R.I.P. Sesenne Descartes, 1914–2010

by Nicholas Laughlin on August 12, 2010

Sesenne Descartes. Photograph courtesy the St Lucia Folk Research Centre

Sesenne Descartes. Photograph courtesy the St Lucia Folk Research Centre

My country heart, I am not home till Sesenne sings,
a voice with woodsmoke and ground-doves in it, that cracks
like clay on a road whose tints are the dry season’s,
whose cuatros tighten my heartstrings. The shac-shacs
rattle like cicadas under the fur-leaved nettles
of childhood, an old fence at noon, bel-air, quadrille,
la comette, gracious turns, until delight settles.
A voice like rain on a hot road, a smell of cut grass,
its language as small as the cedar’s and sweeter than any
wherever I have gone, that makes my right hand Ishmael,
my guide the star-fingered frangipani.

— Derek Walcott, from “Homecoming”, in The Bounty

“Manmay la dit wai!”, from Sesenne: St Lucia’s First Lady of Folk (1991), produced by Ronald “Boo” Hinkson. Audio recording courtesy the St Lucia Folk Research Centre:

Marie Selipha “Sesenne” Descartes, St Lucian folk singer and “queen of folk culture,” died on Wednesday 11 August in Mon Repos.

The poet John Robert Lee has written an obituary of Sesenne published by the St Lucia Folk Research Centre. He describes her public debut in the early 1920s:

Sony [Sesenne’s father] 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 realised 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 organised 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 were 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.

Read more about Sesenne here.

“Pale Edward ba mwen”, from Sesenne: St Lucia’s First Lady of Folk (1991), produced by Ronald “Boo” Hinkson. Audio recording courtesy the St Lucia Folk Research Centre:

“Mais oui, ça vrai”, from Sesenne: St Lucia’s First Lady of Folk (1991), produced by Ronald “Boo” Hinkson. Audio recording courtesy the St Lucia Folk Research Centre:

“Mais oui, ça vrai”

Si mwen di ’ous ça fait mwen la peine
’Ous kai dire ça vrai.
Si mwen di ’ous ça penetrait mwen
’Ous peut dire ça vrai.
Ces mamailles actuellement
Pas ka faire l’amour z’autres pour un rien.

Translation by John Robert Lee, published in Elemental (2008):

If I tell you that affair grieved me
you can believe it’s true,
if I tell you you tore up my heart,
you can say yes, it’s true.
If I tell you you pierced me
you can believe I tell the truth.
Young people of today,
you do not make your love for nothing.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

John Robert Lee August 12, 2010 at 4:56 pm

I think we are moved by the rootedness, earthiness, Saint Lucianness of Sesenne’s lyrics, the music and that coming-at-you- from-far voice. Like a band coming up the road in the early jouvert morning. Casual like a jazz singer, all hoarse intonation and inflection, lines cut, just so, the language singing, a conversation between familiars. A life, many lives, in the voice accompanied by the other voices. Community of song.
All the voices of Walcott’s folk plays, the verse of them and the voice he is always searching for in his St. Lucian poems, he must have heard in Sesenne’s guttural, mountain-and-valley chantwelle wail. “A voice with woodsmoke and ground-doves in it.”
There is something about St. Lucian folk music that moves all its writers in ways we can’t explain easily. For me the violon (violin) wailing, the la commette and other dance and music forms, supported by the dancers in wob dwiyet, curtseying, flirting smiles, toe to heel..; the chantwel and chantwelle chanters (Sesenne was a chantwelle, a leader of her group of singers), who turn rumshops into La Rose halls as August, their festival month, approaches; the folk musicians of the anban goj bands with their violons, banjos, cuatros, shac shacs, bones and drums. The anban goj, describing the violins tucked under the goj, the throat; and the lyrics, with their tinge of sadness, broken hearts, unrequited love, not only of the folk singers, but of more classical, urban composers like Charles Cadet – all that moves me deeply, to glimpse my own creole (kweyol) soul inside. Another place. Another life.
I think Saint Lucia is at heart a Creole/Kweyol society, neither English nor French. And the music of Sesenne, her folk singers and musicians, call to that. Call from that. Are that! And yes, the heartstrings tighten, deep under the sound, the dancers’ skirts, the insistent shac shac. God, the swing! The hips of the women, just so, just right! Creole notations of composition and choreography.
Anyway, I think it is some of those things that our great poet also yearns after and hears and sees. And heard in Sesenne. And took with him to Stockholm in 1992.

Shantel Jn Baptiste October 23, 2010 at 10:14 am

i believe that she had and still has a great impact on most of us and has inspired us in many different ways.she was a great leader ad singer.she will forever leave in all of our hearts.though for me her time here on earth with us was not suffice it is alife that will be remembered for many to come. R.I.P. We love and we miss u!!!!!…..

Ruby Wells February 6, 2012 at 3:38 pm

I’ve always longed to have a cd, because I’m in love with this voice. Today I was just browsing through, and came across the queen of culture. I believe she was recognize too late, but as the saying goes (better late than never). Sweet St.Lucia the island that’s adored by many worldwide. Let’s keep up with the tradition, and most of all have dame Sessene Descatres songs on cd. I’d buy @ least a hundred, and distribute just to invite people to visit our island. There’s so much to offer, and so much to see. Rip chantwelle Sessene!

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