Forward Home: André Tanker Revisited

Keeping away from the limelight, he has been one of the Caribbean's best-kept musical secrets. But now, with a hugely successful CD, is he threatened with serious international fame? Judy Raymond meets musician André Tanker

  • Photograph by Mark Lyndersay
  • Photograph by Mark Lyndersay
  • Photograph by Mark Lyndersay
  • Photograph by Mark Lyndersay
  • Tanker–in a rare picture with his family
  • Andre Tanker

After three decades as one of Trinidad and Tobago’s leading musicians, André Tanker is still among the country’s best-kept secrets. But he’s always made his music for the world. And now he’s released his first CD, Children of the Big Bang, on the local Rituals label, Trinidad may find it harder to keep André Tanker to itself.

Since the 1970s, Tanker has been composing and performing what he would sum up, reluctantly, as “contemporary Caribbean music”. It draws on the traditions not only of the modern Caribbean — calypso, reggae — but on the jazz, blues and soul of North America, the drums and chants of Africa, the tabla and sitar of India.

Nowadays that rich mixture is part of what’s called “world music” — and the rest of the world is finally catching up with Tanker.

Children of the Big Bang has been selling well locally. And with world music making the charts internationally, Tanker may find himself reluctantly in the limelight.

Among those in the know, Tanker is much in demand. He and his One World Contraband were enticed into taking part in the 1996 edition of Trinidad’s annual Pan Jazz Festival last November, and appeared for two years at the St Lucia Jazz Festival. Those live performances, like the CD, included new high-energy versions of many old Tanker favourites that have become local classics.

On Children of the Big Bang, a jazzy sax introduces Calypso Soul Food, a praise-song in honour of local cuisine, which rhapsodises on the flavours of Trinidad’s cow heel soup, Guyanese pepperpot and Tobago’s curry crab with dumplings. There’s Carnival music (Wild Indian Band) which wouldn’t sound out of place coming from a music truck on the road on Carnival day; Forward Home, the anthem of the returning migrant (I went away, I leave and I forward home . . .), uptempo chants in Call of the Water Dancer and Meeting at the Crossroads. And the CD had to include — in a gently hip-hop version — Sayamanda, one of the best-loved Tanker songs of all.

Sayamanda was a nonsense word that he improvised while he was composing the tune, planning to replace it with more meaningful lyrics later. But it sounded right, and later he interpreted it to mean “Is I a man there”. It meant, he explains, “We’re all human. We all have a common kind of feeling, we can identify with what’s happening in another place.”

That theme runs through all Tanker’s work. And this music celebrates life. In Thanks for the Music, Tanker sings:

Life-giving waters fall from the clouds,
Bring drink to the thirsty and water the grounds.
Thanks for the sunshine, thanks for the rain.
Let’s work and take courage, live up in his name.

Tanker wrote and composed all the tracks on the CD, sings lead vocals and plays lead and rhythm guitar, keyboards and percussion. He’s supported not only by members of his regular performing group but by leading local musicians and singers. His plain but serviceable voice is backed by those of calypsonian David Rudder and singers Ella Andall, Carla Gonzales and Natalie Yorke. American pannist Andy Narell is featured as both performer and producer on some of the tracks. Tanker’s brother-in-law, London-based drummer Richard Bailey, who has also worked with Bob Marley and Basia, also plays on the CD.

Asked just how old some of these familiar songs are, Tanker smiles. “It’s not how old a tune is that matters — it’s whether it lives.” His is music that lasts, and he knows it. Tanker may be modest, but he’s aware of his own worth.

What’s more, his work isn’t only relevant to Trinidad and Tobago or the Caribbean. The art forms of this region, Tanker insists, can interpret every aspect of the human experience. Thus he’s written music to accompany not only local theatre productions such as Derek Walcott’s folk musical Ti-Jean and his Brothers, but also a version of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure staged in New York in 1993.

Kikuyu, Watusi, Somalia, Ganga,
Water and fire, Children of the Big Bang!
Kilimanjaro, follow de Congo,
Trekking through Sahara,
Pointing from La Trinity
Addis Ababa, Egypt through Jerusalem,
Nations and nations
Children of a one great love

That we’re all one — “children of a one great love” — is the premise from which Tanker begins. That’s why he can draw unselfconsciously on so many sources, all of which he regards as his heritage.

This view of the world was shaped by an upbringing in the Port of Spain district of Woodbrook. Though largely middle-class and conservative, Woodbrook has been a crucible for many of the cultures that have found their way to Trinidad. Here they have been melted down and combined into powerful new forms. Carnival bandleader Peter Minshall, who came to the attention of the world when he designed the opening and closing ceremonies of the 1992 and 1996 summer Olympics, also grew up in Woodbrook. And like Minshall’s, Tanker’s work derives both its power and its originality from the traditions to which it pays homage.

