Caribbean Beat Magazine

Singing Sandra: One Voice from the Ghetto

Woman power of calypso? Even though Calypso Rose once won the calypso crown in Trinidad and Tobago's Carnival– the first woman ever to manage it, 22 years ago in 1978– the men usually rule the stage. But last year Singing Sandra won the Calypso Monarch competition, singing song for Healing and Voices from the Ghetto. The men had to take a back seat. Michael Goodwin explains how the tables were turned

  • Sandra, not up against the brick wall. Photograph by Horace Ové
  • The man behind the music: composer Christophe Quasar-Grant and Sandra have a lot to talk about. Photograph by Horace Ové
  • The United Sisters: clockwise from top right Tigress, Lady B, Marvellous Marva and Singing Sandra. Photograph by Mark Lyndersay
  • Sandra and popular tailor Leo ”Tempo” Guevarra in his workshop. Photograph by Horace Ové
  • Singing Sandra and her mother, Emelda Des Vignes-Walters. Photograph by Horace Ové
  • Sandra talks about the neighbourhood where she was raised. Photograph by Horace Ové
  • Sandra de Vignes — Singing Sandra. Photograph by Horace Ové

Singing Sandra, the reigning Calypso Monarch of Trinidad and Tobago, is a glorious set of contradictions. She’s top calypsonian in Trinidad and Tobago, the country that invented the art form, and she’s a hugely popular monarch. But no mansion in the suburbs for her: she’s still living in the ghetto — and proud of it.

Sandra Des Vignes lives “behind the bridge” in a cramped, cluttered apartment in Morvant, up and over Lady Young Road, and down a dirt path through a set of badly dilapidated buildings. Her apartment, which she shares with her mom and her husband, plus (at the moment) a crowd of Carnival visitors, is clean, comfortable and warm, and much of the clutter is due to her extensive collection of performance trophies. (She won the 1987 National Calypso Queen competition, the 1992 Carifesta Monarch contest, the 1992 Calypso Queen of the World competition in St Maarten, and scads of local awards.) Pictures of Egyptian queens hang on the walls, and a stunning view looks out on a green, tropical hillside covered with small shacks and huts. But there’s little doubt that when Sandra took the 1999 crown with Voices From The Ghetto she was singing from experience.

Sandra was born in the East Dry River area, grew up in Morvant, and went to school in Laventille — all low-income, high-creativity communities. “That real ghetto,” she says proudly. “No regrets. Growing up in the ghetto teaches you something of value. Having to struggle . . . I had to leave school at the age of 15 to help my mother. I worked as a waitress, a bakery attendant, grocery attendant, the road [maintenance] programmes, I’ve been there. You find more love in these areas than you find in the sophisticated areas. You may send your child by me — go and ask Miss Sandra if she has some butter she could give me a piece, some salt, some whatever. And we would share that. We share a kind of love that people who are not from the ghetto would not understand. People have to take care of each other here.”

Sandra’s musical talent exploded early. She started singing in Sunday School, and played King Kong in a Best Village tribute to the Mighty Sparrow. Best Village competitions supplied her first professional opportunities: she won Best Actress three years in a row, as well as Best Female Chantuelle and Best Calypsonian. At the time she thought of herself primarily as an actress; she loved drama with a passion. But when calypsonian Dr Zhivago came to her in 1984 with two songs that he wanted to be sung by a woman (Pan For Independence and The Raper Man Comin’), Sandra decided to give it a try. Not long after that she was selected for the cast of Sparrow’s Young Brigade tent, and the rest, as they say, is kaiso history.

 

The first time I saw Sandra she was wearing a pink baby doll negligée and very high heels. That was the year United Sisters (a powerhouse female collective starring Sandra, Lady B, Tigress, and Marvellous Marva) was performing Four Women To One Man, an explosion of matriarchal joy and power, in which the four madcap maenads in colour-coordinated lingerie invaded the audience looking for male victims — er, dance partners — with whom to demonstrate their theories on sexual politics.

