A voice from the ghetto.
The sudden and unexpected death of Feminist icon and veteran Calypsonian Singing Sandra on the 28th of January 2008 has plunged the musical community of the Caribbean and its diaspora into a state of mourning. One of the final vanguards of an artform that is sadly on the decline, her passing leaves a vacuum that perhaps will never be filled.
The Calypso artform emerged in the mid 17th century on the island of Trinidad, a local variant of the Kaiso artform that the enslaved had brought with them from West Africa. There, in the period during and following African enslavement, it served as the voice of protest, giving the disenfranchised blacks a powerful voice that they used to criticize their masters and the government of their colony. In the Postcolonial period, Calypsonians were transformed, from the pariahs of society, into social watchdogs, writing powerful social and political commentary that often turned the tide of many a politician’s career.
In this regard, Singing Sandra stands out as a pioneer of the artform. Entering into the male-dominated Calypso arena, she quickly established herself as a force to be reckoned with, winning Calypso Queen of the world title in 1992 and the Calypso Monarch title in 1999 and 2003, the first woman to do so since 1978. In her subject matter, she addressed matters of gender inequality, sexual harassment, racism, and poverty. She established herself as a champion of society’s downtrodden and became the influence that would encourage many young girls to become future Soca and Calypso artists.
I have spoken of her accolades, of what she meant to our culture, to the women of our nation.
I must also speak of what she meant to me.
Her songs were each an education in melody and rhythm, but to a little boy growing up on the banks of the East Dry River, it was “Voices from the Ghetto” that struck a chord.
I felt that she saw me, a little black boy, a born exile in the society that my ancestors had built, dancing to the nightly lullaby of steelpan and gunshots.
Within the powerful tremor of her contralto, I perceived the looming of Destiny and the glimmer of Hope.
I felt that she sang not merely to entertain, but to petition the heavens on our behalf, these picky-head little boys and girls, measuring our feet in the darkening footprints of those who had gone before.
Mama, this one hot meh in meh belly.
May she be welcomed into paradise, into the company of our fallen heroes.