Music Buzz ( May/June 2005)

New music from the Caribbean

–––––3-canal, stars of Caribbean Free Radio’s first podcast. Photograph by Georgia PopplewellKees and Hans Diefenthaller of Kes. Photograph courtesy QMEKevin Lyttle. Photograph courtesy Atlantic RecordsLaptop, mike, iPod- ready to go live. Photograph by Graeme Ottley/ FotograeMonte Alexander with Curaçao Jazz president Jamila Romero. Photograph by David PyeRupee. Photograph courtesy Atlantic Records

Caribbean voices

Caribbean Beat talks to music editor Georgia Popplewell — founder of Caribbean Free Radio — about the Caribbean’s first podcast

Caribbean Beat: The Caribbean’s first what?

Georgia Popplewell: That’s the question I get most often. The term was actually coined only in the latter half of 2004, so you shouldn’t agonise if you’ve never heard it.

CB: Because we think of ourselves as pretty tech savvy —

GP: The easiest way to understand podcasting is to think of podcasts as personal radio shows. Maybe it might help if I explained how I produce a show.

CB: That’s a good idea.

GP: To date, Caribbean Free Radio has been following a magazine-type format, with talk segments interspersed with music. I prepare a rough outline of the show beforehand, decide what music I’m going to play. Then I record my talk segments. People like Adam Curry, the former MTV veejay-turned-media entrepreneur who’s credited as one of the originators of podcasting, have more sophisticated set-ups and do it on the fly, like a true radio show. But I mix together the talk and the music segments afterwards using a sound editing software program.

CB: What recording equipment do you use?

GP: I’m also a video producer, so initially I used a semi-professional video camera which had inputs for pro microphones — it’s important to have decent sound quality. But now I do most of my recording on a tiny portable recorder. Once I’ve put the show together, I encode it as an MP3 file and upload it to a web server, and put a link to it on the Caribbean Free Radio website.

CB: How do people know when you’ve put out a new show?

GP: Now that’s the interesting part. I do have a mailing list that people can sign up for on the website. But the thing that really makes podcasts podcasts is something called RSS syndication. In addition to uploading and linking to the file on your website, you also create an RSS feed. People can then use a bit of software called an RSS aggregator to download the file automatically to their computers as it arrives, without having to visit the website or wait for an email from me.

CB: Kind of like TiVo, then.

GP: Exactly. Basically podcasting describes a time-shifted method of distribution. That’s what makes it different from other forms of online audio, like streaming audio and online radio, which you have to be online and in front of the computer to listen to. In the case of a podcast, you can download it and listen to it whenever you want, and even transfer it to a portable MP3 player, like an iPod, which is where the name comes from. It’s a bit of a misnomer, though, because there’s no essential connection between podcasting and the iPod.

CB: It sounds a bit complicated.

GP: The syndication part is perhaps still more of a geek thing, but it isn’t necessary: you can also listen to a podcast by streaming or downloading the MP3 file directly from the website. In fact, I suspect that’s the way most of my listeners do it.

CB: Tell us about your first podcast.

GP: My first podcast was an interview show with the music group 3Canal, which I recorded at their office during the chaos of Carnival Friday. I went this route for a few reasons. One: I wasn’t sure I could carry an entire show myself. Two: I thought 3Canal was the kind of group that would play well on a podcast — they’re progressive, they’re forward-thinking, and they were very open to the idea. In fact, they’ve been as much beneficiaries of the success of CFR — such as it may be — as I have. What happened is that one very popular podcaster, Dave Slusher [of the Evil Genius Chronicles], ran a clip from the interview on his show, and that got 3Canal a fair amount of attention. They’re practically the CFR house band now.

CB: How do you decide what to talk about?

GP: I talk about whatever I feel like, really, bearing in mind that my audience is global, not simply regional.

CB: How do you decide what music to play?

GP: I have three criteria: I play Caribbean music; I play music that tends to be underexposed — and I know this means all Caribbean music, with the possible exception of reggae. And, last but not least, I play music I like.

CB: Aren’t there copyright issues with music?

GP: That’s being sorted out. Right now I’m playing mainly stuff I ask direct permission from the artists to play. I hope to be able to choose from a wider playlist very soon. That said, I also think podcasts are a great way for artists — especially independent artists — to expose their music.

CB: Apart from the fun you obviously seem to be having, why are you doing this?

