Music buzz (November/December 2006)

Mattafix turns on Europe with a cocktail of sounds; St Lucia’s Kalalu festival offers the best of live world music...

Eduino of the Cape Verdean band Ferro Gaita. Photograph by Simon LeeMattafix: Marlon Roudette and Preetesh Hirji. Photograph courtesy Sainted PRSekouba Bambino of Guinea. Photograph by Simon Lee

What could the Matter be?

Marlon Roudette and Preetesh Hirji are the musical duo better know as Mattafix. Their work is what record companies strive, mostly unsuccessfully, to create. They are a hybrid voice, a musical fusion, a globalised sound whose urban riddims not only bring together chart-topping genres into a 21st-century dub-blues whole, but also inject the genuine magical ingredients often missing from the big-label bands: soul and conscience, elements reflecting Mattafix’s global heritage and experience, rather than brainstorming meetings in production offices.

Mattafix’s life-stories and music are a blend of geographic and cultural influences. Hirji’s parents are from India, Roudette’s mother from St Vincent, and both were born in melting-pot London. Their musical output speaks to anyone who recognises the influence diaspora has played in making the modern world.

At the age of nine, Roudette moved from London to St Vincent with his mother, where he remained until his late teens. As his lyrics, MC style, and steel pan expertise attest, this period formed a major part of his identity today, and he continues to speak fondly of the subtler aspects of Caribbean life many take for granted. “The smell I most like would have to be the ylang-ylang tree outside my parents’ house in St Vincent,” he says, smiling, when asked what are the things he misses from those days. “It makes this amazing smell in the morning and in the evening. Beautiful.”

Mattafix announced their arrival on the European music scene in 2005 with their fourteen-track debut album Signs of a Struggle and the bumpin’ reggae single “Big City Life”, which spent three weeks at number one on the Italian pop charts and whose lyrics tell a story familiar to all first-time “big city” arrivals. “We documented the struggles of living in a big city, as opposed to where we were originally living. For one, coming from a small island and now living in London, it can be a bit intimidating. There are a lot of struggles that people go through when you are trying to adjust,” says Roudette.

This album of globalised realities and inner city choices exploded into life quite by chance, when the young men’s worlds collided in a recording studio on London’s Harrow Road, while Roudette was on a visit back to London. “When I met Pre, he was working at a recording studio where, for the next four years, he learned the art of sound. Around the same time, I was playing tenor in a steelband in St Vincent. In my spare time I was writing rap verses and poetry. By the time I left St Vincent and reunited with Pre, we both had visions of a fresh sound. So we began producing tracks, and we realised we worked really well together.

“We invested a lot of time in our stuff, and we didn’t feel comfortable passing on the material to other people. So we decided to do them ourselves,” continues Roudette.

Their sound — a cocktail of dub, electro, soul, pop, dancehall, hip-hop, reggae, and trip-hop — emerged alongside always-engaged lyrics whose depth gives them a standout edge in a world of generic beats. This combination has brought them many fans, not just among the general public but within the industry too.

“Content is essential,” explains Roudette. “I studied literature, and I read a lot of books on politics. All of that helps me write lyrics.” His list of influences, though eclectic, is certainly not shallow. “I have a fetish for songwriters from different genres” he says. “Gregory Isaacs, Bob Marley, and Dennis Brown for reggae, Robert Plant and Kurt Cobain for rock, and artists from the label Rawkus, like Mos Def and Talib Kweli, for everything that comes from hip-hop.”

Signs of a Struggle,” says Roudette, “deals with the issues that young people will have to address in the 21st century: the environment, international tensions, family feuds, etc. Our personal history is probably not unique, but we’ve tried to write as though it were.

“Roots and feelings of belonging are themes that have always inspired lyrics. Pre’s parents were born in India and moved to London, where he was born 25 years ago. Traditional raga, old Bollywood soundtracks, hip-hop, rock, and dance music — it’s all part of him. That’s what inspires all of the different sounds he creates. I moved back to London when I was a teenager, with huge reggae, dancehall, and hip-hop influences in my pockets. Since then, we’ve both been immersed in all sorts of music, from blues to classical. Our album is the result of these two rich and eclectic lives.”

