Upbeat (January/February 2003)

New music from the Caribbean

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PICK OF THE MONTH

London is the Place for Me (Trinidadian Calypso in London, 1950–56)

Various Artists (Honest Jon’s — London 001)

When the SS Empire Windrush docked at Tilbury in June 1948, carrying the first wave of West Indian immigrants to the mother country, among the passengers were two of Trinidad’s finest calypsonians: the Lords Beginner and Kitchener. Long before reggae or even ska began to bubble in West Kingston, calypso was the music of the British Caribbean community. This CD, with tracks recorded in London during the early 1950s, is both a priceless slice of kaiso history and an aural counterpart to such literary works as Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners and Lamming’s The Emigrants, which charted the early immigrant experience. Kitchener dominates, in moods ranging from the positive optimism of the title track to the pragmatic If You’re Not White You’re Black, the Pan-African Birth of Ghana and the salacious Saxophone No. 2. He’s ably accompanied by Beginner (with the classic Victory Test Match, among others), the late, great Roaring Lion, Invader, Terror, Young Tiger and the enigmatic Timothy, with Bulldog Don’t Bite Me. Honest Jon’s is to be congratulated on preserving this significant part of the Caribbean patrimony. (SL)

CALYPSO/SOCA

I Want You

Singing Francine (Straker GS2441)

From the first moments of Come One, Come All (a joyous celebration of Carnival pleasures that would have been a serious road march contender before Machel, Iwer and Blue changed the rules) you know you’re in the presence of a calypso master. Singing Francine’s reputation as a composer and performer has always been high, and now, at last, there’s a CD to prove it. There’s not a bad song on this collection — and Francine wrote every tune (with one exception, a strong social protest by Winsford Devine called Save Our Domestics). There’s a gorgeous love song called I Want You, a clever smut entitled Female Jockeys, a powerful declaration of commitment and pride called Brooklyn Babies, and the most moving farewell to Kitchener I’ve heard yet, in which Dorothy, Nora, Miss Tourist and Miss Harriman, among others, pay their last respects. Francine brings an unmistakable authority to her writing and singing, making this CD a must. (MG)

Super Psychedelic Retro Soca

John King (Soursop Music & KMP Publishing Co)

On his ninth CD, John King introduces other genres into his soca blend, with refreshing results. Of the 16 cuts, King co-composed 14 (he’s fast becoming one of the most prolific songwriters in the region), and his voice is as powerful and straight as ever, giving tremendous body and character to every song. While social commentary is always paramount in King’s work, this CD addresses both Barbadian and global issues, making the work virtually universal in its message. Want Licks uses African drumming mixed with some DJ high jinks to present an upbeat yet lyrically serious song. Young Gyal is an effective blend of soca and R&B. On Bambam Session King again takes an African approach to a road-march-style song, adding a few Asian hints. But it is on Gershwin’s famous Summertime that John really demonstrates fusion at its best. He meshes jazz, scat, soca, pan and soul on a marvellous rendition that’s a tremendous showcase for his consistently strong singing talent. It’s one of the real highlights of an already fine album. (RK)

Lock Down

krosfyah (Crossfire Ventures Ltd./KR-CD000004)

This Barbadian supergroup just doesn’t let up. In this ninth outing, released for the 2002 Crop Over season, the band introduces fresh writing talent in the form of its youngest singing member, the promising Khiomal, though Edwin Yearwood and Tony Bailey remain dominant forces. There are a few very notable deviations from the upbeat soca style among the 15 tracks. Two Edwin-penned songs stand out: Promise Me, a swaying French island-style melody, and Best In Me, a thought-provoking love song with an R&B feel, both of which emphasise how great it would be if Edwin were to separate his more serious, intellectual work from his party tunes. Tony Bailey, not to be outdone, contributes an amusing soca number called Tina, with Khiomal showing his best work on Dog Eat Dog. (RK)

Phenomenal Super Soca

Burning Flames

As is more and more often the case when it comes to Caribbean music, this new CD from the Antiguan band that tore up the islands with Workey Workey 13 years ago bears neither a label name, a serial number, nor any information about how to buy another copy. There are contact numbers in Antigua and Brooklyn, and an e-mail address for lead vocalist, song writer, and keyboard guy Clarence “Oungku” “Headmaster” Edwards — and that’s it. (Maybe you’re supposed to buy it at the gig.) In any case, the new CD is heavy on synthesised percussion and repetitive up-tempo grooves that could be fun on the dance floor, but make for fairly tedious listening. Some of the tunes are catchier than others: Bang Badang has a moderately compelling hook, and Power Drill is a cute smut in a similar vein to Square One’s Turn It Around. But there’s nothing to match that slow, sexy groove that made Workey Workey so irresistible. (MG)