GP: The main reason I started CFR is that podcasting seemed to represent a point of convergence for so many of my interests: computers, gadgets, audio, new media, music, literature, writing. I’d been reading about podcasting since the phenomenon started being talked about, but really only began listening to podcasts in earnest in December 2004. I’m a great believer in spoken-word audio as entertainment and as a method of disseminating information, and I also lament the Caribbean’s limited presence on the web. So making sure the Caribbean had a voice in the podcasting community, however small and however idiosyncratic, was also one of the reasons I started the show.

CB: Where do you see CFR going?

GP: I actually see CFR partly as an incubator for ideas I may have that could be started in audio form and perhaps be ported over to other media, like video and text. But I do want to develop the show more, add some spoken word dramatisation-type segments, maybe a radio serial, that type of thing. I also did my first “soundseeing tour” this weekend. And I could also create separate feeds for different types of shows.

CB: Are you surprised at the success of CFR?

GP: I’m astounded. What happened is that some very key people discovered CFR quite by accident, and talked about the show on their own podcasts. I’m really grateful to them. I’ve already mentioned Dave Slusher, and it was thanks to him that The Dawn and Drew Show, which has been the number one podcast for weeks now, heard about it and plugged it on their show. A podcast called The Fake Science Lab Report also mentioned us and even requested an audio promo, which Adam Curry got hold of and played on his show. I guess that’s why they call it the World Wide Web. I have to say I’m enjoying being part of the podcasting community.

CB: You’re still the Caribbean’s only podcaster [at the time of writing]: do you feel an awesome sense of responsibility?

GP: Yes, I do feel a certain amount of pressure at being perceived as representing the entire Caribbean. I was shocked to see CFR described on one website as something like “the global voice of the Caribbean”. That’s pretty scary. US podcasters, for instance, have the freedom to do all sorts of crazy stunts, because they’re so many of them — people are podcasting from their kitchens while they make dinner, all sorts of things. I hope that’s going to change soon. Caribbean podcasters, bring it on!

Tune in to Caribbean Free Radio at www.caribbeanfreeradio.com

The soul of Curaçao

As if testing the faith of those in attendance, Mother Nature did her best to wash away the 17th annual Curaçao Jazz Festival in 2004. Uncharacteristic May rains swept across the grounds of historic Landhuis Mei Mei, but nothing could dampen the spirits of the assembled jazz fans.

“This festival has a warm, personal feel to it — it’s very organic,” says Monty Alexander, a three-time performer at the festival. “Once you’ve played here, you really feel like you know the people.”

In a career spanning four decades, Jamaica-born Alexander has played piano for the likes of Frank Sinatra, Ray Brown, Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Rollins, Quincy Jones, and Sly and Robbie. He tours the world, performing at renowned festivals such as Montreux, North Sea, and Monterey, yet he always has time for the intimacy of Curaçao. “I’m the kind of musician who likes crowds of all sizes,” says Alexander. “But this place captures the soul of the island, and that’s what makes it so special.”

What also makes it special is the core of local supporters and volunteers who have helped keep the Curaçao Jazz Festival up and running for the past 17 years. After roaming the island in search of a home, experimenting with venues such as the World Trade Centre, the National Theatre, and the Curaçao Festival Centre, the event found a permanent home six years ago at Landhuis Brakkeput Mei Mei, an 18th-century Dutch plantation house and national landmark. The event has since taken on greater significance, attracting big names like Al Jarreau and George Benson.

“People are becoming acquainted with the surroundings here, and that can only help the festival to grow,” says Percy Pinedo, host of a weekly jazz program on Willemstad’s Radio Z86. “Attendance has traditionally come from the local market, but we hope our reputation will grow.”

The 2004 edition did its part to bolster that reputation, as rain-soaked fans stood on their feet to listen to Monty Alexander’s unforgettable set. The following night, Grammy award winner Michel Camilo picked up the baton along with bass player Charles Flores and drummer Cliff Almond to ignite the jazz-savvy crowd. “It’s really incredible to see what’s going on with Caribbean jazz, and each little island’s festival is significant,” explains Camilo. “It’s like a big tree with branches that represent everything from New Orleans jazz and West Coast jazz to the Afro-Cuban rhythms of the 1940s and 60s.”

“A lot of the musicians who played with Duke Ellington and Oscar Peterson had West Indian backgrounds,” adds Alexander. “Now there’s a whole new crop on the way, and it can only get better.”

