High Like The (Orange) Sky

With their unique soul-strumming rock-reggae sound and easy-going calypso vibe, the Orange Sky are the stars of Trinidad’s local rock music scene. Now they're making their most ambitious move yet: trying for an international breakthrough. Are they really ready for fame?

The mile high club bandThe Orange Sky jamming in their band room, June 2003The Orange Sky: Richard Hall, Nicholas Rojas, Nigel Rojas, Adam Murray and Obasi Springer

I wasn’t expecting it. I never understood the screaming hysteria, swooning, and sobbing that seem conventional behaviour for thronging female audiences at big rock concerts. I’m far too sensible to lose control like that. But when I heard Nigel Rojas’s rhythmic, husky voice and those singing electric guitars from across a crowded room in a Port of Spain restaurant, something utterly visceral happened to me. Listening to the Orange Sky that night, I let go — of inhibitions, of anxieties — if only for the duration of the music. This isn’t unusual for the Orange Sky’s audiences. You might say it’s the band’s reason for being.

A few months ago, I found myself working just down the road from the Orange Sky’s rehearsal room. I couldn’t resist the temptation — when fragments of songs came floating into my office — to take a walk up the hill and introduce myself. I had my “writer for Caribbean Beat” opener at the ready. But soon I suspected it didn’t really matter to them. I would have been invited in anyway. This is one of the most striking things about the band — they’re laid-back, generous, warm. There’s a real hippie vibe hanging in the air around them — like a sweet-scented, ever-present haze.

The Orange Sky has been around for almost ten years, jamming their mix of reggae and rock long before No Doubt popularised the form in the late 90s. Strains of calypso and a easy-skanking Caribbean style combine with the testosterone-driven, metropolitan hardness of rock to create a sound that is irresistible. It’s music that you want to move to, with electric guitar riffs that twang and gyrate across the airwaves.  For the Orange Sky, all of whom are decidedly middle-class Trinidadians, it’s a fusion that makes sense — as Nigel himself says, “We grew up as Trinis travelling. I’m not going to fight a ghetto thing.”

So, invited into the rehearsal room, I found a little stool to cotch on, and allowed my eyes to adjust to the relative darkness. No surprise, the place was painted a deep orange; the floor was covered by a zebra-print rug, and cluttered with sundry pieces of musical equipment; walls strewn variously with Bob Marley posters and paintings by Nigel’s young daughter, Roxy. The latter at first seemed incongruous in this room of glorious carnality — because that’s what rock music is really, isn’t it? But the longer I spent there with Nigel, Nicholas, Richard, Obasi, and Adam, the more Roxy’s paintings of hearts and love and families made sense. Because that’s really what these five guys are about.

“I’m a love man,” says Nigel, the band’s lead guitarist and vocalist. “I love love. I’m a hopeless romantic by nature — an old man.”

Nigel is also a large man. He could play tackle football. But he is the gentlest of giants, which makes him very endearing. He is indisputably the Orange Sky’s front man, and he also composes and writes nearly all of their songs.

US producer Jeff Glixman — who calls himself one of the band’s biggest fans — says, “One of the things that makes the band stand out is Nigel’s voice.” And about this, his bandmates are unequivocal. Without Nigel’s voice there would be no Orange Sky. It has that Joplinesque hoarseness that comes from heavy smoking and a life led hard — without being in any way frail. When it comes to singing head-banging metal, he can belt it out with the best.

Oddly enough, it’s Nigel himself who is diffident. “I hate my voice,” he says. “I’m a guitarist trying to sing the songs I write.”  (What’s that they say about the grass is always greener?) But, as a performer, Nigel’s magnetism is extraordinary. You just can’t tear your eyes away from him. Even in our interview he’s utterly engaging — if, at times, a little too earnest.

Always beside Nigel on stage is his younger brother, Nicholas Rojas, the band’s bass player. Although they look alike in many ways, they couldn’t be more different. Nicholas is shy and somehow uncertain — not of his talent, but of his ability to communicate directly to an audience. Happy to defer to Nigel, Nicholas says, “I prefer to be in the background and just play music.” And the two have been doing just that since they were little, when an aunt (who is also a nun) taught them hymns like How Great Thou Art and Hail Mary on the guitar.

So you mean God is part of the picture too? Somehow He doesn’t seem a likely resident of such a loud and decadent world. But as I talk with each of the band members in turn, spirituality is a note they all strike. Keyboardist Richard Hall describes the ecstasy they feel when performing together: “Sometimes when we’re on stage something feels just so overwhelming. I think generally the way the music is going to go is to make people rejoice and love. That’s what we really want.”

The band’s youngest member, Obasi Springer, is the most riveting drummer I’ve ever seen — watching them perform, your eyes dart between Obasi and Nigel, not sure where to alight and rest. The guys joke that at a recent concert in Barbados, by the end of the set, Obasi had a line of girls tripping over each other to get backstage and meet him. Clearly no neophyte in this business of adoring chicks, Obasi says, “Man, I always had girls coming after me like that.” An affectionate laugh bubbles through the band room. They’re like family with each other.

