New music from the Caribbean (May/June 2002)

Carnival roundup. The latest Caribbean CDs including the best of this year's music from Trinidad Carnival

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PICK OF THE MONTH

The Soca Switch 8: The Stars of Soca

Various Artists (JW Productions, jwcl238 )

Soca Colours 4

Various Artists (JW Productions, jwcl017)

Calypso purists haven’t enjoyed a happy Carnival for years, but the 2002 season in many ways really hammered home the message that the music has changed forever. The long-reigning jump-and-wine contingent this year joined forces with the ragga brigade to dominate the airwaves, the fête circuit and the streets with a beats-per-minute brew that appeared either monotonous and unnerving, or enlivening and revolutionary, depending on which side of the generational divide you stood.

Soca Switch and Soca Colours, compilations put out yearly by the Chinese Laundry/96.1 WEFM crew, have had their fair share of misfires over the years, but the climate of the times and what seems to be some keen licensing insight have conspired to make 2002 their year. These two CDs between them have managed to score the lion’s share of the season’s better offerings, plus a few numbers which —  like André Tanker’s Ben Lion, arguably the best song of the season and one of the few to have achieved cross-generational appeal — might just force the grizzled vintage-kaiso fan to dip grudgingly into his wallet.

The Soca Switch is the better of the two albums, featuring not only Ben Lion but also Sanell Dempster’s Chances, Rocky and Ghetto Flex’s refreshingly mid-tempo Carnival Is Bacchanal, Surinamese band South South West’s infectious Thelma, Bunji Garlin and Singing Sandra’s Coofy Lie Lie, Burning Flames’s Mash It Up, and Iwer George’s Soca Monarch co-winner Gimme A Bligh. Stand-outs on Colours are Naya George’s Road March winner Trinidad, Dawg-E-Slaughter’s irrepressible Tic Toc and what could, thematically at least, be considered the season’s anthem: My Time Now, with Super Blue’s young daughter Fay-Ann Lyons fronting the band Invasion. (GP)

 

SOCA

Farewell to the Flesh

David Rudder (Lypsoland CRO35)

In one way or another almost every song on David Rudder’s latest CD Farewell to the Flesh is devoted to speaking about the unspeakable moment on 9/11 when those planes slammed through the Twin Towers. At the same time, Rudder takes us on a journey of redemption and recovery that leads through the streets of Trinidad and Tobago’s Carnival. This is not a simple CD. Its joy is tempered with horror, as in Visions of Paradise, a trip into the mind of a suicide bomber. Thankfully, its darkest moments are shot through with a celebration of the power of calypso to ease the pain. Many of the new songs (like Poppin’ Off and Maracas Bay) and most of the older ones Rudder includes here (like Outta Hand and Las’ Lap Time) lead into the light. This impressive CD is about learning how to bear the unbearable and dance your way back to life — with sanity and soul intact. (MG)

 

Goumangala

Shadow (Crossroads CR-009)

Shadow, one of the towering geniuses of calypso since 1974, was Road March champ and Soca Monarch in 2001, but he declined to defend his title during 2002 Carnival, claiming that deejays weren’t playing his tunes on the radio. Listening to this first-rate collection of new compositions and soulful remakes, it’s hard to imagine why they wouldn’t. According to various interviews with Shadow, the marvellous title tune, a sly companion piece to Sparrow’s Obeah Wedding, refers to a) a lizard, b) obeah, or c) a word Shadow made up walking down the street. The CD also includes 12 other classic Shadow tunes, all up to his usual high standards. I’m particularly fond of a high-energy remake of Bad Boy Peter, one of Shadow’s greatest J’ouvert songs. Unlike many soca records (which are constructed track by track on a sequencer), the word on the street is that this CD was recorded live in the studio, with all the musicians grooving together. It certainly sounds like it. (MG)

 

On the Cusp

Xtatik (JW235-CD X24-11-74-27)

Every once in a while a fête band brings out a carnival collection that’s more than two good jump-ups and a lot of filler tracks. Like Atlantik’s memorable 1997 release Hot & Spicy, On the Cusp is more than good enough to outlast the season. One-time front man Machel Montano only sings lead on one tune, but with Roger George and Peter Lewis on board you might never notice. Lewis’s Punta got lots of radio action, but the CD also features him on the hard-rocking Break and a pretty, romantic number titled Cry. Mo Love, a catchy, inspirational tune beautifully sung by Roger George, grows on you fast. And the high-powered Jackpot (performed by Farmer Nappy with Roger George) manages to superimpose Brass Festival on top of a Las Vegas casino. (This tune is also a fantastic jump-up if you’ve got your doctor’s clearance for extreme aerobics.) This year Xtatik has come up with a winner. (MG)

 

Full Speed Ahead

Atlantik (JW 234-CD)

