racial tensions prevalent at the time; and
Francine, like Calypso Rose, sung about the injustice of the working-class domestics
in "Save our Domestics", which compares the situation of domestics to slavery.

calypso (women as trickster, as ugly, as dirty, as unfaithful, etc.). However, of all the
anti-feminine themes in songs, that of men's violence or brutality toward women
seems the one most often responded to by female calypsonians. Many women's
songs address the issue of male aggression, so prevalent in men's calypsos, urging
women not to accept men's violence. Francine's "Run Away" is an important example,
which both chronicles the abusive situation and urges the woman to take action. It is
important to note the structure of this composition. The verses address the abusive
man, while the chorus (which the audience, through repetition, remembers and by
which most calypsos are known) speaks to the woman:
"You went and put gold ring on she hand/You boasting in town that you is she marVShe say that you love
she bursting with joy/She give you a baby boy/ Little did she know you wanted a maid/Your next lady
friend couldn't make the grade/ Now she sitting down and wondering what to do/How to get away, how to
get away from you."
(chorus): "Child does run away/Fowl does run away/Woman, cat does run away when you treating them
bad/Cow does run away "Dog does run away/ What happen to you woman, you could run away too"
(verse): "You went and you put gold teeth in she mouth/As all yuh vex you cuffing it out/You making she
shame all over the place/Man you is a dam disgrace/Not even to church now she cannot go/She beg for
little love you telling she no/She frighten like hell to make up a plan/How to get away, how to get away/How
to get away from you"
(chorus): Child does run away/Woman, cat does run away/When man treating them bad/Fowl does run
away/What happen to you woman, You could run away too...Don't sit down and steam/Woman put two
wings on your heels.....

In the last verse, the "message "speaks to both parties, ending in the important last

"If she bring she friends to visit the house/you insulting she you calling them louse/If she talk to Creeg you
say she is with he/Like she is a slut puppy/Morning noon and night you blowing she mind/You bringing
she old long before she time/Seven years you living in misery/Woman run away, run away from he."

Singing Dianne's "Ah Done Wid Dat" relays a similar message of protest:
'Leave me, don't touch me/..If ah don't leave now, is licks in de morning/In de evening, Ah cant take it, ah
telling you flat/Ah done wid dat."

Such is the female response to calypsos such as Atilla the Hun's (Raymond Quevedo)
earlier calypso"Treat 'Em Rough", advocating the need for violence to control women:

"I've discovered a new philosophy/How to live with women happily/
... Every now and then turn them down.
They'll love you long and they'll love you strong.
You must be robust, you must be tough
Don't throw no punches but treat 'em rough."

And Mighty Sparrow warns, "girl you looking for blows", in his version of a similar
calypso (attributed originally to Atilla), which he revived in the 1970s, (the apogee of
pro-woman calypsos by women!) advising men:
"Every now and then cuff them downrThey'll love you long and they'll love you strong/
Black up they eye/Bruise up they knee/And they will love you eternally."

Sparrow changed the last line after the chorus repeats three times to "Then they'll
leave you eternally", but as Gordon Rohlehr points out" by that point the calypso has
already registered its sadistic message." (Rohlehr, 1990:264)

The message articulated in women's calypsos of this time urges an active position
against male abuse, and marks a significant departure from some earlier women's
calypsos which simply reiterated the abusive situation (as was seen for example, in
Lady lere's lines,"You cook dey food/And you wash dey clothes/When dey come home vex/dey does
give you blows").

Carnival, a common theme in many calypsos, is often perceived as a time when
Trinidadians "free up they self' as the expression goes. In general, the relaxed code
of behavior associated with Carnival is regarded as a temporary aberration from
societal "norms". Calypsonian Princess' "We Jammin" (1977) reaffirms Carnival time
as the only time women can break free, "..If no man can't touch your body/Stay home
and watch man on T.V./ But not me.." Francine's "Ah Feel Allright" attests to the feeling
of being in Carnival "bands" (parades): "I feel to jump, I feel to dance/I feel to ramp, I
feel to prance/ I feel allright/ I feel to wine, I feel to grind/I feel to fete, I feeling wet..."
Indeed, many male-composed calypsos underscore the cultural expectation that
women who participate in Carnival should become sexually freer. Lord Kitchener tells
his "Flag Woman: Wave it baby, get them groovy, Yes honey, do your duty, wave it
sexy, send them crazy, Woman woman move you hand". Calypsonian Shadow's
"Roll The Bumbulum" features a "mad man from the Asylum", who instructs the his
"Emely" during Carnival time : "...Ah tell you to roll the bumbulum/You don't want to roll
the bumbulum/Ah don't want to beat you Emeline/But you playing smart with the
bumsie/Roll that bum bum roll that Bumbum/Get in the mood and make me feel
good..." The consequence of her compliance, as she "start moving", is that "suddenly

