With Christmas looming once again, serious music fans will be looking forward to their annual CD bonanza. I’m drooling already at the prospect of new CDs galore, and I’ll be giving my wife this column to proofread in order to ensure I’m not disappointed. Christmas music shopping in the Caribbean can be both enjoyable and baffling. Enjoyable, because these islands churn out, collectively, a wider variety of excellent music than any comparably sized region in the world. Baffling, because these islands also are home to an astonishing array of musical genres, from soca to salsa, from reggae to rumba. So, if music’s on your seasonal shopping agenda, here are 10 recommendations that cover the Caribbean spectrum from mainstream reggae to Cuban jazz piano:
One Love: The Very Best of Bob Marley and the Wailers A sure-fire winner, unless you happen to be buying for a Marley fanatic, in which case he or she will almost certainly have most of what’s on this double-CD package. The 33 tracks include many of Marley’s timeless reggae anthems, No Woman No Cry, One Love, Buffalo Soldier, Natural Mystic and Africa Unite among them, along with lesser known but equally brilliant songs like Jah Live, Smile Jamaica, Punky Reggae Party and the previously unreleased Who Colt the Game. In short, Marley heaven.
A Twist of Marley: A Tribute Many reggae purists tut-tut peevishly every time they hear someone other than Bob playing his tunes. What nonsense! The man wrote some of the greatest songs of the 20th century — or any other century, for that matter — and they lend themselves to an array of interpretations. Produced by American jazz guitarist Lee Ritenour, A Twist of Marley contains 13 always tasteful, often innovative jazz readings of Marley classics by a variety of accomplished musicians. The standout is a jazz-soul version of Stir it Up by the brilliant and vastly underrated vocalist Phil Perry.
Strictly the Best, Volume 28 Today’s reggae rhythms are a far cry from the classic roots sounds of the 70s, and the Strictly the Best series is a great way to sample what’s current and hot without investing in a truckload of CDs. It includes everything from Tony Rebel’s massive hit Just Friends, to VC’s gorgeous By His Deeds, as well as a killer version of Red, Red Wine by Elan. Sixteen tracks, and there’s not a weak link among them.
Home Grown Crucial Bankie. More new reggae, but this time very much in the traditional roots vein. Bankie’s one of the leaders of the thriving reggae scene in the tiny eastern Caribbean island of St Kitts, and the recently released Home Grown confirms that he has developed into an artist of international stature. He’s got the rare gift of writing songs with compelling, instantly accessible hooks (my favourite five-year-old can sing along to every track on Home Grown), and he has the voice to match. Throw in some excellent lyrics, and you’ve got a CD that any reggae fan will treasure, and, because it’s hard to find outside the Caribbean, that will be particularly appreciated as a Christmas gift.
Classic Kitch Lord Kitchener. The late Aldwyn Roberts, known to calypso fans throughout the world as Lord Kitchener (or simply “Kitch”), is one of the genuine legends of Caribbean music, not to mention one of its truly great songwriters. The title would seem to indicate that this is a greatest-hits package; in fact, it’s the last CD Kitch put out before his untimely death a couple of years ago, and it’s crammed with new offerings from a master of Caribbean melody. From political satire, to a tribute to the steelpan, to an ode to the delights of a backyard barbecue, to a tongue-in-cheek tribute to his own youthfulness and virility, this is Kitch at his best. Calypso doesn’t get any better.
Sparrow’s Dance Party The Mighty Sparrow. He’s known as the Calypso King of the World; he’s been churning out glorious music since the 50s and he’s still going strong. Sparrow’s Dance Party breathes new life into some of Slinger Francisco’s best-loved songs, many of which have become part of the fabric of life in Trinidad — and much of the rest of the English-speaking Caribbean, come to think of it. Jean and Dinah, Congo Man, The Lizard, Melda, Mister Walker, Sa Sa Yea: they’re all here, with Sparrow in particularly infectious form. It’s enough to make you dance.
Chanchullo Rubén González. You couldn’t invent the Rubén González story. After being one of Cuba’s most successful pianists during the 40s, 50s and 60s, González, like many of yesteryear’s greats, languished in obscurity for decades in Havana. Then, about five years ago, he was rediscovered by American guitarist Ry Cooder, who brought him out of retirement to star in the Oscar-winning documentary, Buena Vista Social Club. The 80-something González was suddenly an international superstar, touring the world with his own orchestra. Chanchullo showcases the extraordinary skills of a master pianist, backed by a hand-picked ensemble of Cuba’s finest musicians.
Reggae Christmas: Various Artists I’m not, I must confess, a huge fan of Christmas music. But I do love good music, of any ilk, and this is good music by any yardstick. The Gaylads’ version of We Three Kings is some of the most gorgeous harmony singing you’ll ever hear, while roots artists like the Ethiopians, Desmond Dekker, Alton Ellis and the Kingstonians bring a uniquely Jamaican twist to seasonal melodies. Guaranteed to make you skank around the Christmas tree.
One Stone Culture. Joseph Hill, Culture’s legendary leader, is regarded by many as reggae’s greatest living singer, and One Stone is perhaps the best CD ever from a man I vividly recall being paid the following tribute by the proprietor of a Jamaican record store in Miami: “Joseph Hill, mon: he’s never made a bad song, much less a bad album.” Standouts on a CD that’s full of them include the classic title track, the heartfelt A Slice of Mount Zion, and Down in Babylon, a hypnotic Rastafarian take on Bob Dylan’s Where Have All the Flowers Gone.
Gotcha! Ernest Ranglin. Guitar great Ranglin’s remarkable career encompasses every chapter in the story of modern Jamaican music. He goes back to the late 40s, when big bands ruled in Jamaica, and continues to record and perform regularly. Along the way, and among many other things, he co-invented the ska rhythm that was the precursor of reggae, worked in the studio with a promising young band called the Wailers, and was voted Europe’s jazz guitar newcomer of the year during a stint as house guitarist at Ronnie Scott’s in London. His masterful jazz guitar has never sounded better than on this 2001 CD, on which Ranglin and a squad of crack studio sidemen fuse down-home reggae grooves with the most elegant of jazz.