Rhythm roundup (March/April 2006)

The best new Trinidadian reggae, the latest from Mungal Patasar and Pantar, and the cast album of Derek Walcott’s Steel

–––––Mungal Patasar. Photograph by Mark Lyndersay

Unusual suspects

Reggae Roadblock – Various artists (Caribbean Music Group)

With all due respect to Bunji Garlin, Maximus Dan, and Machel Montano, the current driving forces of soca music, the most exciting new music in Trinidad today is coming from the dancehalls, not the big fetes. If you want proof, check out the excellent new compilation CD Reggae Roadblock from Caribbean Music Group. Reggae Roadblock is a 16-track album featuring the brightest lights from an already surprisingly glittering chandelier of Trini dancehall artists.

Primus inter pares of the ten artists featured is master lyricist Prophet Benjamin, who, rightfully, claims Jah Lion’s share of the tracks. His huge party hits “Pretty Boy”, “Coming from Moruga”, and “Usual Suspect” are all on the CD, which opens with “Pretty Boy” — a wonderful jumping-off point into the world of Trini dancehall. Anyone familiar with the brand names of insecticides would particularly appreciate an inspired verse in his ode to marijuana, “Coming from Moruga”: “Don’t forget the Malathion / Kill the grasshopper / Don’t forget the Bazooka / Kaboom! Kaboom!”

The second song on the album is the exquisitely produced “Don’t You Know” by Isasha, a song whose simple beauty, including a delightful steel pan roll, you never want to end, but whose ending is almost better than the song itself. And the CD just keeps getting better. With ten singers and 16 songs (counting “Coming from Bronx”, the bonus track) a short review could never do Reggae Roadblock or its deserving artists justice. Suffice to say there isn’t a weak track in the mix, and there is nothing inauthentic in the music. The artists sing in Trini accents, use Trinidadian references, and write what used, in the 1970s, to be called “conscious” lyrics. Whether you consider Caribbean music to be Bob Marley or the Mighty Sparrow, you are likely to be thrilled. Even if you’re anti-ganja, you just might find yourself chanting, “Coming from Moruga / Ten pound of colly / In a jeep / Two eye bloody”.

B.C. Pires

Family business

Café Calebasse – Mungal Patasar and Pantar

Mungal Patasar and Pantar (the band’s name is an acronym of the group’s two lead instruments, the steel pan and the sitar) have a shockingly good 2006 release in Calebasse Café. Produced by Martin Raymond, Calebasse Café is 55 minutes of music André Tanker would have loved. Mungal and André often gigged together before the latter’s untimely death three years ago, and any track from Calebasse Café would tell you why: the music, an eclectic fusion of everything worthwhile taken freely and embraced wholeheartedly from any source, touches the spirit and intellect equally, and manages to get down to the feet, too. Tabla and soca/calypso rhythms ground jazz improvisations without sacrificing melody. This is not just music you could listen as well as dance to, but music you could get lost (and find yourself) in.

As writer or co-writer of all but three of the CD’s 13-and-a-half tracks (one of the 14 cuts is a remix), Mungal Patasar is clearly the father-figure of a fairly large musical family. The pleasant surprise on Calebasse Café is how strong his children have grown. The lead guitar, by John Hussain, is particularly strong, so much so that it’s just as well that the syllable “tar” is common to gui- and sitar. But that is not to sell any of Mungal’s other musical offspring short, particularly his biological son, Prashant, whose tablas anchor the Eastern quadrant of the band’s sound as solidly as Wayne Tobitt’s drums. All the other band members deserve name and instrument checks alike, beginning, naturally, with tenor pannist Harold Headley (whose son, Joshua, must be thrilled with the song his dad composed for him); Earl Carnavon, keyboards (and composer of “El Do Vibes”, one of the CD’s strongest tunes); Marlon Charles, second pannist (and composer of “Reaching Out”); Louis Harvey, who pulls the wicked bass supporting the heavenly melodies; and sax and flute man Dawud Orr, who makes the most dramatic understatements in local music.

Producer Martin Raymond also deserves credit generally, and a specific credit for not killing beautiful live music played by humans with electronic overdubs; and guest vocalists 3Canal do amazing things with half-a-dozen words on the most youth-radio-friendly cut, “Can You Hear Me Now?” Unreservedly, lustily, enthusiastically — in short, recommended fortissimo.

BCP

Tempo queen

This double CD showcases the vast repertoire of the Calypso Queen of the World, including rarely heard older numbers by a delightfully young-sounding Calypso Rose (“No Madam”, “The Bicycle”), two medleys, and “Let We Punta”, her tribute to Belize (where she was made an honorary citizen in 1982). Also included is Rose’s 2006 Carnival contribution, “Tempo”, an update of her 1977 Road March hit on which she’s joined by reigning Road March king Shurwayne Winchester. The CD isn’t arranged chronologically, and a useful addition would have been some song-by-song documentation detailing dates of release in the liner notes, but it’s nevertheless an essential addition to the collections of calypso fans everywhere.

Georgia Popplewell

Pan in the classroom

Pan in Education: Steel Orchestras of Trinidad & Tobago/Finland – Various artists (Sanch)

This ambitious project, spearheaded by composer Mark Loquan and Simeon Sandiford, the man behind Sanch Electronix, is geared towards students at the secondary and tertiary levels. It comprises two CDs, one with Loquan’s compositions arranged and played by steel orchestras from Trinidad and one from Finland; and another containing a multimedia presentation with complementary digital audio files and musical scores. It’s a great idea, but one criticism I’d have to make is that the multimedia part of the project is neither cross-platform nor browser-independent (it’s tied to Microsoft’s Internet Explorer) — certainly something to look into as Apple computers make inroads into the education market and the likes of Firefox replace IE as the browser of choice.

GP

Also worth a listen:

• The Best of Becket: Volume 2 (Cocoa Music) finds Vincentian hitmaker Alston “Becket” Cyrus, singer of the 1970s pro-marijuana hit “Coming High” and 1999’s slacker-than-slack “Small Pin”, in social commentary mode, with a series of tracks from later in his career.

• Grenada-born storyteller Paul Keens-Douglas’s My Daddy . . . Is de Best Daddy (PKD) comprises 12 flavourful pieces bearing positive messages geared towards children. PKD’s trademark spoken-word numbers (with light musical scoring) dominate, but he also tries his hand at a bit of rapso on “Pan Rap 1”, and some actual singing on “Anancy Beating Pan”.

• With music by Galt McDermott and book by Derek Walcott, the stage play Steel will perhaps forever (and perhaps unfairly) be compared with The Joker of Seville, a far more successful work by the same pair. Joker also had the benefit of an ingredient which Steel couldn’t help but lack: being set in a period for which Caribbean listeners, at least, have no frame of reference. The soundtrack for Steel: a Musical, performed by members of the Trinidad Theatre Workshop, nevertheless features some heartfelt performances, notably by Trinidadian chanteuse Mavis John, Diane Williams, Marsha Woodley, and Conrad Parris.

GP