Music Buzz (January/ February 2004)

Culture stays close to their roots; Barbados hosts world-class jazz; Andre Tanker lives on in his music; 3Canal goes after joy for Carnival 2004; plus Dean Fraser's playlist and our rhythm roundup

Album Cover for Carnival MessiahAlbum Cover for Mustique Blues Festival 2003Andre Tanker’s Great Hits Vol 1 Album CoverCaribbean Grooves Volume 1 Album CoverCulture’s World Peace Album CoverDean Fraser. Photograph courtesy VP RecordsEverton Blender’s King Man Album CoverLatin Caribbean Party Album CoverMoon over Barbados. Illustration by Marlon GriffithRhythm RoundupThe Putumayo World Music Anniversary Collection Album CoverWendell Manwarren, Stanley Kewley, and Roger Roberts at Little House. Photo by Georgia Popplewell

Real roots reggae

World Peace Culture (Heartbeat, 11161-7764-2)

Joseph Hill — lead singer, chief songwriter, tireless front man, and all-round inspirational force behind the revered Jamaican group Culture — is well into his fourth decade of making reggae music his way. And with the recent release of Culture’s 30th album, I couldn’t help thinking about the most eloquent tribute I’ve heard to the man many regard as reggae music’s greatest living singer. It came from the proprietor of a Jamaican music store in Miami. It was early 2000, and I was about to buy Culture’s then-latest release, Humble African. What’s it like? I asked. “Let me tell you, mon, Joseph Hill has never recorded a bad song, much less a bad album,” was the instant response.

Almost four years later, that statement is as valid as ever. And the particularly good news for those of us who still seek out roots reggae, made by real live musicians without the soulless intrusion of computerised backing rhythms, is that World Peace, Culture’s latest, is a classic even by their lofty standards. The 13 tracks embrace just about all of the themes that have permeated Joseph Hill’s music since Culture’s first album, 1977’s Two Sevens Clash, which Rolling Stone rated No. 25 in its list of the 50 coolest albums in the history of popular music. In other words, don’t buy World Peace if you’re looking for love songs, slackness, or crossover dancehall sounds. This is music that directly addresses many of the problems of a troubled planet. If that sounds like too much doom and gloom, don’t worry: the themes may be serious, but the music itself is danceable, uplifting, and full of tasty hooks that you find yourself humming after only a couple of listens. Standouts on a CD that’s full of them include Sweet Freedom and Time Is Getting Harder, both mid-tempo and instantly addictive, and Walk in Jah Light and Selection Train, which continue Hill’s career-long advocacy of human salvation through righteous living. And Culture’s 30th album won’t be the group’s last. After contemplating retirement, Joseph Hill got what amounts to a musical second wind, and has let it be known that he has every intention of continuing to tour and record for the foreseeable future.

Garry Steckles

My playlist

Veteran saxophonist Dean Fraser’s latest release, Sax of Life (VP Records, VP2221), features instrumental performances of reggae favourites. “It’s a happy album,” says Fraser. “It’s meant for people to put in their car stereos and tune out their stress.” Kellie Magnus asked the Jamaican jazzman what he plays when he needs to unwind.

Arturo Tappin, Java

“Arturo’s one of my favourite horn players. Java — his second album — is excellent. He’s on par with any of the American greats.”

Sean Paul, Dutty Rock

“Sean is the biggest thing right now. He’s coming straight out of Jamaica, giving the international audience real Jamaican music, just like in the Marley era. I’m Still in Love is my favourite track.”

Culture, World Peace

“Culture is trying to keep roots music alive, bringing back the old roots rock horn sound. I love that.”

 

Moon over Barbados

Has anyone else noticed how brilliantly India.Arie performs on a Caribbean stage? Maybe the stunning soul diva has some island roots somewhere; maybe the vibe just agrees with her. Her performance at the 2002 St Lucia Jazz Festival illuminated the gorgeous scenery and wowed the sophisticated audience. Now lucky fans can catch her again at the 11th Barbados Jazz Festival this January — along with Herbie Hancock, Fourplay, and many other classy acts, filling the seven nights of the festival with musical magic.

Amazing beaches, flawless weather, and everything else you’d expect from one of the Caribbean’s most beautiful holiday destinations, plus world-class music after dark at dramatic venues across the island — it sounds like something out of a romantic movie.

