The Sugar of Spice

Roxan Kinas looks at the Barbadian soca band Spice & Company

Co-sponsoring a young amateur sport team with the popular night club, Ship Inn. Photograph by Roxan KinasDean and Roger in conversation in the Spice office. Photograph by Roxan KinasJohn Roett leaves the keyboards for an air guitar solo. Photograph by Roxan KinasLead singer Geoffrey Cordle on stage. Photograph by Roxan KinasLurking behind Spice’s trophies, Emil Straker, father of Dean, and founder and member of the Merrymen. Photograph by Roxan KinasRelaxing at Plantation Restaurant and Garden Theatre in Christ Church, where the band is based- it plays there at the Tropical Spectacular Dinner show. Photograph by Roxan KinasTrying to look relaxed on a cannon. Photograph by Roxan Kinas

The stadium was packed beyond capacity, the stands and the grounds a dense patchwork of revellers. It was the largest crowd ever gathered at Barbados’s National Stadium. More than 30,000 people braved the crush. This was Cohobblopot, the musical climax of Barbados’s annual Crop Over Festival.

A parade of acts had already come and gone, but now the MC stood alone, looking small as an ant on the enormous stage. Bursts of smoky fog rolled in, blotting out the MC as they drifted toward the crowd. A cascade of fire inched forward, and the old Mission Impossible theme blared from the banks of speakers flanking the stage.

Out of the fog and the fire, Spice & Company eased into view. And with their first note, the mood turned to jubilation; the music and the spirit of the band brought everyone to their feet in a waving frenzy matched only by the band’s own energy.

Oliver Poschmann, a leading European promoter, musical director and publisher, explained the phenomenon: “Seeing this band exploding on stage like fireworks is an unforgettable experience. They not only perform for an audience, they perform with the audience. Spice is a true milestone in Caribbean music history; an original Bajan masterpiece that makes you move!”

But Mission Impossible? In a way, it was a fitting entrance for a group that has long been a top show band, tantalising crowds from Canada to Costa Rica. Tongue-in-cheek perhaps, Spice was making a statement: if you think we’re on the way out, take a look at this.

Spice was not always a chart-topping act. Reaction to their public debut nearly 20 years ago was summed up by one local musician, who proclaimed them “just a bunch of backyard boys making noise”.

True enough in a way, for their 1994 hit Make Noise made itself heard in Barbados and across the region.

Still, guitarist and founder member Dean Straker concedes, “The person who made that comment all those years ago was not that far off.” In those early backyard rehearsal days, tranquillity was not a feature of the music. “One night my father came to collect us from a gig as we were still just 14-year-olds,” Dean recalls. “He heard what sounded to him like somebody getting killed and he thought a big fight had broken out and we were getting licks. But it was just us ending our show.”

In 1977, three youngsters from secondary school began playing the social “birthday party” circuit in Barbados. The gigs rolled in, says Dean, “mainly because we were so cheap.” The trio turned into a foursome with the addition of bassist Roger Foster, the other remaining founder member.

In 1979 Spice recorded their first album, Give Us The Feeling, as well as two singles that made the region’s Top 40. They got onto the hotel circuit, a career move that lasted one night. “We decided never to do that again — it just wasn’t for us,” Dean recalls.

They preferred to play originals over “visitor standards.” “The song writing aspect came from the first day Alan (Sheppard) and I met,” Dean says. “It seemed a lot easier to make up our own stuff than try to figure out exactly who played what in a song you were trying to imitate — that seemed like too much work.”

Spice went on their first tour to Bermuda in 1983. Dean admits they were hardly ready, but the exposure to overseas groups “made a very big impression on us; mostly in their state-of-the-art equipment and top-40s repertoire. We wanted to get some of that limelight and be noticed in a big way too, so we started buying equipment we figured would give us that super sonic sound.”

After their next overseas job — a four-week stint on the Cunard Countess — Spice was into its “weird” phase. Says Dean, “The crew basically took charge of us and said, ‘This is what you need’. They did a complete changeover.” Roger adds, “When we came back we had changed our whole image to this loud, bold look and sound. Everything just went weird on us. Greg Skeete, our first drummer, his hair turned green and other strange things happened. Still, it all kind of worked, because we started to get a lot of attention.”

In 1984 Spice won the first of their five Band of the Year titles, had some serious hits that spanned the region (including You’re Always on My Mind), and started drawing huge crowds.

But their next tour, to the USA and Canada, gave them a hard lesson in audience appeal. It “showed us what people wanted, and they didn’t want what we thought they wanted,” Dean says. The band got an icy reception until they played what they knew best — calypso and reggae. “From then,” Dean says, we decided we would only do music that was original or Caribbean.” That decision still drives the band’s repertoire.

By 1986 Spice had a strong regional following; they even won the Canadian Organisation of Campus Activities “Best Group on the Campus Circuit” award. As Dean points out, “While none of us ever studied at university, we’ve sure been to a lot of them.”

