Judgement time: Tempo TV

It’s been over a year since Tempo took the air to showcase Caribbean culture. Garry Steckles reports on the music channel’s progress

  • Orville Richard Burrell, better known as Shaggy. Photograph courtesy Big Yard Music

It’s been 18 months since I had some less than complimentary things to say in this space about Tempo, the television channel that had just been launched, as I put it at the time, “amid a flurry of hype unprecedented for this part of the world, and a self-professed mandate to showcase Caribbean culture in all its diversity”.

My chief complaint was a pretty basic one: the new channel simply wasn’t delivering what it had promised. Instead of Caribbean music, Caribbean movies, Caribbean dance and Caribbean culture in general, about 90 per cent of what they were showing consisted of the same dreadful videos that were being played on BET…which just happens to be a sister company of Tempo, all part of the Viacom empire.

Why, I wondered, were we being bombarded with a mix of rap, hip-hop and kiddy-pop by acts like 50 Cent, Mia, Pit Bull, Mariah Carey, Kanye West, Destiny’s Child, Busta Rhymes and Jennifer Lopez, when we’d been led to believe we’d be getting Bob Marley, David Rudder, Dennis Brown, Culture, Freddie McGregor and Sparrow, along with a whole bunch of exciting and talented new Caribbean artists?

So it comes as a distinct pleasure to report that someone at Tempo seems to have been listening to the howls of outrage that accompanied the channel’s first few months. They’ve improved, and improved dramatically. They’ve still got a long way to go—more about that in a moment—but they’re at least keeping one of their original promises: to provide a showcase for Caribbean music.

These days, about 95 per cent of the videos being shown on Tempo are very much Caribbean, and that alone is worthy of a grateful tip of the Steckles editorial hat.

What’s really exciting, for those of us who believe that the music that’s being made in the Caribbean is the best in the world, is that some of the videos that have found a showcase on Tempo are quite brilliant—and immeasurably superior to the slick and shallow material that dominates mainstream pop these days. And, unlike much of what’s shown on the aforementioned rap, hip-hop and kiddy-pop videos, a substantial number of these Caribbean productions reflect the positive vibrations and social messages of the music they’re accompanying, be it the beauty and spirit of the Caribbean and its people or the reality of life in its ghettos.

One of the videos I’ve been watching over the past few weeks, Shurwayne Winchester’s “Don’t Stop”, is one of the most stunning visual portrayals of Caribbean culture and Caribbean people ever put on film. Musically, it’s superb, incorporating dizzying changes of a smorgasbord of tempos—from East Indian to breakneck dancehall soca—with wicked melodic hooks. Visually, it’s breathtaking. And it doesn’t hurt that in parts it’s downright sultry without ever lapsing into questionable taste.

Almost as good is Shaggy’s barbed and often hilarious “Church Heathen”, which takes delicious musical digs in a dancehall style at holier-than-thou types whose lives are somewhat less exemplary outside church than in it.

Then there’s Damian “Junior Gong” Marley’s “Welcome to Jamrock”, a haunting introduction to some of Kingston’s ghetto areas, filmed in stark black and white and sepia, and a perfect visual accompaniment to the biggest dancehall hit to come out of Jamaica so far this century.

Tempo has also managed to acquire some fine vintage videos. Among the best of them is Peter Tosh and Mick Jagger doing a duet on Tosh’s late-seventies international hit “(You Gotta Walk and) Don’t Look Back”, with the inscrutable Tosh gazing almost benevolently at Jagger as the rock legend engages in some of the most ridiculous dance moves ever committed to film. Then there’s Millie Small’s catchy “My Boy Lollipop”, from the mid-sixties—one of the first Caribbean recordings to become an international hit. It’s not exactly a cutting-edge video, but it’s still a great song, and a genuine piece of Caribbean music history.

Tempo’s also showing a commendable amount of classic reggae, including satisfying helpings of one Robert Nesta Marley, along with classic roots veterans like Big Youth, Israel Vibration, Toots, Jimmy Cliff, Crucial Bankie, Freddie McGregor, Burning Spear and Aswad. Contemporary roots performers whose songs and videos have impressed me include Cherine Anderson, Gyptian, Richie Spice and Tarrus Riley.

On the negative side, we’re not seeing a great deal of the original programming Tempo promised us in its barrage of pre-launch hype. I’ve caught only one documentary, on the pioneering Jamaican producer Prince Jammy, and it was excellent, a tantalising hint of a cultural treasure trove just waiting to be tapped.

And, thus far, there hasn’t been as much as a sniff on Tempo—at least not when I’ve been watching—of one of the English-speaking Caribbean’s foremost genres of music. Haven’t these people heard of a thing called calypso?

There’s plenty of full-steam-ahead soca, much of it very good, but thus far legendary calypsonians like Sparrow, Kitchener, David Rudder, Chalkdust, Stalin, Explainer, etc, have been conspicuously absent, and I can’t think of a more glaring musical omission.

Many of Tempo’s programmes seem to be repeated time after time, and at least one of their promos is shown so often it’s long since become downright irritating—as has much of the non-stop, banal gushing of some of the channel’s VJs, at least one of whom is convinced we’re more interested in him telling us all about himself and how wonderful he is than in the music and the artists he’s supposed to be introducing.

But even when it’s at its least impressive, today’s Tempo is still concentrating almost exclusively on Caribbean content, and that’s a vast improvement on the channel we were watching last year.


Movement of bar peopleIs the Caribbean ready for another music festival?

Greg Barnhill and Neil Goodwin think so.

Barnhill’s a Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter out of Nashville. Goodwin’s a St Kitts restaurateur. They crossed paths for the first time a few months ago, when Barnhill was visiting St Kitts. Neil invited Greg to bring his guitar to his Basseterre bar and restaurant, StoneWalls, one Friday evening, and the performance was such a success—it turned into a jam and the music was still playing at three in the morning—that they came up with the concept of a festival devoted to singer-songwriters.

Barnhill agreed to use his extensive range of contacts to bring in international artists. Goodwin agreed to come up with the venue, the backing, and the talented local singer-songwriters they hope will play a major role in the event.

The first St Kitts Singer-Songwriter Festival is scheduled to coincide with the island’s annual independence celebrations, marked on September 19. Plans are to block off the street outside StoneWalls, put up a stage, and to make the first festival a free one.

St Kitts, the island I call home, already has a major annual music festival, but the singer-songwriter event promises to be radically different in its approach and its musical objectives. I wish it every success.