he grab she"(alluding to being sexually taken), but this is chalked up to "bacchanal
that was real carnival" and in the end, she is to blame not the man, but her own body,
as the last line attests: "Poor Emely wish she never had a bumsie". However, many
female calypsonians have pointed to the paradox inherent in standards of Carnival
behavior with respect to women. Francine's "Carnival Fever", for example, discusses
the joy and freedom of dancing and celebrating, "..Ah go wine like a ice cream can.."52
but states "...Ah only hope they ain't say ah vulgar when ah catch the carnival Fever".
There is the idea that a woman may be encouraged to abandon middle class morals at
Carnival time, but afterwards, she is stigmatized.

Singing Francine has been hailed "the darling of the middle class woman" by one
newspaper reporter, as she "represents their values, decency, sound morals, social
order and discipline." 53 In the public eye, Francine seems to represent a departure
from calypsonians Rose and Princess, both of whom were associated with obscene
language, and "loose" morals. She is considered the calypsonian who changed the
image of the female singer. In a 1975 interview, Francine has commented: "personally I
do not like obscenity, and I have never sung any calypsos like that. I hate to call names but so far the
women in calypso have not done much about changing the image that has come out of calypso...And, of
course, in the tents itself you have women lapping up the vulgarity about themselves which the men
sing." 54 This important comment on positive response by female audiences to women-
degrading calypsos has been noted elsewhere in the press, even several years later,
such as in a 1981 article "Reconstruction through the Creative Arts Calypsonians
must tell the truth about our women": "...Now while these smut, or to use the
contemporary 'jam and wine' tunes are strictly male compositions, make no mistake
about it, in spite of the vulgarity they contain, many women applaud them." 55
However, Keith Warner has noted the positive response of female audiences in the
tents to female "protest songs" such as "Love Me or Leave Me" and "Run Away": The
tent reaction to both calypsoes was the same-numerous encores as the females
showed their unrestrained appreciation of both songs" 56 The gender dimensions of
audience response are an integral part of understanding Calypso performance, and
will be discussed further in the examination of tent performance patterns.

52"Winerfrom wind, as in "wind the waist"is "to rotate the waist and hips in a suggestive manner" (Cote Ce Cote La
- Trinidad & Tobago Dictionary, John Mendes 1986
53 Comment by Eric Roach, Trinidad Guardian, 1/30/74
54"Talking with Singing Francine". Interview by Therese Mills, Trinidad Guardian, 5/16/75
55Article by Ronald John, Trinidad Guardian, 1/28/91. It is of interest that this appears as a front-page, headlining
article, suggesting that the issue of women's image in calypso is beginning to be taken seriously, by the press as
well as by calypsonians.
5Keith Warner, page 106.

The late 1970s witnessed more women coming into the calypso arena. Most began
their calypsonian careers through the NWAC's Queen competitions. There is very little
documentation on the work of most of these women, probably because they did not
achieve the fame of Rose or Francine, and were therefore not covered in the press, nor
in the various "Calypso Carnival booklets" published annually. Nonetheless, they
must be mentioned here, however briefly, as a main goal of this study is to provide as
complete a picture as possible of women in calypso, and not to repeat the mistake of
previous scholarship which has, by and large, ignored women's contribution to the
form. The following is a brief list of recent female calypsonians, some of whom will be
profiled in the next section:

