Upbeat | Music Reviews (September/October 2000)

New music from the Caribbean

Pick of the Month

Bring Down the Power by Ella Andall

Ella Andall’s music is closer in spirit to the African protest sound of singers like Miriam Makeba than to that of most of her musical compatriots in Trinidad and Tobago. The Afrocentric strain in Trinidadian music – normally hybridised, in mainstream calypso and soca, with elements from jazz, R&B, pop, reggae and dancehall- has been growing more prominent, and Andall, born in Grenada, has been a big part of that process. The movement towards Africa has produced radical changes in both music and subject matter, and Bring Down the Power is a good example of the new trends. In the music, the African drum dominates; thematically, there’s what the rapso movement calls “the rhythm of the word in the power of the word,” a deep-seated belief in the transcendental potency of the spoken word, especially when chanted against a rhythm – a far cry from the word-play and sexual innuendo of calypso. With its themes of protest and social change and religious transcendence, this is music for more serious times.

Andall’s songs confront the harsh realities of Afro-Caribbean life head-on, without irony, using the weapons of love and music and Orisha, the Afro-Caribbean religion whose themes and imagery have fuelled the Afrocentric movement. She challenges complacency; she’s not above invoking the Apocalypse, and her full bell-like voice is the perfect vehicle. On her 2000 Carnival season track Missing Generation, Andall warns: Somebody better pray/ There’s a missing generation/And soon if we don’t find them/They’re surely goin’ to find us one day. Her delivery suggests a dead seriousness: Trinidadians might remember that Andall recently stormed into downtown Port of Spain and personally confronted the cassette-peddling hucksters who were bootlegging copies of her CD of Orisha chants, Oriki Ogun.

The title cut is a more joyous number, one of her long-time hits, and the album also includes another rollicking Andall standard, David Rudder’s My Spirit Is Music. On Black Woman she sounds uncannily like a young Makeba, and there’s even a male chorus trying out a Trini version of Zulu iscathamiya singing. Different People, written by the late Ras Shorty I, is a slow, sexy, old-school ballad about the trials and tribulations of miscegenation. Several of the tracks sport spirited Orisha chants, alongside flavours of ska and Motown.

Miss Ella has many imitators, as anyone who’s attended a calypso queen show and noted the plethora of big head-ties and African robes already knows; but she’s a cut above, full-voiced, charismatic, utterly convincing. (GP)

CALYPSO/SOCA

Soca for de World
Rocky and Gailann (Rituals Music, CO 7400)

This album features the New York-based new-generation duo Rocky and Gailann trying out their moves on the latest Caribbean hybrids: ragga soca (a fusion of Trinidad’s turbocharged soca party music and Jamaica’s raunchy dancehall), J’ouvert rapso, and even a hint of Bouyon (Dominica’s fusion of folk-sound Jing Ping, Haitian konpa, zouk and soca). The two opening tracks (Look Me in meh Eye and Dirty Liar), featuring Gailann’s seductive soprano, were big party hits for Carnival 2000. Her independent-woman lyrics and pure voice have the potential to make her a soca diva. There are interesting regional gestures on tracks like J’ouvert Breakaway with its hint of Jing Ping accordion) and Papi, which has a Spanish feel, but guest artists Ato and New Image have nothing to add lyrically or musically on their tracks. (SL)

Ready Again
Roy Cape All Stars (Rituals Music, CO 7100)

Roy Cape is one of Trinidad’s veteran musicians, a fixture at the Trinidad and Tobago Carnival and the clone festivals it has spawned around the world. Cape’s All Stars band has functioned as an informal music academy for generations of musicians. But soca is primarily live party music, which presents problems when it comes to capturing its visceral essence on a recording. Even with its quota of party songs, Ready Again sounds like a domesticated version of the soca beast. The main charm of the CD, however, is Roy Cape’s outing as a vocalist (usually he’s found glued to a sax reed): Mr Cape is both an endearing review of Cape’s career and the manifesto of the professional musician, while Sing Yuh Song celebrates his newfound vocal confidence. (SL)

Energy
Blue Ventures (Rituals, CO 7300)

There’s no disputing the energy Blue Ventures radiates on this album. The full frontal attack is led by 1999 Road March Queen Sanell Dempster, who swept aside all competition with the infectious River, capsizing Trinidad and half the Caribbean. Dempster scores again with songs like Nothing (the ultimate brush-off for uncommitted men), Man de Deck and Boyfriend Girlfriend, and her tracks certainly dominate. But Ready for the Road, written by Bajan soca maestro Edwin Yearwood and interpreted by Lima Calbio, is also worth a second listen. The album’s final track, Caribbean Connection, interpreted in slow tempo retro style, is by the late Merchant (aka Dennis Williams), one of Trinidad’s most prolific calypso composers. (SL)

PAN/PAN-JAZZ

Music from the Silver Screen
The Samaroo Jets (WGM Group BR7043)

