By Miguel Browne
The untimely passing of Singing Francine (Francine Edwards) in New York December 16, 2022 marked the end of an era in the Calypso world. Her entry into the Calypso arena in 1971 helped to define the era as one in which the female voice fast established itself as equal to that of its male counterpart.
Singing Francine together with Calypso Rose were the principal standard bearers of the movement in the 70s and 80s. According to Francine in an interview with Rudolph Ottley in 1991, “We dug the foundation and built the bridge across which so many females are crossing today. I am proud of that.”
In just her second season in 1972, Francine had sung her way all the way to the Calypso King Finals with ‘Carnival Fever’ and ‘Happiness’. She placed third with only Kitchener and Sparrow standing between her and the coveted title. In doing that, she set the record as the first female to come closest to winning the title.
She repeated the feat in 1973 with ‘Mr Carnival’ and ‘Equal Rights’ and in 1975, she broke her own record when she placed second to Kitchener with ‘St Peter Say’ and ‘It’s A Shame’ from the pen of Winsford Devine.
In April of the same year, she went on to win the Calypso King of the World title in St Thomas, US Virgin Islands. In five seasons, Francine proved that the female voice was equal in stature to that of her brothers. For her achievements she was awarded the Hummingbird Medal (Silver) in 1975.
Although it was Calypso Rose who became the first female to win the Calypso Monarch title in 1978, Francine’s contribution should never be underplayed. In fact, it was her record-breaking performances in 1975 that caused the Carnival Development Committee (CDC) to change the name of the Calypso competition from ‘Calypso King’ to ‘Calypso Monarch’ in 1976.
Chalkdust was T&T’s first Calypso Monarch in 1976 and not Calypso Rose in 1978.
Besides her trailblazing career in the Calypso arena, Singing Francine will also be remembered for her sterling contribution to the genre of Parang Soca. Crazy pioneered the new genre of music in the 1978 Christmas season and together with Singing Francine became the principal standard bearers of Parang Soca in its early years.
In the 1979 Christmas season, the combination of songwriter/businessman, Reynold Howard and Singing Francine guaranteed that the new genre of Parang Soca would not only survive but mushroom into something much bigger.
‘Hurray Hurrah’ told the Christmas story in song in very much the same way that the parranderos would do in their traditional nacimientos. As such, the tune resonated with the public since it captured the very essence of Christmas: “Unto us a child was born/Unto us an everlasting son….Hurray Hurray Hurrah/Hurrah Hurrah dey say/Our saviour is born today.”
The tune could be heard playing at every corner, in every taxi or its catchy melody being whistled by passers-by. The album sold a staggering 25,000 copies thereby spreading the Christmas story even among non-Christians.
The success of ‘From Christmas to Carnival’ spawned the follow up album, ‘Volume 2’ in 1980 with ‘Parang Parang’ leading the charge for the Christmas period.
Again, the Parang Soca release burned up the airwaves to make the album a best seller. By Christmas 1981, the Howard/Francine partnership resulted in the album ‘Christmas is Love’, the first full-length Parang Soca album in the history of the new genre of music. The title track as well as ‘Ay Ay Maria’ and ‘Foolish Man’ added to the ever-growing storehouse of Parang Soca selections as other calypsonians such as Kitchener, Relator, Swallow, Rajah, Penguin and Bill Trotman also released Parang Soca selections hoping to capture the Christmas market. What started as a trickle had become a flood by Christmas 1981.
When Howard and Francine eventually parted ways after the release of the ‘Christmas is Love’ album, it certainly did not mark the end of Singing Francine’s contribution to the Parang Soca genre.
Her 1983 album entitled ‘Merry Christmas and Happy Carnival’ had two such tracks: ‘Season’s Greetings’ and ‘The Christmas Clock.’ But Howard was no longer there to ensure that strict timelines were adhered to in terms of recording and studio time.
The album was released only two weeks before Christmas so that the tracks did not get sufficient airplay to have the impact as was expected. ‘Christmas Joy’ from the 1991 album ‘Share Your Love’ on the Straker’s label suffered a similar fate.
But Francine was determined. And a determined Singing Francine was simply unstoppable. During her ten-year hiatus from Trinidad (1994–2004) in which she made New York her new base, Francine recorded the album ‘Sing Halleluyah’ (1998).
The title track brought back fond memories of her pioneer days in the Parang Soca genre but there was also: ‘Christmas in My Land’ which told of her nostalgia for a tropical Christmas; ‘Christmas Bedtime Story’ which told the Christmas story through the eyes of a child; ‘A Child Christmas’ which highlighted a child’s pain of a broken home in the festive season.
But Granville Straker, the producer, for reasons best known to himself never released the CD in T&T or the Caribbean. So only the West Indian diaspora in the US had the pleasure of hearing these new selections which demonstrated clearly that she had not lost her magic either in terms of her voice, her delivery, or her content.
So, when Francine returned to Trinidad in 2004 for Carnival, and every subsequent Carnival up to 2020, the recording of a new Parang Soca album became a priority. Tired of all the hassle from record producers in the US, Singing Francine together with her new manager Pauline Caraballo created her own recording label, Bonita Records.
She re-recorded all the tracks that she had done on the ‘Sing Halleluyah’ CD and added more. The result was the CD ‘Merry Christmas from Francine’ (2009) with the artwork for the cover taking the form of a Christmas present with a gold bow. As she told me that year, “It was my design. It is my present to all my fans after being away for so long.”
All the tracks received steady airplay with ‘Christ is the Reason’ proving to be the most popular: “Christ is de reason/De Only reason we have a Christmas Season/ Tell dem dat He is mighty/ Teach dem to praise his name/Tell de children de real reason why/Jesus came on this earth to die”.
She was happy and all her fans were happy to have the original Parang Soca queen back in the fray. The genre of Parang Soca had changed significantly since her long absence, but she had not.
Whereas others were delving deeper into double entendre to gain easy appeal and boost their CD sales, she stood firm just as she had done throughout the duration of her 51-year career in the Calypso arena.
Her message was simple but crystal clear, “Let’s keep the artform clean as it is a reflection of us…Sing on the Christmas story and your music will live forever.”
It was a clear reflection of her deep spirituality.
Thanks for the reassurance, Francine. RIP. Papa God will surely welcome you with open arms for using that beautiful voice with which He blessed you to spread the Good News while you walked among us.
Miguel Browne is a retired History teacher at St Mary’s College. He is a dialect poet and the leader of Los Parranderos de UWI. He is currently working on the book Singing Francine: This is A Woman’s World.