REGGAE

Revolution

Monty G (Lion of Zion Entertainment, LZD-6519)

Making music is always a political act in the broadest sense of the word, which makes any effort to graft something like a mainstream Christian message on to a form like dancehall reggae a compelling proposition indeed. “Conscious” dancehall artists like Sizzla and Capleton fall well within the Rastafarian Bobo Shanti tradition, but the Christianity being promoted here by the charismatic Monty G is of a much more conventional sort. It would be interesting to see what kind of influence the 18 catchy numbers on this extremely well-produced album (it was mastered by veteran dub mixmaster Jim Fox) could have on the music’s primary audience — urban Caribbean youth. (GP)

PAN/PAN JAZZ

Caribbean Ecstasy — Pan Favourite Melodies

Caribbean Magic Trinidad & Tobago Steel Orchestra (HOA7296)

The smooth, languid style and Caribbean/Latin/easy listening repertoire of this nearly all-steelband ensemble (drums and congas are the only non-steel instruments) will be familiar to anyone who’s heard a live steel orchestra provide background music in a social setting — perhaps even too familiar. But the Caribbean Magic Trinidad and Tobago Steel Orchestra do what they do extremely well and, to their credit, they did subtitle this release “Pan Favourite Melodies”, which should lead us to expect old chestnuts like Yellow Bird, Quando Quando and Jamaica Farewell, as well the obligatory sprinkling of Jobim standards and pop songs. To sample the offerings of this well-organised outfit, pay a visit to their excellent web site (www.caribbeanmagic.com). (GP)

LATIN

Maferefun

Tony Martinez & The Cuban Power (Blue Jackal Entertainment, BJAC#5033-2)

You couldn’t go wrong with a line-up that includes the gifted Gonzalo Rubalcaba on piano, and Tony Martinez and the Cuban Power make few false moves on this potent selection of Latin jazz numbers. Maferefun’s eight tracks are an impressive blend of Afro-Cuban, son, big band, funk and jazz elements, along with primordial rhythmic and vocal elements reminiscent of the Cuban group Sintésis (notably on A Babalu Aye). The liner notes include descriptions by the Switzerland-based Martinez of the musical qualities and intentions behind each track, which will be interesting to serious music fans and aficionados of Latin jazz. (GP)

The Rough Guide to the Cuban Music Story

Various Artists (World Music Network, RGNET1068 CD)

The opening track sums up the musical feast on offer: Bonito y Sabroso, beautiful and tasty. With Cuba’s all-time favourite singer Beny Moré singing this hors d’oeuvre you can’t go wrong. Ever since Cuban music erupted on the world stage with the Buena Vista Social Club in 1997, the market has been flooded with compilations. Rough Guides, with the expertise which has become their hallmark, have done more than anybody to make one of the world’s richest musical heritages comprehensible to new audiences, both with CDs (Cuban Son, Cuban Music) and the Cuban Music book (which this current CD is intended to accompany), the first English-language attempt at tackling this colossal subject. Every track is a gem, with classic cuts from Mario Bauza (who introduced America to Afro-Cuban sounds and kick-started Latin jazz), Bebo Valdés (father of the colossal Chucho), and Peruchin (the little-known maestro who shaped Buena Vista’s pianist Rubén González) alongside more recent artistes, including the electric-latino all-girl group Azúcar Letal. In short, this CD is nothing less than fabuloso. (SL)

Grupo Afro Boricua from Puerto Rico

Grupo Afro Boricua (Blue Jackal Entertainment, BJC #5027-2)

When it comes to the music of the Hispanic Caribbean, many of us are familiar with Cuban son and Dominican merengue, yet to date the traditional forms of bomba and plena are little known outside their native Puerto Rico (salsa, bred in the barrios of New York, is the sound outsiders associate with the island). With this excellent CD, Grupo Afro Boricua introduce the world to the complexity of rhythms, the chants and the call-and-response choral singing of bomba and plena, both of which influenced the development of salsa. Bomba, with its West African rhythmic base, hails from the northern coastal town of Loiza, which has a heavy concentration of slave descendants; plena, with its improvised lyrics, is a Creole form which emerged on the southern coast towards the end of the 19th century. It’s no coincidence that this CD contains many echoes of Cuban santería chants or the antiphonal singing of Haitian vaudou songs. The source is the same, and this valuable recording secures a place for yet another vibrant tributary of the traditional Caribbean music which has shaped the region’s contemporary sound. (SL)

 

Reviews by Michael Goodwin, Roxan Kinas, Simon Lee and Georgia Popplewell. Music editor: Georgia Popplewell