Duchess (Magnola Cancho), sang "Woman's Liberation"(1974); Gene Miles, "who
sang on the gas station racket and its repercussions"(Trinidad Guardian, 1/5/70)
began in calypsonian Kitchener's tent in the 1970s; Kaiso Girl (Lillian de Vignes)
lived and performed in Venezuela and Trinidad, recording songs in Spanish and
English. She sang in Sparrow's tent, Original Young Brigade, singing "Don't Blame
the Doctor"( about the then-Prime Minister Dr.Eric Williams). In 1972 and 1975 she
appeared at the Calypso Theatre. Her songs include: "Drunking Woman", "Washy
Congo", "Trinidad Keskidee", "Mas Kissin Mas"and others; Singing Dianne did
vocals for many steel bands. She debuted in 1974 with "Carifta Queen" and sang
many female-perspective songs: "Work of a Woman"(1975) "Give Away"(1981) and
Take Yuh Clothes and Go"(1984), the song for which she won the Calypso Queen title.
Twiggy (Ann Marie Parks) made attempts to address women's issues, in songs like
"Beauty Contest"(1976), "Don't Put Yuh Hand"(1986)and "Recession Fighter", on the
benefits of having a male provider.

The Soca explosion brought to the scene more female singers. Calypso Girlie
(Sheila Gomez) began a a chorus singer with a Parang roup, also performed with
Sparrow and Chalkie, ran a "roving calypso tent", The People's Calypso Brigade.
Songs: "Why dey Digging" and "Play it fuh We"; Kele Zanda of South African origin.
Came to Trinidad in 1972 and was the wife of a musician, Clide Zanda; Lady B
(Beulah Bobb) sang at the Tobago Carnival Development Committee's tent for eleven
years. She stands apart from most of her female contemporaries for the significant fact
that she writes her own calypsos and often sings political commentaries which are
successful Her songs include "20 Years in Revue" (19483), "Sanctions" (1988) and
the strongly political "Move the Cameras" (1990). She also wrote plays for Best

Village Contests in Tobago and was actively involved in theater. Lady Gypsy
(Lynette Steel), debuted with wandering Roving Brigade Tent of San Fernando in
1978. Sang Parang and pop music. She is the sister of calypsonian Gypsie; Lady
Wonder (Diane Hendrickson), the daughter of calypsonian Allrounder, she won
school calypso competitions, and was a backup singer for many years before going
solo; Marvelous Marva (Marva Joseph), debuted in 1981 when she tied for second
place as Calypso Queen. "A Hall of Fame", "Trinbago Culture", and "The Single
Woman" are some of her early songs; Singing B. (Bernadette McFarlane) debuted in
1987. She was a performer in the Best Village contest (calypso and other song
performance competitions, represented by all the different villages or districts of
Trinidad); Drupatee Ramgoonai began singing religious songs in school choirs.
She represented Charlo Village Council at the Best Village competition. She won the
Indian Cultural Pageant in 1983 and 1984, singing a Chutney style (musical genre of
East Indian population in Trinidad and became known for her special type of "Chutney
Soca". She began singing calypsos in Hindi, later changing her verses to English. Her
real success came with "Mr. Bissessar"(19487). Other popular songs : "Hotter than a
Chula"(1990), a commentary on the beauty of "mixing" Indian and African rhythms:
("Rhythm from Africa and India/From the hills/Way up in Laventille/Pan-man skills/must
spill into Caroni..."). She incorporated in Calypso the use of Indian tassa drumming
(although Sparrow had sometimes used it before); Eastlyn Orr, a Tobagonian,
debuted as "Lady Hot Spot" and won many calypso contests. Some of her
songs:'Leave Woman Alone" and "I Don't Know". She was the first female to sing at
the "Spectakula Forum" (a calypso tent featuring many singers from other "tents"). She
treats a number of "female" issues in her songs. "Woman is Rising" is a current
example; Kai Maloney, a band singer-turned calypsonian; Lady Venus (Marilyn
Jeminez) sang party tunes, and often sang other people's songs; Lovey (Denise
Moore) with singer Marilyn Williams formed "The Love Twins". "Don't Treat Woman
So"and "Leggo Mih Hand" were sung at the Calypso Revue Tent in 1988; Marcia
Marinda, from Tobago, she won calypso competitions in school and is a BWIA
hostess (British West Indian Airlines). The airline sponsored a calypso competition
which she won in 1976, with "Fly Girl Horrors". She sang in a nightclub owned by her
father; Queen Isis (Bernadette Paul) sang "Abortion" (1988) and "Take A Walk,
Brother Man"; Tigress (Joanne Rowley) was a member of La Brea Folk Performers.
She entered and won the competition in Skinner's Park in 1987 with "African Roots".
In addition to these women, there was a string of child (male and female)
calypsonians, beginning in 1979, but the trend seems to be that more girls are
entering into calypso than boys. Abbi (Debra Blackman) was one of the first child

