Barbados: Island in the sun

When singer Rihanna made it big, she catapulted her homeland into the international spotlight...

Bajan reggae singer David Kirton accepting an award at the BMAs. Photograph courtesy Kareem AbdulatiffDeepu Panjwani accepts his award for Engineer of the Year at the BMAs. Photograph courtesy Kareem AbdulatiffJ-Co performs at the BMAs. Photograph courtesy Kareem AbdulatiffJive Records` Livvi Franc gives the BMA audience a taste of her sound. Photograph courtesy Kareem AbdulatiffTarah Holdipp perfroming at the BMAs. Photograph courtesy Kareem Abdulatiff

This year’s Barbados Music Awards turned out to be a talent show. The crème de la crème of Barbados’s music industry displayed a range of vocal promise that showed why the island has now become the latest hunting ground for music executives all over the world.

Partly sponsored by Caribbean Airlines, the BMAs were held on January 27. Each performer seemed ready to be plucked from obscurity and into international superstardom, just like Rihanna. Born Robyn Rihanna Fenty in the parish of St Michael, the 20-year-old singer is hailed as the number-one inspiration for aspiring stars on the island. Since producers Carl Sturken and Evan Rogers discovered her in 2004 while on vacation in Barbados, the Def Jam singer has become a megastar.

She released three back-to-back albums, won a slew of awards, was nominated for six Grammys, and won one. She insured her legs for US$1 million, and Umbrella, the monster debut off her last album, Good Girl Gone Bad, spent a record 10 weeks atop the British charts.

In a video played at the BMAs, Rihanna mused on her meteoric rise, expressing amazement at the countries she has toured and the welcoming reception she received. The video captured images of girls crying and massive stadiums jammed to capacity with fans.

Richie Bonnet, brother and manager of 16-year-old singer/rapper J-Co, explains the influence Rihanna’s success has had in her homeland.

“After seeing Rihanna blow up, everybody went, ‘Wait a minute, if Rihanna could do it, so can we.’ There are multiple artistes showing themselves. Those who didn’t believe in themselves before are seeing that they could do it.”

J-Co (Jaicko Lawrence) is a cute, bushy-haired youngster who has certainly been inspired by Rihanna. He burst onto the scene at 13 as a rapper, but has since developed into a singer. In 2006 he released his first album, We Workin’, which caught the attention of Wilspro Management, a New York artist-management company. They added him to their client roster, and several record companies are said to be vying to sign him up, among them J Records, owned by the legendary Clive Davis. J-Co revealed to Caribbean Beat that he has met with the mogul several times.

Last year, two other Bajans signed on the dotted line. Shontelle Layne, a 24-year-old singer/songwriter, signed with SRP/Universal, and her debut album Shontelligence was expected to appear in March. Layne (who was featured in the last issue of Caribbean Beat) penned Alison Hinds’ hit Roll It. When Sturken and Rogers heard it, they sought out the songwriter, and on realising that she could sing and had a marketable look, signed her to their SRC production company and shopped her around to various labels.

The other soon-to-be star is Livvi Franc (Olivia Charlotte Waithe), an 18-year-old beauty with a Nelly Furtado-ish sound. Franc was signed to Jive Records in late 2007.

While she’s the biggest Bajan star yet, Rihanna is not the first of her countrymen to secure an international recording contract. Soca artiste Rupee was signed to Atlantic Records in 2004.

“I think it’s a wonderful combination of a lot of hard work for years, and broken dreams for a lot of artistes who went before,” said John King, commenting on Barbados’s flavour-of-the-month status.

“I told someone 10 or 12 years ago that the next place the rest of the world will be looking at for music is the Caribbean,” said King, a two-time Barbados calypso monarch and former vocalist for Spice & Co.

As evident at the BMAs, Bajans have not been waiting idly. They have been preparing themselves and it shows. Barbados’s thriving tourism industry is one contributing factor.

Tourism, according to the Ministry of Tourism’s website, “is the engine of growth of the economy and continues to be the main source of foreign exchange and employment.” The Tourism Statistical Digest for 2005 shows there were over a million visitors to Barbados that year and over 6,300 rooms available. The majority of hotels and resorts are concentrated along the southern and western coasts, home to some of the country’s top liming spots. And in almost every hotel, restaurant and nightclub, there is some form of live entertainment. This has been the training ground for many of Barbados’s artistes.

