Music Buzz (March/April 2005)

Bethova Obas and Emiline Michel celebrate their creole roots; Best of Trinidad presents calypso curiosities and rarities; Levi Mayers talks about the legacy of his father, the late "Nappy" Mayers, and his remake of Old Time Days; Dirty Jim's, the Movie recreates 1950s calypso club; Plus a roundup of new albums in the Caribbean

–––––Beethova Obas (left). Photograph by Georgia PopplewellLevi Mayers. Photograph by Georgia PopplewellThe late Richard “Nappy” Mayers. Photograph courtesy Levi Mayers

Creole roots

Kè’m Pozé Beethova Obas (CH-OBAS Production, BT8267)
Rasin Kreyol Emeline Michel (Times Square Records, TSQCD 9041)

Yet another coup d’état, followed by a hurricane that ravaged an already distressed landscape and left thousands dead, made 2004, Haiti’s bicentennial year, one the country might prefer to forget. Those looking for positives, however, should take note of a pair of 2004 releases by two of Haiti’s relatively young talents, Beethova Obas and Emeline Michel, both of whom have made their mark internationally with a sophisticated, cosmopolitan sound.

Obas’s caressing voice and breezily sensual acoustic guitar stylings evoke a vision of tropical loveliness, but his lyrics (usually sung in Haitian Creole) often contain implicit critiques of Haitian social problems and issues such as the destruction of the environment. It’s a strategy he shares with socially conscious genres and movements such as Cuba’s Nueva Trova and Brazilian Tropicalismo, with both of whom Obas would claim a certain kinship. On Kè’m Pozé, his fifth album, Obas in fact gives his trademark sound a name: “Cubhabra . . . a delicious mixture of musical spices from Cuba, Haiti . . . and Brazil” — not to mention a word probably easier said with a French accent.

Obas’s social commentary is unfortunately lost on those who don’t speak Creole, but the gentle beauty of the music isn’t. The majority of tracks on Kè’m Pozé are rendered, by some of the French Caribbean’s top session musicians, in a cool, jazzy style, which, topped with Obas’s understated bossa nova–style vocals, are certain to appeal to fans of the musics which make up the “Cubhabra” mix. Among the album’s languid delights are Naïke, Ret Tande, Kè’m Pozé, Sa Nou Fe (featuring the sax of Jacques Schwarz-Bart), Kòn Lanbi, the stirring and lullabyish Yè Swa, and the traditional Kalòt (“Slap”), an easy-rocking traditional compas denouncing violence.

Several of the session musicians from Kè’m Pozé also appear on Rasin Kreyol, Emeline Michel’s edgier, rootsier, more experimental follow-up to 2000’s outstanding Cordes et Ame. On this outing, Michel’s social commentary is embedded more explicitly in the music, which is more overtly in the rasin (roots) style (Daniel Beaubrun of pioneering roots band Boukman Eksperyans is one of her collaborators). The African influences in Haiti’s music dominate here, with Haitian drums and chants, spoken-word interludes, intricate choral arrangements, and strong inputs of Afropop and funk rhythms. Michel is a charismatic presence, with a powerful, expressive contralto voice which she puts to marvellous use on tracks such as Bel Kongo, the upbeat Ban’m La Jwa (“Give Me Joy”) and the driving Beniyo (“Bless Them”), in praise of black heroes ranging from Toussaint L’Ouverture to Muhammad Ali and Pele; also the hauntingly beautiful choral interlude Soufle Van, and the practically lyric-less Mon Rêve. Again, Michel’s fightin’ words are lost on all but the creolophones among us, but the liner notes include good English translations of the lyrics. Here’s an example: “Scholars from my homeland / Are chopping meat in McDonalds / I am beating my drum, watching you dancing my dance / But don’t forget to ask me what I’m celebrating.” In other words, don’t mess with Emeline Michel.

