It’s modern, shiny-metallic, stylish and still finding its feet. The UK Centre for the Carnival Arts in Luton represents a kind of coming of age for the carnival arts of mas, steelpan and calypso, and a symbol of hope for the future of Caribbean culture in Britain, though it has some way to go before it achieves its ambition of becoming a truly national focus for carnival arts.
By contrast, she has 55 year of hard-grafting experience behind her and needs no introduction to anyone who loves calypso. McCartha Linda Sandy-Lewis – Calypso Rose – is 70 years old but as brimful of optimism and energy as the UKCCA. With over 800 compositions to her name, not to mention the unique title of Calypso Queen of the World, plus a string of music and national awards, Rose really has nothing left to prove.
This night, billed as ‘Come Dine with Calypso Rose’, brought the young centre and the veteran calypsonian together, and did pretty much what it said on the packet. We began with a rum punch welcomer followed by some excellent Caribbean fare, which was sweetened by sensitive playing from solo pannist Norman Stewart.
In contrast to her popular shows at the Fairfield Halls and Carnival Village, the atmosphere here was more intimate, even reflective at times, with Rose sitting on stage with a guitar, interspersing a dozen or so calypsos with glimpses of her life history. The format worked well, allowing us to concentrate on the lyrics, many of which deal with relations between women and men, as seen from the woman’s perspective. That’s not so remarkable today, but let’s not forget that Rose was a real pioneer in the field, making her name at a time when ‘nice girls’ just didn’t do calypso, far less take on the male calypso establishment. And certainly Rose takes plenty of mischievous pleasure in making ribald fun (of men, mostly) with the best of them, teasing Sparrow, for example, with What happened to the village ram? (if you want to know the answer, you’ll have to buy the CD!). Or there’s the painful story she related of a man who went fishing for crab and caught more than he bargained for…
But man and woman cannot live by smut alone, even in the calypso tent, so she gave a sensitive and moving rendition of Amazing Grace, and paid tribute to her ancestor from Guinea in I’m Going Back to Africa. She told us she didn’t speak until she was 13 years old, wrote her first calypso two years later and taught herself to play the guitar by watching her grandfather, a cuatro player. That was all the music training she had, she assured us.
At this point, she pushed away the chair, handed back the guitar and took to her feet for her familiar crowd-pleasing hits – Juju Warrior, Fire in Meh Wire, San Fernando – and the audience needed no further encouragement to get up and work off the effects of macaroni pie. Old the songs may be, but they are still raw and powerful – just like Rose herself.