Like Alexander, Camilo feels at home in front of the intimate gathering at Brakkeput Mei Mei, cherishing the obvious connection with the audience. They feed on the energy he generates, and they send it right back to the stage. “By definition, a festival should be a party, and not a serious concert hall event,” he says. “It should be a celebration of the music, and of the energy that the audience shares with the artist.” And the Curaçao Jazz Festival is a party — for both the audience and the musicians who love to perform there.

“It’s a wonderful festival, and I hope they’ll keep inviting me,” says Alexander. “If they do, I assure you I’ll keep coming back.”

David Pye

The 2005 Curaçao Jazz Festival takes place from May 28 to 30 at Landhuis Brakkeput Mei Mei. This year’s event will showcase Afro-Caribbean heritage. For more information, visit www.curacaojazzfest.com

Rhythm roundup

• New York-based, Haiti-born saxophonist Alix “Buyu” Ambroise’s impressive debut release Blues in Red (Justin Time JTR-8506-2) recasts traditional Haitian rhythms within a jazz framework, and the bond between the two is solid (they’re cousins, after all). Haitian drums and chants entwine with organic jazz riffs on the CD’s ten tracks, which range in style from post-bop to ballad to Antillean jazz. Blues in Red comprises five dazzling pieces based on Haitian traditionals and four numbers by Haitian composers such as Manno Charlemagne, plus a nod to the pantheon in the form of a driving rendition of Ellington’s Caravan. Also adding Haitian touches to an American form is Wyclef Jean, who approaches his continuing exploration of his roots in a more full-blown fashion on Welcome to Haiti: Creole 101 (Koch Records, B0002WZTB6). The results are mixed, but compelling all the same.

• Putumayo’s Afro Latin Party (Putumayo, P235-A) celebrates the infectiousness of Latin rhythms on a compilation which includes Croatian salsa, Cuban ska, and Oregonian mambo.

• In soca, Shurwayne Winchester’s carefully crafted Give Thanks (JW Productions, JWCL 284) has “international record deal, anyone?” written all over it. The two-time Trinidad and Tobago Road March King showcases his versatility with a pleasing selection of soca numbers, including the ultra-catchy 2005 hit Dead or Alive, ragga tracks both conscious (Don’t Waste the Water) and vaguely slack (Roll that Bumper, Bouncing Around), plus a heavy dose of croonerly “popso” — to use the term coined by VP records — tracks like Wine on Me, Time with You, and Friend to Wife.

• Winchester’s labelmate Destra’s 2005 release is an ambitious concept album inspired by — and named for — Laventille, the iconic east Port of Spain district where she grew up and still lives today. Laventille’s emotional centre is the title track, a reworking of David Rudder’s 1986 classic The Hammer, recast as a community-building song lamenting urban blight, with Rudder as singing partner. But overall the album lacks the tight, neat production of Destra’s work of the past couple of seasons. The pop/soca (and note I don’t call it “popso” — I think it’s something different) formula Destra has been developing over the past few seasons is eminently workable, and in a solo career that’s barely begun she already has three party classics to her name (Is Carnival, Bonnie and Clyde and Up In The Air — all featured on a track called The Pre-Release Medley). But not a track on Laventille can hold a candle to any of its predecessors. The CD also features spoken-word interludes (full disclosure: this reviewer had some input), in which Destra muses on life in the ’hood.

• 96.1 WEFM’s compilation The Soca Switch has had its good years and bad years: this, number 11 in the series, is one of the good. Carnival compilations depend on the compiler’s ability to predict the season’s hits, and this year they’ve hit the jackpot with some of the season’s biggest names and songs. Among the picks are the 2005 Road March, Shurwayne Winchester’s Dead or Alive, Machel Montano’s You, KMC’s First Experience, Maximus Dan’s Royal, Body Water by Mini Priest (who should win a prize for cutest sobriquet), Scrunter’s Trombone, the late Onika Bostic’s All Is Yours, Bunji Garlin and Patrice Roberts’s The Island, ZAN’s Watching Woman, and Beenie Man’s Cyar Take Yuh Man — that, in fact, is the entire track listing. No compilation covers all the bases, but you could probably re-create a pretty decent 2005 Carnival fete in your living room simply by looping this CD and getting down.