Calypso: Best of Trinidad 1912–1952 Various Artists (CMG Ltd)

Finally, a well-researched vintage calypso compilation produced by a local company. CMG’s Calypso: Best of Trinidad 1912–1952 gathers 40 years’ worth of material, including some rare tracks, and presents them in an adequately re-mastered three-CD box set. On the 1912–1929 CD, in particular, some of the names will probably be recognised only by hardcore calypso fans. Notable (for their uniqueness factor, if not quality) inclusions are the Andrews Sisters’s version of Lord Invader’s Rum and Coca-Cola (of course Invader’s is there as well), and a version of Stone Cold Dead in the Market by a little known female calypsonian called Ella Fitzgerald, singing in an accent which leaves something to be desired! (And before you start calling in, please note that we at Caribbean Beat do know who Ella Fitzgerald really is.) Each of the three CDs is introduced by entertaining liner notes by Shawn Randoo, and includes song lyrics. An essential addition to the collections of calypso fans, history buffs, or anyone wishing to remember a time when Trinidadian music depended for its appeal on wit and satire, and smut veiled itself in double entendre.

 

“You’re hearing everything”

Trinidadian musician, composer, and producer Richard “Nappy” Mayers passed away unexpectedly in December 1993, leaving behind a substantial body of material. Mayers’s son Levi talks about nurturing his father’s legacy and the experience of re-making Nappy Mayers’s last hit, Old Time Days — as told to Georgia Popplewell

My father was very well organised. In the early 70s he and his cousin Wayne Cezair established Yolk Productions, a recording label and publishing company. My dad was always interested in learning and doing things for himself. He wanted to educate himself about the music industry. He didn’t go to any school or anything — he just read books and studied the equipment and punched buttons until he figured it out. That’s how he learned to operate the entire studio, which was right here in this house. He built it from one 8-track machine with stereo speakers, and started doing little jingles. And it then went to a 16-track and then a 24-track and ended with 36 tracks. He was one of the first people, I think, who had a computer system running in the studio.

As a musician, I think, he was self-taught. At that time everything was going digital and you could play things on a keyboard. He could play the keyboards to an extent, bass, drums.

I used to be in the band room with them practicing, going on gigs all over. My mother was working during the day, so I had to move mostly with my father. So I was exposed to the music. But at that age you don’t know exactly what was going on; you like the music because it’s sounding good, and when they took a break you got to go and beat up on the drums and push on the keyboards and make some noise.

As I was growing up I started to get more interested in sports and to pull away and do my own thing. During my teen years my father used to invite me into the studio to see what going on. I used to kind of breeze through, but I didn’t have much interest. He gave me a guitar when I was younger, but I didn’t really take it on.

It was when I was about 18, about three months before my father passed away, that I started to get the feeling that I could write songs. I started getting drawn back into music. I didn’t know if I should tell my father, if he would just think it was a phase. So I just wrote my song, kept it secret, and then that happened. December came and he passed away.

Remaking Old Time Days, I didn’t want to take away or go too far from the original. I just wanted to just kind of bring it in a fresh breeze, a little cleaner and clearer, more international. And then my voice on it is in a relaxed mode, a little more soulful. I think what made the original a hit is that, in reality, my father wasn’t the best singer. But he was a great writer, and great at arranging and putting together music and making it melodious and harmonious. What made Old Time Days a big song was that he put it out in a simple way, a real natural vibe. That’s what touched people, I think.

During the session I had Mungal Patasar and [pannist] Len “Boogsie” Sharpe in the studio at the same time. Mungal came in with his sitar and sat down on the ground to do his thing. And Boogsie came while we were finishing up. Boogsie just heard the song once and said, “Alright, let’s go”. And that man just played through the song and was done in four minutes. One take.

As far as re-issuing the music, right now I have all kinds of possibilities in my head. But I’m just taking it step by step. I have to become very wise about the business side of things so that my father’s intellectual property can become as valuable as I think it could be. Because when I look back, nothing really much has been done for Nappy Mayers in the sense of national recognition or tributes or anything, and I think he deserves much more than that.

People are listening to many different types of music now, and music is becoming more of a universal thing. Now, that is something this man was doing since he was 17, finding ways of drawing from all around the world and working it into our local music. That’s the special thing about Nappy Mayers’s music: the fusion that he managed to pull together. Yes, it has a Caribbean foundation: but you’re hearing the Latin, you’re hearing the rock and you’re hearing the R&B and the soul and the funk — you’re hearing everything.

