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Mona’s musical journey after Windrush

Angela Cobbinah learns the story of a young West Indian singer who arrived on the Empire Windrush in 1948 and become an international star Mona Baptiste on board the Empire Windrush

11 October, 2018 — By Angela Cobbinah

Mona Baptiste on board the Empire Windrush

SHE was one of the few women on board the Empire Windrush yet somehow escaped the attention of most of the awaiting press when the ship docked at Tilbury 70 years ago.

This may be because Mona Baptiste had travelled first class and did not fit the picture being relayed to the British public of hard-up West Indian workers on their way to fill the post-war labour shortage.

One photographer managed to capture her on board posing with a saxophone and surrounded by ex-servicemen. Mona was in fact an up-and-coming singer in Trinidad who, having only turned 20 the day before the Windrush dropped anchor, would soon be working with leading musicians up and down the country before spreading her wings in the rest of Europe and becom­ing an international star.

“Mona Baptiste is hard­ly a footnote in British musical history but in Germany and other parts of western Europe she is still well known despite the fact she died 25 years ago,” says historian David Horsley, who recently gave a talk on her life at an event organised by Caribbean Labour Solidarity in Islington.

“But it was London’s thriving black music scene in the years after the war that really set her on the road to success and saw her performing with some of the biggest names in showbusiness.”

Born into a well-to-do family in the Trinidadian capital of Port of Spain in 1928, Mona was a precocious talent and from the age of 14 was singing on the radio and at dances before becoming involved in the famous Little Carib Theatre that set out to showcase the island’s rich folk culture.

Mona’s sheet music

Her good looks and vocal range marked her out and, encouraged by her success, she decided to try her luck in London, joining the Windrush in Port of Spain on its way from Kingston, Jamaica.

Two of her fellow passengers were the celebrated Trinidadian singers Lord Beginner and Lord Kitchener, and like them Mona found herself quickly absorbed into London’s nightclub and ballroom scene that had already fallen under the spell of calypso and high­life rhythms popularised by the capital’s small pre-war black community.

Within a few weeks of arriving, she appeared with Beginner on the BBC’s Light Programme with Stanley Black and his Dance Orchestra and was soon touring as guest vocalist with some of the most popular musicians of the day, among them Ted Heath, Edmundo Ros, Cab Kaye and Stephane Grappelli.

In 1950 she was featured on the same bill as comic Tony Hancock on the Sunday night BBC radio show Variety Bandbox, and a year later recorded her first single, Nat King Cole’s Calypso Blues, for Melodisc, a label that was cashing-in on the increasing demand for black music.

Mona with son Marcel

Impressed, French crooner Yves Montand invited her to Paris where she appeared at top cabaret spot La Nouvelle Eve before performing in Belgium and Germany. In Germany she became such a huge success that she decided to settle there, making dozens of records – singing in German – and appearing in a number of films, including as the lead in Porgy and Bess for East German television.

“Mona was hugely popular, with big record sales in Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, Belgium and she lived the life of a star,” says David showing me a German film maga­zine from 1961 with a photo spread describing her daily sched­ule – a whirl of script read­­ing, filming and publicity shoots.

At the height of her fame tragedy struck when her husband, Michael Carle whom she had met in London, was killed in a car crash. As a result, she devoted most of the 60s to bring­ing up their son, Marcel, then aged five. There­after, her career looked set to blossom again but in 1972 she moved to Ireland, where her new husband hailed from.

According to son Marcel, he did not want her to go on tour and the marriage appears to have been an unhappy one. “It was my mother’s one mistake to marry him as it ruined her career as a singer,” he told me from his home in Austria. Whatever the case, when Mona died in 1993, aged 65 after suffering a stroke, little had been heard from her for years. She is buried at Deans Grange Cemetery outside Dublin.

“It is sad that so few people in Britain know about her,” says David, “but luckily we have Mona’s music available on CD and YouTube clips of her to show what a brilliant talent she was.”

Black History Month events

Sunday, October 14

• Opening of Black Georgian Londoners: Discover a little known aspect of 18th-century London in a new exhibition that also reveals recent research about the Lords of the Manor at Bruce Castle and their black heritage and connections. Until March 2019. Wed-Sun, 1-5pm Place, Bruce Castle Museum, Lordship Lane, N17 8NU. Free

Tuesday, October 16

• Until October 21, A National Scandal, a new play by Eddie Lewisohn about 1930s cabaret star Leslie Hutchinson and his affair with Edwina, Lady Mountbatten. With Paul Hazel as “Hutch”. Tues-Sat, 7.30pm, Sunday 4pm, Upstairs at the Gatehouse, Highgate Village, N6 4BD, www.upstairsatthegatehouse.com/a-national-scandal, Tickets: Tues-Fri £18 (£16 concs); Sat-Sun £20 (£18 concs)

Thursday, October 18

• The Black Presence in Haringey: Presentation about the remarkable men and women who have lived in the borough and made a contribution to British society such as footballer Walter Tull and MP Bernie Grant. 7-9.30pm, Wood Green Library, 187-197A High Road, N22 6XD. Free

• Writing Our Roots and Rhythm: The Keats House Poets Laila Sumpton and Stephanie Turner, and Tanya D’Souza, a multi-instrumentalist and percussionist specialising in West African Rhythms, present an evening of West African drumming and a poetry-writing workshop followed by an open mic and live performances. 6.30-9.30pm, Keats House, 10 Keats Grove, NW3 2RR. Free, booking recommended via www.eventbrite.co.uk

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