calypsonians. She is the daughter of calypsonian Lord Shorty. She sang "I'm Young
and Moving On", probably composed by her father, which won her the Queen title at
age 14. Princess B. also the daughter of a well-known calypsonian, the Mighty
Bomber, she sang remakes of his songs; Princess Natasha, one of the child
calypsonians in the second half of the 1980s. Sparrow managed her career. All her
material was written by a man. Her song, "One Day" about unrequited love, caused a
public stir, being considered too "mature" for a 12 year old; Sharleen Boodram is an
East Indian girl who played tenor pan (with steeldrum bands). Her songs, written by
her father and other professional song writers, include "Message to Mr. Robbie" (a
political commentary about the then-Prime Minister, Robinson) and "Tassa Tempo"

1980s to the contemporary calypso arena

This period witnessed many class and race changes in the calypso arena. Whereas
previously, calypsonians of both sexes were mainly Black and of the working class, in
the late 1980s, calypsonians such as Denyse Plummer, of the French Creole (white)
population and Drupatee Rangoonai, an East Indian Hindu woman, came onto the
scene. The public reaction to these newcomers to calypso has been varied. Denyse
Plummer began singing pop music, while Drupatee began singing religious songs.
When Plummer performed for the first time as a calypsonian, the crowd threw old fruit
and garbage at her 57. Plummer was not viewed as embodying the calypsonian
culture, which was, up to then, perceived as Black, and lower class, even though
Carnival itself had for some time, been appropriated to a large extent by the middle
classes, as part of a national post-independence movement to reclaim their Creole
(read African) heritage, and the calypso competitions themselves were largely
supported by middle class businesses, which commercialized the shows. Still, at the
level of calypso singer, a white, middle class calypsonian, let alone a woman, was not
at first accepted. Plummer persisted in singing calypso, however, and is now
considered one of the most important singing artists in Trinidad. (She was crowned
Calypso Queen in 1990). In an interview, though she encouraged more women to join
calypso, she asserted that there remains a relative lack of support for new women
calypsonians, when compared with men : "There is a notable reluctance on the part of

57"Plummer had the misfortune of being pelted with rolls of toilet paper and orange skins while performing before
a traditionally unruly crowd in San Fernando during the semi-finals of the Calypso Monarch Competition...She was
a white woman venturing into what is virtually a black man's territory, and she did not fit". Keith Warner, "Ethnicity
and the Contemporary Calypso" Trinidad Ethnicity, Kevin Yelvington, editor.

tent organizers to engage unknown female singers. Understandable, but how else to
get known? There are dozens awaiting the opportunity... It doesn't seem to happen to
aspiring men!" 58

By contrast, Drupatee Rangoonai had a favorable response from calypso audiences,
but was lambasted by her own Hindu community as "a thorn among Indian women"
(newspaper). She was viewed as a double disgrace both to Indian women, and to
the Hindu religion, for becoming a calypsonian. She first sang calypsos in Hindi, later
changing her verses to English. It is interesting to note that the following year, (1989)
two male East Indians debuted on the calypso stage (Ricky Jai and Sundar Poop),
apparently with no criticism at all, which suggests that the (East Indian) public concern
about who becomes a calypsonian was at this time centered more around the issue of
gender than ethnicity. It is important to note that Drupatee addressed both issues in
her songs; she "released a calypso that went a long way toward breaking down racial
and gender barriers." 59 In her song, she tells "Mr. Bissessar" to "roll up the tassa" (the
East Indian drum prominently featured in her songs). This calypso captured the
growing interpenetration of black/creole and Indian music. More importantly, through
her calypso, Drupatee promotes her own Indian culture, as "she made no attempt to
disguise her Indianness, even playing to the stereotype of the Indian female who
cannot dance('wine') like the other Trini women."60 With the success of Drupatee and
Denyse Plummer, for the first time the ethnic/cultural/ racial bridge is gapped in the
calypso arena; that this has been achieved by women in particular is a strong
testimony to the influential role of women in calypso.