Then came international recognition. In 1988 Spice released an album called In De Congaline; on it was Give them Freedom, Aware Africa and Dreadlock. The title song has since been recorded by eight other artists and released in several Spanish countries; Disney Records used it for that popular character from The Little Mermaid, Sebastian the Crab; they also used it for a year in Disney World’s famous light parade.

The group changed its name to Spice & Company in 1989 to reflect the addition of more members, and for a while a regular parade of notable local musicians passed through the group until they finally settled on the eight members of today. With Dean Straker and Roger Foster are 26-year veteran keyboard man and vocalist John Roett; percussionist and stiltman Jeffrey “Ife” Wilkinson; drummer Glyne Martin; back-up singers Jan Gibson and Toni Norville; and lead singer Geoffrey Cordle.

Before the popular reggae singer joined the group, however, the band took a bold step that cemented their versatility. Spice has faced many turning points in its 19-year life, yet the most challenging test came in late 1994 when founder member and lead singer Alan Sheppard abruptly left. Roger, the band’s pragmatist and counter-balance to the more emotional Dean, knew that Alan’s departure “ended an 18-year relationship for Dean and myself, and we were left in shell shock both individually and as a band.”

Yet they got up and dusted themselves off. “We decided to approach another key person,” Dean says matter-of-factly; they chose John King, one of the island’s most popular calypsonians. John’s immediate reaction to the offer was “no way”. Still, he joined Spice in October 1994 for a few months’ stint, and stayed more than a year.

With such a radical change, the band had to prove themselves to doubting audiences and nervous overseas promoters again. But John was unflappable. “I am one who loves a challenge and this was a challenge. The band had a big reputation, and people were wondering, Can you fill Alan Sheppard’s shoes?

The band proved (not least to itself) that it was bigger than one man, and the high drama proved less than a hiccup. “At our first public show in Barbados,” John Roett recalls, “we did Bob’s Song, and when John sang those first four words, I knew a man . . . , that ended all doubts.”

The infusion of new blood freshened the band’s stage spirit and sense of humour — qualities that had been buried under tension, stress and self-doubt. While they still strive to give the “perfect show”, they do it now with more spontaneity and deeper feeling. According to Roger, “In 1992 when we threw out the machines that were our music aids, it gave us the freedom we needed to ad lib with the crowd.”

That thread of adaptability, which held the group together for so long and has carried them through ten albums and more than 60 singles, is visible on stage. Their powerful presence is directly tuned to the audience, an important band trademark, Dean says, “because our job is to connect with the people and give them a good time.”

Renowned Jamaican band leader Byron Lee says that’s exactly what they do. “What Spice & Company has brought to Caribbean music is the double effect of a show and a dance display. The audience can enjoy not only the visual aspect, but also party in the frenzied mood that this dynamic group creates.”

Trinidadian club and radio station owner Johnny Soong says that while “Spice has stood the test of time,” more importantly “they are one of the creative bands that have taken soca music out into the world. They have penetrated the foreign market and helped popularise this music form. Like Byron Lee, they have a worldwide following.” Their musical versatility gives them cross-cultural appeal — local and regional influences as well as French, African, North American and Spanish. John Roett calls Spice “alternative Caribbean”.

Trinidadian Cliff Harris, a leading promoter, manager of the band Atlantik and organiser of Trinidad Carnival’s Brass Festival, says Spice always receives stellar reviews at that event. “They’re a household name in Trinidad now, and it’s because of their stage presence, having a hit song every year, and their strong impact at the Brass Festival.”

Spice has set its share of trends over the years, and Barbados has come into its own as a trend-setter. John Roett remarks, “Barbados used to produce a major hit in the region occasionally, but in the past two years the island has been a major influence on Caribbean music.” Drummer Glyne agrees: “The ring bang and ragga soca explosion is partly responsible because it is fresh.”

Thanks to Barbados’s year-round nightclub scene, they say, people are not afraid to experiment musically, and that is now paying off. “In Trinidad for instance, the leading calypsonians have a formula they have stuck with for years. But in Barbados a new person or style breaks every year, and that keeps the creative juices flowing.”

Plus, John says, “Everything is fused these days. Songs contain many influences now, and Barbados is making its mark by being a part of the fusion of so many idiosyncratic sounds from the islands.”

Fusion is nothing new to Barbados. The island’s music is rooted in its indigenous tuk band rhythm, based on three drums and a penny whistle, a rhythm dating back to the days of English control. “The people fused British military and African rhythms to achieve what we now call tuk band,” Ife says; “Barbadians are the only people in the world who play these instruments in that unique style.”

This year Spice & Company made yet another transition and decided to focus more on recording and touring. They signed a new contract with Sony that extends their touring agreement beyond Central America to Latin America and Puerto Rico, a big market for them. Says Dean, “We plan to see the world and get paid for it. Our goal is to be known worldwide.”