It’s Spiritual Baptist Liberation Day in Trinidad, but instead of taking a day off, Ella Andall is doing what she always does—singing. It’s a 90-minute drive from her home in Arima to the southern town of Rio Claro, where Andall is slated to sing. She’s not sure what the set-up will be, whether there will even be a microphone. So this time, she is keeping it simple—a couple of back-ups, some of her longtime drummers, herself, and her music.
It’s not always like that. Over the more than 35 years she has been in the music business, she has sung in Europe, Africa, and throughout the Americas—in intimate spiritual ceremonies, theatres, concert halls, sports stadiums and everything in between. She’s performed for the Dalai Lama, Winnie Mandela, inspirational writer Iyanla Vanzant, spiritual leader the Ooni of Ife, Nelson Mandela, and Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, and shared the stage with Miriam Makeba.
But her music has always been for and about families, community and identity, and today the music takes her to Rio Claro. When she arrives, her manager, Erica Ashton, calls the organisers from her cell phone. As the musicians and singers get out of the bus to stretch for a moment and use the restroom, there is an announcement and a long, glowing introduction from the community centre across the road: Ella is here!
Andall hasn’t even had a chance to wipe the perspiration from the bridge of her nose before she’s ushered across the street to shrieks of elation from the crowd. People are clapping and waving at Andall, who smiles and laughs as she greets them and heads for the stage.
She has come prepared to sing a fairly standard set of crowd favourites and some chants to the Orisha deities. But Andall is not a mere performer. Each time she sings, and particularly at community events like this, she takes the pulse of the place, and listens to what she is called to sing. Today she begins with chants to Ogun, the Orisha of iron, war and industry. Within minutes, Andall has discarded her shoes—however carefully chosen beforehand—so that she can dance and move freely. The audience are on their feet, clapping, dancing, and singing. The rhythm of the drums pounds in your chest, the clarity and purity of Andall’s voice resonate beneath your skin, and the energy of the moment is irresistible and overpowering. It is as if the entire universe vibrates with her.
She winds down her set amid rapturous applause, descends the stairs and gets a drink of water. But the applause does not stop, and they will not let her leave. They call for Shango. She laughs, knowing that she is seldom allowed to leave a performance without singing her chants to Shango—Orisha of thunder, lighting and fire, the sky father. And as she begins to sing, the manifestations—where an Orisha manifests through, or briefly possesses, or “mounts”, a person’s body—begin. Eyes are closed, or remain open but glazed over. Members of the audience hold fast to those who are manifesting, making sure they do not injure themselves. Some begin to speak in Yoruba. Others begin to move and dance, manifesting the physical characteristics associated with a particular Orisha. Andall herself sits down, cross-legged on the stage, grounding herself by touching the ground and then her forehead with her hands. She smiles.
Ella Andall never intended to be a professional singer or songwriter. She had every intention of pursuing a career in medicine. But she grew up in a family of artists—poets, singers, and musicians. She was raised on the sound of her mother’s and grandmother’s voices, the strums of her father’s cuatro, the Yoruba of Orisha prayers. And she always sang. “I have always listened to my own voice,” she says. “Because there is something that I wanted to feel, that I wanted to hear, I wanted to give…and I like the sound of my own voice!”
So do many others. Andall’s voice is among the most distinctive and arresting in Caribbean music, with a tremendous range of pitch, colour, and tone. It is at times the mournful wail of a grieving mother, as in “Missing Generation”, “People of Conscience” or “Shame”. At others, it has the piercing and blood-pounding immediacy, authority and ferocity of a warrior cry, as in “Woza (Rise Up)” and “Say My Name”. But always there is an infectious spirit of optimism, resilience, and sheer love of life.
Andall was born in Grenada—one dare not ask the date—and moved to Trinidad when she was eight or nine. She found Trinidad extremely different from Grenada. For the first time, she encountered a discomfort with “blackness”, and distrust of anything “too African”. But she had been raised in a home and a family that had inherited the West African traditions of her ancestors, and she studiously resisted any attempts to remove her from those traditions, even refusing to sing in school choirs where she would be made to sing differently.