"As a woman, it's much more work. You have to keep your head up high, saying that
I'm a woman, I'm not just making' a 'wine and jam' calypso, you know, I'm going out
there to educate the children of the Caribbean and all over the world, I should say."
(Marva Joseph, calypsonian "Marvelous Marva")

Another important example of women in the contemporary form is The United Sisters:
Lady B.(Beulah Bobb), Singing Sandra (Sandra de Vignes), Marvelous Marva (Marva
Joseph), and Tigress (Joanne Rowley). Each calypsonians in their own right, The

58Interview with Denyse Plummer in the Trinidad Guardian,("Female of the Species")4/20/87
59Keith Warner, "Ethnicity and the Contemporary Calypso" Trinidad Ethnicity, page 288
6Keith Warner, page 288.

United Sisters are one of the most important examples of women in Calypso, as they
represent the only female Calypsonians in Trinidad who have come together as a
group. In addition, they have done much to promote a women's agenda in the form.
"Pong for Pong", sung by Tigress, is a challenge to male superiority, while Sandra's
"Sexy Employer" is a call for women to speak out against sexual harassment: "...But if
you value yourself as a woman/You will demand respect from the vagabonds/Stand up to them and let
them know the truth/Is work you want, You ent no blinkin prostitute") Lady B. is one of the only
female calypsonians who sing political commentaries. "No Business Like Show
Business", (better known as "Move the Camera ") is an example: "No business like show
business/I'm in it now so I know/No business like show business/Is Parliament a pappy show?/ Move the
Camera, Mr...."..Lady B. explains the song is a commentary on the the government's
introduction of cameras in Parliament, to bring the public closer to the events at hand.
"But, as in theater, people tend to act up, once they find themselves in the light..I saw it
as happening in Parliament, so I sang about it." In addition to being a calypsonian,
Lady B. has also written plays and was involved in theater much of her life. She has
commented on the differences in male and female performance: "Largely, women
have not been into the topics of the 'wine and jam' type they sing party songs, but
they are not dancing when they get on the stage and wine and wine..I think it's
because a woman will be a woman, try to hold something back ..that little bit of
'Lady'"'1 The more recent "A Woman Should Win (the Road March)" addresses the
need to recognize women's participation in Calypso, particularly when faced with
competition from men. Tigress recently took on the theme of nation building, with
songs such as "What Is" which asks: "what is Independence?/ What is
Emancipation?/What is being a Republic Nation, which is also internationalized?/" and
"I Wonder When" ("I wonder when we'll have peace"), and "One Road" following recent
elections, asking which "road" Trinidad will choose. Marva asserts that calypso's most
important function is to educate, particularly the younger generations. Many of her
songs stress this message of education to women specifically, in songs addressed to
both mothers and single women. All four "sisters" make reference to the strong image
of the "Ambatalia woman", as the ideal of feminine strength, a strength necessary to
women in calypso. ("Ambatalia Woman" is the name of their recently -released album).
The coming together of The United Sisters originated from the idea of forming a
network of women performers, who could be of support to each other, "a sort of women
in the arts union", according to Marva, involving not just calypsonians but also
dancers, models and other women with performance-oriented interests. As no other

61Personal interview with Beulah Bobb, June 1992

women seemed appear at the meetings, the four who consistently did stuck together
and formed The United Sisters. Audience response to the group has been extremely
favorable. In fact, the United Sisters are in greater demand as a performing group in
the tents than each calypsonian on her own. It is furthermore interesting to note that
more than one "sister" argued that the contemporary calypso arena is not male-
dominated; that the many women who participate are simply not at the forefront.


The importance of the function of Calypso for women must be understood not only in
terms of song content analysis, but in song delivery. Calypso is truly a living, public
art. Thus, body gestures, audience response and other aspects of presentation are the
"framing"elements, integral components of the way a performance is "structured." In
considering these structures, one may then study calypso performance as text.

The role of story-teller as performer and the importance of the performer-audience
relationship has been examined by many scholars of African-American and Afro-
Caribbean traditions (Abrahams, 1964, Crowley, 1966). In particular, Roger
Abrahams' important work The Man- of- Words in the West Indies concentrates on the
role of performer/audience in various expressive traditions in St. Vincent, Nevis and
Tobago, focusing on different speech contexts, both formalized, such as wakes and
thanksgivings, and in informal game or challenge-settings, such as signifying (like the
dozens in the U.S.). Abrahams specifically looks at the boundaries of language in
different speech contexts and the reputation-determining aspects of the ability to
perform. In his examination, he notes the centrality of the riddler or story-teller and the
importance of the performer/audience relationship. With its emphasis on double
entendre, satire, "picong", and "mepris" in its verbal content, and its call-and-reponse
pattern and word improvisation to fit the melodic line in its musicality, calypso
represents a musical context for Abraham's verbal speech paradigm.

