Dame Marie “Sesenne” Descartes
Dame Marie Selipha “Sesenne” Descartes
Born: March 28th, 1913, La Pointe, Micoud
Sesenne Descartes is the grand dame of St Lucian folk culture. A chantwelle of extraordinary talent, Sesenne captivated the imagination of all who heard her and as a result she was a central figure in the revival of the folk song and dance traditions of St Lucia that had threatened to fade into obscurity.
‘Today Sesenne’s influence has filtered through and inspired the recent achievement of two singing groups, “The Helenites” and “The Hewanorra Voices,” both of which have recorded a long playing record of St. Lucian songs. She is undisputedly the Queen of St. Lucia Folk singing and wrapped in that petite little bundle of Marie Descartes is the graceful stiffness of the French Court, the warm folksiness of the Patience soil, the spontaneous gaiety of the St. Lucia countryside and the deep religious fervor of the St. Lucia Catholic – all in all, there is something that represents the quintessence of St. Lucia “soul” in Sesenne.’ – The Crusader, Saturday March 18, 1972
Armelle Mathurin, Saint Lucia Special Edition, December 2000 writes:
In the St. Lucian context, the name of Sesenne is synonymous with culture. Say “Sesenne” and you talk about culture. Think about her and you are thinking about culture. See her perform or hear her sing and you are held spellbound in captivated admiration of one of the most talented daughters of the land; Sesenne! “Queen of Culture in St. Lucia!”
Born in a rural community in the days when “manners made the man”, Sesenne grew up in the rich cultural environment of her home at La Pointe, Micoud. She was born on March 28th, 1913. She learned and enjoyed the stories, songs, dances and ring games from her parents, her grandmother and the general community of her youth. Her youthful and impressionable mind sopped up all forms of the folklore, songs and dance like a sponge. Having absorbed a rich repertoire of our cultural heritage and having a fund of great natural talents, Sesenne gave all back to her native land. Her gifted performances and her prominence in the cultural field provide a glimpse of the St. Lucia of our great-grand-parents.
Sesenne, whose real name is Marie Clepha Descartes, became a common household name, throughout the Micoud area. She was first singled out for her outstanding vocal talent when she was about eighteen years old. At that time, her father was the reigning La Rose King and her mother was the Queen of La Rose. Her father needed a ‘chantwelle,’ so he chose her because of her impressive vocal ability. He never regretted the choice. That decision introduced and established Sesenne as a vocalist and entertainer.
In her own words, Sesenne explained that her voice rose above and could be clearly heard in a choir of about 300 people. Full of zest for life, the vibrancy of youth and a deep and intense love for all that was gay, happy and joyful, she sang lustily and untiringly to the delight of all who heard her.
La Rose was not the only area in which she gave her vocal talent. She took part in all forms of dances; Débot, Kontwidance, Konte, La Commette, Belair and Ring Games as a very accomplished dancer with body co-ordination that was a marvel to see. She won many prizes for best performance at dances and singing competitions. Sesenne was also responsible for the invention of many dance steps to local and other tunes, chief of which was the Bonjé, Spanish song brought to La Pointe by her brother Welson Charlery from Cuba.
Sesenne remained a local entertainer in Micoud for many years, until she was discovered by Miss Grace Augustin (a local proprietress of Patience, Micoud) who ran a guest house known as “The Hotel” on the Castries/Micoud highway. The innovative spirit of Miss Grace Augustin led her to organize a group of local performers to entertain her guests. Sesenne was chosen as the principal performer. She had a wonderful band made up of violin, guitar, mandolin, quartro, banjo and chak-chak. The quality of praise given to Sesenne and the appreciation expressed to her and her band motivated Miss Augustin to introduce them to the management of Blue Waters Hotel and other hotels in Castries.
