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LADY BEGINNER, FIRST LADY OF GRENADIAN CALYPSO: A 21-DRUM TRIBUTE

Caldwell Taylor

IN THE BEGINNING

“Bodicea” and “Big Body Ada” sang calypsoes back in the 1880s; Sophie Matalone had the hottest song in Trinidad in 1906, it was called “L’Estomac le Bas”; Thelma Lane, “Lady Trinidad” (1914-1999), cut records in the mid-thirties; in the forties Miss Elvie and Miss Rawlings were singing ‘ carisos’ in Paradise, at the point where The Cocoa Road meets the “Government Road”; and there was the legendary May Fortune in Carriacou.

The chantuelle, the female song leader, used to be the most revered of our moral and cultural leaders. Indeed, it was the chantuelle’s “ mepris” and ‘des faux” (songs of abuse and recrimination) that curtailed the arbitrary powers of the estate(plantation) bullies, checked manifestations of excessive individualism in the ‘yard”, and guaranteed the institutional continuity of the village. Those were the days when community spirit was showcased in song- the days when the song was both shield and sword.

But times changed and the village moved out of the “yard”, and the chantuelle was forced to give way to the calypso-singing male, and there began the efforts to edit the woman out of the story of sung resistance.

DORIS ALEXANDER, FIGHTER

This was the world that Doris was born into. Seventy –one years later she transitions into the celestial tent after having played a pioneering role in reclaiming the woman’s rightful place in the world of calypso: the full meaning of Doris’s path-breaking achievements can only be grasped when seen against the backdrop of the fierce opposition with which “Lady Beginner” had to contend.

And Lady Beginner was a doughty fighter, a spiritual descendant of “Sarah”, the singing African warrior who arrived in Grenada in 1787; consider for a moment what Professor Marcus Rediker says about Sarah in a book called The Slave Trade: A Human History:

“Sarah survived the middle passage, and whatever punishment she may have gotten for her involvement in the insurrection [aboard the slave ship]. She was sold at Grenada, with almost three hundred others, in 1787. She was
allowed to stay on the vessel longer than most, probably with the special permission of Captain Evans. When she went ashore she carried African traditions of dance, song, and resistance with her.

Lady beginner walked in the footsteps of that mighty African ancestor.

Doris Alexander was born at Union (St Mark’s) in 1938 just eight year after a handful of Grenadian women were granted the right to vote . To earn the right to vote, the woman needed to be at least 31 years of age, and she had to be the owner of a certain amount of property. Significantly, the man who met the necessary property qualifications needed only to be 21 years old in order to be granted the franchise. Grenada kept this restricted property-based franchise in place until 1951,when universal adult suffrage was introduced.

Doris was raised in a world where men dominated every inch of the public sphere; she resented this, and at a very early age she came to see the calypso as a tool that could haul up the ideas and the practices that kept women down.

LADY BEGINNER BEGINS

After many years of planning and plotting Doris made her calypso debut in 1973, symbolically declaring her independence (and that of all Grenadian women)fully one year ahead of Grenada’s. It bears saying that Lady Iris (of Moyah) was the only Grenadian women to have preceded Lady Beginner in the calypso tent. But Iris’s tenure was rather short; she gave up after only two years.

Lady Beginner came to calypso with a keen sense of history and a clear historical mission: She was going to be
the beginner, the trailblazer, the feminist in deed. It is no wonder that her debut song was “Hip Hip Hooray”, a song
of celebration. Fittingly, she opened her second year with a song called “Who the Cap Fit”, a lyrical slap to the faces of her detractors; that song was written by Mighty Science (Ronald Gardener), calypsonian and social philosopher

Lady Beginner made her debut in the Roving Tent and her tent mates included Scaramouche, Science, Defender,
Gospo, Eagle, Flory and Inspector (Denis Thomas).It was what she often described as a ‘rough” apprenticeship and
only her exceptional courage kept her from throwing in the towel.

The calypso tent was a difficult place even when the men were not singing nakedly sexist songs or making passes at her:  She faced many difficulties merely because she was a women. Take for instance the venue of the average calypso show: it was a miracle when one of dem places had running water, a change room or a toilet. The lack of basic amenities and conveniences meant nothing to the fellas, for after all they could simply step outside whenever nature summoned.

THE ACHIEVEMENTS OF LADY B

But sexism, badmouthism and the lack of basic amenities could not turn Lady Beginner away from her chosen field. In spite of the many hurdles she managed to make it to the calypso semi-finals on four occasions and to the finals on one occasion (as a reserve ). She was once crowned queen of her tent and so far she remains the only women to have founded and led and calypso tent; the one and only.

Lady Beginner ‘s successes put the cultural historian in mind of other women who helped to raise calypso’s profile in the Caribbean and around the world - Rose, Sandra, Lady Guymine, Denise Plummer and Macomere Fifi, as well
as Connnie Williams, Audrey Jeffers, Amy Ashwood Garvey, Claudia Jones and Pansy Rowley.

Connie Williams opened the Calypso Restaurant on McDougal Street in New York City, in the early forties. She served up a West Indian menu and hot calypso. One of Connie’s dishwashers, James Baldwin , went to earn much celebrity as novelist and essayist.

Audrey Jeffers (1898-1968), the first woman to have been elected to Trinidad and Tobago’s Legislative Council, in 1946, was a major patron of calypso . Attila and the Old Timers used to say that for years Jeffers was the only women to be seen inside the four walls of a calypso tent.

Amy Ashwood Garvey (1897-1969) Marcus Garvey’s first wife-(they were divorced in 1922)managed her calypso –singing lover, Sam Manning.

Claudia Jones (1915 -1964), who was deported from the U.S in 1955 ( on account of her communist activities) went
to England where she organized the country’s first Calypso King competition in 1957: that first crown was won by the Mighty Terror (1921-2007). Claudia Jones also pioneered the NottingHill Carnival, which got started as indoor affair in 1959.

Pansy Rowley was Grenada’s first student of the calypso. One hot day in the early forties she discovered a magga little boy called Clifton Ryan, who he grew up and became the Mighty Bomber. The Bomber left Grenada in 1956 and was winner of the Trinidad and Tobago calypso crown in 1964. And the Bomber has passed on his love of calypso to his children: one son is an ex-tempo virtuoso and daughter, Sharon Harvey (“Lady Explosion”), is a three-time winner of the Couva calypso crown. Just imagine that: Bomber’s daughter is called “ Explosion”.

The calypso is the liveliest branch of our moral philosophy and this writer awaits the day when the song form’s
“distaff side” will get it due. We must raise up the submerged sheroes of calypso and when that day shall have arrived you could bet that Lady B will get up and sing she stirring lavway,  “Hip Hip Hooray!”

Many thanks to some very special friends- “Black Wizard”, “Science” and Hudson Olufemi George.

- CT

             

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