Upbeat (November/December 1996)

The latest in Caribbean music


Viva Le King

The Roaring Lion (Ice Records 951002)

Here’s an album that successfully combines vintage calypso with modern styling. In the opening track, arranger Eddy Grant takes Lion’s classic Papa Chunks, spicing it with a rhythmic rap chant, and shows not only that a slow tempo can hold its own in today’s fast-paced musical world, but that the result can captivate music-lovers from seven to seventy. Papa Chunks turned out to be one of the biggest tunes of last year’s Trinidad and Tobago Carnival. This album features other calypso classics such as Jail Dem (a commentary on high prices which is as true today as it ever was), Shango (with mesmerising Shango rhythms), and Lion’s immortal Ugly Woman (“if you want to be happy and live a king life, never make a pretty woman your wife”). Grant manages to keep the authentic calypso flavour while introducing an array of modern techniques – contemporary rhythms and vocal stylings, a wailing rock guitar, jazzy guitar chording by the veteran Fitzroy Coleman, bold brassy horn lines. There’s plenty of humour and plenty of good sense; in the final track, Song Of Peace, Lion sings with a single guitar, and you feel as if you’re in the studio right next to him.

Chutney Vibrations

Rikki Jai (Rikki Jai Records RJRCD-01952)

Here, east meets west in a musical meltdown. The number of influences which calypso has absorbed in the last decade or two – swallowed up, some might say – is astonishing. Chutney, technically, draws on a certain genre of Hindu traditional song of a delicate nature; but in practice chutney is full-blooded crossover music, Indian flavour to a strong soca beat. Of the eight tracks on this album, Rikki Jai, prophet of chutney, draws on traditional songs for three (thanking his aunt and grandmother for help in selecting them); in the others, you can hear echoes of everything from Indian film music to rock and rap, all woven together with slick styling and a frenetic tempo. How sturdy a bridge chutney will prove to be, between the cultural mainstream of soca and the traditional culture of Trinidad and Tobago’s large Indian-descended community, remains to be seen. But it certainly doesn’t lack energy or confidence.

Traffik Jam

Traffik (Cariwak CAR 95002 CD)

One of Trinidad and Tobago’s top brass bands captures the spirit of Carnival in sizzling medleys featuring past and present soca hits, most of them from 1995. The action begins with a fitting theme song, Merchant’s Caribbean Connection, then picks up speed to become a midtempo solid groove with plenty of percussion and popping horns. The first medley includes ragga soca hits like Preacher’s Soca Tatie and Doctor Cassandra by the Barbadian singer Gabby. The second covers hit pan tunes like Kitchener’s No Wuk For Carnival and more ragga soca, while the last includes the 1995 Road March Flag Party alongside Kitchener’s classic Flag Woman. The way the songs are juxtaposed, and the way Traffik makes the transitions between them, ensures that this album stands out from the other 1995 round-ups.

Leston Paul For Real

Leston Paul (JW Productions JW 1069 CD)

This is virtually a one-man show by one of Trinidad and Tobago’s best-known arrangers and keyboard players. Paul arranges a discofied compilation of 1995 Carnival hits, plays most of the instruments, hosts the recording and supervises the mixing. There are 16 numbers here, taken at a blistering tempo, including a soca house mix (Dr Cassandra, A Wine Is A Wine, Blow Yuh Whistle, Signal To Lara and Hulsie X). There is not much reinterpretation, but there are live horns and some lively vocals.

Crazy For You

Crazy (Julian Williams Publishing JW067CA)

Sizzling soca from calypso’s most lovable lunatic, a singer who has been runner-up in the Road March race more often than any other. Heat Up De Place, one of the five Winsford DeVines numbers on this album, is a typical Crazy interpretation of Carnival bacchanal; Finish It is a characteristic Crazy play on words. Crazy is controversial, sometimes embarrassing, but his ability to hold the attention of Carnival revellers is consistent. Snappy melodies make his songs – including the ones here – favourites in Carnival fetes; and many of the traditional elements of soca are maintained in his work – the strong narrative lines, melodies that stick in the mind despite the offbeat humour. Crazy follows the format of early soca albums by including a club mix of one of the selections. There’s also a hip-hop mix of Dis Is How. A soft jazz piece called Route 66 is the surprise of an album that’s bound to grow on the listener.

The Long Time Band

Andy Narell (Windham Hill)

Like the mango wine which David Rudder sings about on the track Groove Town, this latest release from American pannist Andy Narell is a sweet, intoxicating blend of Caribbean, Brazilian and American sounds. It is the second of Narell’s eight albums to take its title from a David Rudder song. This time the journey begins with Bacchanal, a pan/samba blend; the fiery Canboulay celebrates the Carnival of bygone years, Jenny’s Room is a quiet jazzy piece with loads of character, while Play One For Keith leads through the streets of both Trinidad and Brazil at Carnival time. David Rudder sings lead vocals on the title track (which features Narell on an old-style pan) as well as Groove Town, which mixes his version of rap with some zouk and lots of great percussion by Cuban player Luis Conte. Other fine players in the line-up include Spanish guitarist Steve Erquiaga, Jamaican bassist Keith Jones, and Dutch drummer Paul van Wageningen. Each track reflects Narell’s principle of paying homage to the Trinidadian steel drum while using it to explore new directions.

