Dame Sesenne Descartes 1914-2010
St. Lucia’s Queen of folk culture, Dame Sesenne Descartes has died at the age of 96. The Folk Research Centre extends condolences to her family and home community of La Pointe, Mon Repos.
In 2005, she was declared by the Folk Research Centre a National Cultural Hero. From her discovery by the late Harold Simmons and Eric Branford in the fifties, Dame Sesenne has inspired several generations of St. Lucia with her unique voice and her musical compositions.
The Folk Research Centre is preparing for publication a biography of the famous folk singer. Following is an excerpt from the forthcoming book.
Marie Selipha Descartes, nee Charlery, or Sesenne, as she is known, was born in La Pointe, Micoud, on 28 March 1914. She was the fifth and last child of Tewannee and Sony. Sony was a subsistence farmer like his father before him. Tewannee, Sesenne’s mother, served the needs of her family by caring for her children and tending to her various house duties.
St. Lucia was then a colony of Great Britain. But it had a lasting French heritage that was reflected in the vernacular – French patois, ‘Creole’ or ‘Kweyol’ – and the potent and pervasive influence of the Roman Catholic Church – the religion which was professed by over 98% of the population. Many communities were concentrated in coastal areas. Agriculture was dominated by sugar cane, which formed the basis of the economy. This economy was based on subsistence farming. It was within this social context that Sesenne was raised, and within this framework she enjoyed her youth.
Sesenne was a product of her environment; she was raised by her parents and aunt with all the requirements of social etiquette. In her words, “I was raised to respect all adults.”
She spent most of her time as a child with her maternal aunt (her mother’s sister) and her aunt’s husband. Her aunt treated her as if she were her own. Her aunt was called ‘Nenen’ (godmother) by relatives or ‘Ma Chadwick’ by friends and acquaintances.
It was ‘Nenen’ who exposed Sesenne to spiritual devotion and the practice of her Catholic faith. Sesenne enjoyed both praying and singing. ‘Nenen’ was a prayerful individual who arose early every morning to say her daily prayers. Sesenne would be alerted to ‘Nenen’s’ rising by the clinging or chiming sound produced by the eight bracelets which she wore around her wrist. Sesenne and ‘Nenen’ would pray the rosary together, and they would often pray various prayers in patois, especially the Lord’s Prayer. These early lessons in piety would prove to be a life-shaping experience and a very valuable tool in her adult life as a catechist.
Sesenne was a ‘spiritual guru’ from her youth – she presided over prayer with her siblings and parents at home and her parents never objected to the practice. That spiritual exercise – praying in common with her family helped to reinforce the family’s unity, and to develop their moral discipline.
The various prayers and spiritual exercises that Sesenne practiced were very productive because she learned to be humble and modest amid all the recognition and praises from her relatives and acquaintances. “Of my mother’s three daughters, I was the youngest, yet none had the talent I had…”
She further stated that all her sisters were talented in various ways; one of her elder sisters was proficient at grating cassava very effectively and quickly.
The community of La Pointe was a closely-knit community where each person was his brother’s keeper. The nucleus of the community comprised the elders, teachers, and principal and various other persons of importance in the community. Nobody was a stranger. The school played a pivotal role in the socialization of children, and teachers were viewed as second parents. Sesenne attended the Patience School where she was loved by friends and teachers alike. Like any child, she enjoyed playing games and having fun.
Unfortunately, things went horribly wrong. Sesenne the girl who would sing and dance for everyone who requested a private show; the obedient and disciplined child, the girl loved by both teachers and students at school, ended her primary education abruptly. It was out of fear of her principal over alleged remarks he made concerning her flaunting herself. These remarks were made in her absence, for she was attending the wedding of one of her sisters. It was the students who informed Sesenne of the principal’s statements. While Sesenne admits she did not hear the statements herself, it is the content of the statements that distressed her. She considered herself to be a modest youth, yet she was being accused of immodesty. Her mother tried her best to coax Sesenne into returning to school, yet she was too terrified of the principal to do so. Sesenne considered this incident to be the turning point in her educational life. She further added that if things had not occurred as they did she would have been highly educated.
Great things awaited Sesenne and time would reveal them. Sesenne chose to remain at home with her mother and she steadfastly assisted her mother with daily duties, such as the laundry and cooking.