This CD is a delightfully mellow combination of at least four Trinidadian musical institutions and traditions: steelpan, Indian film music, chutney (the spicy indigenous Indian popular music) and the Samaroo Jets. Originally formed by seven siblings back in 1967, the Jets are doubly famous as a family steelpan side and as one of the musical vehicles of its leader, Jit Samaroo, one of the pan-crazed island’s most gifted and successful arrangers. (Jit’s winning arrangements for Amoco Renegades have taken first place at Carnival’s annual Panorama competition more times than rival bands would like to remember). This CD offers a sample of an entirely different sound from the raging tumult of Panorama. Songs from Bollywood movies have been a long-time staple of Trinidad’s Indian orchestras and singers. Melodious, romantic, dramatic and foot-tappingly catchy, they’re ripe for interpretation by the Samaroos’ disciplined pans. Alongside the “filmi” numbers are a couple of Jit’s own up tempo chutney compositions. Altogether a very pleasant experience. (SL)

Pan Sweet Pan: Steel Orchestras of the Caribbean
Various artists (Sanch CD8749)

Actually, it’s six steel orchestras from Trinidad and Tobago (All Stars, Exodus, Renegades, Starlift, Birdsong and Fonclaire) and one from St Thomas in the US Virgin Islands (Rising Stars). They are recorded in high-quality Sanchsound, doing Panorama-style arrangements in a slower, coasting tempo that sacrifices frenzy to clarity. This is the CD which is being used as a fund-raiser for steelpan development in Trinidad and Tobago (see the May/June Caribbean Beat). Oddly, the liner notes don’t mention that, and don’t provide any useful information about the bands, the tunes or the composers – though they do speculate at length, in English and Spanish, on whether the steelpan can be classified as an idiophone or a membranophone, and on its desire to become a global mainstream instrument. The music is very much what you would expect from these top bands and from arrangers like Leon Edwards, Pelham Goddard and Jit Samaroo, Rudy Smith and Anise Hadeed. lt stays well within the established Panorama mould, easy, familiar, no strain on the brain. (JT)

The Nostalgic Panyard
Neal & Massy Trinidad All Stars Steel Orchestra (Sanch CD0002)

“Nostalgic” because the music salutes 65 years of achievement, all the way back to 1935 when All Stars were the Hell Yard Boys. The liner notes recall the orchestra’s pioneering work with classical music, and with double seconds and bass pans; its successes in the Panorama and Bomb competitions, at the Steelband Music Festival and on overseas tours; the rhythmic bounce in the playing (attributed to Neville Jules); the sailor mas, the panyard spirit and the pan yard bell. Recording engineer Simeon Sandiford even waxes nostalgic about being able to leave his equipment in the panyard overnight without a second thought. There are no classical tracks on this album, recorded in the panyard late at night, mostly with laid-back tempi: there’s Rudder’s Adrenalin City, a Baron medley, Jimmy Cliff’s The Harder They Come, a full-speed Me and Mih Lady, and some relaxed mainstream numbers, from Samba de Orfeu to Forever in Love. Easy listening, in classic All Stars style. (JT)

REGGAE

Don’t Haffi Dread
Morgan Heritage (VP Records)

This is perfectly packaged reggae for an international audience: a safe mix of classic bubbling bass-backed roots reggae, deliberately echoing King Bob and the Wailers, with some slick R & B and rap, wrapped around neo-Rasta lyrics. The title track might be blasphemy to the Nyabinghi (suggesting that Rasta is not about dreadlocks but “a conception of the heart”) but it certainly makes for a much wider audience. Morgan Heritage, a band composed of the Jamerican-raised children of Jamaican 70s singer Denroy Morgan, have swiftly established themselves as the modern voice of conscious reggae. Their obvious musical ability puts them clear of the current stable of djs-turned-dancehall-kings, but this CD, however well produced, fails to capture the intensity of their live act. (SL)

LATIN

Noche de la Rumba
Clave y Guaguanco (Tumi Music/Tumi 085)

There’s been no shortage of Cuban CDs in recent times, thanks in part to the Buena Vista Social Club phenomenon. But this is one to add to your creme-de-la-creme collection. Rumba (not to be confused with the tame Latin ballroom dance) is one of the seminal elements of Afro-Cuban culture -a hypnotic drum, call-and-response music, and a dance of such sexual energy it makes the lambada look like a kindergarten minuet. Spawned in the barrios of Havana and Matanzas in the late 19th century to the percussive accompaniment of cajones (appropriated packing cases), rumba comes in three forms: yambu, Colombia, and the wildest version, guaguanco. Noche de la Rumba provides a taste of all three, as well as an introduction to the late, great rumba queen Celeste Mendoza, and to Changuito, one of Cuba’s greatest living Afro-percussionists. This is one CD you will have to dance to. (SL)