Kees Dieffenthaller wants a Grammy. He’s by no means the first singer from Trinidad & Tobago to express that desire, but, Machel Montano aside, he’s the one many people expect to achieve that goal.
With a widely watched performance on New York’s Fox Five morning show Good Day New York, just before the Labour Day weekend last year, and a 2011 BET/Soul Train nomination for Best Caribbean Performance among his many achievements, it seems Dieffenthaller is on the brink of mainstream success.
He also has the appeal to go beyond the West Indian diaspora. His boyish good looks attract women of all ages, he has an impressive vocal ability, and he switches seamlessly between genres, encouraging his listeners to act “Wotless” one minute and charming them with R&B-flavoured songs such as “Take Me Away” the next. He won the Groovy Soca Monarch title last year.
It’s Dieffenthaller’s versatility that makes him stand out as a performer. Ironically, though, it has been that versatility, his “Island Pop” sound, as he has named it, that has worked against him since he decided to play in the soca ring over ten years ago.
Dieffenthaller and his band, Kes the Band, were always dismissed in some quarters as a “white-boy band”. Dieffenthaller and his brothers Jon (pronounced Yon) and Hans first gained recognition as a rock/alternative band called Limestone and later Rydimorai.
It wasn’t until Imij and Company, a well-known soca and cover band, recognised their talent and recruited them in 2002 that the group became known in the world of soca. Even then, they flew under the radar of mass appeal with positive, uplifting tracks such as “One Day”, groovy love songs such as “Hypnotize”, with former Imij singer Michelle Xavier, and the pop-infused “Push It”.
In 2005, the Dieffenthaller brothers and best friend Riad Boochoon left to form Kes the Band. They refused to be pigeonholed, experimenting with rock riffs, reggae beats and soca in their songs.
Machel Montano’s absence from the Carnival stage in 2010 proved to be a watershed. With the path clear for other performers to step up, it was Kes the Band that stole the spotlight. That resulted in an increase in bookings for 2011, but little did those promoters know their gamble would pay off a hundredfold.
Funnily, Dieffenthaller felt depressed after the successful 2010 season. After 15-plus years in music, he needed to shake things up.
“After a while you reach a comfort zone, not just on stage but with yourself…when an artiste plateaus, it’s because he’s not stimulated. [In 2010] I was like, ‘I want something different,’ so I went in the studio with Madmen Productions and worked on an entirely different project – a pop album.”
That album, Stereotype, which was launched last August, gave Dieffenthaller the stimulation he needed. Fed up of trying to live up to everyone’s expectations, he threw caution to the wind and made an album that appealed to him.
“It’s dedicated to being us. You want to brand us, brand us. When we go to the States, they expect us to pull out a flowered shirt and a pan; here they expect us to be a white-boy rock band,” he told a Trinidadian newspaper as he explained the album’s title.
Stereotype also gave Dieffenthaller the impetus to push the envelope for his 2011 Carnival album, Wotless (recorded after Stereotype, it was released earlier). He surrounded himself with a team of people on the same wavelength, among them singer/songwriter Kerwin Dubois, with whom he co-wrote the songs “Wotless” and “Ah Ting”. Edgy and infectious, “Wotless” cast Dieffenthaller in a new light. The clean-shaven, good-looking “reds” showed he could get on bad, and the masses lapped it up.
That breakthrough opened the door for his other experiments on the album. While Dieffenthaller believes in pleasing the fan base, he also wants to make soca global, and to provide a vehicle to make that possible. “Show Meh Where Yuh From”, on the Electro Lights riddim, is one of his hits. Produced by Madmen Productions, the song fuses soca and dance music, a trend others exploited during 2011. But Dieffenthaller found it difficult to find others to join him.
“We approached a few people, but not everybody was willing to take the risk, except Machel…That’s what I admire about him, he’s always willing to try something new, to put his head to the ground and press the reset button,” said Dieffenthaller.
Montano’s “AoA” and Dieffenthaller’s “Show Meh Where Yuh From” brought the two former Presentation College students together during Carnival 2011, with Montano endorsing his younger colleague as the future of soca.