• VP Records’ compilation D Soca Zone: 5th Spin looks a little more viable now that Vincentian Jamesy P looks set to join his countryman Kevin Lyttle in international recording-contract country. But Jamesy P’s Nookie Tonight was already one of the album’s standouts, on the basis of its popularity if nothing else. Otherwise, D Soca Zone is a mixed bag, comprising what sound like second-tier tracks by a series of artists, several of whom have had their moments on the front lines of the Caribbean soca scene.

• Bearing the clever subtitle “the soundtrack album from the 3Canal Show 2005”, 3Canal’s 2005 CD Jab Jab Say is one element in the group’s holistic, digital-age approach to music production and marketing. The Show, now in its second year, and already one of the Carnival season’s essential events, has become the cornerstone of a machine which also includes a J’Ouvert band and a clothing collection, and this year’s “soundtrack” features the usual conscious messages and raucous fun we’ve come to expect from rapso’s crown princes.

Georgia Popplewell

 

Soca breakthrough?

The music industry depends on being able to anticipate the next big thing. But music piracy and declining sales have forced even the most established record labels to hold off on taking risks, to continually seek out new ways to out-manoeuvre bootleggers. Artists need to be capable of commanding and keeping media attention — it’s not just about the sound or the lyrics, it’s about looks and skills on the dance-floor, it’s about marketing power.

Boosted by major-label budgets and marketing spin, soca has finally made its way to the Billboard music charts, with St Vincent’s Kevin Lyttle and Barbados’s Rupee as its poster boys. Soca music originated as a fusion of calypso with Indian rhythms, a combination of the musical traditions of the two major ethnic groups of Trinidad and Tobago. It has since grown past the geography of the islands and boundaries of that definition.

Lyttle signed a worldwide multi-album deal with Atlantic Records late in 2003. Once inside the giant marketing machine, Lyttle and his hit Turn Me On (which had been released in the Caribbean in 2001) seemed to grow wings. In 2004, it peaked at number four on Billboard’s Hot 100 Chart, and hit number two in the UK.

Lyttle turned the whole of Europe on with the song, registering top-ten placings on charts in several countries. The single was certified gold in Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Ireland, Norway, and Switzerland. But Last Drop, the second single from the Turn Me On album, did not trouble chart statisticians, and Lyttle is currently doing gigs for Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida.

There has been no word from Atlantic about a follow-up record yet, but that did not stop the label from signing Rupee (Rupert Clarke), a vocalist who serves up a style similar to Lyttle’s, a mixture of soca and R&B that’s been labelled “soca lite”. His 1 to 1 album has been certified gold in Japan.

This move to tinker with and add to the original elements of soca to make it more marketable has worked before, and has worked with other forms of Caribbean music. Antigua’s Arrow released the driving party anthem Hot, Hot, Hot in 1983, and a subsequent version by American Buster Poindexter made the song a hit in the US. Twenty-two versions of the song went on to be recorded — in 12 languages — and more than four million copies sold. Then the Baha Men of the Bahamas released the Anslem Douglas–penned Who Let The Dogs Out? in July 2000, and the song went on to win a Grammy Award for best dance recording of that year. This slowed-down version of the Trinidadian’s Carnival hit top ten in 12 countries. The song was even named the number-one sports anthem of all time by MTV. The group released four albums in the wake of Who Let The Dogs Out? but none contained a comparable hit.

So are we on the cusp of a “soca breakthrough?”

There’s much to be learned from the “calypso craze” of the 1940s and 50s. The Andrews Sisters’ 1944 recording of Lord Invader’s Rum and Coca Cola is still remembered as one of the top songs of the time. As the Second World War wound to an end, who could think about bombs and death, with a chirpy ditty about island life on the radio? The US record labels went to work packaging a “more intelligible and appealing” calypso sound. By the time Harry Belafonte’s Calypso album was released (it was the first single-artist album to sell over one million copies in entertainment history), several artists with little or no experience in the calypso tents of Trinidad were making money from it. Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, and Maya Angelou all had calypso records.

By 1957, calypso accounted for one quarter of the popular record sales in the US. In London, Lord Kitchener and Lord Beginner were the toast of the town. Hollywood released three “song and dance” calypso-themed features — Calypso Joe (starring Angie Dickinson), Calypso Heatwave (starring Maya Angelou), and Bop Girl Goes Calypso. Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte shared screen time on the movie Island in the Sun. But by the early 60s, the labels had moved on to the next best thing. Will today’s soca trend follow a similar pattern, or will it prove to have the staying power of reggae, a major international musical force since the early 1970s?

