Upbeat & Bookshelf (March/April 1996)

The lastest in Caribbean music and books


Music

Tales From A Strange Land

David Rudder (Lypsoland)

Since 1986, when he burst onto the Carnival scene by capturing every calypso title available, David Rudder has produced more albums than any other calypsonian. Each album is filled with new musical surprises. In this one, Rudder teams up with guitarist Wayne Bruno and keyboardist Pelham Goddard, the all-time Road March King arranger, to tell eight “strange tales”. The Case of the Disappearing Panyards is a lament about how “progress” is destroying the traditional homes of pan. The Strange Tale of Madame Occahontas and the Westminster Dreadlocks is set in parliament. The sensuous soca love ballad Crossroads could easily be the theme song for a vampire movie. Tales from a Strange Land (The Madman’s Chant) is a haunting rapso with a moving theme. Rudder makes many of his points through the music: the culture of violence is conjured up by horn lines reminiscent of the Skatalites. Like all good Rudder stories, this one comes to a positive resolution: a celebration of the good things in Trinidadian culture, mainly the music. The album ends with a pan solo by Robbie Greenidge. (DJ)

Voices ‘n Steel

The Marionettes Chorale/Neal and Massy Trinidad All Stars Steel Orchestra (Sanch CD9503)

Trinidad and Tobago’s Marionettes Chorale and their conductor Gretta Taylor have built quite a reputation for themselves internationally with their technical quality, wide repertoire and warm sound. Their annual Christmas concert series in Port of Spain is regularly sold out. This is a live recording from their 1994 presentation, when they teamed up with one of Trinidad and Tobago’s oldest and finest steel orchestras, All Stars, in a programme of operatic favourites, Christmas music and what Sir Thomas Beecham would have called lollipops. All Stars contribute four tracks including the overture to Verdi’s Sicilian Vespers and Johann Strauss’s Perpetuum Mobile. The choir’s six solo tracks range from the Schubert Ave Maria to John Rutter’s Star Carol. When the two groups join forces for five numbers (including the Handel Hallelujah Chorus and a rousing John Rutter arrangement of When The Saints) the big surprise is that the roof stayed on Port of Spain’s Queen’s Hall. This album, together with two companion CDs (Pan Odyssey and Sweet Parang) marks the launch of an independent Trinidad-based label producing high-quality regional recordings.

Dey Cyar Kill Kaiso

Marcia Miranda (MRCD-001)

In her 1996 Carnival album, Marcia Miranda — for many years a BWIA flight attendant — ranges wide. She opens with the title track, a traditional calypso commentary by one of soca’s founding fathers, Ras Shorty I. Then comes an uptempo soca party number by Preacher, who also contributes a ragga soca (reggae-influenced soca). There’s a zouk selection, a rapso (rap over soca music) and a chutney song (the soca/Indian crossover from Trinidad). Also featured is Miranda’s Christmas ballad Starting on Christmas Day. Miranda alternates slow and medium with fast tempo songs: there’s a variety of easy listening and party numbers to give newcomers a basic feeling for the musical variety of Trinidad and Tobago. Kenny Phillips arranged this album and plays drums, guitar and acoustic guitar. The horn section includes well-known studio musicians Lambert Phillip and Cruts Lewis. Natalie Yorke, who works with Kassav, provides chutney background vocals.

As You Were

Burning Flames (Dr G Productions 013CD)

Their unique style has earned them a place at the top of the soca music industry: the Burning Flames of Antigua exude energy. A live performance by this crew can be like an aerobic workout. A family band, Burning Flames is made up of four brothers, a nephew and a cousin. They have been together all their lives, and they have it down pat. Burning Flames have done well for themselves on the international scene: their music was featured on the soundtrack for the film Weekend At Bernie’s and its sequel. This 1Oth anniversary album offers eleven “blow away” tracks. It’s a true dance-and-let-it-loose collection of music: most of the tracks feature dominating bass and drums over hints of keyboard riffs.

The Best Of Grenada ’95

Various artists (JW Productions JW 1015 CD)

Trinidad and Barbados normally make the running in calypso and soca recordings, but here’s a taste of Grenada and three of its leading soca singers: Flying Cloud, Inspector and Mr Dee. Flying Cloud is the best-known in the Caribbean — his music has been making waves for a couple of years now, and features hauntingly simple melodies in an uptempo groove with lots of well-timed stops punctuating the action. Arranged by Trinidadian Leston Paul, the music on this album has a straightforward message — enjoy Carnival. All the tracks feature party or festival music designed for Carnival action; Flying Cloud’s Green Carnival is one of the best tracks for its catchy melody and rhythmic stops. (DJ)

Sweet Parang

Lara Brothers (Sanch CD9505)

Parang is Trinidad and Tobago’s Christmas music, lively folk carols derived from Trinidad’s Spanish past and heavily influenced by Venezuela. In days gone by, the music was carried from house to house, allowing food and drink and dancing to conjure up the spirit of Christmas. The Lara Brothers are one of the oldest and most popular of parang groups: originally four brothers and two sisters, they learned the art from their Spanish-speaking Venezuelan father Ignacio back in the 1940s. There are 16 players and singers on this album, including two of the original brothers and a full battery of parang instruments: cuatros, mandolin, guitars, maracas, rock rocks, scratchers, acoustic and box basses. These days, parang is in the throes of crossover, busily flirting with soca: but here are the true sound and the authentic forms of one of the Caribbean’s richest musical traditions.