“Tourism prepares you for the rest of the world,” explained King. “You have to interact with the tourists, know what they want. These artistes have been in training for a long time.”

Derek Wilkie, managing director of CRS Records, agrees. “Once a youngster decides, ‘I want to get into music or form a band,’ they may not be too talented, but they get a job at a hotel to do music and they learn the formula. It’s a good breeding ground to test their music, the standard of production, their live sound, staging…all of that has to be at a very high level.”

Integral to Barbados’s tourism lure are its cultural events. The Barbados Jazz Festival; Holders Season, a celebration of opera and theatre; the Crop Over festival; and Gospelfest all offer locals the opportunity to display their talents in a wide range of of music genres.

The Barbados Music Awards, which is produced by Timeless Entertainment, has also become a major platform for such talent. Ronnie Morris, founder, was inspired to assist in the development of Barbados’s music industry after Rupee made the Billboard Top 40 chart with his debut single, Tempted to Touch. A singer himself, he created the BMAs to recognise everybody who contributes to the development of the industry. For some, performing at the awards pays big dividends. Dwayne Husbands, a singer who performed at the 2007 BMAs, subsequently dueted with Rihanna on a track from her second album, A Girl Like Me.

Acknowledging Rihanna’s influence, Wilkie said the international labels are now definitely more receptive to what Barbados has to offer.

“People are hunting around. This is nothing new; as far back as 40 years ago The Merrymen had a number one song in Holland, the Bamboo Song. I just got a call from England saying the song was re-recorded and if we want to get involved in the administration of the royalties, etc,” said Wilkie, who also revealed that CRS recently signed a deal with a company in Canada to use Spice & Co’s big hit, Take Your Clothes Off, for a movie.

The company recently signed a publishing deal in Canada for popular Bajan reggae artiste David Kirton, whose children’s album is to be used for Fisher Price toys.

“Independent record labels like ours believe we are drilling for oil, and when we find it we send it to someone else to refine,” said Wilkie, explaining that smaller labels don’t have the money to spend to promote these artistes, but can profit through copyright.

“With the strengthening of the copyright regime, we are in a much better position to collect and promote them. We have royalties coming from Japan because of reciprocal arrangements now,” said Wilkie, who is also the chairman of the Copyright Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (COSCAP) in Barbados and a director of the Caribbean Copyright Link, an organisation comprising copyright associations from Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica and Barbados.

The artistes are not the only ones profiting. “There has also been an interest in the production side of it, and one or two of the [local] studios are being used for recording and writing songs by international artistes,” revealed Mikey Hulsmeier, one half of De Red Boyz, a production outfit he formed with Trinidadian musician Scott Galt.

Deepu Panjwani, an engineer and producer for about 17 years, has certainly benefited from the island’s exposure. Rihanna and her label mate, Ne-Yo, both recorded at his Lethal Studio.

“We recorded Hate that I Love You, Good Girl Gone Bad—out of Rihanna’s 12 songs we did two, and out of Ne-Yo’s 12 we did four. Since that time we’ve been getting a lot more people wanting to use the facility. We are stepping up our game, stepping up our quality. It was a really good experience: they brought down some engineers from overseas and we learnt a bit from them. For something like that to happen there’s always a huge spin-off.”

There are still challenges that threaten to hinder the development of the Barbados music industry. Piracy, King pointed out, is one, along with a lack of financial and infrastructural support.

“Unless those things are in place, this [period] could pass our young artistes. If there was proper infrastructure, where as a tourist I could pay to see artistes perform, they wouldn’t have to travel to ply their trade elsewhere. If you don’t have ready work there for you always, you can’t borrow money for your projects. Our financial institutes do not believe in the cultural industries; they are not prepared to give up on the notion that formal education is the only way.”

Airplay, said Wilkie, is another problem. “There is a lack of sensitivity by radio stations to predominantly play what is locally produced. There is one station here that plays [none].”

Still, Hulsmeier believes the overall music environment is improving.

“I think we are overcoming a lot of [the problems] now that people are recording more and becoming better at what they do. One problem we faced is that people used to record only at Crop Over, young artistes recording one or two songs for the year and not getting the practice that is required.”

“We don’t have an industry here per se,” said Panjwani, “but I think it’s very important to stay on this path, keep producing music throughout the year.”

He was optimistic about the future. “The next thing that needs to happen is for us to do more videos, get some more play on Tempo. The awards help in a big way too. It adds to the industry…We are finally beginning to see some move forward.”