Seretse Small: Take it live

Jamaican musician Seretse Small has big plans for Jamaica’s music industry, as he explained to Nazma Muller

–Photograph courtesy Seretse SmallSeretse Small. Photograph by Stuart Smellie/Equilibrium PhotographySeretse Small. Photograph by Stuart Smellie/Equilibrium PhotographySeretse Small. Photograph courtesy Seretse Small

Seretse Small was bound to be a great musician. He could hardly avoid it. His Guyanese-born, French-speaking mother Jean was a theatre director, actress and producer, and Seretse was her only child. He was named after the first president of Botswana, Seretse Khama, who steered his country from poverty to become one of the fastest growing economies in the world. In Setswana, the Bantu language spoken by half of Botswana, Seretse means “clay that binds together”, carrying the idea “hope for the future”.

So it’s no great surprise that Seretse has made a name for himself as one of Jamaica’s most celebrated and intelligent musicians. He doesn’t see himself as a jazz musician or a guitarist, but he’s often referred to as the finest jazz guitarist in Jamaica. He plays just about every genre (he toured with dancehall megastar Sean Paul from 2003 to 2005), and has created his own, inimitable style of playing that’s marked by passion and dazzling virtuosity.

Anyone who has been to the Jamaica Jazz and Blues Festival over the years will tell you that Seretse Small is a natural headliner. He does things to the guitar – improvisations, arrangements – that make your toes curl. His playing style has been heavily influenced by jazz greats Earl Klugh and George Benson; his way of learning and practising was drummed into him by the Jamaican guitarist Ray Hitchins; and his love of screaming guitar was passed on by his first musical mentor, Andrew “Simo” Simpson.

In the late 90s, when he set about re-igniting Jamaicans’ passion for live music with a series of monthly concerts called Seretse and Friends, his playing guaranteed him a place in the already crowded firmament of stellar Jamaican musicians.

Seretse’s gift is his ability to weave his Jamaican sensibility and skill with passion and a sweet finish that his fellow musician Wayne Armond calls “a Trinidadian flavour”. In typical Caribbean style, Seretse’s late father, Kenneth Small, came from the other end of the Caribbean: he was was a steelband-loving Trinidadian physicist who spent much of his life in Jamaica. Seretse composed a song called Kas Kas and played it at a memorial service for his father last November in Trinidad.

These days, though, you would hardly recognise the 44-year-old musician: he is reinventing himself. Gone is his trademark red, gold and green vest: instead, he has taken to wearing suits and is even contemplating a degree in management. What’s going on?

“Business has always fascinated me,” he says, all matter-of-fact, as if a business suit is the natural attire of jazz musicians. “And I think we have enough creativity and talent in Jamaica already. What we need are more entrepreneurs.” What’s more, “I’m tired of the disrespect shown to musicians. Nobody wants to talk to a musician. They like talking to men in suits, though.”

So Seretse has switched gears and is now in the business of music production, as the CEO of his own company, Griot Music Limited. It’s a further step in the systematic building of a catalogue of Caribbean music that will have universal appeal and be covered by artists around the world. “We are about improving the quality of life of Caribbean people through music publishing,” he explains. “Our mantra is ‘People first, music second’, because we are building something sustainable, not just to ‘Mek a money’.”

Jamaica’s real strength, he feels, has always been live music. So his dream is to make Jamaica the live music capital of the world by developing performers and venues and then taking the music to the world through recordings, tours and digital downloads.

He also has the franchise for the Jamaican leg of the Global Battle of the Bands, the annual global contest for bands playing original music (no covers), and playing it live. Seretse is thus partly responsible for unleashing the modern roots reggae sensation Dubtonic Kru on the planet. They emerged as world champions at the finals in Malaysia last year, and are now on a fully booked world tour. Seretse will be taking this year’s Jamaican champions to the Romanian capital, Bucharest, in June.