“Who knows,” says Dieffenthaller, “I might open the door for younger artistes to win a Grammy. My goal is to win a Grammy for T&T, and I will do it. But I am not holding on to the results, but the process. I am loving the process so much, and I love that people are coming along the journey with me, seeing me grow. “
Born to Deanna, a classical singer, and George “Bunny” Dieffenthaller, a true lover of the mas, Kees grew up surrounded by music and an appreciation of culture. It was from his father, an accountant by profession, that he learned about Carnival. From his mother he learned the technical aspects of singing; she’s a classically trained opera singer.
His parents harboured dreams of moulding their four children into a Caribbean version of the Von Trapp family. (The Dieffenthallers originally came from Austria, via Holland. Bunny also has two other children from a previous relationship.)
“They used to make us watch Sound of Music every Christmas.” Dieffenthaller recalled.
He and his brothers formed a garage band with equipment fashioned out of milk tins and buckets. When their father recognised their enthusiasm he bought them a drum kit and built a stage.
At primary and secondary schools, Dieffenthaller sang in the choirs. In his teenage years he formed an R&B group called Klas, with former Miss T&T/Universe Faye Alibocas and schoolmates Michael Zephyrine, now a trained classical singer, and Marc Alexander. They performed at various events throughout Trinidad’s second city, San Fernando, where he lived. The money he earned helped to pay for schoolbooks and other necessities at a time when his family was going through financial difficulties.
When the family relocated to Port of Spain, Dieffenthaller and his brothers revived the family band.
“We knew we had to be together. Those early years we were innocent, full of dreams and grandeur,” he said.
The one thing that has remained consistent in Dieffenthaller’s life is his ability to attract the opposite sex. Not even his decade-long relationship with Teri Leigh Bovell, a Trinidadian actress who has appeared in US hip hop videos, could dampen their enthusiasm for him. Dieffenthaller even documented the lengths to which some girls go, in his 2009 song “Stalker”, after he spotted a girl hiding in the bushes during a stay in the Cayman Islands.
He takes it all in his stride.
“I love women, especially Caribbean women; they are fans in a nice way, not a psychotic way.”
He’s also philosophical about the controversies (sex tapes, unacknowledged children) that have accompanied his ascendant star.
“It’s hard, it’s a rude awakening. It shows that you are no longer a person but an entity, and these things affect your personal life. This is the price you pay for fame.
“Definitely you become more cautious. But I have become more fearless. I was very cookie-cutter, clean-cut, but it has given me a little more edge.”
With that edge comes a more comfortable Dieffenthaller. He’s more outspoken now, unafraid to voice his likes and dislikes and to live in the moment. These “changes to his essence”, as he described it, will no doubt translate into his 2012 offerings.
“Just expect bigger, better, crazier, sexier. We are pushing the envelope.”
• Since 2005, Kes the Band has released five albums.
• 2006: The band’s song “The Calling” selected as for EA Sports FIFA 2006 World Cup.
• 2007: Kees invited to Nashville, Tennessee, to participate in a three-day writing camp hosted by Desmond Child, a Grammy-award winning writer who has worked with Bon Jovi, Aerosmith and Kelly Clarkson. Child selected Kees and another participant to be his writing partners on a song that was included on the debut album release of former American Idol finalist Ace Young.
• 2009: “Stalker” nominated for World Beat Song for the ninth Independent Music Awards (IMA).
• 2010: The band’s pop/dance crossover song “Let Me Know” picked up by Six Flags to be played throughout all their amusement parks in a new music segment, and by American Airlines’ in-flight programmes.
• 2010: The band performed live on BBC World Channel.
• February 2011: Band named the first International Artistes of the Month by USA4REAL, a community of indie musicians and music enthusiasts.
• July 2011: First soca band to launch an app for iphone.
• September 2011: Kes the Band performed live on Fox 5’s Good Day, New York.
• October 2011: Band nominated for Best Caribbean Performance, BET/Soul Train Awards, for “Wotless”.
Kes the Band has a new look. Apart from the Dieffenthaller brothers, the band now includes Ricky Rameshwar of Madmen Productions, Robert Persad, and Mario Callendar, known on the underground circuit as imario.