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Caribbean Heroes: St Lucia’s Dame Sesenne Descartes

by Karen Rollins Sep 4, 2023

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Dame Sesenne Descartes was named a National Cultural Hero in St Lucia in 2005 for her contribution to the country’s folk music heritage.

Born Marie Selipha Charlery on 28 March 1914, to Tewannee and Sony Charlery, Sesenne grew up in a rural patois Kweyol-speaking part of the island in La Pointe, Micoud with four older siblings.

Being raised around her aunt and grandmother, Sesenne developed a deep appreciation for her families’ Catholic religion and culture which was heavily influenced by France and Africa and took an active part in various customs including flower festivals and séances, despite the disapproval of the ruling British elite.

When she was eight years old, Sesenne was chosen to be the lead singer, or chantwelle, of a La Rose group which was started by her father. The little girl soon became locally renowned for her unique voice which made her stand out, as well as her accomplished dancing skills in various traditional styles, and was given the name ‘Rose from the East’.

Sesenne’s singing and dancing led to interest from planter and entrepreneur Grace Augustin, who owned a guest house and she soon hired her to sing along with a band and entertain her patrons.

Eventually, local cultural enthusiast Harold Simmons also heard about Sesenne and introduced her to an American anthropologist who was interested in recording and preserving Caribbean folk music.

After Sesenne was persuaded to have her voice recorded, her songs were played on local radio and she soon became famous throughout the island and earned the title ‘Queen of Folk Culture’.

Sesenne’s talent won her many accolades throughout her distinguished career, including the St Lucia Medal of Merit and in the year 2000, when St Lucia celebrated 21 years of Independence, she was made Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire for “folk culture and art and community service”.

Dame Sesenne Descartes died in La Pointe, Mon Repos in 2010 at the age of 96 but her contribution to St Lucia’s cultural scene will never be forgotten.

Sources: Folk Research CentreWikipedia and Government of St Lucia website .