One event lead to another and very soon Sesenne and her band were introduced to Harold Simmons, whose role, as if by instinct, was that of avant garde – “The Father of St. Lucian Culture.” Sesenne made an immediate impact and impression on Mr. Simmons, who besides making many live recordings of her performances spent much time projecting her as an accomplished and gifted artiste.
It was as a result of Simmons’ recordings that Sesenne’s voice became well known nationally and that she was subsequently considered to be the most suitable all round artiste to represent St. Lucia at Expo 67; a precursor of the Caribbean Festival of Arts. Expo 67 was held in Grenada.
She had to be found for the purpose. The job of finding the owner of the voice was given to Mr. Eric Brandford, who after a long and careful search from Praslin to Patience, finally met with Sesenne at her home in La Pointe. He appraised her of his mission and sought her consent to be party to the representative group of St. Lucian performers to travel to Grenada. She agreed after a mild hesitation as she had never traveled abroad before.
The result of the journey to Grenada was that Sesenne won the crown for St. Lucia with her famous immortal song, simply known as “WHY”. Sesenne herself described the event thus. By the time she had sung the first few bars of Namai-la-di-why, she noticed people moving up and down in their seats like so many yo-yos. She sang the verses and the audience chorused “Why!” At the end of the rendition there was a deafening resounding round of applause. That was repeated three times until finally she was rescued off the stage by someone.
The uniqueness of Sesenne’s peerless vocal quality was revealed by her account of the efforts made by so many singers and chantwels to sing WHY but without success. Some sang too high and some sang too low. They were incapable of mastering the wide range of pitch and tone crystalized in that song. They concluded that only Sesenne could sing WHY with credibility. Anyone wanting a proper rendition of WHY would have to hear Sesenne as she alone could sing it. Sesenne compared her voice to the sound of a saxophone and claimed to have more than five vocal pitches.
Her tour of Grenada brought her into contact with other well known cultural personalities like Eric Adley and Joyce Auguste with whom she shared a very warm friendship.
Those of use who have not had the good fortune to see Sesenne in action as singer, dancer, storyteller have not been left totally unexposed to her great talent, as much of her work was recorded and can be retrieved on tape. In fact she can still be heard on radio particularly during the La Rose Festival or at Christmas time when many of her songs are replayed.
Sesenne’s greatest asset was the warmth of her personality, her generous disposition and her attitude of service before self. She was truly warm-hearted, outgoing and vivacious; a truly gracious woman with a Creole eloquence that can be compared to the best in the land.
Had she had the opportunity Sesenne would have made a fortune from trading her talent and would have earned enough to bask in luxury and comfort. Rather, she spent the better part of her life sharing herself and her God-given talents with her people. The mother of a family of nine children, Sesenne still found time from her busy and packed scheduled of baker, mother, and housewife to participate in social activities of her community with singular devotion and steadfastness. She organized and carried out house to house prayer meetings long before the days of the charismatic renewal. She instructed candidates for first communion and confirmation. She joined in an assisted at fetes, deaths, funerals, illnesses and cases of emergency. She gave her help at parish bazaars and La Rose Festivals. Sesenne was extremely sensitive and soft-hearted and would breakdown under sorrow and sadness as easily as would rise to elation in the face of joy.
Sesenne’s personality was charismatic. She wished and tried to impart her expertise to any willing pupil or followers. But there was no one person who could absorb so much distinguish talent and ability by mere imitation and practice. Artistes like Sesenne are few and far apart and some about once in so many generations. The most that could have been done was to enjoy and preserve the best of her productions so that the younger generation of St. Lucians could savour and imbibe her indigenous art.
Sesenne had many a glorious moment in her career as a renowned entertainer. She was awarded the British Empire Medal (B.E.M) in 1972. But no moment brought more joy and satisfaction to her as the night of October 28, 1984 when before a packed audience in the Catholic Church of Mon Repos in her immediate community, she was publicly acclaimed and proclaimed “Queen of Culture in St. Lucia”, a tribute well deserved and graciously received.