*This feature article about Ophelia Marie originally appeared in Domnitjen Magazine, December – February 2009-10. It is reprinted with the kind permission of the publisher and has been slightly modified. For more specific biographical details about Dominica’s ‘Lady of Song’, click here.
She will be singing at the 16th Annual World Creole Music Festival on Sunday October 28, 2012. I look forward to her performance and will be blogging about it and the other artistes after the show.
I caught up with Ophelia Marie just after attending her 30th anniversary show in October 2009. I was completely captivated by her professionalism and show(wo)man ship. She certainly knows how to engage her audience with her effervescent personality, exceptional energy and powerful contralto voice. I was also in awe of the diversity of her program. Of course, there was Creole cadence-lypso music, but she also offered us other traditional songs, her own compositions, classics and some pop selections too. For me, it was ‘the concert of a lifetime’. Her stellar performance had the packed hall of adoring fans eating right out of her hand!
After that spectacular show, one would think that a top notch musician would likely take a break. But not Ophelia. Right away, she was immediately preparing for an upcoming overseas tour. At the same time, she was also assisting with the popular Seniors’ Games to be held a few days hence. Dominica’s ‘Lady of Song’ clearly exudes a vibrant energy and joie de vivre in her private life, as well as on the stage.
As she looks back over her successful and ongoing three decade plus career, she acknowledges that she has not done it alone. “God plays a vital role in my life. I [also] pray before every performance,” Ophelia readily discloses. Mark, her husband and manager, is a constant source of support and encouragement. In her formative years, family members including her father, brother and sisters developed her interest in singing. Ophelia graciously acknowledged her proud father at her 2009 Dominica concert, where he was seated front row centre.
Ophelia’s devotion to her family is clearly evident. Her father hails from Gallion (a village above Soufriere in the southwestern part of the island) and her late mother was from Pointe Michel, a village on the southwest coast which is not too far from Roseau. They met ‘around a piano’ that her father was playing in Curacao (a Dutch West Indian island in the southwestern Caribbean) and fell in love almost instantly. When they returned to Pointe Michel, Dominica, Ophelia was a young girl. Her mother was adamant that the children NOT speak Creole! “She felt it would prevent us from learning English,” recalls Ophelia. But after only three years of English, she won a scholarship for select high school admission based on her ‘Common Entrance’ exam results, so the two languages never posed any problem.
As an overseas student at the University of West Indies campus in Barbados in the mid-1970’s, Ophelia often reflected on her beloved homeland: “I felt an intense mystical/magical connection to Dominica.” As a result, she was inspired to write and create the melody to the enduring Creole song called Aie Dominique. In 1975, she won a Dominican patois song competition by performing this piece. It was later recorded in Paris and released in 1978. In her opinion, the popular song’s message is timeless. “People understand the sentiment…that we must protect Dominica,” she emphasizes.
However, Ophelia believes that Aie Dominique has even a more universal appeal. “It is well received in other French countries too,” she notes. This selection launched her career at a concert in Guadeloupe, French West Indies in 1979. Her special bond with Francophones around the world remains solid. “French attitudes appeal to me,” Ophelia explains.
After more than three decades, she has performed in many French countries: France; Martinique; Guadeloupe;French Guyana; and Reunion, a French island in the Indian Ocean. The audiences are always massive, sometimes exceptional, such as one show in Guadeloupe where there were 14,000 people in attendance and another concert in Martinique where Ophelia fans numbered in excess of 10,000. In March 1981, she sang at a series of sold-out shows in Paris, which marked the first time that Caribbean music had ever been performed in a French concert hall.
Her fame as Dominica’s ‘Lady of Song’ is acknowledged in many other nations. She has sung on most Caribbean islands, London, U.K., as well as other cities in Europe and North America. Her international appeal can be attributed to her versatility as a performer and the special rapport she has with audiences everywhere. “The audience is part of the show. Without an audience, a big part of the performance is missing,’ she explains.
Ophelia says that much of the inspiration from her songs comes from nature, which she compares with love. Her popular chanson called Hypnotique (2005) was co-created with her husband Mark in the garden at their residence in the Roseau Valley of Dominica. In 2009, they had great fun making Move It, which features the fabulous Pom Kannel dancers from Martinique. (They also appeared in Ophelia’s October 2009 concert in Dominica). This high energy song has been a hit with people of all ages.
Wherever she travels, Ophelia is proud to represent Dominica as an Ambassadrice de Coeur ((an ambassador of the heart). “I am always honoured to be of service to my country,” she exclaims. Whenever she is at home, she generously contributes her time and talents as a volunteer with various community groups.
All Creole traditions are very dear to her. She feels that Creole culture has not yet achieved the status that it deserves. Ophelia encourages her countrymen and women to embrace the unique Creole customs of Dominica every day in order to promote and preserve them.
Her contributions to Dominican society are extensive. “I was exposed to being sensitive to other people’s needs at an early age,” she says. She qualified to become a social worker because she always knew that she had an ability to lead and work with other people. Ophelia has held positions as a teacher, social worker, youth officer, Chief Cultural Officer and Deputy Director of Tourism.
A passion for life, as well as her devout faith have enabled this sensational Dominican singer to endure and overcome occasional challenges. When Ophelia was starting her career in the late ’70’s/early ’80’s, “[it] was a man’s world. There was much more pressure for a woman.” Because she persevered, she became the first female performer to break into Caribbean Creole music circles.
Despite numerous accolades, awards and accomplishments, she shows no sign of slowing down. “My songs have been my life,” Ophelia muses, “I am fueled by what I have lived and also other people’s experiences. I thank God…that this has happened. I don’t make plans. When you put confidence in the Lord, He will guide you.”
I am truly inspired by this extraordinary Dominican woman. I sincerely wish her many more years of song and success, good health and happiness!