Ever since 1992, when they fired up a calypso titled Why Can’t A Woman Win A Road March, and 1993, when their massive party hit Whoa Donkey came close to providing the answer, the Sisters have been turning Trinidad’s soca hierarchy upside-down. Sandra and her comrades are all top-drawer calypsonians, but their sexy sister act is something else.

Was she frustrated when the Sisters’ Whoa Donkey was edged out by Superblue’s Bacchanal Time for Road March champ? “Yes,” she replied, “Donkey should have been Road March, and they rob us like hell. That’s because it’s a male-dominated art, women have to stand behind men and t’ing like that. I said to someone a few days ago, men tend to say that because of a certain part of King James’s version of the Bible, woman was created from a rib from Adam. And I said, ‘Listen to me, when you see Adam tell him that Sandra said he can come back and take his rib, because women can stand on their own!’ I mean thank Adam, but God would have created us anyway.”

As a solo artist Sandra has an amazing range. The next time I saw her in performance she was wearing combat fatigues, and looked like she was ready to kill any man who gave her a disrespectful glance. Her song was Tobago Crusoe’s brilliant feminist anthem, Sexy Employers, a defiant protest against sexual harassment in the workplace, and Sandra clearly meant every word. She was terrifying — and utterly magnificent.

Meeting her was a big surprise — and a very nice one. We were both sitting on the ground in Oakland, California, sewing Carnival costumes. Sandra and the Sisters had been hired to provide road music for Mas’ Makers Massive, a Stateside mas’ band, but being a Trini, Sandra couldn’t resist helping with the overdue costumes. She could see I was having problems sewing braid onto the hem of a sequined bolero jacket, and gave me an unsolicited sewing lesson. She was so sweet I fell in love with her instantly: her twinkling eyes, her beat-up straw hat, her power as a performer, her simultaneous commitment to female sexuality and social justice, her kindness to an unknown Yankee.

I was researching the music of Mighty Spoiler, and I sent Sandra a cassette of all the songs I’d found; after that she started introducing me from the stage as a mighty calypso researcher, which was a bit of an exaggeration. She also started trying to drag me onstage to wine with the Sisters during some of their hotter dance numbers; one time I ran down the aisle and out of the tent so she had to find someone else. I love to jump and wine, but I know better than to take on all the Sisters at one time.

As one great song after another found its way into Sandra’s repertoire — Whoa Donkey, I Remember Africa, Sexy Employers, The War Goes On, The Equalizer — I began to realise that she was better than good; she was a uniquely talented dramatic performer whose personal philosophy seemed to find a consistent musical voice in spite of not writing her own songs. Somehow, whether her material came from Dr Zhivago, Tobago Crusoe, or Christophe Quasar-Grant (an attorney in the Ministry of the Attorney General, who’s been writing excellent calypsos for Sandra over the last few years), she made the songs her own — not only in style but in point of view. The dramatic power of her renditions was breath-taking; this was more than music, it was musical theatre.

And yet, for all her talent, Sandra was usually broke, perhaps because her professional choices tended away from easy commercial material and toward strong, topical calypsos. She paid the rent however she could — musical jobs, temp gigs, whatever — and kept on singing. For 16 years.

One time I asked her if she had aspired to be a singer from a young age. She just shook her head and smiled. “Growing up was survival,” she said. “I was aspiring to be a survivor in a harsh society.”

 

In 1999 I reached Trinidad three weeks before Carnival, but the word was already on the street: “Dis Sandra year, boy! She comin’ strong, strong, strong!” I made my way to Kaiso House, the tent where Sandra sings, the second night I was in town.

