BEGINNER, FIRST LADY OF GRENADIAN CALYPSO: A 21-DRUM
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.
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
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
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
the beginner, the trailblazer, the feminist in deed. It
is no wonder that her debut song was “Hip Hip Hooray”, a
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
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 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 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
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)
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
“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.