Rhythm roundup (November/December 2005)

The new music that are reflecting the region right now

Backstreet bwoys

Unknown Language  T.O.K. (VP Records, VPCD1711)

Forget the bland blond boy bands from MTV: with the release of their sophomore album, Unknown Language, Jamaica’s T.O.K. heralds the rise of the “rude bwoy band”, complete with four-part harmonies, dancehall bluster, and enough infectious rhythms to bring out the teenage girl in anyone. T.O.K. has the chops to make it as an R&B group, as the harmonising on each of the 16 tracks and the straightforward ballad Tell Me If You Still Care proves. But the heart of the album is pure dancehall pop: playful dance tracks heavy on the bass and light on the lyrics, showcasing the group’s uniquely skillful interplay between singing and deejaying. With four strong voices that work well alone but even better together, and tastes of hip-hop, rap, gospel, reggaeton, and soca, Unknown Language is a rare dancehall album that never gets boring. There are the usual odes to dancehall’s favourite subjects — women, weed, and wining — and enough deejaying to justify the album’s title, which is a nod to criticisms of dancehall’s heavy use of Jamaican patois. But tracks like the spiritually uplifting Footprints make you glad for the times T.O.K. slows the party down to sing. You actually don’t mind hearing what these guys have to say.

Kellie Magnus

Sunday special

Comin’ in Tough  Freddie McGregor (VP Records, VPCD 1705)

It’s hard to believe, looking at his boyish face, that Freddie McGregor’s been in the business for forty years. And this latest album, Comin’ in Tough, proves that McGregor’s still in peak form, still gifted with the same sugary voice that makes women swoon and their men forgive them. Comin’ in Tough features 16 tracks, the majority crafted by veteran producer Bobby Digital. But most of the album gives off a whiff of middle-of-the-road safety — unobjectionable, do-good messages paired with mellow, inoffensive beats that sometimes veer towards Muzak. It’s a Sunday afternoon album delivered by a singer with a Saturday night voice. You long to hear Freddie take on a real challenge and come in tough, the way the title promises. Still, pairings with Marcia Griffiths — still in great form — and Morgan Heritage — possibly the greatest young band in reggae today — make the disc worthwhile. And it’s hard to knock McGregor’s easy listening style when it works so well on sweet renditions of Bob Marley’s Love and Affection and the Five Stairsteps’ classic Ooh Child. Then, of course, on tracks like You Don’t Know, when Freddie really sings — well, Sunday afternoon can be a beautiful thing.


Keep it cool

Caribbean Odyssey  Cascadú (Cascadú Music)

On this well-produced — if a bit familiar-sounding — addition to the Caribbean smooth jazz catalogue, Trinidad-born Cascadú (aka Omigbade Escayg, formerly of the 1970s group Fireflight) plays a wide range of percussive objects, including the tenor steel pan, tambourines, flexi-tone, wind chimes, gonkoqui, frikwa, wood blocks, and chekere. Caribbean Odyssey offers up seven breezy instrumental tracks in the vein of jazz fusion groups like Spyro Gyra and Trinidad’s élan parle, and one jazz ballad featuring singer Jon Lucien. A few of the cuts veer precariously close to elevator music — the use of the steel pan, in particular, feels a bit hackneyed. But at its best this is appealingly rendered cocktail jazz, an excellent backdrop to a languid tropical odyssey, real or imaginary.

Georgia Popplewell

Ride the beat

Surfin’  Ernest Ranglin (Tropic Entertainment Ltd, CD-83632)

Veteran Jamaican guitarist Ernest Ranglin is one of the most prolific jazz performers in the English-speaking Caribbean, having released more than six albums since 2000, including a collaboration with his compatriot Monty Alexander. His latest, Surfin’, is a collection of beautifully executed reggae-jazz originals (some of them collaborations), but while Ranglin — now 73 — remains a masterful instrumentalist and while, taken individually, each of the 16 tracks is finely rendered, as a whole they tend to sound like one long, albeit smooth, reggae instrumental. This may in fact be a limitation of reggae, which derives its power from its unmistakable back beat, which, in the case of an instrumental, can be an overwhelming backdrop. Hardcore fans of instrumental reggae and of Ranglin’s deft guitar playing will find great pleasure in Surfin’, but recent Ranglin releases like 2001’s Gotcha and the Monty Alexander collaboration Rocksteady — which leaned heavily on covers of classic reggae songs — were probably more satisfying to less discerning fans.


Gold rush

Reggae Gold 2005  Various artists (VP Records, VPCD 1729)
Soca Gold 2005  Various artists (VP Records, VPCD1730-2)
Popso Jamz  Various artists (VP Records, VPCD 1684)

VP Records’ annual reggae and soca compilations have become solid fixtures on the music scene, alerting music fans to some of the year’s notable releases in both genres. Given what compilations are, the normal reviewing criteria don’t apply, but one method of judging a compilation is to assess how successfully it fulfils its proposed theme (though if truth in advertising applied in the music business, most compilations would simply call themselves “ten tunes we were able to license without breaking the bank”). VP astutely shields itself against any such scrutiny by calling its compilations “Gold”, and while many Caribbean-based aficionados of the two genres probably won’t find anything new or surprising in either Reggae Gold 2005 or Soca Gold 2005, they do offer listeners further afield an acceptable sampling of some of the year’s most popular singles by some of the biggest stars — including Sean Paul, Beenie Man, Sizzla, Beres Hammond, Machel Montano, Bunji Garlin, and Edwin Yearwood — with a few lesser lights acting as a sort of musical bubble wrap. A notable feature of both compilations is the inclusion of a mix CD of the featured tunes by a popular deejay (Fame FM’s Collin Chin for Reggae Gold and New York-based Trinidadian D+Life for Soca), which could come in more than handy at parties. This year VP has also introduced Popso Jamz to the lineup, capitalising on the current popularity of the new sub-genre popularised by Kevin Lyttle and Rupee, who both appear on the CD along with the likes of Edwin Yearwood, Shurwayne Winchester, and Dawg-E-Slaughter.


Make time

The Time Is Now Is the Time: 3Canal meets Robbie Styles (remixes)  
3Canal (Machete Music)

Recent live performances by the Trinidadian rapso outfit 3Canal have demonstrated the strength of their 2005 album Jab Jab Say, four of whose tracks have carved out what looks like a permanent place for themselves in the group’s live performance repertoire. These four selections — Happy Song, Piti Pata, Borderline, and Now Is the Time — form the basis of the remixes featured on this limited edition EP. The mixmaster is Robert “Robbie Styles” Persad, who’s better known in Trinidad as a parandero and virtuoso cuatro player, but who’s clearly been keeping abreast of things on the club remix scene. Styles’s reinterpretations turn Happy Song into a cartoonish soul-funk number, the anti-violence Pita Pata into a slow, brooding song flavoured with mournful tablas, organ, and jungle drums, and lavishes Borderline and Now Is the Time with Latin flourishes — the latter’s samba reincarnation is called the “Ronaldinho Remix”. The downside is that this EP is available only directly from 3Canal ([email protected] or www.3canal.com).