There was something special about Dominican singer Michele (pronounced Mi-kel) Henderson`s unique soprano voice that caught my attention during my early days on the Nature Island. I first heard her harmonizing as a background singer in a Creole recording called Mizik a Nou (Our Music) that had just been launched prior to the first annual World Creole Music Festival in 1997. Over the next couple of years, two more of these Creole CD’s were produced by prolific musician and arranger Cornell Phillip of Imperial Publishing. By then, Michele’s voice was much more front and centre in many of the songs!
Then I happened to hear Michele perform with her band at hotels and clubs around Roseau for the next few years. This petite young woman could belt out beautiful tunes with ease! I made it a point to go to her shows, as I was so impressed with her exceptional vocal talent, stage presence and professionalism. She competently sang in a broad range of music styles apart from the Creole genres, such as jazz, soul, reggae and R+B. As I looked around the packed performance venues, I could see that she greatly appealed to very mixed audiences of nationals, expats, tourists, foreign language speakers, the younger set and the older crowd too!
Of course, I still knew very little about her personally, but that changed very quickly one day. With some supportive friends such as Cedric Phillip, Director of the River Song choir, I found my way back into music circles, although I had not sung for many years. Another Canadian-trained musician, soprano Marilyn Smith asked me if I would like to sing the alto part in some duets just for fun. Then, as Christmas 2002 approached, Marilyn decided we should expand our repertoire for some upcoming concerts and named us the Beau Bois Ensemble. She had invited renowned Dominican piano teacher Leng Sorhaindo to accompany us. Marilyn also excitedly announced that none other than Michele Henderson would sing a classical Christmas trio with us, as well as play other parts on flute. I was thrilled to be singing with this awesome Dominican songstress. And from personal experience, I can definitely confirm that Michele Henderson is nothing short of amazing!
Ten years later, I am again humbled because this dynamic artiste whose career continues to skyrocket took time out for her hectic schedule to bring me up-to-date on her musical endeavors . I was delighted when one of the first things she said to me when we met was: “Remember when we sang in the Beau Bois Ensemble, Gwen?” As if I will ever forget! What an honour to have sung with the woman who is referred to as ‘the Princess of Cadanse’ and performs all over the world!
Michele comes by her musical talent naturally. She hails from the southern village of Grand Bay, also known as ‘South City’, the self-proclaimed ‘cultural capital’ of Dominica. Therefore, it should be no surprise that her roots are steeply immersed in music. “I grew up in a very musical family – my mother sang, my father played guitar, and even my grandfather was the organist at the Catholic church next door. I was constantly surrounded by music.” There was no escaping from musical acts in her village as the vintage cadanse band called the Midnight Groovers used to rehearse right beside her house. And one of her cousins, Gordon Henderson, went on to create the jazzy cadanse-lypso style of Creole music which greatly appeals to both Europeans and West Indians.
“I revel in music. I always knew I wanted to be a singer,” she declares. Although Michele can’t remember her first performance, her mother tells her that she started to sing publicly in church at the tender age of two. As a young child, her late father inspired her and exposed her to many different styles of music by having her listen to recordings of vastly different types of music, such as country and calypso. “He was my number one coach, cheerleader and motivator,” Michele lovingly recalls.
Around the age of nine, she started to attend the Roseau Girls’ School (now Roseau Primary School) in the city. The principal, Patricia Benjamin recognized Michele’s budding musical talent and referred her right away to Leng Sorhaindo, director of the Kairi School of Music (sadly no longer in existence). There, she studied with accomplished flautist, composer and choir director Pearle Christian on recorder and then flute. She also joined the junior choir, where she sang a number of leading roles in some of the school’s musicals. “Pearle really groomed me into being an artist,” she says with affection about Ms. Christian, who continues to support and encourage Michele at every opportunity.
“My classical training was a pleasant part of becoming a musician. I wanted to know more about it. I enjoyed studying it and will continue.” And true to her word, one can still find Michele playing her flute and singing from the classical repertoire in charity concerts and church events.
With her musical family and upbringing, as well as a firm foundation in the classical genre, Michele caught the attention of many people when she won the DOMFESTA Song Contest in Dominica in 1995. From that time on, her career has firmly established itself and is always expanding locally, regionally and internationally.
Michele has performed at several World Creole Music Festivals, including the most recent one in 2012 where she harmonized with veteran Creole singer, Ophelia Marie in paying tribute to their recently deceased music colleague, the legendary Jeff Jo. This performance was particularly meaningful to Michele: “I always wanted to be like him [Jeff Jo],” says Michele, “He had a real stage presence, and such a big aura that any audience was compelled to pay attention to him.” This admiration must have been mutual, as Jeff Jo actually was one of her mentors who did arrange for her to perform at various shows overseas. And as for her own vibrant and energetic stage moves, I would like to think that Jeff Jo would continue to be very impressed with her act!
