In a way, it was typical Ella Andall. In other ways, it was Ella extraordinaire two Saturdays ago at Hotel Normandie where, as an insertion into Calypso History Month, she sat with an intimate audience for an evening of conversation and music.
A singer-woman whose body channels ancient rhythms, Ella is uncomfortable with plenty talk. In interviews she often defaults to sharp retorts, direct answers, and is stern when pressed to expand her dialogue.
“This not an easy thing for the I to do” and later “Artists supposed to be represented, talked to and talked about in a particular kind of way”.
But listen closely: she thinks in rhythms and melodies and her instinct is to vocalise, not talk. It is her call-and-response artistic heartbeat.
During just over 90 minutes, Ella released to friends, artists and Orisha sister-chantuelles a profundity of thought and musical expression that uncommonly opened a window to her history, her creative process and her reckoning with the modern digital world.
“No one listens to voice anymore.”
Born in a small fishing village in Grenada, she arrived in Trinidad where, as a child, she lived in Couva. A caller to Calypso Showcase a few years ago embraced Ella as a central girl who would run into Peter Samaroo’s snackette in McBean Village to insert coins in the jukebox and sing at the top of her voice.
“It wasn’t a calling,” the Taurean told her interviewer, Prof Gerald Hutchinson. “Wherever I go I sing. It was natural. Wasn’t something you had to learn to do. I just sing all over the place. It’s a gift from God.
“With my mom and dad there was always a gathering of singers and storytellers, like in Trinidad, like in the Caribbean.”
The unapologetic, celebratory and indomitable Africanness of her musical and lyrical expression often obstructed her career ambitions. When he heard her voice and chose to record her, Garfield ‘Ras Shorty’ Blackman offered her ‘Second Fiddle’ and later ‘Different People’. Those gave Ella her first taste of stardom and opportunities to tour North America. The 45-record jacket for ‘Waiting for You’, another 70s production from Shorty’s Vibrations in the African American blues & jazz genre, sells her as a ‘New Find of the Caribbean!’
But the drum call was insistent. Ella had heard Eddie Grant’s ‘Hello Africa’—the rift and bassline moved her—and she wanted to put the African into a song about Africa. Shorty didn’t think it was the right time.
“It cost me. It’s a kind of bold face thing to say I’m an African; that’s who I am. I am an African. You are an African. Teach your children that. He said not at that time,” she recalled, the knowing audience cueing the self-belief of an upright Ella stomping across the Big Yard stage demanding, “Say my name! I’m an African!”
Eventually ‘Hello Africa’ (1976) did come, a song arguably more identified with Ella than Grant. Ella would repeat that achievement with several covers over the years, like David Rudder’s ‘1990” and Ann Marie Inniss’ ‘Lifeline’—so inimitably crafted that they became associated more with her than their original singers. On a clear Saturday night, she offered up her take on ‘House of the Rising Sun’.
Before she crossed into the 1980s with a self-authored bow to Africa, ‘Black Woman’ (1982) arranged by Fortune Ruiz, Ella would also perform on the Bim soundtrack (1974), which in 2014 reached new audiences with a film-and-music pack.
By the 1980s she tried to beat a path into the calypso tent, the centre of gravity for Trinidad’s post-independence explosion of musical energy and action. Still she was too African.
She recalled tough years when “we had to cut latro without a cutlass,” she said on Saturday. “We had to do things like rehearse in a car, rehearse by the side of the road, the car not good, it smoking…”
She “never surrender woi” and nodded to JaJah Oga Onilu, the ‘treasure’ and ‘magician’ Lancelot Layne, Brother Resistance, Andre Tanker and others. With them, to the rhythms of drums, she set her piercing voice, layered and dependable. Thus emerged, from the throat of this Grenadian child via Couva, a vibration that shakes the earth itself.
On Saturday night Ella brought that voice, and some of her stories, in spite of feeling too far from her back-up singers and musicians (“I doing what I’m doing but I’m not feeling that…”).
Unconquerable, she filled the absence with stories of the prescient ‘Missing Generation’, a song that “does interfere with me now in a kind of a way” and that availed opportunity for her ardent truth: “We behave as if Trinidad doesn’t belong to us. Trinidad belongs to us and all Trinidadians belong to us. All.”
By the time she reached for one of her pulsating Orisha worship songs, applause was cliché. The audience bowed, “Ase, Mama.”