Seretse claims he doesn’t play much guitar these days, but he is just being his usual modest self. In fact, he is one third of a trinity called Jakoostik, which has a distinguished pedigree. Along with Steve Golding and Ibo Cooper, Seretse and Wayne Armond played at Jamaica’s Calabash Literary Festival for a number of years. On the last day, they would interpret the lyrics of Jamaican composers and musicians like Bob Marley and Peter Tosh. They were known as the Calabash Acoustic Ensemble, and became a hugely popular element of Calabash. Those auspicious beginnings gave birth to Jakoostik (Jamaican acoustic music).

On their first album, Jakoostik Volume 1, released last year, Small and Armond, the former lead singer of Chalice, were joined by the young Donald Waugh to interpret songs by Jamaica composers like Pick Myself Up (Peter Tosh) and Putting Up a Resistance (Beres Hammond), in beautiful, bluesy harmonies. Their guitars are all the lilting accompaniment needed for Armond’s smoky vocals on most of the songs, with Waugh’s soaring tenor on classics like Sammy Dead/Hard Man Fi Dead and Wait in Vain.

Seretse’s vision for the Caribbean music industry, especially Jamaica’s, is long-term. He sees “an army of performers and music lovers whose tastes are extremely diverse and cosmopolitan”. But that seems rather a long way off. As it is, Jamaica’s music industry is no longer sustainable. A lone producer in a studio lays down a track electronically, and singers just come in and sing over the track. Seretse came up with a project called The Live Music Nation, to create multiple forums for promoting and developing music and performers in Kingston. But the global recession put a damper on sponsorship, and the live performances across the capital had to be stopped.

But Seretse is not deterred. Very much his mother’s son, he brings an intellectual rigour and a structural approach to the music industry that is desperately needed right now. His leadership style is patterned on Michael Dyke, one of his teachers at the Jamaica School of Music. He set up Griot Music as a full service music company that does recording, equipment rental, live music bookings, jingle production and music business education. Like a true griot, he knows his history and his duty to tell the story of his people, in music and in words. The griot is the repository of oral tradition, and Seretse, who has studied West African influences on Caribbean music, knows how they affect Caribbean consciousness.

As an educator, teaching both Jamaican and foreign students, Seretse noticed that local students could easily mimic polyrhythmic West African drumming, which they hear all the time growing up. But the non-Jamaicans (from Europe, North America and Asia) couldn’t. This kind of observation has started him thinking about teaching reggae. “We still don’t know how to describe and discuss reggae properly,” he says. “We can play it, but we can’t explain what it is. We still haven’t found the language to articulate this thing called reggae.”

If anyone can do it, though, here he is.

Fact file: Seretse Small

Born: September 27, 1967

Education: Jamaica College, Jamaica School of Music, Edna Manley College School of Music, Berklee Jazz College, New England Conservatory of Music

Musicals and plays (composer/arranger): Heartease (1998), Amandala (1998), Seven Guitars (1997), Lessons in the Yard (1996, directed by Earl Warner), Man Crow, the Bird of Darkness (1996), Left in the Cold (1995), The Silence of Woman (1995, directed by Jean Small)

Albums: Silo Sessions (2000), a one-man, acoustic guitar CD recorded in a silo on a farm in New York; Jazz For Hope (2011); Jakoostik Volume 1 (2011)

Soundtracks: MISSED (2010)

Featured on: BET Jazz, Jamaica Jazz and Blues Festival, St Lucia Jazz Festival National Director, Global Battle of the Bands, Jamaica (since 2005); Director, Jamaica Reggae Industry Association (2009-10); Director, Jamaica Association of Composers, Authors and Publishers (2004-6); World tour with Sean Paul (2003-5); CEO, Griot Music Corporate Services (since 2000)

Awards: Excellence in 1998 (Jamaica Federation of Musicians), Best New Jazz Artist, 1997 (Jamaica Music Industry)