Apart from Michele’s tremendous talent as a performer, she also possesses an uncanny ability to easily compose melodies and write lyrics to dozens of original songs.”I really love to write, as well as perform,” she professes. Michele did tell me that she often has a melody in her head, which can come to her at any time, including the middle of the night! She will immediately stop whatever she is doing, and even get out of bed to record the tune that’s floating around in her head on a mobile phone ‘app’. Then she will further develop it at her studio The lyrics will follow later.
“I just write about life and draw from my own and other people’s experiences,” she explains. Michele approaches her creations as a form of story telling through songs. In a culture of African-Creole origin, this oral method is very traditional and is one of the features of the cadanse style, for which Michele is well-known. She has also composed plenty of material in English, including Dominica’s 30th anniversary reunion theme song in 2008, entitled ‘Celebrating the Journey Together‘. But she doesn’t only write for herself. Her prolific talent is clear in the Creole songs she wrote for seven finalists in the recent NCCU Cadanse-Lypso Contest. She is thrilled that the winner, Webster Marie, “had great delivery” of an idea that he suggested to which she wrote playful words and a pleasing melody for a song called ‘Toutouni’, (which means naked in Creole!). “I am very proud of that. I’ve never had a winner before,” she admits. And now she is even venturing into writing calypso songs for other performers. Her capacity for creativity seems endless!
Many of Michele’s compositions are found on six albums, to date. A good number of the songs are in Creole and are tremendously popular in Dominica and the French Caribbean countries. This talented artiste continues to attract fans all over the world through the songs she writes in English, French and Creole. Her innate ability to cross-over into jazz, soul, reggae and R+B with her own works and innovative remakes of popular tunes has audiences cheering for more. She really loves doing ‘gigs’ and has been extremely well received in numerous nations, including: the United States; Scandinavia; the United Kingdom; France, Germany, parts of central America; and everywhere in the English and French Caribbean. European visitors to Dominica have been known to come off the cruise ship in port and ask where they can buy Michele’s CD’s!
To get a glimpse of her astounding performance at a glamorous high-profile Charity Ball in London England in 2009, click here. While there have been many sold-out shows in various countries, she feels that her most memorable concert to date was the one which took place at the Shrine Auditorium in Hollywood, California in 2007. See a sampling at this link. “There was a very high degree of professionalism in preparing for that show,” Michele recalls about that exceptional event.
In the French West Indian islands, her name is practically a household word. She has worked with other established French musicians, producers and arrangers in Guadeloupe and Martinique.Her Creole songs are often heard on the airways, and the popular Pas Lesse Mwen was a Number 1 hit on some Martinique Radio Stations.
I’ve been blessed to actually see her perform locally in front of thousands at several World Creole Music Festivals, as well as in smaller venues with intimate audiences around Roseau – and even in churches. It doesn’t matter how big or small the crowd: Michele consistently offers everyone the best of her precious musical gift and a presentation of the highest standard. She recently represented Dominica at a special Caribbean Showcase at Grosvenor House as part of the 2012 London Olympics this past summer. And yes, she sang in Creole for the delighted dignitaries.
Her incredible musical accomplishments, coupled with her strong belief in the value of having a social conscience have deservedly earned her what she feels is the most prestigious award, among others. In 2004, she was appointed a ‘Goodwill Ambassador’ for Dominica by the country’s Prime Minister, the Honourable Roosevelt Skerrit. “I am delighted to promote Dominica’s culture at every opportunity,” Michele declares. Other accolades and awards are found here and on Michele’s own web site: www.michelemuzic.com. You can also check out Michele’s latest activities on Facebook.
Immediate plans include more songwriting, coaching young Dominican ‘Rising Stars’ and performing on the MV Freewinds ( private cruise ship) this December. While she has made great gains up to now, she is determined to reach higher heights. With the full support of husband and fellow musician, ‘Junior’ Delsol, along with her two daughters, she is already making arrangements to spend more time in the United States where there are more opportunities for advancement. At the same time, she remains strongly enmeshed in her Grand Bay roots and is reluctant to take her family away from the quality of life that they enjoy on the Nature Island. It seems obvious to me that she has what it takes to strike a healthy balance between personal and professional obligations.
Perhaps part of the secret of Michele’s continuous rise on the route to super-stardom lies in her unflinching determination to succeed and a persistent positive attitude. She has proactively chosen to “stop waiting for it to happen” and instead is focused on “being what she wants to become.”
Michele Henderson is an amazing woman. She is a rare Dominican gem of incredible brilliance who is destined to sparkle all over the world. I am so proud of the ongoing accomplishments of this exceptional daughter of the Nature Island. Aren’t you?
*special thanks to Leng Sorhaindo for additional details about the Kairi School of Music
** much love to Michele for taking time out to talk to me and reviewing the draft of this article