Hearing the unmistakeable voice of Calypso Rose belting out the lyrics to her hit song ‘Leave Me Alone’ (featuring Machel Montano and Manu Chao) is a multisensory experience. That classic calypso rhythm mixed into a catchy, modern beat by producer Kubiyashi, pulses through you: you can’t help but wine your waist, smell the rum and sweat of a Carnival Monday, imagine the hot asphalt under your feet as you chip down the road, picture sequins glittering beneath a blazing sun. The song is pure escape.
And that’s just how Rose, the Tobago-born legend, wants you to feel. “I like to take [people’s] minds off things. So my type of music tries to elevate them and put their feet up on solid ground so they can enjoy themselves,” proclaims the spry 76-year-old. Her music’s ability to transport and uplift is precisely why her latest album ‘Far From Home’ has been so hugely successful, with certified Gold status in France just two months after its European release in August 2016, and earning Rose international awards and accolades unprecedented for a Trinbagonian musician: the French Gold Record award, Spain’s Womex Artiste of the Year title, and a 2017 French Grammy.
Even though Rose has achieved this mind-boggling international renown late in her career, she’s no stranger to success. A songwriter from the age of 15, Rose downright dominated the calypso sphere in the mid-seventies, when she won the title of Calpyso Queen five years in a row. In 1977 and 1978, she won the Trinidad Road March competition—the first woman to hold the coveted title. Over the course of her career, she’s written more than 800 songs, recorded over 20 albums, and was the recipient of nearly two dozen awards and honours—not only from T&T, but from Canada, Belize and the U.S.
Yet in recent years, the name Calypso Rose had begun to fade from T&T’s short collective memory. With Rose semi-retired in Queens, New York, the millennial generation had little if any knowledge of the iconic calypsonian. Then in 2014, Rose began working on ‘Far From Home’ and her international manager Jean Michel Gibert saw the opportunity for her comeback—more than that: the opportunity for a spectacular second coming of the Calypso Queen of the World.
“The [two-year-long] production was very strong,” he says. “The recording and production were done in Belize and Canada [and] the additional production with Manu Chao was done in Barcelona. It’s a very international album, and the remixes were done by remixers around the world.”
The time and effort paid off—as did Rose’s willingness to collaborate with younger artists, most notably Manu Chao, an immensely popular Spanish musician whom Rose describes as “a million-dollar recording artist”. Though it seems an unlikely pairing, Manu Chao and Rose connected right off the bat, and his impact on her album proved indispensable.
Rose’s account of their meet-cute reveals an instant creative connection despite their different ages, cultural backgrounds and musical genres, “Jean Michel invited [Manu Chao] in 2015 to Trinidad, and we sat together at my hotel for like three hours, speaking about music and calypso and his music. When Jean Michel gave him a copy of the album, he went back to Spain, and when he listened to it, he said, ‘I want to mix this album’.” It was as simple as that.
Up to that point, ‘Far From Home’ had stayed true to Rose’s traditional calypso roots, but Manu Chao was the X factor that would turn the album into a chart-topper. “The additional vibe of Manu Chao makes [the album] even more dynamic,” says Gibert. “He brings a Latin vibe with the guitar and the ad lib. It adds some more energy and another dimension. So you can expect a very energetic version of calypso, but with the same basic traditions.”
Then enter Double M. Discussing how ‘Leave Me Alone’ became the hit remix that ruled the airwaves for 2017’s Carnival season, Rose recalls, “Jean Michel gave the album to Machel Montano, my young son, to do the cover, and Machel did a fantastic tune on that.” At this point, she breaks into husky-voiced song. “Man, doh touch me. Like yuh going crazy.” It’s easy to see how besotted she is with the music. “And the young people love the song, man, oh my God!”
The rest is what aspiring musicians can only dream of. ‘Leave Me Alone’ shot to the top of the French charts and was a smash Carnival hit while the demand for Rose skyrocketed accordingly. “Every day we get requests from all over the world,” says Gibert. “In terms of touring, it’s like hundreds of proposals.”
Of course, with this explosion of fame, there is still the reality of Rose’s age to consider. But Gibert and Rose’s team are sensitive to her need to pace herself. “The main issue is how she will find the energy to do all of this and be able to rest,” says Gibert. “We, of course, have to take care of her and take into account her energy.”
Even so, Gibert remains astounded by how well Rose consistently rises to the occasion, especially within France, where she spent six months last year despite not speaking the language. He attributes her superhuman energy and cultural adaptability to a few key traits: “Rose’s particularity is she is a very modern woman. She has a way of absorbing culture that is unique. She understands what’s happening, the business, how it works […] She really lives for her art and she loves this success that came late, so she’s really trying her best to do the best she can.”
As for Rose, she keeps it old school when it comes to maintaining her energy levels and keeping up with the hectic pace: “I’m figuring it out as I go along, but thank God for ginger and garlic. Garlic is penicillin so I don’t have to go to the doctor to get no shot in my buttocks!” She hoots with laughter then adds, “And ginger is good for the heart. I pound the garlic and ginger, boil them and drink them. And plenty fish! Oh God, yes, plenty fish!”
These traditional health tricks no doubt learned in her hometown Bethel Village in Tobago seem to be working, because as 2017 rolls forward, there’s no stopping Rose. Her tour dates are already booked through to the end of the year, with high-profile performances spanning the globe—from France to Finland and Colombia. And in every country she’s in, she’s flying the red-white-and-black high.
From humble Tobagonian songwriter to national calypso icon and international star, Rose proves that no matter where you’re from or whatever your age, you can always make your biggest dreams come true.