"Performance" is to be defined as calypso tent competitions, which are staged events,
with a mainly Trinidadian audience. For the most part, tent competitions have
changed very little from the earlier period. Other than advances in sound systems and
stage lighting, and higher prices being charged to spectators, the emphasis is still on
the song being sung; the judgement is still determined by song content. There are
significant gender dimensions of performance strategies in the contemporary calypso
arena which may affect performance judgement. One of the most striking is the rather

recent "winer girl"phenomenon. ("wining" is from "winding the waist") literally making
wide pelvis circles using the hips in a strongly sexual gesture)62 Often, the male
calypsonian has two women dancers next to him,on the stage, one on either side of
him. These would be the "winer girls", who gyrate around the stage while the
calypsonian delivers his songs. Sometimes these are backup singers, as well, but
their main function is to "dance" for the audience, mostly performing a variation of
pelvic thrusts.

The presence of the winer girl creates, on one hand, an overt sexual tone in the
performance, (even when the songs may not be on sexual topics), obviously geared
toward the male audience, while on the other hand, winer girls may be considered
human stage "props", promoting the notion of the strong successful male, flanked by
attractive women, an ideal which is, after all, at the heart of most male calypsonian's
boasting songs of sexual exploit. In this way, winer girls support the image of
popularity the male singer hopes to create, and might affect his success with an
audience, even if this image is achieved through a false (or staged) popularity.
Women who perform in the tents do not use winer girls, (and winer men do not exist
yet!) In women's calypso performance, if there is wining, the woman does it herself.
The Winer girl phenomenon suggests that perhaps the value system of audience
aesthetic is changing. It may be asserted that song content alone is no longer
enough in the tents; that an audience needs to be entertained visually as well. Even
though tent audience is both male and female, it seems that men are the primary target
of this entertainment.

Part of the Calypso tradition is the use of sobriquets. Throughout calypso
development, male singers have used grandiose, self-inflating show names, such as
the Mighty Sparrow, Lord Invader, King Radio, etc. The history of this naming tradition
stems from the era of Britain's involvement in the Boer War against "foreigners".
Calypsonians felt a certain patriotism toward the "mother country" and adopted names
of famous war heroes, such as Richard Coeur de Leon, the Duke of Wellington, or
combative titles like Lord Executor. As Errol Hill explains, the sobriquet tradition is
also linked to more widespread literacy and education among the middle class
calypsonians, as "with the upgrading of Carnival in the 1890's, shantwells of the
period were more literate than their predecessors. Several from middle class homes

62To"wine" (also "wine and jam") should be considered a dance form done especially in Carnival "jump up" bands,
but also in any dance fete, or party "drop the waist and wine, wine" as a recent popular soca song urges). It is
done individually or in a couple, where the man stands behind the woman, as they "wine" together.

had attended secondary school. They had studied European history and felt very
patriotic toward the 'mother country"' 63 It is interesting to note that female
calypsonians seem to reject this naming tradition. Although Singing Francine, Calypso
Rose, or Lady B. may be considered stage names, they do not compare with the show
of grandeur so prevalent in their male counterpart. In addition, many more women
than men use their real names in the contemporary form. This difference suggests that
women may be consciously trying to avoid any type of characterization becoming a
calypso "character" through the self-projection of sobriquets. Women may be more
interested in being taken seriously as artists in their work. The scores of women who
use their real names in the contemporary calypso arena (and the fact that many who
had sobriquets have now dropped them such as Lady Hot Spot, who is Eastlyn Orr)
might mean that the contemporary female calypsonian is attempting a conscious
reconstruction of her own image, both as a calypsonian and as a woman.