Andall is an olorisha, or Orisha devotee. It is a way of life that celebrates the ancestors and the divine in nature, with various aspects and forces of the natural world represented in the Orisha, who are each a manifestation of God, or Olodumare. Two of Andall’s CDs—Oriki Ogun and Sango Baba Wa—comprise oriki, or praise songs, sung in Yoruba, to specific Orishas. Two more collections of oriki, in honour of Oshun and Eshu, are due out later this year. Many of the oriki have been passed down through the generations, while some are original compositions. When the Orisha are invoked through chanting and prayer, you can witness—or experience—the kind of manifestations which Andall’s performances are known to produce. You don’t even need to be an olorisha to experience a manifestation—the Orisha do not discriminate by creed, colour, or any other classification.
Neither does Andall, who has always functioned in an extended musical family. Her earliest recordings, including classics like “Different People”, were written by Garfield Blackman (Lord Shorty and then Ras Shorty I), the progenitor of soca music. She toured extensively with Shorty and his Vibrations International band throughout the Caribbean and North America. In the 1980s and 1990s, she worked closely with two other leading Trinidadian musicians, David Rudder and Andre Tanker. Her vocals can be heard in the background of some of their tracks, as well as those of Black Stalin, Maestro, Lancelot Layne, Merchant, Shadow, Arrow, and Brother Resistance. Tanker wrote “Wishing on a Grace Note”, and Rudder composed two of her classic pieces, “Woman of the Sun” and “My Spirit is Music”.
“That’s how I see her,” he says. “A woman of the sun. A rousing, regal piece of the African energy.”
All this time, Andall had been gaining international success while defying any kind of musical definition. Despite the popularity of her singles, she faced a great deal of resistance within the Trinidad music industry and calypso fraternity. Some refused to book her because of how she dressed or tied her head, or were wary of the Yoruba chanting in her music. People would say to her that as she had such a nice voice, she should sing “nicer” songs.
And while the calypso tent was the testing ground and launchpad for many a career, she found both the tents and calypso promoters shunning her: “because I’m bringing something that people want to forget,” she says. “People in Trinidad still have not accepted and cherished their blackness and their colour—they still get upset if people call them black.”
She didn’t need to prove anything to anyone, but in the mid-90s, Andall decided to enter the calypso and soca competition arena. She was a finalist at the Soca Monarch competition in 1994, and in 1996 she entered the calypso tents and the Calypso Monarch competition. In addition to irrepressibly invoking manifestations during her nightly performances in the Kaiso House tent, she advanced straight through to what is, for calypsonians, the Holy Grail: the Dimanche Gras stage where the monarchy is contested. Unsurprisingly, there was nothing else like her in the competition, and perhaps never had been. With dignity and power, in flowing African dress and long dreadlocks wrapped above her head, reaching for the heavens, she seemed to conjure a different world.
With two contrasting compositions, both of which have become signature pieces for her—“Missing Generation” and “Rhythm of a People”—she showed the versatility of her voice, and the lyricism of both her words and melody:
People gather round, I want you listen well
To set your spirits free, I have this tale to tell
Hear the rumbling of the drums, feel its mystic sound
As it elevates you now to a higher ground
Are you ready? Are you ready for this?
Rhythm to shake the living
Rhythm to raise the dead
Rhythm to purge the pain from your heart
Rhythm to make you laugh
Rhythm to make the soul of a people dance
(“Rhythm of a People”)
Amid debate about whether what she was singing could even be considered calypso, she placed ninth. “There was a whole lot of to-do about that,” she recalls. “I can’t say I started singing calypso, because I’m still singing what I used to sing, and entered the tent many years after I started to sing…with this kind of earth music, as I like to call it. Organic music. Natural music.” She made one more seamless trip to the finals the following year, 1997, before once again withdrawing from the tents and the competition environment. It was necessary for her, she says, to ensure that she never tried to change herself, her style or her music to try and win over judges.
Even after all of that, she still finds people who think that her music and chanting have some sort of sinister dimension, or who are distinctly uncomfortable with her. Some of this has to do with Andall’s presence, which can be intimidating. Her eyes are as intense and penetrating as her voice, and there is a sense that she can size you up in an instant. It is as if she is always connected to some sort of force that many of us only hope to encounter, and knows exactly how to wield that incredible power.