Pan Soca Vibration

Earl Brooks (Straker Records GS 2384 CD)

Eight popular soca hits from Carnival 1995 interpreted by pannist Earl Brooks, starting with an intro from the winning Soca Monarch song On The Road and exploring Kaka Le Le, Do The Iwer, Bumper, Signal To Lara, Soca Tatie, Play Whe and In The Centre. With slick transitions, a singing melody line and crisply-tuned pans, Brooks becomes more complex as the music progresses, moving sometimes into jazz-inspired improvisation. But his tone remains constant throughout, and his ability to keep listeners hooked with the slower tempo of Soca Tatie is a tribute to his skill. This is one of the best albums to come out of last year’s Carnival, and it’s equally good for listening or dancing.

Play The Steelpan: Tenor Pan For Beginners

Trinidad and Tobago Instruments Ltd.

With international interest in the steelpan rising, the need for teaching and learning materials is acute. Here is a 75-minute video which teaches you the rudiments of the tenor pan in four lessons, with no previous knowledge of the instrument – or even of music – necessary. The tutor is Harold Headley, himself an experienced player, arranger and champion soloist. The lessons cover posture and stick technique, basic scales, dynamics, basic chords and double stops, some musical theory and simple tunes; there’s an accompanying music sheet.

Lyrical Gangsta

Ini Kamoze (Elektra)

The success of Ini Kamoze’s Hot Stepper, which rose to the top of Billboard’s singles chart, is probably what prompted an album-length excursion into the blending of reggae and hip-hop. Previously, this would have been an unlikely, but Kamoze has already recorded traditional reggae albums which were well received, although none of them nearly as successful as “Hot Stepper”. Success has changed his view, and he now refuses to be limited to a “reggae” label: “When Stevie Wonder or Lionel Riche did a reggae song, nobody said they were crossing over. We want that same freedom. If you’re from Jamaica, they automatically put you in a special section and give you airplay only when they have a reggae programme. I want to be played behind Madonna or Guns & Roses or whoever.” Ini makes the transition to gangsta rap easily. He has always been good at clever rhymes, and throwaway lines. Hot Stepper was a novel tune, and a very successful one, but lightning rarely strikes the same place twice. Listen To Me, presumably the follow-up single, does not achieve the same results, despite Ini’s claims in it that he is lyrically well-endowed, and his use of a Bob Marley ‘hook’ throughout. The formula doesn’t quite click. Nevertheless, he gets deep into rap territory, complete with expletives, sampling, and guest rappers; but the Ini Kamoze we know comes through on Don’t Burn The Bridges, How You Live, Turn Me On and a recycled Hotter This Year.

Where There Is Life

Luciano (Island Jamaica)

To hear Luciano is to understand that Garnet Silk did not sing in vain. Silk’s spirit is being kept alive by Luciano. From the opening anthem It’s Me Again Jah, Luciano sounds like a revival spirit in the wilderness. Listen to the call on He is My Friend, Just Like The Wind and the powerful Good God as Luciano declares that he is unafraid of the contending forces of the Pope and the hooligan, The thematic focus of this collection on inspired message and praise songs, remind us forcibly that reggae, despite its moments of righteous protest, at its best, is religious music.

Ték It Izi

Kassav (Columbia/Sony)

If music be the food of love, serve Kassav. This is not a new album, but if you’re new to zouk it’s a good pace to start, a sweet and spicy concoction of Martinique’s top zouk band and an enchanting and provocative call to take life’s indigestion with a pinch of salt. Creole in language, flavour and essence, the lyrics need no translation: a smidgen of pidgin French is all you need to understand the incredible sounds of Lévé tet’ ou (Relève la tête. Lift your head), a tangy track of sexy zouk with a dash of dancehall. Elève ton espirit/Et sens la vie/Regarde autour de toi/Tu n’est pas la seul à avoir des problèmes . . . A translation (lift your spirit, feel life, look around you, you aren’t the only one with problems . . .) doesn’t catch the feeling conjured up by vocalist Jocelyne Béroard and her seductive urging to find hope. Kassav’s earthy patois may be foreign to the ears of those who don’t speak it, but its achingly familiar to the Caribbean soul. Parisian pizzazz adds a subtle polish to the rhythm. A sometimes mellow caress that only hints at the deeper layers of the mosaic past of Martinique and the Caribbean. Kassav’s joie de vivre brings love, loneliness and laughter to life on this outstanding album.