Michele Henderson: “I woke up with an entire song in my head”

Singer-songwriter Michele Henderson, performing at October’s World Creole Music Festival, on her musical childhood and her transition to the international stage — as told to Paul Crask, at her home in Grand Bay, Dominica

  • Singer-songwriter Michele Henderson. Photo by Paul Crask

I come from a very musical family. My grandfather played several instruments and also sang, so my father was raised in an environment that was full of music. He wrote traditional songs for a folk group called La Jeune Etoile. He also played goatskin drum, harmonica, and twelve-string guitar.

Like him, I developed a love of music as a result of growing up with it all around me. We did a lot of singing at home — the family would actually make a point of it — and my mum says I was just two years old when I started. We were like the Grand Bay von Trapps! 

Musical influences were diverse. My father listened to country music and reggae, so at home I would be exposed to a mixture of Kenny Rogers, Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, and Bob Marley. Local music came from the likes of Ophelia Marie, Gordon Henderson, and the Midnight Groovers.

Growing up here in Grand Bay was also a factor. Calypso, a very traditional Carnival, and the annual Fete Isidore were all vibrant events. People would compose songs especially for them — there would be colourful costume parades that began at the church just across the street, and they would draw in performers and crowds from neighbouring communities such as Petite Savanne, Bagatelle, Dubique.

I studied music theory and learned to play classical flute at the Kairi School of Music in Dominica, which is sadly no more. I was also a member of its junior choir, and would often have lead singing roles in the school’s musical productions. When I was fourteen, I came fourth in a regional singing competition in Barbados, and it sparked something in me. I thought, I could do this, I could compete at a high level. In 1995, I won a song contest here in Dominica, and after graduating I went straight into music. I was bitten by the bug. 

At the age of sixteen, I joined a jazz band called Impact, where I was a vocalist and flautist — and where I met my bass-playing husband, who is now also my producer. I knew about jazz, but didn’t sing or play it before joining the band. 

Although I perform different genres, such as zouk and cadancelypso, I love the expressiveness of jazz, and I have had the opportunity to perform with jazz greats such as Chick Corea and Stanley Clarke. They were amazing experiences, and the fact that I sang and played flute with them on their tours made me feel even more determined to continue and succeed with jazz composition.

Impact actually cut a jazz album called Islander before the band kind of fizzled out as an entity, and the members supported me as a solo artist. This gave me the opportunity to write and compose all my own songs, a process I really enjoy, and which I would like to do more of for other musicians.

 

Composing music happens in different ways for me. Sometimes I just develop lyric ideas while I am working around the house and homestead, feeding the chickens, weeding vegetable beds, and so on. Then afterwards I figure out a melody that goes with it. Other times I get a tune in my head and the process works in reverse. On one occasion, in Paris, I woke up with an entire song in my head — I had a dream where I was singing this song, and I wrote down the entire thing in the morning. It was just there, waiting to come out.

I compose songs in both English and French Creole, though I have not always spoken the latter. My grandmother outlawed French Creole around the house because it was viewed as a peasant language — she saw herself as a higher status, I suppose. The funny thing was she would actually reprimand us about it in French Creole. So, even though I was not allowed to speak it about the house or in the yard, I grew up hearing the language around me — it is the unofficial first language of Grand Bay.

My father was also raised that way, yet he ended up composing many Creole folk songs. Even though Creole was outlawed at home, it was always in my head, and in the end speaking and writing songs in the language came to me quite easily.

I have a following in the French islands, so composing and recording songs in Creole is a conscious decision that makes a lot of sense because, combined, Martinique and Guadeloupe are a huge listening audience, much bigger than here at home. 

So far, I have recorded six albums and put out a live DVD. Lately I have been doing a lot of travelling — both performing and trying to spend more time with my two daughters, who are studying in the USA and Canada. But I feel that right now I would really like to write and produce more. I have tons of albums in mind. I would like to do a Christmas project with a focus on island traditions. I would also really like to take some of our local folk songs and put them to jazz. I have done this live with a song called “Sa Sa Ye Sa” — it’s on YouTube — and it’s a fun way to introduce and perform a traditional Dominica song to a new audience. It keeps it alive. So I would like to make an album with more of that, rearranging those old tunes into a Creole jazz style. 

Being an international artist comes with responsibilities, of course. I am a goodwill ambassador for Dominica, and have had the opportunity recently to perform at benefit concerts in the wake of Hurricane Maria. I was here during the storm. It was intense living right on the coast. Big trees came down, the church roof ended up in our yard, waves were coming right up against the wall. The strength of the wind was extraordinary. And the morning after, stepping outside to see the devastation was simply shocking. 

In light of Dominica’s recovery from all that, it will be nice to perform at World Creole Music Festival again in October — this time with Mizik A Nou All-Stars, which was a project that was started at the very first World Creole Music Festival [in 1997]. The songs we composed back then were very popular on the radio, so it will be great to revive that repertoire. I’m looking forward to it. 

 

Dominica’s World Creole Music Festival takes place annually over the final weekend in October. The 2018 festival will begin on Friday 26 October and end on Sunday 28 October. For line-up and ticket information, visit www.dominicafestivals.com