Trinidad and Tobago


Redemption song

February 28, 2001

WHILE Denyse Plummer's victories at this year's national calypso competitions brings her fame and at least part of the advertised fortune, the larger gain accrues to the festival and cannot be counted in terms of mere money.

For there was a time, not so long ago, when she was considered nothing more than a white trespasser, given the prejudiced perception that Carnival is an African-Trinidadian domain, even though the French-Creole input to the development of the festival is unquestionable.

The daughter of a white father and black mother, Plummer, who spent many of her early years living with her family in a flat atop the rootsy College Restaurant and Bar in St James, was nonetheless seen as white, a perception helped along by her blue eyes.

Calypso zealots brooked no intervention by such persons, although one of the art-forms early icons, Atilla the Hun, was hardly black and the heritage of another, Chinee Patrick, easily betrayed by his sobriquet.

Intolerance with this young female interloper grew to hate and up to today, there are those yet to embrace her. As a consequence, her rise in the calypso arena has been infinitely more difficult than that of most of her counterparts.

In 1986, her first year in the business, she was pelted with missiles by the Calypso Fiesta audience at Skinner Park, although her songs "One Love" and "Pan Rising" were among the best offerings of that season. The latter piece composed by Len "Boogsie" Sharpe, with lyrics by superior wordsmith Gregory Ballantyne.

As the festival's public relations officer that year, I happened to be on stage during her performance and in place to catch a full 12-ounce can of Heinekin beer thrown at her and which, without my intervention, could have caused her serious injury.

For the next two years, her performance of Sharpe's work made popular the two songs ("Dis Feeling Nice" and the trademark "Woman is Boss") that took his steel orchestra to the top spot at the national panorama competitions of 1987 and 1988.

Still, she found it difficult to gain widespread acceptance, stymied purely on the basis of her skin tone.

Plummer, a former computer operator, has always had a love for the entertainment industry. Early in her career, she worked days at the Tatil insurance company and on four nights per week sang, first at The Baron Pub, then at Chaconia Inn and Steak House.

Of the remaining three nights in each week, two were spent in rehearsals, a superhuman effort by any measurement.

Her contract at Chaconia lasted 18 years, often leaning on sympathetic superiors at Tatil, when she simply could not keep her eyes open during the post-lunch period.

Finding it unfair to her co-workers, she decided to leave the day job and plunge into the entertainment business full time. In the 15-year interim, she has had a consistently uphill climb to success.

Her "What ees thees?" war-cry and insistence that "Everybody jormp, jormp" (jump, jump) became trademark lines, but ones scoffed at by many black Trinidadians, who refused to take her parodied pronunciations in the spirit in which they were intended.

Her talent was simply not enough for the hardcore calypso parochialists. She was forced to make additional investments, including expensive and thoroughly elaborate hairstyles and costuming and in her performances inject a level of energy not demanded of her peers.

Quite ironically, she was recognised from what, given the pervading view, was a most unlikely quarter. The National Women's Action Committee (NWAC), an arm of the National Joint Action Committee (whose symbol is a raised and clenched fist and with whom the slogan "Black Power" was first associated here) crowned her Calypso Queen on four successive occasions.

The organisation also declared her Young King in one of those years, making her the first "Quing" in the history of the art.

In the wider Caribbean she was crowned Calypso Queen of the World four times as well and on the North American circuit, Denyse Plummer soon became the darling of the summer Carnivals.

Prior to Sunday night's win, however, she could do no better than fifth place in the national standings.

Small wonder then that her sister/manager Arlene froze in her tracks on Sunday night when the announcement came that Denyse had won the national title. It must have been hard to believe that she had been forgiven her whiteness and could now represent this country as a whole Trinidadian which, incidentally, is the title of her current album.

Congratulations to Denyse Plummer, therefore, doubles as a redemption song, an eventual acknowledgement that her talent at rendering calypso has never been affected by her heritage.

Acceptance of her new status is also a statement on the maturing of the national festival and should be a cause for much greater celebration than another round of applause.


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