Tracy Assing

 

Loud enough?

For four years now the Decibel Film and Music Festival has been a place where the Trinidadian entertainment business can get itself heard by international investors and producers, and where young people interested in an entertainment career get a close-up look at the ways things really work. Organised by Question Mark Entertainment, the two-day event — part conference, part music showcase — attracts entertainment executives from the United States and Europe. The participants this year include Mark Burg (executive producer of movies such as John Q, Love Don’t Cost a Thing, and Saw), Wayne Jobson (producer of No Doubt’s Rock Steady album), Arthur Gorson (president, The Mine Productions), the multi-platinum rock band Sugar Ray, and CSI actor Gary Dourdan.

In his welcome address at last year’s Decibel, Question Mark CEO Simon Baptiste said: “This project has been a labour of love for all involved, and the goal has always been to present participants with a clear understanding of how the entertainment business operates, to provide students in attendance with the necessary guidance for choosing careers within the fields of music or film, and to offer new and upcoming acts the opportunity to showcase their talent to their fans and powerful executives who can make a difference in their future careers.”

Several hundred students from schools around the country attend the conference every year, and Baptiste says the numbers keep growing. “Students and teachers come up to me afterwards to let me know that they appreciate it, and how much fun they had,” he reports, adding that it’s that kind of feedback that’s kept the festival alive.

“It has never been about financial reward,” he adds. “We’d just like to think we are making a difference. I remember when I was growing up how much I liked going on field trips where I could talk to people about different careers, and I felt we have lots of people talking about becoming a doctor or a teacher or a lawyer, but we don’t have a lot of people talking about careers in entertainment.”

Baptiste runs Question Mark Entertainment with the assistance of Carolyn Pasea, and the outfit also handles artist management and event co-ordination. He says they were recently contacted by Bunim/Murray productions (creators of MTV’s Real World series) about the possibility of helping to co-ordinate the filming of an installment of the MTV Real World/Road Rules Challenge in the Caribbean. Things are still very much in the discussion stage, but Baptiste is excited at the prospect.

In previous years, the Decibel music showcase has hosted performances by Trinidadian bands and performers like Pras, SugarCult, Lit, Willa Ford, the Orange Sky, Incert Coin, Maximus Dan, Abdel Wright, and Imij and Co. This year, the buzz is all about the band Kes, which will make its debut at the festival.

Kees, Jon, and Hans Dieffenthaller and Riad Boochoon make up the versatile band. The quartet has been performing together in different bands for a number of years, but only came together in this new configuration after Carnival 2005.

Kees Diefenthaller, who has performed with both rock and soca bands in his home island of Trinidad, leads the outfit. Although he’s spent the last three years performing with soca band Imij and Co, Kees has thrown himself into cultivating a new sound with Kes. Their music sounds like a blend of all the things he’s learned throughout his career, a unique Caribbean rock blend, incorporating soca and dancehall influences.

Kes has produced a six-song EP in time for the festival, and are hoping to shop their new sound with the industry heavyweights expected to attend. This year the music showcase takes place at Trinidad’s newest nightspot, the Zen nightclub.

Tracy Assing

The 5th annual Decibel Film and Music Festival takes place in Port of Spain, Trinidad, from May 5 to 7

 

“I want our music to go somewhere”

Kees Dieffenthaller left Presentation College in San Fernando with dreams of becoming a veterinarian. Instead, after years performing with alternative rock and cover bands like Gregory’s Dream, and a stint with the soca band Imij and Co, he’s become one of Trinidad’s most popular young performers.Twenty-three-year-old Kees is always polite, smiles easily, and has a great sense of humour. “You have to stay grounded, or you lose everything. I’m humble because I know I don’t know everything,” he says. “There is pressure on you to be creative all the time. But I stay focused because I want our music to go somewhere.”He has served up several Carnival hits over the course of his career. Tracks like Push, One Day, and Hypnotise have an R&B flavour, but still manage to move people at the parties. And Kees has been working on his writing skills. “I’m concentrating on the structure of songs,” he explains.“I’m listening to a lot of jazz, checking different musical arrangements, a lot of Dave Matthews. You don’t ever stop learning.” In fact, the new band Kes just may tackle a version of Crash Into Me, a chart-topper for the Dave Matthews Band in 1996. The band has been working on the track in the studio, and manager Simon Baptiste is very excited about the sound.

“I just think they have something,” says Baptiste, “I expect great things from them.”