A facet of this study has been to examine the portrayal of women in traditional
calypsos, following up on the many earlier studies cited throughout this paper, which
have all pointed to the overwhelming negative images of women in traditional, male-
composed songs. It should be noted, however, that there have been recent strides by
male calypsonians to stop degrading women in their songs. Merle Hodge has praised
calypsonians Black Stalin and Mighty Chalkdust "for their political vision and for
singing about the dignity of women."64 Barbadian calypsonian Adonijah (Peter
Allyne) is similarly strongly opposed to the way his fellow calypsonians portray
women, claiming that in his songs he seeks to "to end the defamation of women in
kaiso."6 5 His popular Cropover calypso, "Woman", for which he was voted People's
Choice (The Cropover Festival is a pan-Caribbean annual event) reportedly
"lambasted calypsonians for the bad light in which they portray women." It is
interesting to note that the positive response he received from women for this calypso
actually helped foster his career, as the strength of his message prompted the
Organization for Women and Development in his native Barbados to sponsor the
recording of his calypso. His song expresses the concern that calypsos with negative
images of women have a strong influence on younger generations, who may

3Errol Hill. The Trinidad Carnival. Mandate For A National Theatre, pages 73-74
64Reported in Trinidad Guardian's November 1985 article, covering the panel discussion of the UWI Women's
6 interview with Adonijah by Michelle Joseph in Trinidad Guardian, who comments:"Sadly, it is unusual for a West
Indian man to think so sympathetically of the plight of women and the way they are portrayed in our music."

perpetuate such images ("...The songs you sing on the radio. Every word the little
children know/If you sing bout woman jammin' in a fete/How could the youth ever learn
respect"). Other calls have been made in the press and elsewhere for "kaisonians to
create female images that tell the truth about our women". (Trinidad Guardian, 1/28/91)

In conclusion, women's calypsos can be said to promote a women's agenda, through
the many messages in their songs of independence and liberation. In the 1960s and
early 1970s, however, sexual freedom seems to have been the sum total of this
liberation, as evidenced earlier in much of the work of Calypso Rose. Although female
calypsonians sought to combat the negative representation of women in calypsos by
men, they often played on the same stereotyped image of women in their own
calypsos. In general, in the contemporary arena, women's calypsos still do not attempt
the biting satire or political commentary of many of their male counterparts. A notable
exception is the work of Lady B., who does attempt hardcore political commentary in
her songs and in addition, writes her own material. However, in general, there is a
relatively lower level of aggression in women's calypsos, and they do not display the
same antagonism of many male-composed songs. Perhaps, however, women are
addressing their own agenda via the calypso, one which is different from a man's. The
focus in many women's songs is on self-preservation and endurance, as evidenced in
the work of Singing Francine, Singing Diane, Singing Sandra, and many others. It is
significant that the women calypsonians interviewed for this study all conceded that to
simply be in the calypso world takes enormous inner strength. Many "messages" put
forth to other women, via their calypsos, seem to encourage this female strength.
Singing Sandra's "Sexy Employer", for example, (also known as "Die with my Dignity",
a line from the song's chorus), is a commentary on standing up against sexual
harassment. Sandra has commented on the influence of her song, asserting that
through her calypso, she is giving women a voice with which to say "No" to abusive
situations; a voice they may not otherwise have. 66 The message is clearly part of an
ideal which is female, focusing on self-preservation, independence, and endurance of

In reviewing what women's particular "messages" are, it has been asserted by some
researchers that women do not attempt to degrade men in their songs, nor do they
project themselves as a group (Boyce-Davies, Warner). However, while the former

66 "When I sang the song 'Dignity', it gave a lot of women inspiration to stand up..a lot of them would just feel it
happen to them but they can't find that strength to come out and tell the man, well, 'No", so they just went along
with it. But after hearing 'Dignity' and 'Dignity 'was on everybody's lips, they were able to stand up and tell them 'I
will die with my dignity' and that type of thing. A lot of men grabbed that song too."Personal interview, June 1992

statement is generally the case, the latter is finally no longer true. The continued
success of women competing with men in the calypso arena, and particularly with
women participating from different ethnic and/or class backgrounds indicates a
proliferation of women's participation in the form. Based on the messages promoted in
women's songs, it can be asserted that women are very much promoting themselves
as a group. This is only possible because women as a group are once again, firmly
planted in Calypso.

Through calypso performance, for both sexes, traditional structures can be challenged.
For women in particular, this is becoming increasingly important, as calypso provides
a venue through which women can challenge the hegemonic structures of a male-
dominated society. Women use calypso not only to comment on social patterns as
they exist, but their calypsos can also influence these same patterns. Through
calypso, women have been able to explore how Trinidad "woman" is constructed,
conceived and perceived in her society.

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