Dylan Kerrigan

For more information, visit www.mattafix.com

Hot Kalalu

A night of velvet density punctuated by starlight was suspended over St Lucia’s Choc Bay as I stumbled into the backstage area of Samaan Park. Only hours earlier, I’d arrived from the icy grip of a London winter for the first night of the inaugural Kalalu World Music Festival. I’d been served a totally intoxicating menu of African disaporic music: Ella Andall, Trinidad’s Orisha diva; Emeline Michel, Haitian roots chanteuse, riding vodou rhythms; and then elegant Senegalese fusionist Idrissa Diop, climaxing the show.

Totally sated on the tropical night and the rhythms still pulsing through my bones, I went to walk off my jetlag and take a nightcap of sea breeze before heading for bed. But then I heard a manic fiddle soaring over the syncopation of scratcher and drum. In a small tent I discovered the unannounced headline act of the night. The Papius Folk String Band of St Lucia were playing, live and direct, some of the very same quadrille sets I’d been listening to on a Smithsonian recording of Lucian folk music the night before I left London.

My exhaustion dissolved in the wicked grin of the fiddler, and the drums transfused new energy into my legs and waist. This was the jump-up I’d travelled the Atlantic for. The spirits were welcoming me home to the Caribbean, and when Papius segued into their own version of Shadow’s classic “Bassman from Hell”, which had other after-hours revellers jumping too, I didn’t think it could get any better. Happily, I was very wrong.

For the next three days and nights, I savoured the work of programmer Alex Boicel, originally from French Guyana, now the doyen of African and Caribbean music promoters in New York. Son of the legendary Doudou Boicel, founder of the Montreux Jazz Festival, and himself founder of Montreal’s African Nights Festival, Alex produced a line-up which included Hugh Masakela, Sekouba Bambino from Guinea, Congolese Kekele and Ricardo Lemvo, Ferro Gaito from Cape Verde, Dominican Republic-born salsa singer Jose “El Canario” Alberto, Puerto Rican Yerba Buena, Cuban Orquesta Sensacion, Lucian guitarist Boo Hinkson, and the Blue Mango group, which features musicians from St Lucia, Martinique, and French Guiana.

Among a plethora of regional jazz festivals (including St Lucia’s own) which actually cater to North American tastes for R&B, soul, funk, and even hip-hop, Kalalu has the potential to become an authentic regional and international showcase. Adrian Augier, the festival director — whose background is development economics, but who’s long been involved in the St Lucian arts scene — attributes the genesis of Kalalu to Trinidad’s large-scale one-off World Beat Festival in 1999, which inspired him with its diversity. After three years’ planning, and a successful application to the UK Department for International Development for a development grant, Kalalu became a reality, founded on the symbolism of the region’s distinctive Creole dish, whose rich mix reflects the Caribbean’s diversity of peoples and cultures.

Augier’s ambition is for Kalalu “to become the world music festival of the Caribbean,” and given that St Lucia, like the whole of the region, is a cultural crossroads and a natural site for world music, his vision has every chance of long-term success. The fact that local musicians like Papius were given exposure showed that traditional island music is capable of holding its own against international acts.

This year’s international line-up is as impressive as and even more eclectic than the inaugural edition. Caribbean artistes include QBANITO from Cuba, French Guyana’s Chris Combette, roots reggae legends Culture, Haitian konpas band Top Vice, and Marce and Tumpak of Martinique, along with Kassav vocalist Patrick St Eloi. Africa will be represented by South African jazz singer Lorraine Klaasen, Congolese soukous king Diblo Dibala, Kaissa from Cameroon, Cheikh Mbaye and Sing Sing from Senegal, and Tiken Jah Fakoly from Cote d’Ivoire. Maria de Barros, Cape Verde’s latest singing sensation, completes the international bill, while St Lucia’s own acclaimed guitarist Boo Hinkson will lead the Lucian posse, which promises a mix of traditional and cutting-edge sounds.

For Caribbean audiences, Kalalu offers the all too rare experience of live African music and the chance to hear some of the roots of those rhythms to which we dance, sing, and live our lives. For any visitor from the cold, cold north, it’s a pre-Christmas tropical treat, a live sampling of some of the best roots music the world has on offer — so “come taste de kalalu.”

Simon Lee


The Kalalu World Music Festival runs from 31 November to 3 December, 2006. For more information, visit
www.kalalufestival.com