The Barbados Jazz festival runs from 12 to 18 January. For more information visit www.barbadosjazzfestival.com

Dylan Kerrigan

Chosen one

Greatest Hits Vol. 1 André Tanker (André Tanker Music Ltd)

“To hear his voice speaking, the first sound on this CD, is startling,” says B.C. Pires in an essay included in the liner notes to this posthumous release. Indeed. But the mix of spoken-word vignettes and music is in fact the perfect tribute to an artist who was not necessarily talkative, but who always thought deeply about what his music meant, where it came from, where it was going, and who was willing to articulate these things. André Tanker’s musical journey ended suddenly on Carnival Friday, 2002, when he died of a heart attack. Greatest Hits Vol. 1, subtitled “Sayamanda” after one of his most beloved compositions, brings together a fraction of Tanker’s substantial body of material, which, for those unfamiliar with his work, straddled several genres, including folk, calypso, jazz, and soul. Among the album’s numbers are virtual standards such as Back Home, Hosanna, Basement Party, Sayamanda, and Morena Osha, interspersed with pronouncements from the artist in his characteristically warm, relaxed tone of voice. The vignette which I’ve found myself listening to, and which to me sums up so many things about the man, is called Interlude—It Chooses You, where he says: “Well, those things don’t really take you, you know. You don’t decide these things. It chooses you, and it conspires to shape you in a certain direction, and one day you wake up and realise that this is what you’re meant to do, and this is what you’re happy doing, and this is what you seem to do good enough to make other people happy.” A Volume 2 is reportedly in the works.

Georgia Popplewell

Rhythm roundup

Long famed as a playground for the rich and famous, Mustique is also home to the Mustique Blues Festival, which each year also issues beautifully packaged CD recordings of festival performances (some big blues names among them). Mustique Blues Festival 2003 (Basil Charles Educational Foundation, BCEF 2003) is joined this year by a best-of-the-fest compilation called Basil’s Bar Blues (éditions Milan Music, 301 682-2), which features choice performances from 1996 to 2001. Proceeds from both festival and CD go to fund education in St Vincent and the Grenadines. This year’s event takes place from January 28 to February 11.

• Geraldine Connor’s spectacular stage presentation Carnival Messiah played to mixed reviews in Trinidad last year, but one thing few could fault was the quality of the music, which can be heard again on Carnival Messiah (Fabulous Records). The quality of the recording (made at a performance in Leeds) leaves much to be desired, but not even that can detract from Ronald Samm’s splendid rendition of Redeemer, with its spine-tingling kora accompaniment by Seiko Susso.

• Roots reggae veteran Everton Blender continues his journey along the straight and narrow with King Man (Heartbeat, 11661-7758-2), featuring 17 tracks, including a cover of Little Green Apples.

Chicago compilation producers Victory Records have three new releases: Caribbean Grooves Volume 1 (Victory World, VR 206) and Hot Caribbean Hits Volume 2 (Victory World, VR 203) feature the likes of Brother Resistance, Mungal Patasar, Ajala, and 3Canal; the supremely misnamed Latin Caribbean Party Volume 1 (Victory World, VR 205) is actually a very decent parang compilation.

• The more meticulous Putumayo label celebrates its tenth year in the business with The Putumayo Music Anniversary Collection (Putumayo P217-A), on which the Caribbean is represented by Kali and Ralph Thamar from Martinique, plus several Latin performers.

Georgia Popplewell

Joy etc

“One can be overwhelmed by the dread, and just knee-jerk respond to the dread in a dread manner,” says Wendell Manwarren. The dread, of course, means certain of the downbeat aspects of life in Trinidad and Tobago — indeed, in the world — right now. But 3Canal’s already been down that road, several times over, with songs like Talk Yuh Talk and Salt. “People say to us every year: ‘I hope you have one for dem!’ But how much years you going to have ‘one for dem’, when they ain’t taking you on?”

3Canal has seen quite a bit of dread, live and direct, in recent times. Ups and downs are part of the music business everywhere, but more so in Trinidad, and for a group that’s only seven years in the game they’ve had more than their fair share. In 2000 it was the death of band member John Isaacs; last year they lost friend and fellow traveller André Tanker, with whom they had performed the hit Ben Lion in 2001. In 2002, Rituals, their record label, announced right in the middle of the Carnival season that it was going out of business. Not to mention the fact that throughout their career they had always looked like the golden boys, the ones most likely to succeed, without ever actually managing to penetrate that barrier which divides Trinidad and Tobago’s music from the big time. And who knows what else.

Hence “Iere/Irie/I”, the concept the group’s been playing with for Carnival 2004. “Iere, as in [the Amerindian name for] Trinidad, land of the hummingbird; irie as in good vibes; and I, as in self, the I and the I.” According to Manwarren, “It’s a kinda bounce. Happiness. A joy. Joy is very much part of the thing. And it’s a conscious decision to go at that, because there’s so much that is dread around.”