Strong? The word doesn’t go far enough. Sandra came out dressed as a tired old woman with a walking stick, and proceeded to tear the place apart. People in the audience were on their feet moaning like Wednesday night prayer meeting, waving their arms, weeping loudly as Sandra performed Voices From The Ghetto. I was bawling myself. The song, a poetic protest against the grim cruelties of poverty written by Christophe, was a fine piece of work, but its point of view was from the outside in: poverty is hell, nobody should have to live like this. Sandra reinvented the song with one spoken aside: “Ah from de ghetto,” she whispered, “an’ ah know what ah talkin’ about.” You realised that while Sandra understood the need for change, she also knew the strength and love that balance the horror in poor people’s lives. Only someone who was born there and had decided to stay could possibly understand that.

I wiped my eyes, made my way backstage, and threw my arms around her. “Sandra,” I bawled, “you’re makin’ the finals for sure.”

“Finals?” she grinned. “Mike, ah takin’ the crown!” It reminded me of 1992, the year Sparrow won the calypso competition with Both Of Them. A few nights before Dimanche Gras, a radio reporter had asked Birdie if he had any advice for his competitors. Sparrow didn’t hesitate for a second. “Yes, I do,” he laughed. “Don’ lean on meh car!” (A car is the winner’s prize.) And both Sparrow and Sandra were right.

As it happens, Sparrow had been Sandra’s mentor, and one of her biggest boosters. “When I was selected at Sparrow’s Young Brigade,” she recalls, “it was an honour for me, because Sparrow was my idol in calypso, and to share a stage with the greatest calypso king of the world, hey! That’s where it started. I will always remember Sparrow saying to me, ‘I cannot promise you you’ll be the next Rose. I cannot even promise you that you will be close. But one thing I know: you will be a force to reckon with in kaiso.’ And I know Sparrow is very, very, very proud of me!”

But not any prouder than Tobago Crusoe, who wrote for Sandra for 10 years before emigrating to England. “He called me the day after I won,” Sandra reported, “and he kept laughing, he kept shouting, ‘Sandra, yuh wash dey a***, gyul! Yuh beat dem, yuh wash dey a***!’ He beat them too, because when I won Carifesta it was with two of his songs. He don’t drink alcohol or anything, just a beer now and again, and when he heard that I’d won, he sayin’ ‘I dive in meh kitchen and ah had a bottle an’ ah put it to meh head an’ ah get drunk!’ He was so elated because it was fruits of his labours as well.”

Sandra is the best argument there is against the proposition that a “true, true kaisonian” always writes his or her own songs. I must admit I have occasionally argued that position myself, largely out of awed respect for singer-songwriters like Kitchener, Rudder and Spoiler. But Sandra ain’t takin’ that:

“I was born to do this,” she insists. “I was blessed with a talent, and I dare anyone to stop it. God ordained prophets, priests, and kings. How many songs Christophe write in a year? Could you imagine Tobago Crusoe singing Die With My Dignity? These people write, and as long as God gave me a voice to go out there I’m going to go and sing my heart out. And let anyone who doesn’t like it eat their hearts out.”

How closely does Sandra work with her songwriters? Does she rewrite or reshape their compositions to give them her typical point of view?

“Christophe refers to me as the ‘ad-lib master’,” she grins. “My writers give me a song, and when they hear me singing it, it’s the same song but the song is Sandra. I have to bring the song to me. I have to put the song over like Sandra would. I will phrase it different from the way they would phrase it. I didn’t change the text of Voices, but the parts about growing up and living in the ghetto, and the little asides — those are me. I just added a Sandra flavour to it.”

Sandra has waited a long time for recognition, and she’s not wasting any time taking advantage of it.

“This year is my year,” she said after winning the crown. “God gave me this year to see about Sandra in terms of securing my future. I have a 77-year-old mother to take care of, I have a number of other relatives who need help, I’m no fairy godmother but I’m there if I can help. But I must take care of my financial status and secure my life, so by the end of the day, when Sandra can’t sing kaiso again, Sandra can sit back and relax and have a comfortable time.”