Sesenne’s raw singing and dancing talent would soon be exposed to the entire public. It would be her father, Sony, who would first expose her to the public. Sony had plans to start a La Rose group in the Micoud area and he needed a lead singer. Sesenne was then posed with the challenge of being lead singer/chantwelle of that new La Rose group. Sesenne was about eight years old at the time. Her father first informed her mother of his decision to place her in the group because he believed she was the best individual to become the chantwelle. Sesenne accepted and she took her first bold steps into folk culture history. Sesenne said of her distinct and pristine voice, “Everyone was envious of my voice…” and “…when I sang I could be heard in Magretout…”
At the peak of the La Rose celebrations in Mon Repos, a huge crowd of La Rose fans awaited the commencement of the séance. Sesenne realized that the crowd was growing impatient so she requested that coffee be served to the people in an effort to curb their increasing frustration. The ushers at the séance organized many teacups to be filled with coffee for whoever wanted a drink. And as if that was not enough, Sesenne asked the ushers to cut the two cakes that was gifted to the La Rose group into small pieces so that everyone could get a taste. The people were all appreciative of that gesture of genuine hospitality. When all of that was done, Sesenne stepped onto the stage and sang these words – “ah ya yai mamai La Rose, pa plé wé!” – the crowd went into an uproar. That story served as confirmatory evidence of Sesenne’s wise counsel and her ability to stir a crowd at will.
Sesenne had now gained great fame and affection in the Micoud district. She was master of various dances including the ‘mapa,’ ‘quadrille,’ ‘bakalow’; also the ‘mazouk,’ ‘meina,’ ‘chalstan,’ and the ‘belair.’ She was chantwelle of the La Rose group in Micoud and an exceptional teller of ‘kont.’ That was precisely why she was approached by Grace Augustin, the proprietor of The Patience House – a local inn within the Patience community. Grace Augustine employed Sesenne as an entertainer for her guests, both local and foreign. The Patience House experience helped to expose Sesenne to a more diverse audience, and it helped to create greater awareness of the skill and talent of this unique folk singer.
Sesenne was at the peak of her artistic life. Her voice was envied and admired, even by the chantwelles of the La Marguerite group. She had the ability to sing seven different pitches in synchrony. One person described her as an orchestra simply because of her ability to create these different pitches. And these sounds were summoned at will by simply touching her throat!
Harold Simmons heard of this “Rose of the East” and wanted to meet her. Simmons sent Eric Branford to Mon Repos in search of Sesenne. After some time Branford found Sesenne’s residence and began discussions with her on plans to record her music, which Sesenne consented to after some deliberation. Harry Simmons then introduced an American anthropologist named Dan Crowley to Sesenne. Crowley wanted to record some of St. Lucia’s folk cultural music to document and preserve it for later generations. The recordings were made and Sesenne’s music was then being aired on radio. That single initiative helped to disseminate Sesenne’s music, propelling her into the annals of Saint Lucian history as the “Queen of Culture.” In the eighties, an audio cassette was produced by the Department of Culture with help from Ronald “Boo’ Hinkson, noted Saint Lucian guitarist.
In the midst of all this, Sesenne continued steadfastly in her Catholic faith teaching catechism to children and catechumens. Many of the catechumens were older than Sesenne’s mother, but they all respected her. It was the resident priest at the Micoud Roman Catholic Church who commissioned her to undertake the work of catechist.
Sesenne has remained quietly content with herself and her achievements. Her life has rewarded her with seven children; approximately thirty-four grandchildren; and thirty-eight great-grandchildren. They are the heirs to her cultural wealth and the keepers of her spiritual wealth.
Sesenne has been the recipient of the British Empire Medal (B.E.M.) in 1972 and the St. Lucia Medal of Merit (SLMM). In 2000, she was awarded the honour of Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (D.B.E.) for folk culture and art and community service on the occasion of St. Lucia’s 25th anniversary of Independence, hence, her title “Dame”.
While these honours have served to establish the distinguished achievements of Dame Sesenne, none have been more appreciated and well-loved as the title “Queen of Culture.” On October 28, 1984 in the presence of relatives, friends, and well-wishers in the Mon Repos Roman Catholic Church, Sesenne was hailed categorically as the “Queen of Culture in St. Lucia.” It was in Mon Repos she was crowned with that title.
Apart from the various honours conferred upon Sesenne, she also received various other accolades, including:
· The United Workers Party Women’s Arm – acknowledging her contribution to the culture of St. Lucia, in March 1992.
· The Ministry of Community Development, Culture, Local Government and Co-operatives and the La Rose Community – for her contribution to the La Rose Festival.
· “Les Danseurs” award in 1990.
· The Ministry for Women’s Affairs – on the occasion of International Women’s Day, March 8, 1998.
· Music Hall of Fame, Caribbean Broadcasting Union (CBU) – for lasting contribution to the development of music in St. Lucia.
· In 2000, at the CARIFESTA held in St. Kitts, she was granted the Caricom distinguished citizen award, the Order of Caricom.
· In 2005, the FRC declared Dame Sesenne Descartes and the late Harold Simmons, National Cultural Heroes.
In 1992, during his Nobel lecture in Stockholm, Derek Walcott spoke of Sesenne, quoting one of her songs. Later in his book The Bounty (1997), the Nobel laureate wrote of Sesenne’s voice and singing in a poem titled “Homecoming.” That poem begins, “My country heart, I am not home till Sesenne sings, A voice with woodsmoke and ground-doves in it..”