Mission

Pablo Moses (RAS)

This is the best album Moses has released in recent times. An artist who has weathered mixed fortunes to protect his musical integrity, he is responsible for classics like I Am A Grasshopper (1975), We Should Be In Angola (1976), The Revolutionary Dream (1977) and A Song (1980). His older tunes were parables, with first-rate musical settings produced by Geoffrey Chung. Mission is a good collection of his 90s releases, delivered in his soft-spoken detached style, with solid musical backing. It is good to hear a 70s artist who has not been caught in a time warp, but has remained current without compromising his beliefs or his sound

Chill

Spanner Banner (Island Jamaica)

This is a debut album from the brother of Pliers, of the duo Chaka Demus and Pliers. Spanner Banner is a pleasant singer, with a relaxed style of delivery, a Jamaican lovers’ rock. He has written seven of the album’s ten songs, and good songs they are, especially Baby Don’t Leave Me, Chill, Michelle and What We Need Is Love. The songs are produced by Sly, Robbie and Gitsy of Taxi Productions, and have Taxi’s trademarks — tight grooves and crisp production. There are guest appearances by Tony Rebel, Chaka Demus and Pliers, and Luciano, whose presence on What We Need Is Love makes it the song of the album.

Boombastic

Shaggy (Virgin VJCP-25 174)

The ex-marine has turned bombast into “boombastic” times. Sexy and slick, the single made its debut at the top of the British charts, moving out Michael Jackson’s You Are Not Alone. Levi Jeans were so impressed that they licensed the song for use in a multi-million dollar worldwide campaign. Shaggy may be considered a Johnny-come-lately as far as his DJ pedigree goes, but he has outflanked the competition by making a pop record instead of another dancehall album. He might still have suffered had the album not included some crossover techniques and select sampling. In The Summertime, a second single with chart success, fuses the idioms craftily. Shaggy also brings on board a mix of rappers and singers who give the album a sense of variety and pace. A surprise inclusion is Ken Boothe’s A Train Is Coming, an old Jamaican pop hit, which reappears on the soundtrack of the new Wesley Snipes/Woody Harrelson film Money Train. Such good fortune will probably keep Mr Boombastic out front. (DH)

Riddim A Ton

Splashband (CRS Music)

Splashband dishes out a highly palatable mainstream reggae menu in their fourth album. This Barbadian group has gained some regional reggae respect in its five-year life, and Riddim A Ton shows why. It’s a happy, upbeat release, with several good get-up-and-greet-the-day tunes — Best Behaviour is a good example with its tightly-woven harmonies. Guest artist Papa San is featured in one original, Something Strange, rewarding both instrumentally and lyrically. Of the 14 tracks, eight are originals. There are also dub versions of three of the tracks and a pleasant a cappella rendering of Third World’s Always Around, renamed Acappella Reprise. The group also ventures into some interesting chanting, particularly in Yout Man Anthem, written by local musicians Mike Hulsmeir and Arturo Tappin.

Pan Odyssey: Steelbands of Trinidad and Tobago

Various artists (Sanch CD9504)

The annual Panorama contest at Carnival time is the most spectacular showcase for steel orchestras: huge bands of 120 players delivering sizzling and complex arrangements of calypso (and sometimes original compositions) with all the fire of Carnival Saturday night. The seven tracks on this CD were recorded in the orchestras’ panyards just before the finals of the 1995 Panorama, when the bands were at their peak — but the “practice speed”, slightly slower than the breakneck pace of the final performance, makes it much easier to hear and appreciate the intricate details of the music. Last year’s champions, Amoco Renegades, are represented by their Four Lara Four, runners-up Exodus by their Simple Ting, fourth-place Neal & Massy Trinidad All Stars by their Heavy Roller. Also represented are Phase II Pan Groove’s Jam It With You, Curepe Scherzando’s Bass Line and Vat 19 Fonclaire’s Pan Rebellion. This is a great sampler and souvenir from the Trinidad-based company that has pioneered quality recordings of pan. The accompanying notes supply a detailed analysis of Renegades’ winning arrangement, so that anyone can see just how a successful Panorama tune is constructed.

