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April 18, 2011

Victoria Brown: Early Calypso Fame

Posted by Anonymous

The protagonist of Victoria Brown’s debut novel, MINDING BEN, is based on her own personal journey from Trinidad to New York to work as a full-time nanny at age 16. Below, Victoria remembers her grade-school calypso singing days in her village during revolutionary times --- and the busy, supportive mother who “worked” as her dedicated lyricist.

VictoriaBrown-SxS.jpgHere’s something that’s not widely known about me: I had a fledgling career as a calypso singer. And my mother was my lyricist. This whole collaborationist career blossomed, peaked and ended before I was twelve. One February just before my ninth birthday, my teacher Mr. Whiteman asked if I didn’t want to participate in the upcoming carnival show. He let drop that Natasha, my friend and closest rival, was competing in the calypso category. Why didn’t I ask my mother to compose a calypso, and then I could enter as well?

Ask my mother to write me a calypso? Ours was a god-fearing household. The Bible was the only book my mother ever read. Carnival and calypsos were the work of the devil. But, I had a strong desire to upstage Natasha. I heard them practicing during recess, Natasha’s lively voice accompanied by Mr. Whiteman on guitar. I wanted to enter the competition too.

To my surprise, my mother agreed to write a calypso. Because Natasha’s song had been about our country, I asked her for lyrics about our village, Morne Diable. Mr. Whiteman was amazed the next day when I turned up ready to practice. I can only remember the chorus:

Oh my community, oh my community
As you can see, it is very pretty.
Look Morne Diab R.C., and a beautiful sea,
Co-co-nut trees in my community.

Seriously, I cannot remember who won, which means that I didn’t for sure, but that Natasha might have.

The next year, my mother began composing early. She actually didn’t have the time for this. I was the fifth of her six surviving children, and my four older siblings had all been born eighteen months apart. My mother had exactly one hour of free time during the day, and in the lead up to the competition, I remember coming home from school around 2:30 to find her lying on her bed, chewing on a stub of pencil writing lyrics. Finally, my calypso was ready. That year we left the community behind and challenged the government. Here’s the chorus from "The Budget":

‘Cause the budget high, high, high
It could touch the sky, sky, sky,
I not telling no lie, lie, lie,
It could make you cry, cry, cry,

I killed. The audience went crazy. I had them singing along by the second chorus, a mass of fingers pointing upward punctuating every sky. The whole country had been in an uproar over the last national budget and here I was, a village girl sending a message to the big man in town. My mother followed my performance from the sidelines, her eyes tracking my movement across the stage. Her arms were folded and she nodded her head (all the dancing she could ever do in public). I tied with Derek Caesar for first place. I was so mad, especially as the $25 prize money was split, and second place Deborah got $15 for a calypso with zero social commentary.  

In my final year of primary school a real revolution occurred on the next-door island of Grenada. The government was overthrown, the prime minister decapitated, and a dusk-to-dawn curfew put in place. Fearing communism, American troops invaded the island. I have no memory of my mother composing in bed that February. I realize now she must have written my calypso in October, during the height of the unrest. In February she presented me with her opus. We had gone international. Here then, the first verse and chorus from “Grenadian Trouble”:

One hot day in October
I was listening news very sober
When I heard the news ‘bout Grenada
I called out to my neighbor Brenda
The news really shock me, revolution take over the country (2x)
If Bishop knew he woulda lose he head, he woulda hide underneath the bed


Mr. Coard, oh, How you treatin’ Grenada so?
General Austin, what you doin’ is a big sin,
You want to take ‘way people freedom,
And you calling in them Cubans,
A man like you cannot see God’s face
You causin’ too much trouble in the place

I wore fatigues and a beret. I had backup singers. I executed stomps and salutes to go with my lyrics. I won! The crowd, the biggest I had ever performed for, declared me the winner before the judges. I got $75. Home later that night I could hear people singing the chorus, the chorus to my calypso, as they walked up and down the main road. I was a village celebrity.

Twenty-eight years later, people in Morne Diable remember "The Budget" and "Grenadian Trouble." Every time I visit, some will stop me and sing at least one chorus. You know what? I have no recollection of ever thanking my mother for being my lyricist. Thank you, Mammy.

Victoria Brown's debut novel MINDING BEN is in stores now.