 

Down at Dirty Jim’s

Dirty Jim’s, the Movie

In the January/February 2004 edition of this magazine, we reviewed a CD called Calypso at Dirty Jim’s, adding that “A Buena Vista Social Club–style film version is reportedly in the works.” Well, said film version premiered at the Cinema MacMahon in Paris on January 12, 2005, and was subsequently broadcast in France, the French Caribbean territories, parts of Africa, and Canada, on the television channel Planète.

The 52-minute documentary, directed by French-Senegalese filmmaker Pascale Obolo, takes as its point of departure Dirty Jim’s Swizzle Club, an iconic performance venue which was the place to hear calypso in Port of Spain in the 1950s, juxtaposing a deliberately contemporary re-creation of the space and performances of calypsos of the era with interviews exploring the history of calypso from the post-war period onward. Among those interviewed in the film are the Mighty Sparrow, Calypso Rose, Mighty Terror, Bomber, Lord Superior, Lord Relator, Sheldon John, Lord Organiser, Holly Betaudier, Destra, Shurwayne Winchester, 3Canal, and Professor Gordon Rohlehr. A European version of the CD was released by EMI Virgin at the end of January, and, at the time of writing, a promotional trip to Paris was being planned for the end of February, the highlight of which was to be a concert featuring all the calypsonians at the prestigious Cirque d’Hiver theatre. A Trinidad premiere was also scheduled for February.

 

Rhythm roundup

• Grammy-winning reggae pioneer Burning Spear is noted for his commitment to roots reggae values and an unvarnished, heartfelt style. Creation Rebel: The Original Classic Recordings from Studio One (Heartbeat 11661-7664-2), a re-issue of some seminal 1969 Studio One recordings by Rounder Records’s reggae imprint, offers evidence that Spear found his voice fairly early in his career, with the help, it would seem, of Studio One’s late, great frontman and producer, Clement “Coxsone” Dodd. Dodd is credited as co-writer on all 20 tracks, and his voice can be heard toasting on Rocking Time.

• The annual release of the live recordings of the Mustique Blues Festival should be cause for celebration among blues fans. Mustique Blues Festival 2004 (BCEF 2004) possesses the high production values we’ve come to expect from these releases, and features an array of exceptional blues practitioners, including festival co-director Dana Gillespie. Proceeds from the sale of the album go to charity. Another notable bluesy release comes from US-based Barbadian singer-guitarist David Pilgrim, whose Island Soul (Swingpin SWCD020004) offers rich blues stylings with a Caribbean feel.

• Whether the selections on the 100% Ragga Soca CD/DVD combo truly represent “the best of ragga soca”— as its subtitle claims — is debatable. But, in principle, offering buyers the opportunity to both hear the music and see the artists perform is a nice idea. The videos themselves are of varying quality, however, and one wishes the video concepts showed nearly as much variety. Featured artists include Sugar Daddy, Mungal Patasar, Nikki Crosby, Charlene Boodram, and 3Canal.

• Part-Nigerian, part-Jamaican A-dziko Simba offers up 12 well-produced spoken word selections on Crazy Ladi Dayz (Jump & Fly Productions). Simba’s British-accented voice is clear and expressive, and her pieces explore the points at which art and mysticism intersect against an atmospheric music bed featuring flute, drum, thumb piano, and other percussion instruments, including her own voice. Poet Mervyn Taylor gives a more conventional reading of his work (some of which is reminiscent of Walcott) on Road Clear (Goat Productions). The occasional musical interventions by bassist David “Happy” Williams aren’t integral to the exercise, which is not necessarily a critique — the experience is close to that of listening to a poet read his work before an audience. But the quality of the recording could have been better.

• In rock, Barbados rockers Kite — Brian Marshall and J.J. Poulter — offer up a palatable soft rock sound on their album Up in the Air, including a cover of Supertramp’s Breakfast in America.

• From far-flung Brazil (not a Caribbean territory, but, as David Rudder once sang, “we have the same vibration”), off-the-radar singer Mônica Salmaso’s voice is stratospherically yet casually beautiful on Iaiá, her third solo release. Her Seattle-based compatriot Jovino Santos Neto and his quintet impress as well on the Grammy-nominated Canto do Rio, whose 11 tracks weave jazz harmonies with Brazilian grooves such as the maracatu, batuque, and marcha.