“I think the force I bring is really truth,” Andall says, “and I don’t have any corner in which I wish to hide. If you come to my house, I have every corner empty and it’s filled with love. In our tradition, you keep the corners [empty] because we deal with six directions: the east, the west, the north and the south, the heavens above and the earth below. So I live that kind of life. I think what I do is I mirror people. I show you your faults—and I also show you what you can be.”
That is something she has always done with the music, and the late 1990s saw her bringing it to an ever broader audience through recordings and performances. In 1999, she performed in the World Beat concert in Trinidad, alongside international stars like Baaba Maal, Tito Puente, Ravi Shankar and her old friend and colleague Andre Tanker. The same year, she performed in the premiere of Trinidadian Geraldine Connor’s epic musical, Carnival Messiah, at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. She has performed in subsequent restagings both in the UK and in Trinidad, as well as in Connor’s production of Yaa Asantewaa: Warrior Queen, which toured the UK and Ghana in 2001.
In 2000, she released her first CD, Miss Ella: Bring Down the Power, a collection of some of her best recordings. She followed it up in 2004 with a second collection called Healing Fire. Both are capsules of everything that Andall is. Invariably, there is also a call for self-awareness, respect, “bread, peace and justice” for all, and each song is an eloquent reaffirmation of her purpose and mission in life.
With her suites of oriki to Ogun and Shango, her recordings have filled a void. Oriki Ogun has become the soundtrack for every context calling for an authentic African vibration. Trinidadian filmmaker Yao Ramesar used her music in his film Sista God, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2006. “I have always loved her music,” he says. “For me she ranks right up there with Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith, Mahalia Jackson, Miriam Makeba, Ella Fitzgerald.”
But what drives Andall is not fame, or financial reward. “I am driven by people,” she says. “People make me happy! I do the music so that I can create a change. I understood from quite young how powerful the music is.”
In the home that she and her husband share in Arima, there is a constant turnover of people and the phone is almost always ringing. “My home is like an open house for children of all ages. My oldest one, as she calls herself, is 64, but she comes and we exchange ideas and help one another.”
Does she have down time, private Ella time? “I am working all the time—but I do sleep! I find time to teach children, because my thanksgiving is giving back to the younger ones. I find time to counsel husbands and wives, young and old. I find time to pray, and to teach prayers. I find time to cook!” she adds, with a knowing smile. Anyone who has visited her—and has not been allowed to leave without eating something, if only a banana—knows her culinary skills are unmatched.
The many people who come to Andall run the gamut of age, ethnicity, gender, class, and creed. To all of them she is “Mama Ella”, or just “Ma”. And while her own moorings are in African and Orisha traditions, her humanity has never discriminated. Her first husband, and father of her only son, Jegbe, was of East Indian ancestry. “I don’t think that God in his or her wisdom doesn’t know why he—or she—created the rose or the buttercup and all the different flowers. I am who I am, and if I am a yam and you are a dasheen, we are still coming from the ground!” she says with a playful laugh.
“There’s a phrase we speak in Yoruba: iwapele—divine, noble and upright character. I want to be as great as I can be, the example, so people can follow, so children can follow, and so the world can be a nicer place—or the spot of the world in which I live.”
Waiting for You (7")
This Girl is a Good Girl (LP)
Bim Film Soundtrack (LP)
Different People (7")
Love in the Caribbean (LP)
Hello Africa (7")
Africa (Hello Africa) (B-3)
Stay Giving Praises (LP)
Black Woman (EP)
New Day Dawning (CD)
My Spirit is Music (LP)
Pan is Meh Jumbie (LP)
Zombie Soca (CD)
Put Me In the Mix/Today (12")
The Gilded Collection (CD)
Missing Generation/Rhythm of a People
Say My Name/Soca Yard
The Soca Switch 3:
Rituals of Trinidad Carnival:
Song of Hope/Festival Song
Oriki Ogun: a Suite of Chants to Ogun (CD)
Children of the Big Bang (CD)
Where Are the People/Move the Barriers
Bring Down the Power (CD)
Trinidad Hot Times
Everything is Everything (CD)
Spirit Dancer (CD)
Sango Baba Wa: a Suite of Chants to Sango (CD)
Healing Fire (CD)
Trinidad and Tobago's Best Female Artist
Caribbean Entertainer of the Year
COTT (Copyright Organisation of Trinidad & Tobago) Female Composer of the Year Award