The panyard of the Invaders steelband was just around the corner from the young Tanker’s home, and it was there that he tried his hand at pan, the first instrument he ever played. He didn’t play for long, something he regrets now. But he arranged for Invaders later, and music by Tanker has been used as a test piece for the national Schools Steelband Festival. The influence of steelband is still with him: “All the songs I write are easily adapted to steelband. A great part of my musical grounding was the steelband experience.”

Woodbrook was also the home of the Little Carib Theatre, founded by dancer Beryl McBurnie. For many years, the theatre housed Derek Walcott’s Trinidad Theatre Workshop, with which Tanker still works frequently. It was the venue for Tanker’s own musical debut with his band, after Beryl McBurnie heard them playing at the home of bandleader John “Buddy” Williams, another Woodbrook resident.

When the festival of Hosay came round, Tanker would visit the neighbouring district of St James and listen to the tassa drums rolling.
And I hear the sound of drums coming from the hills.

I followed the sound of drums
It took me to a yard
A lady told me, she said “Son”
She point me to the four corners of the universe
She rubbed my head with oil
And I knelt down and I gave thanks now.

The drums that were most important in Tanker’s musical education were African drums — the drums of Shango or Orisha, the New World fusion of Yoruba religion with Catholicism in which particular saints are identified with Orisha deities or powers. It was at the Little Carib that the young Tanker first heard the late Orisha priest and master drummer Andrew Beddoe, He didn’t know it then, but the beat of Beddoe’s drums was to reverberate through his own career.

“When I heard Andrew I didn’t appreciate the music,” Tanker recalls. “I just thought he could play the drums okay, I didn’t appreciate him from the point of view of coming from anywhere.”

Tanker had heard Orisha drumming before — at home, on his parents’ records. It was his mother who bought the music that shaped his interests. She was a dancer, and a descendant of Trinidad’s 19th-century painter Michel Jean Cazabon.

His father’s tastes influenced him too. “My dad might have appeared very proper, but he had an eye for things artistic.” He liked to listen to old calypso (“Executor, Lion … all those old calypsos with the flowery use of words of many syllables”).

But it’s one of his mother’s records that Tanker now sees as a crucial element in his musical education, “There was a particular record that was a thesis on the African experience — Perez Prado’s Voodoo Suite. It was brilliant. It traced the roots of the music from Africa to the Caribbean and the US — jazz, blues, Orisha. It wasn’t spelled out but you came to that realisation.”

As with Andrew Beddoe’s drums, Tanker didn’t realise the significance of this Cuban music at first. When he began playing with a band, they would copy the best things they heard. Very often, that was the Latin music that he’d heard on his mother’s records. “Somehow we heard something in Latin music, but we didn’t realise what until we got into the roots of Trinidad music.”

Tanker was 14 when he began playing seriously. He taught himself cuatro and guitar, and with other boys from the neighbourhood he played in “all these bands that lasted two weeks”. Unlike most of them, he persevered, and by the time he left school he’d decided to turn semi-professional.

By day, for three years, he worked for an insurance company. At night, in natty red jacket, white shirt and black bow tie, he was the leader of André Tanker and the Flamingoes, one of the top local combos. They were the resident band at the Trinidad Hilton, and even recorded an album.

It’s hard now to imagine today’s laid-back, unassuming Tanker in a tux, and that phase of his career didn’t last long. In 1970 there came a turning point: Trinidad’s “Black Power” uprising.

“The catchword was Black Power, but it was really black culture. Black Power caused a lot of things to fall into place. It gave you a perspective on who you are, what motivates you, why you like what you like. Andrew Beddoe started to make sense. The Orisha became less secretive: you could meet people, talk about the significance of the rhythms, the chants, the philosophy behind them. The Cuban records started to make sense.”

Local culture is quick now to acknowledge its debt to Africa, but before 1970, Tanker recalls, “Nobody ever said anything about African music. That wasn’t a pleasant word to use.” Andrew Beddoe and Beryl McBurnie were well aware of the African origins of their art forms, but Tanker hadn’t been ready to hear their message. “Everything in its time,” he says now. “Not before you’re ready to grasp it … You gradually discover that there’s more to everything you’ve been taking for granted.”

Tanker discovered African music “by opening myself up, being among drummers — the music is mainly drums and voices working with them — going to Orisha ceremonies, reading.” He studied the Orisha faith, “mainly at the level of a musician trying to understand where the music came from, the folk elements.”

