Martin Raymond: “go back to Caribbean music”

Producer Martin Raymond talks about the Trinidad & Tobago Carnival music scene

Martin Raymond. Photograph by Andrea De Silva

There were no musicians in the family, but while I was growing up in Trinidad there was a lot of music around. Directly above us lived John “Buddy” Williams [bandleader and bass player]. There were always musicians going up and down the stairs.

I remember hearing Kitchener rehearse “Miss Tourist” for about two or three weeks, trying to get the song structure right. Every time they got to the chorus they struggled. Everyone on the street used to be liming outside, listening to the progress of the song. When they finally got it, the entire street applauded, and of course the song went on to win Road March. So that was 1967, and I was five years old.

I played the organ in church around the age of eight or nine, after a couple of weeks of piano lessons. But I was heavily influenced by Carl “Beaver” Henderson. I saw this guy standing up playing the keyboard, and he had it tilted at a really funny angle and he was jumping up and down and dancing when he was playing. I took my little keyboard, tilted it up against the wall and practised playing while jumping up and down.

Another big influence was singer Lennox Gray. He lived two streets away from us in Diamond Vale. He used to come over to use the piano. My mother encouraged him to record. He had this song called “Around My Christmas Tree”.  He played this song for years and talked about what he wanted here and what he wanted here, how the bells would be at the top. I couldn’t picture it on the piano.

That was actually my first experience of going into a recording studio. I was ten at the time. I remember throwing a tantrum and walking away in tears when it was time to leave. I never knew music could sound that good.

It is only now I recognise the influence that whole experience had on me. The process of someone working on a song – for years. Try it different ways, with a different key. Give it a different structure.

Every Carnival, Mum would buy two records. Carnival Thursday or Friday, she would have a little lime and she would buy these records. One Sparrow, the other Kitchener. As soon as the records came home I listened to them from start to finish. Then I would fake “a sick” some day soon after and find clothes to dress up in and kinda pretend to be a calypsonian. From an early age my ambition was to be on stage.

My brother and I had really big afros. But at the start of Form Three I cut all my hair off. I’d also managed to lose my glasses. A good partner of mine took one look at me and said, “Hey, you looking like a mice.” Then when I entered Fatima [College]’s calypso competition, I entered as “Mice”. And I think I won that year.

I started playing guitar for a band called Why? We played mainly instrumental music.

Then this guy started lurking around our gigs. It was Beaver, who I had seen on TV years before. I started hanging out at Semp [studio] with Beaver. After I left school, Beaver started talking about this band he wanted to create. He was already the youngest composer to win Road March, with Poser’s “Find Ah Party”.

The next thing I know, I’m playing guitar in Fireflight. We formed a company; all the band members were shareholders. I got a thorough grounding in the music industry: live performance, studio engineering and sound design. I became more involved in production when we did “Morning Loving” and “White Horse”. The name of the album was Exit, and it was the last album the band did together, after a run of five years. Then I went to England.

I somehow ended up in the UK hip-hop and dance-music scene. I was also getting the opportunity to do some experimentation in the studio with people like Merchant, Brother Resistance, Gypsy, and Tobago Crusoe.

I came back to Trinidad in 1994, and that was because they built Caribbean Sound Basin. It was one of the top studios in the world. Plus I did a lot of work at Eddie Grant’s Blue Waves Studio in Barbados. I got to work with a wider variety of people than I ever did in all the years in London. Co-produced tracks with Teddy Riley and did remixes for David Bowie, Taral Hicks and Andrea Martin. Worked as an engineer on projects for Sean “P Diddy” Coombs, Notorious B.I.G., Aaliyah, Wyclef Jean, Sir Cliff Richard and Right Said Fred.

I’ve only produced two projects in the last five years, Mungal Patasar’s Calabash Café and 12 the band’s Streets and Avenues. Both projects took on average two years to complete, and that’s about synergy with the artists and their trust in the direction I want to take the music.

I’m working with a bunch of new artists, a lot of them unknowns. We [his Jepnest studio] are also doing some stuff with 3Canal this year. Over the years I have also worked with people like Andre Tanker, Ataklan, David Rudder, Machel Montano, and reggae hit-makers Steely and Clevie and Aswad.

I’ve always been interested in pushing the envelope and doing stuff differently. A lot of the music we do for Carnival seems to sound the same, year in, year out. But the vibe I am getting now is there’s an explosion of songwriters. The feeling I get now is like how those guys who first found oil must have felt…This is the New World.

I think three very important things changed music radically in Trinidad. First, it was the bands going into the Carnival. Used to be the calypsonians ruled the fetes and the bands would just provide background music. I think Charlie’s Roots really changed things. Then came the explosion of radio; and then improved technology and access to it, so home studios started up and more people are recording.

Back in the days of Fireflight it was difficult even trying to get an interview with a record company out there. We were told, “Go back to Caribbean music.” I’m glad they told us that. Now things have changed significantly.