Héros

Jean-Michel Rotin (Sony)

Jean-Michel Rotin, Guadeloupe’s answer to Michael Jackson, is beguilingly bad on this latest album. He’s touching in Un Homme, appealing in Ella and endearingly commanding in Révé. But don’t get blown away by the explosive music. Even if you don’t understand a word of patois, sit back and inhale the heady, smoky pull of Cigarét’ as Rotin burns in a Far Eastern flavour. As you shiver delightedly at his wicked dancehall chant, sliced into a “smooth criminal” style, salute one of the Caribbean’s celebrated patois vocalists. Héros is racy, clever and sophisticated. Daring the modern ear to keep up with its staccato of Guadeloupean, Jamaican, Indian and European sounds, this album is poised on the leading edge of a new genre of music, poignant in its brilliant melting of rich cultures, black and white.

You Are My Everything

Nigel Soyer (Jo-Go)

Gospel singer/composer Nigel Soyer has chosen R&B and hip-hop to spread the Word. Soyer started singing in a church choir, aged 13, and won his first recording contract at 22. He shared lead vocals with the Trinidadian dancehall artist General Grant on the hit single Call Me, which he co-composed, then launched on a solo career. This debut album offers eight tracks which range from upbeat hip-hop to soft R&B. Among them are Soldier, a pseudo hip-hop turn; Take My Hand, a ballad with a soft caress; and The Cry, which pleads for man to return to the arms of the Lord.


Book Shelf

Salsa!

Hernando Calvo Ospina, trans. Nick Caistor (Latin America Bureau, London, 1995)

Salsa is Latin America’s most popular music. But what exactly is it? Is it different from merengue, from son, guaracha, mambo, danzón and chachacha? If you’re not sure, read this book. Sub-titled Havana Heat, Bronx Beat, it traces the African origins of salsa, its development in the Caribbean and the United States, and its consecration by Fania Records in New York in the early 1970s, when the imperatives of marketing demanded a catchy name. Fania’s Jerry Masucci is quoted as saying, “We needed a word as simple as ‘yes’, ‘rock and roll’ or ‘country music’, so we hit on ‘salsa’… when I made the film Salsa I registered it, and I have the copyright.” The book follows salsa’s later transformations in the Caribbean and its spread across the world (apparently there’s even an Orquesta de la Luz consisting entirely of Japanese musicians, though the lead singer has some problems with her Spanish). Colombian journalist Hernando Calvo Ospina makes a great story out of all this. He tells it well, with lots of good humour and an eye for colour; he knows his music, and quotes liberally from salsa lyrics to make his points. He writes clearly and simply, and above all concisely (you’ve got the whole story here in 143 pages, including an index and a glossary). The book’s lavish endorsements from the “Rumba Queen” Celia Cruz and the “Prince of Salsa” Willie Colón are well deserved.

Folksongs From Tobago

J. D. Elder (Karnak House, London, 1994)

Yoruba Songs Of Trinidad

Maureen Warner-Lewis (Karnak House, London, 1994)

In the early 1950s, the Tobago anthropologist J. D. Elder started travelling from village to village across his native island, recording folk songs and folk tales with the assistance of Andrew Pearse. It was valuable pioneering work, and a “small sample” of it appears in Folksongs From Tobago. After an introduction to the island, its people and their music, Elder works through 44 songs, commenting and explaining and recording the basic melody. The material is aimed at the proliferating courses in Caribbean studies in North American colleges and universities as well as the Caribbean’s own institutions. Elder dwells on the African roots of Tobago’s music, and Maureen Warner-Lewis in a companion book focuses on African – specifically Yoruba — musical traditions in Tobago’s sister island, Trinidad. She recorded almost all the material herself between 1966 and 1972: the book follows a similar format to Elder’s, but covers Yoruba poems and chants as well as folk song — Warner-Lewis claims this is “the first published collection” of Trinidad’s rich Yoruba material, and the first methodical attempt to translate and analyse it. The books were long in the making and have been produced on small budgets by a UK publisher, but are a valuable addition to research on the Caribbean’s historic connections with African music and culture.

Cuba In Focus

Emily Hatchwell and Simon Calder (Latin America Bureau, London, 1995)

Venezuela In Focus

James Ferguson (Latin America Bureau, London, 1994)

The Latin America Bureau in London is “an independent research and publishing organisation” which seeks to “broaden public understanding of issues of human rights and social and economic justice in Latin America and the Caribbean.” Its In Focus guides have already covered Jamaica and Bolivia. They are not in any sense conventional tourist guides with instructions on how to find the whitest beach, the most romantic restaurant or the best craft bargain. They are aimed at the thoughtful traveller, student or researcher who wants to understand what’s going on behind the stereotypes. These two new volumes, dealing with Venezuela and Cuba, are concise (only 74 pages each) and work systematically through the history, politics, economy, culture and social situation of each country; they make suggestions for further reading, and supply basic statistics and a good pull-out map. Don’t expect to be told where to stay or what the price of a taxi from the airport should be. But if you want a feel of the way these societies work, you could pack these useful paperbacks along with the conventional guidebooks.