He was brought up as a Roman Catholic. “But when you ask about my spiritual beliefs,” he says now, “I don’t think about that.” He wears a gold crucifix, though, and he says, “I’m able to relate to Christ as the height of man’s being godlike.” From the Hindu tradition he’s taken yoga, “a very useful body of lore through which human beings can gain great balance and cosmic consciousness.” Something in the combination seems to work for him — at 55 he looks at least a decade younger, and there’s no grey in his glossy black hair.

The Orisha faith is central to his work, But his involvement With the faith is not as crucial as, say, Bob Marley’s Rastafarianism was to his music. Tanker says: “(It’s) a matter of being sensitive and respectful of the African presence. As a composer I deal with the inspiration I’m able to tap into. If it turns out to be of a particular African nature, it can’t be denied, but it’s not something I seek to do.”

Just as he draws on a wide range of traditions from all over the world in his music, his eclectic approach to spirituality is reflected in his lyrics.

It was while Tanker was discovering the African roots of Trinidad’s culture that he discovered himself as a composer and began to add words to his music. What he considers the first good song he wrote, Chaconia, about Trinidad’s national flower, was included on the album he recorded with the Flamingoes. The melody came first and the lyrics were added later.

“In those days,” Tanker explains, “only calypsonians and people with ‘good’ voices would sing. People would sing classics, or imitate Frank Sinatra.” But Tanker’s new music was nothing like Frank Sinatra, and when the Flamingoes’ contract expired, the Hilton didn’t renew it. Tanker wasn’t sorry. His music, he realised afterwards, had been showing signs of his new consciousness even before he was fully aware of it. “Music is a funny thing. Before you reach a place, you find the music has already taken you there.”

Since then, as a composer, Tanker has collaborated with Derek Walcott and the Trinidad Theatre Workshop, writing the score for Walcott’s folk musical Ti-Jean and going on tour with it as far as New York as musical director. He wrote music for Walcott’s lyrics and in some cases provided both music and lyrics. Tanker’s music suited the play, Walcott wrote, because Tanker was “disciplined enough to be simple.”

He’s worked with sitarist Mungal Patasar, creating a fusion of creole and classical Indian music, as far back as 1974, when he wrote the score for the local feature film Bim. The Yankarran brothers, chutney performers, were also among his collaborators on that project. Tanker wrote the music for the stage version of Earl Lovelace’s novel The Dragon Can’t Dance. He went to New York in 1993 to provide the music for a Lincoln Centre production of Playboy of the West Indies. His music is often used by local choreographers, and he’s written pieces especially for them.

As for his influence on other local musicians, David Rudder, himself a songwriter as well as a singer, compares Tanker to Bob Dylan, his American contemporary, for the impact he’s had on his peers. Rudder should know — he’s been listening to Tanker since the days of the Flamingoes.

“A lot of what I do is due to his style,” Rudder acknowledges. “My own Long Time Band is similar to his Wild Indian Band, with its surreal images.”

Wild Indian band ahead
Shimmering like a hallucination
Black and red and dread
Hear dem chanting

“Then there’s the class struggle, with the little man drowned out by the sound system; the way the music of the past is brushed aside.” But Tanker makes sure there’s a happy ending:

Top-ranking DJ trucking down Frederick Street
Come to blow way de town with a big electric beat
De wild Indian band chanting on de road
When de DJ blast, their voices could not be heard.
You know de big chief stand up and point to the sky
To the heart of the radio world
You know the wild Indian chant went
Straight through the DJ system by remote control

Tanker considers it a privilege to be able to perform his own music, pointing out that most local bands have to play cover versions of the latest Caribbean hits.

His One World Contraband sets less store on showmanship than your average Caribbean band: they enjoy performing, but they won’t don outlandish costumes or cavort about the stage. The music is their message — and high-profile appearances like the Pan Jazz Festival are the exception. Tanker has been described as conducting his career like guerrilla warfare, sallying forth for a couple of appearances before going underground again. “I would hate to be a superstar,” he says. He considers himself primarily a composer, and his performances are relatively rare.

When it comes to recording, Tanker is equally fastidious, Trinidadians besiege him with requests to record some of his classics — Basement Party, River Come Down, Morena Osha — but he also has new songs waiting to be recorded. And he insists that he doesn’t only cater for Trinidadian tastes. “When you’re making music for the world, you don’t think about what Trinidad would like. If you’re a universal person, your music must have universal appeal.”

And yet it’s precisely because of its deep roots in local culture that Tanker’s work is world music. He explained that paradox once by saying that his music “only makes sense as part of the world.

“I like to say the deeper I go into Trinidad, the closer I get to the centre of the earth. I don’t care where you are: if you look up you’re going to see the same moon.”

Funding provided by the 11th EDF Regional Private Sector Development Programme Direct Support Grants Programme.
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