Sometimes carnival can drive you mad. In 2002, two of the most mindless, repetitive and instantly forgettable songs (Run For the Road and Bitin’ Insects) were also among the most popular. Go figure! If they were among your carnival favorites you’ll find both of them here, sung by Ronnie McIntosh, whose past hits include clever compositions like How It Go Look and Ent. In fact Ronnie sings seven of the CD’s 11 tracks, but for my money his unique brand of charm fails to carry him very far on this occasion, especially given the uninteresting tunes he has to sing. All in all, in spite of selections featuring Marvin Lewis, K. Stewart, and even comedienne Rachel Price, this CD is a keen disappointment from a band we usually count on for the best collection of the season.  (MG)

 

STEELPAN

From Tabanca to Rain

Neal & Massy Trinidad All Stars (Sanch, CD 0103)

All Stars took the Panorama crown this past carnival with their dazzling interpretation of Defosto’s Firestorm, a piece many probably wish could have been included among this fine sampling of performances by one of Trinidad and Tobago’s top steel orchestras. From Tabanca to Rain traces All Stars’s evolution from 1987, the year they worked some serious magic on the unlikely Curry Tabanca (the “Tabanca” of the album’s title) to 2001, when they performed Rain Melody. Steelpan newbies will delight in the examples of the instrument’s mimetic qualities provided by Rain Melody and Pan Earthquake, and I can just visualize the dyed-in-the-wool pan fans sitting in their living rooms listening to Rain Melody and following along with the movement-by-movement notations provided in the excellent liner notes, tickled to the gills. Among the other gems on this CD are Kitchener’s The Power of Music, and Sparrow’s Doh Back Back. (GP)

 

VOCAL

Mavis Sings

Mavis John

Anyone who’s watched and appreciated Mavis John’s return to the performance arena over the past few years must have had high hopes for this CD, which, unfortunately, fails to live up to the singer’s immense potential. Generally speaking, the album’s production values are not always where they should be, and both the musical and vocal arrangements sound a bit dated at times, especially when Pelham Goddard is at the controls. Goddard’s arrangement of Release the Dove, a ballad written by Christophe Grant and released as a single in tribute to the victims of September 11, ends up sounding heavy and cloying, weighted down by its “serious” lyrics. Gregory Ballantyne’s Calypso Rising, which David Rudder made his own some years ago, is also given a disappointingly uninspired treatment. I’d also have loved to have seen You Are What Love Is, which Mavis recorded as a duet with Dave Elcock in the 1970s, given a 21st-century overhaul. Roger Israel’s arrangement of Woman, Mother of the Earth is a bit more upbeat, though it still sounds like a relic from the 70s. Israel’s touch is more assured on the album’s best cut, André Tanker’s lovely Morena Osha, which features some interesting instrumentation by Tanker regular Dawud Orr. (GP)

 

REGGAE

Massive B: Dub Organizer Meets The Rock

Various Artists (Massive B, MS-86-2)

On paper it looks like a workable strategy: a single CD showcasing the two prevailing styles of reggae over two different rhythm tracks — “conscious” roots over an update of the classic Studio One beat “Dub Organiser”, and “almshouse”-style dance hall over “The Rock”, created by Ward 21 and Superwitch. But does it work? Or is producer Bobby Konders attempting to mix oil with water? That probably depends on how meaningful the division is to you. Hard core roots fans will probably hit the Stop button after Track 8, and those more interested in lyrics demeaning “chi chi men” and dissing their fellow artists than chants and praises in honour of the Most High may not listen to anything before Track 9. To its credit, the album does feature top acts on either side, including Morgan Heritage, Anthony B, Burro Banton, Bounty Killa, Elephant Man, and Spragga Benz, some of them doing double duty in both camps. (GP)

Reviews by Michael Goodwin and Georgia Popplewell. Music editor: Georgia Popplewell

 

So where do we get them?

We sympathise greatly with readers who call or write to ask exactly where they can buy the books and CDs reviewed in Caribbean Beat. It’s true that some of the titles — both books and music — are hard to find, and are sometimes produced locally and distributed only in local Caribbean stores. And it can be very frustrating if you like the sound of something but can’t lay hands on a copy.

We’ve been working on this problem for some time, and we hope soon to announce a partnership with recommended suppliers who will be able to provide any of the books or CDs reviewed in Caribbean Beat by direct mail to readers at home.

Meanwhile, however, if you want to buy any of the books in the Caribbean Beat “Bookshelf” pages, and your local bookstore doesn’t stock them, you will find most of them available from the big online stores like Amazon, Barnes & Noble, BOL, Waterstones, etc. And any serious bookstore will be able to order them for you, especially if you quote the details cited at the head of the reviews — title, author, publisher, date and ISBN number (the international reference number that identifies a specific book).

As far as CDs are concerned, the bigger labels tend to have their own websites and online ordering systems, and many of the larger North American and British cities have specialist Caribbean stores where you can find good regional music, including many of the titles we review in Caribbean Beat. It’s the purely local album that is still the biggest problem, and we plan to link up soon with a specialist supplier who will be able to mail any of these titles direct to our readers.

Jeremy Taylor, Editor