André Tanker: Like a Liberation

Trinidad’s late, great musical genius André Tanker on the roots of his music — as told to Simon Lee

Andre TankerTanker and the Flamingoes

I was born in Woodbrook [a west Port of Spain neighbourhood] in 1941. My great-grandfather was Chinese, my mother a descendant of [19th-century Trinidadian artist Jean-Michel] Cazabon. She was a dancer, very culturally minded, who danced with Boscoe Holder. I grew up with calypsos and Afro-Cuban music at home, so Caribbean music was there from the beginning. One of my earliest recollections was an uncle who walked around with a gramophone, shaking maracas — that was his idea of a good time.

Two blocks away were [steelband] Invaders, whose tuner was Ellie Manette. Three blocks away was the Little Carib Theatre, then at the cutting edge of folk art, with Beryl McBurnie, who combined folk and cosmopolitan. When I started to play, she pulled me in and told me to listen to Ravel, she was always saying challenging things.

My first instrument, age seven, was a pan Ellie Manette dropped in the panyard. I’d been begging him for some time. Then round about 12 or13 I began with cuatro and guitar. It was always me and my cousin — we grew up together — we were always singing songs on each other. That was part of the excitement of learning to play guitar: the extempo battles, composition santimanitay style.

In school at Belmont Intermediate we used to beat the desks. I met a good friend there who knew plenty about jazz and lent me records, and then at St Mary’s [College] we’d play school concerts together. But my musical development was really in Woodbrook.

In my late teens, along with Ray Holman, I formed little combos, with guitar, pan and accordion, playing house parties. I started playing vibes, and we began playing the Hilton as André Tanker and the Flamingoes. We had a kind of Latin, funk, and calypso sound. I never set out to be bandleader. I guess I’m one of those animals, having concepts.

I got into jazz at this time through Ralph Davies, the jazz pianist who lived on Henry Street. I was probably precocious enough to hang with the older guys, and lucky enough to get to play with them. I was really into improvisation — it opened up my head. I’m more of a composer, I’ve never locked myself away with an instrument. I was taking it all in at an embryonic stage.

In the early 1960s, I discovered Mongo Santamaria, the Cuban percussionist, whose Latin version of Chick Corea’s Watermelon Man was a major hit. It was a very Yoruba kind of music. We didn’t know what it was, but it got under your skin; it was a very hip, gospel, Latin sound. Other combos would play themes from movies, but we found that boring. I was never mainstream. I tried to be at the cutting edge of diaspora music.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, I started writing some very crucial songs, like I Went Away (Forward Home). This was part of the era when I discovered the roots of Caribbean music, probably due to the black consciousness of the time. I realised that the roots of the music lay in religion, Orisha and Baptist, and that it had developed in different ways in different islands.

When you discover the root, it’s like a liberation. And although I hadn’t really been anywhere, maybe Grenada and St Vincent, I thought to hear and interpret the root from inside out. Listening to Cuban mambo king Perez Prado’s Voodoo Suite revealed the links between Africa, the Caribbean, and America: jazz, blues, and Orisha.

Working with master drummer Andrew Beddoe at the Little Carib Theatre was very important for me — to actually know someone who was an Orisha priest and a musician playing African drums. Meeting Beddoe was the birth of the André Tanker people know. I worked with him on [Derek Walcott’s play] Dream on Monkey Mountain. He was very unassuming. These guys never tell you who they are, you have to find out. It was only after years he told me all the esoterics.

A lot of people associate me with drums. I could play them; I play rhythms internally. Certainly to compose you have to know these rhythms inside. If you’re going to play, and well, you can’t just play with your hands. Although I’m not a practising Orisha, I connected with the source of the music I’d loved all my life, and I became a student of something that I marvel has existed for 500 years and is only now being recognised.

Orisha taught me to play things with more conviction, and to understand the source better, but I never tried to copy forms or chants. If people hear the forms in my music, it’s subconscious. At live performances, I acknowledge Orisha as part of my musical statement. I always try to give respect to Andrew Beddoe.

The East Indian connection in my music began with the music I heard on the radio, and then I got turned on to classical Indian music: ragas, sitar, Ravi Shankar. I took to it immediately. I composed East Indian music which I’d later play with Mungal Patasar, who I met when he was still new to the sitar. We did the soundtrack to Bim, around 1973, a film about an Indian from Central Trinidad who moves to town and grows up on the streets. The music had to reflect both the East Indian rural environment and the trauma of the urban transposition.

I like working in dramatic situations, and although I did a lot of recording after the 1960s, due to the unprofessionalism of the times there was no LP, just a lot of overtures and stories. But that whole time I was involved in theatre. This developed from my collaboration with Derek Walcott on the 1972 production of Ti-Jean and His Brothers at the New York Shakespeare Festival. I wrote music for Walcott’s lyrics, and in some cases words and music, because even though he was a superior writer he was cool enough to say “this is perfect.”

The festival director Joseph Papp was so impressed he offered me work on Measure for Measure done in a Caribbean setting, with top actors like Kevin Kline. The director was amazed at my facility with Shakespeare’s language. I was able to deal with it very easily, which says a lot for Shakespeare.

Drama gives me a context to work in and come up with things I wouldn’t normally, especially when the music isn’t from the calypso genre. I try not to be conscious of music philosophy, but to stay tuned to attitude and phraseology and the musical vocabulary of the area that spawned me.

Working in the theatre has made me realise we have a musical vocabulary that’s so vast it allows us to deal with everything from birth to death and everything in between. Recently I worked on Geraldine Connor’s Carnival Messiah and the concept for my album Iere 21 is a history of Trinidad in music, from the Caribs to the European invaders and onwards.

All our music comes from the heart and soul of the Caribbean. It is music that takes its roots from Africa, East India, Amerindian culture, and we embrace the world, but we are a Caribbean group. The spirituality in the music comes from those sources. We try to take it into the current time and a new dispensation, so that the world will move ahead technologically, but at the same time have a humanitarian base which people can relate to.

As an instrumentalist I have a creative and unique way of phrasing. I’m not a highly technical musician. I’m probably on the level of a blues musician, where emotion and phrasing are more important than technical skill. And because I’ve always tried to be at the cutting edge of diaspora music, young musicians identify with me. There’s no barriers between what I do and what they’re doing, which is why I like to work with lots of other musicians.

As for fame and fortune, they’re illusions, not something I’m preoccupied with. The whole point is to win a Grammy and stay balanced, or not win a Grammy and stay balanced — which is not to say I don’t want the music to be heard by as many people as possible. I think what I do is exciting. It feeds me spiritually and people seem to get a lot out of it. What more could I ask for?