André Tanker: Music Beyond Measure

André Michael Tanker, September 25, 1941 - February 28, 2003 Georgia Popplewell looks back on the life and times of Trinidad's beloved musical master

André Tanker’s death from a heart attack was announced during the Soca Monarch competition broadcast in Trinidad and Tobago on Carnival Friday night, sending into shock a reveling nation who had seen him perform on stage up to the night before, and leaving the Trinidadian and Caribbean cultural community short one towering musical influence.

Tanker, whose professional music career began in the late 1950s, was born into an artistic family in the Port of Spain suburb of Woodbrook. He was exposed in his childhood to a wide range of musical influences, including Afro-Latin music from his motherús record collection, and the Invaders steelband. He began playing the guitar and cuatro at 14, and later mastered the vibraphone and the harmonica, which became one of his signature sounds.

On leaving secondary school, Tanker formed a band called the Coronets, followed by the popular combo André Tanker and the Flamingoes. It was during the 1970s and the rise of the Black Power movement, however, that his music started taking the shape it would follow and build upon until his untimely death. Tanker’s explorations of the African origins of local art forms during this time led him to the Orisha faith, whose musical idiom became central to his work. But his music, which can truly be described as a Caribbean World fusion, also incorporated East Indian rhythms, and drew as well on jazz and folk, prompting fellow Trinidadian musician David Rudder to compare him to Bob Dylan.

Among Tanker’s achievements were musical scores for productions such as the 1974 Trinidadian feature film Bim (on which he collaborated with sitarist Mungal Patasar), and plays such as Derek Walcott’s Ti-Jean and His Brothers, Earl Lovelace’s The Dragon Can’t Dance, a production of Mustapha Matura’s Playboy of the West Indies performed at New York’s Lincoln Centre, and an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure performed as part of New York’s renowned Shakespeare in the Park series. In 1990 he won Cacique awards in the categories of best composer and best musical director.

Tanker will be best remembered, however, for the body of powerful music he created, much of it exploring universal themes of peace and unity in an idiom that was distinctly Caribbean. According to music writer Terry Joseph, “It was Tanker’s oft-expressed dream to use his band One World Contraband as a medium for uniting the tribes through music.” Sayamanda, Basement Party, Morena Osha, Hosanna Higher, and Forward Home are among the Tanker compositions now considered classics of the Caribbean folk-jazz genre. In 1997 he released the album Children of the Big Bang on the Rituals Music label.

One of the most generous of human beings, Tanker was mentor to many younger musicians, and collaborated in recent times with Ataklan, 3 Canal, and Maximus Dan, with whom he performed the duet Food Fight for Carnival 2003. He enjoyed immense success on the 2002 party circuit with the calypso hit Ben Lion, and for the 2003 Carnival released two songs, Rough Jammin’ and Is Heat, in addition to the aforementioned duet.

A man of uncommon modesty, Tanker told journalist Judy Raymond in a 1997 Caribbean Beat article that “I would hate to be a superstar.” André Tanker may not have been a superstar in the common sense, but his contribution to Caribbean music is absolutely beyond measure.