Gavaskar: Portrait Of A Hero

Clifford Narinesingh (Royards Publishing Company, Trinidad, 1995)

“Greatness is never merely geographic,” begins an essay by Peter Roebuck, appended to this book; perhaps that is the spirit in which a Trinidadian publishing house has undertaken a biography of an Indian cricketer. After all, C. L. R. James was as entranced by W. G. Grace as he was by Headley. Gavaskar’s links with the region are not as tenuous as you might think: he began his career here scoring 774 runs (which included four centuries), with a series average above 150, in India’s 1970-71 tour of the West Indies. He spearheaded a memorable 1976 victory at the Queen’s Park Oval in which the Indians became only the second team in history to chase a second innings total over 400 and win. This biography, with its belaboured literary references, is a workmanlike record of the master’s career. It is written with an insider’s feeling for the game, on and off the field, and a strong sense of Gavaskar’s significance in his contemporary context. A book for cricket lovers, it teems with those anecdotes – the baby Sunil mistakenly swapped after a bath in the hospital, the disputed “impossibility” of getting him out LBW in India — that only cricket produces.

Dame Nita: Caribbean Woman, World Citizen

Francis ‘Woodie’ Blackman (lan Randle Publishers, Jamaica, 1995)

The Caribbean has thrown up more than its fair share of world-class people, but it is still pitifully short of good biographies of them. Dame Nita Barrow, who died last December, was Barbados’s Governor-General, and had a hugely distinguished career in public service: nursing, public health, training and administration, the YWCA (she became World President), adult education, alternative health care, the status of women, Barbados’s representative at the United Nations, international committees and assignments. The former Commonwealth Secretary-General, Sir Shridath Ramphal, pays glowing tribute in a foreword, praising not only Dame Nita’s work but — with deference to Kipling — her facility for “walking with kings but keeping the common touch”. He cites her insistence on leaving Government House once a week to join a beginner’s art class. Blackman has documented the life and career of “a great Bajan West Indian”, and has allowed at least some of his subject’s private self to shine through.

Ezra’s Goldfish

Pamela Mordecai (National Book Development Council of Jamaica, 1995)

A silver goldfish which has no use for fish food and craves cheese; a devious and bespectacled parrot; the whalers of Bequia; how Lizzie hates to feed the dogs; why you should respect Rudolph’s toes more than his nose … Pamela Mordecai won the first Vic Reid Award for Children’s Literature with this collection, and you can see why. It’s very hard to write verse that’s technically good but also light and funny and appealing to children; but Mordecai makes it look easy. The subjects are genuine, not simplistic and patronising, and also full of good sense: “The Moral of the story is/that Might is often Wrong/and when you’re sad it sometimes pays/to sing a little song.”

Jah Pickney: Children Of Jamaica

Piero Ribelli (lan Randle Publishers, Jamaica, 1995)

Translated, Jah Pickney means God’s Children. It’s a nice idea: a handsome book of photographs that celebrates, not the familiar landscapes and seascapes of an island, but its people — in this case, its children. Italian photographer Piero Ribelli has done a lot of work promoting Jamaica, but this looks like a labour of love. Its pages are full of children, rich and poor, laughing and solemn, children at work, at play, at church, at home, children fooling, splashing in the river, having their hair done. The photographs are beautiful, and are given context by Ribelli’s brief caption comments. As Jamaica’s Louise Bennett notes in her foreword, each page “is alive with vivid memories of pickney laughter, pickney chatter, pickney vitality”, reminding her of childhood days when ‘pickney’ “was a term of endearment . . . as if the word meant love and I would feel happy, protected and precious.” Good to see a book like this coming from a Caribbean publisher.

Resisting The Anomie

Kwame Dawes (Goose Lane Editions, Canada, 1995)

Born in Ghana, raised in Jamaica, imbibing Europe through the books of his childhood, Kwame Dawes knows about the search for home. In an intriguing preface he recalls the whiteness of his early influences: Beatrix Potter, Enid Blyton, American classic comics. Later, reading more widely, he comes across Sprat Morrison, a character in the work of the Jamaican writer Jean D’Costa. At last, someone who lives in his world. “And this is the problem with fiction – it is never fiction; it is familiar, familiar when it is successful . . . [it] fostered in me a voracious appetite for more worlds in which I could conceive my existence – my face, my hair, my eyes, my dreams.” This a volume, Dawes’s second collection, uses an impressive range of styles. In the best pieces, like the poignant Watchmaker, he gets every detail right. There is lots here for anyone interested in the “West Indian” voice – the questing, experimental, sometimes freewheeling perspectives of our contemporary literature.