The Orange Sky is something of an anomaly in the Caribbean. They have been able to give up their day jobs and work exclusively at their music — such is their fan base and the demand for live performances. And to have done so by creating their own musical genre in a region so heavily steeped in calypso, soca, reggae, and dancehall is remarkable. It must have helped that they were making music in Trinidad, a country with a thriving rock and alternative scene going back to the 1980s.

But most rock bands here are amateur acts, in the strict sense, playing for love, not money, trying to cut the odd track and have it released on local radio, and dreaming — like garage bands around the world — of someday making it big. Nigel jokes that, in the early days, the Orange Sky used to play for beers. “I always knew that music was a hard road,” adds Nicholas. “It’s not like taking a drive, it’s like walking in the hot sun down a long road.”

Maybe not for much longer, though. Big names in the music business, like Virgin and Universal, have come a-courting in the last year and a half, precipitating something of a crash course in international recording. In 2003, the band took on US legal representation, publicists, and tour managers. The Orange Sky’s Trinidad manager, Joey Sabeeney, says it’s all about putting together the best team to launch an international career for the band.

This includes producer Jeff Glixman. Determined that the band has that extra something that could propel them into the big time, Glixman is nonetheless reticent about US record executives. “I’m sure the American people will like the music,” he says. “Whether we can get it to the next level is in the lap of the gods.” Although this isn’t the first time international labels have flirted with the band, one gets the impression that finally they are ready for what lies ahead.

Yet in the midst of all this excitement over the potential of an international breakthrough, a shadow lingers. Nigel alludes to it in our interview. “I’ve had people come up to me and ask me questions,” he says, “and they think I have the answers because of how strong I sound. But I don’t have many answers. I’m still searching. I’m still one of the flock. Which makes the music a little irrelevant, almost. It’s an irony. I know we want to be commercially successful, but I don’t think what we’re doing is that relevant, as such.”

Despite Nigel’s existential grapplings, 2004 could send him and his bandmates soaring sky-high. And what then? MTV and VH1 are full of stories of bands that disintegrate at the peak of their success. Are these five men prepared for what lies ahead, if what they’ve wished for actually comes true? All but Nicholas answer frighteningly quickly, with a vociferous, head-nodding “yes”.

“We don’t plan to die young,” says Nigel. “I’m so glad that things are happening for us commercially now, because five years ago we were drunk and falling off the stage.”

Nicholas is more cautious. He’s not sure how fame will affect him, whether he’llbe able to cope with it. But there can be no doubt about his, and the entire band’s, desire to try it out and see how it fits. “I don’t know why I feel so high,” go the lyrics of one of their best-known songs. Let’s hope they keep soaring, and never come down.

Nigel Rojas speaks

On his voice
“I know music, and I know I don’t have a sweet voice. I can express myself vocally and I can stay in key, but I don’t think I have such an awesome voice. I know we’re an awesome band. We’re a force, and if my voice is the magnet to the lyrics, and that’s the exchange we have [with the audience], then that’s beautiful.”

On love songs
“When I’m writing love songs I find it more interesting to write about the anguish, the angst. I wish I could write a ‘baby I love you’ song.”

On ganja
“We trying to let go that ‘Fly the ganja flag’ thing. I can be going surfing and 14-year-olds will come up to me and say, ‘Aye, Orange Sky, you have any weed or what.’ Ganja is a sacred thing to me, but I wouldn’t go around telling a 14-year-old to smoke weed.”

On Bob Marley, one of his musical heroes
“Bob is a very special soul to us — musically and otherwise. First, to begin, it’s Bob. As a Caribbean man [fronting a band] trying to forge his career in an international music market, the only person who has done it so far is Bob Marley. People compare us to the Wailers’ sound, and for us that’s the highest compliment.”

Wherefore the Sky?

Officially, the band’s name is the Orange Sky, but in ordinary conversation everybody drops the definite article. To some longtime fans, they’re simply “the Sky”. But what does it mean?

“Orange Sky” immediately calls to mind the image of a vivid tropical sunset, the moment of calm exhilaration when the whole world seems to glow with the sun’s last rays — and, sure enough, that image is where the name came from in the first place. “To me, it’s like sunrise, sunset,” says Nigel Rojas. “Infinity, ultimately.” A kind of over-the-rainbow state of mind, in other words — in which wrongs are righted, sorrows smoothed away, and everything in its right place — a state of mind summed up by a brief song with which the band used to start all their live sets:

Why are we alive? To heal the wounds inside.
Why are we afraid? To heal the pain we’ve made.
Far beyond the hills lies the other side
Where the horizon meets the Orange Sky.

As this article was going to press, the Orange Sky’s management announced that the band was entering into contractual negotiations with a US record label, but that it was too early to release any further details.

Who’s who in the Mile High Club Band “audience”?