It is October when I visit 3Canal at Little House, the tiny gingerbread cottage in Woodbrook, west Port of Spain, that’s been headquarters for the group and its friends and followers for as long as anybody can remember. Roger Roberts is watering plants. Stanton Kewley — “Professor Stanton” — has just arrived from the university, where’s he’s now teaching a design module at the Creative Arts Centre. Wendell emerges from somewhere in his signature outfit of jeans and t-shirt and construction boots. We sit in the living-room, strewn with the detritus of their lives: bits of costumes from their J’Ouvert bands, an eclectic selection of reading matter (lad mag Stuff, The Hemp Handbook, Adbusters magazine, a Bob Marley bio, an oversized paperback called You Are Being Lied To).

The fellas seem calmer and wiser, like people who’ve done the time and learned the lessons. One gathers, from their demeanour as much as what they say, that they’ve continued the paring-down process that was started on their behalf with the dissolution of Rituals, going back to the essentials, listening to vintage calypso, Johnny Cash, and OutKast for inspiration, Chopin and Mozart “to relax and meditate”. Manwarren says he’s reading John Cowley’s Carnival, Canboulay and Calypso, to find out more about the evolution of the art form, and Earl Lovelace’s Growing in the Dark. Roberts is reading The Autobiography of Mahatma Gandhi and Michael Moore’s Stupid White Men. Kewley’s reading art and design books.

“This year, for the first time too, we didn’t travel that much throughout the year,” Kewley says, “and it afforded us the time do our own thing. So we had more control of what we were investing our energy into.” Manwarren adds: “Because when you’re on the road you’re just dealing with running in, running out, and running around. Time to build. Build and grow.” Interesting, since at one time their motto was “Cut and Clear”.

When you look back on it, 3Canal’s career has been a whirlwind. 3Canal the artistic collective, producer of a series of raucous J’Ouvert bands called “Jocks to Pose” — which were wild and crazy and “dutty” even by the wild and crazy and dutty standards of J’Ouvert — suddenly, “by accident”, in 1996 found itself, with some minor changes in personnel, 3Canal the music group. One gets the impression they’re still slightly bemused by the fact that it happened at all, though nobody who had ever seen them perform, as members of the Baggasse Theatre Company, at any of Moon Over Bourbon Street’s Boxing Night concerts, would have ever doubted their potential.

Blue, the quartet’s debut release on the Rituals label, was one of the undisputed hits of the 1997 Carnival season, and they had style too — and not simply the rootical style of rapso: these good-looking bohemians were designer rapso, crossover rapso, dressed in hipster-smart Meiling outfits.

There followed appearances at music festivals in Europe, stints in London and the US, the usual Carnival-circuit tours. 3Canal’s early days also happened to coincide with a rare period of hopefulness in the Trinidad and Tobago music scene, largely fuelled by Rituals, who in 2000 invested a reported TT$250,000 in The Fire Next Time, an uneven album with strong cuts like the overlooked Power Music — in my opinion one of the group’s most fully realised compositions — and the first version of their classic Over the Mountain. Then Isaacs passed away, turning the group into a trio. 2001 brought Trinity, with input by Anglo-Indian jazz artist Nitin Sawhney and Venezuelan hip-hoppers El Corte. Things were still looking pretty good.

There are too many precedents for this kind of thing in Trinidad and Tobago music: artists apparently on the verge of success, soon discovering that what they were really on the verge of was deep disappointment. But 3Canal seems more prepared than most to get past it all. They’re critical, of course, of the music business and the way it’s conducted in Trinidad: the absence of quotas for local music, of a structured, professional approach, of a sense of history among the up-and-comers. But the Chopin and the Mozart are clearly working, because they seem at peace with themselves. In fact, Manwarren and Roberts and Kewley seem positively irie.

They’ve taken things not only in stride but into their own hands, patiently — one of the lessons they learned from Rituals, they say, is to do things slowly, to follow the necessary steps. They’ve set up a holding company, Revolution Records, to take care of their back catalogue, and are in the process of establishing a label and publishing company. Also in the works is a Best of 3Canal album.

But now, in October, Wendell, Roger, and Stanton are focused on what’s immediately in front of them, which is Carnival 2004 and “Iere/Irie/I”, which this year is not only about the album and the J’Ouvert band, but also a live show which may run as long as nine nights, “depending”. They say they’re preparing special multimedia material, but for fear of jinxing the thing they hesitate to say much more, except that the event is to take place at the Little Carib Theatre from February 3. The e-mail I receive from Roger a few days after the interview shrewdly refers to it as “a performance event — where anything can happen”. I did say the fellas had learned their lessons well.

Georgia Popplewell