Kenny Phillips: keeping the culture alive

Kenny Phillips is a man with a mission: to preserve and protect the music of Trinidad & Tobago. Laura Dowrich-Phillips finds he’s fighting the battle

Kenny Phillips accompanies well-known soca artiste, Iwer George. Photograph courtesy Kenny Phillips

As a teenager, his only ambition was to be a “studio rat”, but now Kenny Phillips is at the forefront of the fight to promote, preserve and protect the music of Trinidad and Tobago. It’s many years since the teenage Phillips picked up his sister’s guitar to teach himself to play. At 49, he’s the owner of WACK Radio, a radio station whose content is 100 per cent local, and tntpanradio.com, an online station that plays steelband music around the clock.

These ventures started out as a dare. Phillips wanted to prove wrong the people in the broadcasting industry who believed too much local content was a recipe for disaster.

In November 2000, when he was acting president of the Recording Industry Association of Trinidad and Tobago (RIATT), Phillips led a march through Port of Spain advocating legislation to make radio stations play at least 50 per cent local music.

Also taking part in the march were some of the country’s top artistes, among them Brother Resistance, jointpop, Singing Sandra, David Rudder, Shadow and the late Mystic Prowler, the Mighty Duke and Andre Tanker. There were also representatives from the Chutney Foundation, the Parang Association, and the Trinbago Unified Calypso Organisation. RIATT presented the Attorney General with a draft outlining its proposals.

But the lobby met strong resistance. The Chamber of Commerce and the Publishers and Broadcasters Association (TTPBA), as well as many members of the public, condemned the call for the government to legislate radio programming. They felt it would be an infringement on people’s rights, notwithstanding the fact that RIATT’s proposal was based on precedent set by many other countries around the world.

“In a meeting with the TTPBA, I was told that if I feel people want to go to the grocery and shop to local music, I am wacko,” Phillips recalled.

That was his aha! moment. Right there and then he decided to prove the naysayers wrong.

In 2004, Phillips acquired a community licence to open his own radio station. Playing on the “wacko” insult, he chose the acronym WACK, which stands for “We Are Culture Krazy”. Since its inception, the station has stayed true to those words, playing all genres of local music as well as music produced regionally or by foreign-based nationals.

In 2007, WACK Radio 90.1 FM, based in Phillips’ south Trinidad hometown of San Fernando, went national, and although the station didn’t show up on the radar in recent media surveys, it has had a lot of impact online.

Thanks to the Internet, Phillips has found a homesick diaspora audience thirsty for his offerings. With 24/7 streaming content, live video from the studios and coverage of major cultural events, WACK’s website attracts thousands of listeners: Phillips said in December 2008, the stream had 500,000 of them. The online radio also has many listeners from other parts of the region, not just Trinidad and Tobago.

“Local music is viable business. Of course, we have more listeners outside [the country] than here, but I bridge the two,” he said.

Many Trinis abroad, he said, listen to the station during their work hours. On the day Caribbean Beat visited Phillips, many were filling the Shoutbox with praise for the parang music being played that day. Others were asking the WACK team to reach out to their families back home. Over the station’s short life, Phillips has developed a close relationship with many of the regulars, who enjoy the site’s interactive features, such as the facility that allows them to upload photos of themselves from all over the world.

Other radio stations with similar ideals have disappeared or fallen in line with the foreign-music format of the more popular radio stations.

“I had a point to prove. But it wasn’t me alone, it was Iwer [calypsonian and businessman Iwer George], Solomon Gabriel and myself. Iwer has since changed his format, but he was only playing soca and you can’t play soca alone; and Solomon was in a long court battle with another station because their frequencies were too close, and now he’s off air. There was another station, Radio Trinbago, but that has been sold. We falling by the wayside.

“I am the only one alive, but it’s determination that keeping me in the game.”

In June 2009, Phillips launched his pan radio. He realised many people didn’t get to hear a lot of music coming out of the panyards, particularly the less popular ones.

“I have the most amount of pan recordings in the country. There are a lot of recordings that need to be heard and people want to hear [them],” he said, demonstrating how he can control the radio via his laptop anywhere he goes.

The site is not as interactive as his radio station’s, but listeners can send requests for particular pieces. The site also plays Caribbean jazz music from bands like Elan Parle and individuals such as Bajan saxophonist Arturo Tappin.

Phillips’ interest in preserving the culture is about more than music. He wants to put in place a framework that celebrates and honours the people who make the music. In October, he launched the WACK Foundation, a non-profit organisation whose goal is to build the national cultural archives.

“We have artifacts all over the place that are lost when people die. We have Kitchener’s shoe heel that he lost in Skinner Park – that should be in a real museum somewhere,” he said.

Asked about the government’s role in promoting national culture, Phillips makes a face. But he soundly rejects any description of himself as a cultural gatekeeper.

“I am just doing what I have to do. Nobody stepping up to the plate. If I didn’t do it, who will?”

His passion for local culture and the sense of responsibility he feels in boosting it come from working in the industry for over 30 years, he said. Phillips has played for many artistes, both on their recordings and at live shows. He has produced music for almost every singer in the country and many around the region, through his production outfit, KMP Music Lab. From soca stars such as Machel Montano, Bunji Garlin and KMC to gospel singers such as Easlyn Orr and Nicole Ballosingh, Phillips has done it all. These days, he’s still a studio rat, but he works mainly with the older musicians, leaving his son Kasey to work with the younger artistes.

Ever the entrepreneur, Phillips has added to his portfolio a calypso archives website that he bought from an Englishman who could no longer maintain it. The site is a treasure trove, and will be an integral part of the WACK Foundation.

“It is the first time archives of this nature will be held by a Trinidadian.”

Phillips is a former vice president of the Copyright Association, and is a director on the board of the Trinidad and Tobago Entertainment Company. He was the team leader in setting up this company, which falls under the umbrella of the Ministry of Trade. Its purpose is to support performers’ efforts to promote Trinidad and Tobago abroad. To date TnT Ent has backed artistes such as 3Canal, Marlon Asher and Nadia Batson, among others.

“The plan,” said Phillips, “is to take Trinidad’s culture to the world.”