1. Adam Murray, rhythm guitarist
2. Obasi Springer, drummer
3. Nigel Rojas, vocalist and lead guitarist
4. Nicholas Rojas, bass guitarist
5. Richard Hall, keyboardist
6. Ken Morris, copper-work artist, Trinidad
7. Neville “Bunny” Livingstone of the Wailers, reggae performer, Jamaica
8. Bob Marley of the Wailers, reggae performer, Jamaica
9. Peter Tosh of the Wailers, reggae performer, Jamaica
10. Geoffrey Holder, actor, dancer, and choreographer, Trinidad/US
11. Janelle “Penny” Commissiong, Miss Universe 1977, Trinidad
12. Giselle La Ronde, Miss World 1986, Trinidad
13. Wendy Fitzwilliam, Miss Universe 1998, Trinidad
14. Louise “Miss Lou” Bennett, writer and storyteller, Jamaica
15. José Martí, journalist, poet, and revolutionary, Cuba
16. Hasely Crawford, athlete, Trinidad
17. Jean Pierre, netball player and politician, Trinidad
18. J.B. Siegert, merchant and inventor of Angostura bitters, Trinidad
19. Rudranath Capildeo, mathematician and politician, Trinidad
20. Jean Rhys, writer, Dominica
21. Stokely Carmichael a.k.a. Kwame Turé, civil rights activist, Trinidad/US
22. Sundar Popo, chutney performer, Trinidad
23. The Mighty Sparrow (Slinger Francisco), calypsonian, Grenada/Trinidad
24. André Tanker, musician, Trinidad
25. Russell Latapy, footballer, Trinidad
26. Ellie Manette, steelpan pioneer, Trinidad
27. Carlisle Chang, artist, Trinidad
28. Mungal Patasar, musician, Trinidad
29. Solomon Hochoy, governor general, Trinidad
30. Wayne Berkeley, Carnival designer, Trinidad
31. Rikki Jai, chutney and soca performer, Trinidad
32. Joseph Pawan, physician, Trinidad
33. Errol Jones, actor, Trinidad
34. Norman Manley, premier, Jamaica
35. Bunji Garlin, soca performer, Trinidad
36. Beryl McBurnie, dancer, choreographer, and arts impresario, Trinidad
37. Tubal Uriah “Buzz” Butler, labour leader and politician, Grenada/Trinidad
38. C.L.R. James, writer and philosopher, Trinidad
39. Peter Minshall, Carnival designer, Trinidad
40. Vivian Richards, cricketer, Antigua
42. Derek Walcott, poet and playwright, St. Lucia
43. Papipire, Rikki Tikki puppet, Trinidad
44. “Uncle” Ian Ali, Rikki Tikki host, Trinidad
45. The Roaring Lion (Raphael de Leon), calypsonian, Trinidad
46. Brian Lara, cricketer, Trinidad
47. Eugenia Charles, prime minister, Dominica
48. Simon Bolivar, general and revolutionary, Venezuela
49. Sean Paul, dancehall performer, Jamaica
50. Ato Boldon, athlete, Trinidad
51. Calypso Rose (McArtha Sandy-Lewis), calypsonian, Tobago
52. Che Guevara, revolutionary, Argentina/Cuba
53. Edwidge Danticat, writer, Haiti/US
54. Lloyd Best, economist, Trinidad
55. Fidel Castro, president, Cuba
56. Cheddi Jagan, president, Guyana
57. Jean Miles, socialite and whistleblower, Trinidad
58. Dennis Brown, reggae performer, Jamaica
59. Denyse Plummer, calypsonian, Trinidad
60. Everton Weekes, cricketer, Barbados
61. Henry Swanzy, BBC Caribbean Voices producer, UK
62. Jit Samaroo, steelband arranger, Trinidad
63. Edward Kamau Brathwaite, poet, Barbados
64. Lil Hart, Carnival designer, Trinidad
65. statue of A.A. Cipriani, politician and social reformer, Trinidad
66. Bob Marley, reggae performer, Jamaica
67. Caryl Phillips, writer, St. Kitts/UK
68. V.S. Naipaul, writer, Trinidad/UK
69. Rohan Kanhai, cricketer, Guyana
70. Eric Williams, prime minister and historian, Trinidad
71. Nanny, maroon leader, Jamaica
72. Learie Constantine, cricketer, Trinidad
73. David Rudder, calypsonian, Trinidad
74. Zalayhar Hassanali, first lady, Trinidad
75. Noor Hassanali, president, Trinidad
76. George Lamming, writer, Barbados
77. Toussaint L’Ouverture, general and revolutionary, Haiti
78. Leslie “Tiger” Stewart, boxer, Trinidad
79. Wendell Manwarren of 3Canal, rapso performer, Trinidad
80. Stanton Kewley of 3Canal, rapso performer, Trinidad
81. Roger Roberts of 3Canal, rapso performer, Trinidad
82. Jimmy Cliff, reggae performer, Jamaica
83. Sam Selvon, writer, Trinidad
84. Lord Kitchener (Alwyn Roberts), calypsonian, Trinidad
85. Machel Montano, soca performer, Trinidad