Fast and furious
Anyone who studies the sports pages of Caribbean newspapers knows Ravi Rampaul’s name. Whether he was breaking records or just scaring the life out of opposing batsmen, the young cricketer made headlines all through his under-15 and under-19 days, so no one who saw him play with the West Indies senior team in the recent One Day series against South Africa should have been surprised by his passion, commitment, and aggression. Still only 19 years old, Rampaul looks set to extend his headline-making streak to newspapers around the world.
Born in the south Trinidad village of Preysal, Ravindranath Rampaul is a fast bowler with a velocity, short ball, and mind described as “impressive” by none other than Sir Vivian Richards, chairman of the West Indies selectors. Coaches, teammates, and sportswriters call him a heart-and-soul cricketer, dedicated to his training, to improving himself, to listening to others’ advice — qualities that bode well for a long career. And he’s becomingly modest. “I do not think of myself as being really fast,” he says, “not yet.” West Indies cricket fans should thrill to that “yet”.
Tales to tell
In The Burning Bush Women and Other Stories, Barbadian writer Cherie Jones explores the joys and sorrows, greater and smaller, of Caribbean women. Born in 1974, Jones is a lawyer by profession, but she’s long nursed her literary vocation. In 1999 her story “Bride” won the Commonwealth Short Story Competition. Now in her debut book, published by Peepal Tree Press, she weaves her heartfelt and often surprising fictions around themes like love, illness, insanity, and sexuality. The distinctive voices of her characters — confiding, accusing, consoling — tell stories as old as the world, as fresh as this morning. PS
Abdel Wright is not yet a household name, but U2’s Bono calls him “the most important Jamaican artist since Marley.” At the Nelson Mandela 46664 AIDS Awareness concert in South Africa in November 2003, an audience of 40,000 glimpsed why this could be so. Abdel’s strong lyrics and mellow acoustic sound had the crowds screaming and clapping. He gave his all, choking on the final notes as he fought back tears. “It was overwhelming,” he later said. “It was the biggest show I ever performed ’pon. But me kick off me shoe and go ’pon stage barefoot. The crowd was with me the whole time. It was unbelievable.” DK
Go with the Flo
In 2003, with the infectious soca hit Nasty, Flora Petercien-Galion, aka Flo PG, got Trinidad Carnival masqueraders bumping to her wicked lyrics. One year later, the young Martiniquan whose father wanted her “to become a police officer, a judge, or a military officer,” was back for the International Soca Monarch competition with That’s the Way It Is. Over in Europe, her unique sound and performance style — a combination of Caribbean, French, and African influences, involving zouk, soca, and drums — is also a hit, with singles produced for both EMI and Sony France, and a new album, I’m Free, just released. DK
International horse racing has a big following in the Caribbean. But for young Trinidadian Rishi Persad — the BBC’s latest addition to its own stable — merely following was never enough. His parents dreamed of him becoming a lawyer, so in 1986 Persad left for law school in the UK. Satisfied that he’d achieved his parents’ wish, he handed his diploma to his mother, and turned his back on the legal profession. He worked his way onto the Attheraces TV channel, where the BBC spotted their sure winner. Now “Dishi” Rishi is one of the hottest racing commentators on British television, happily studying racing form, not legal statutes. DK
Young, talented, and drop-dead gorgeous, Rekha Zaherra Williams has plunged right into the hip hop-dancehall crossover currently dominating the music charts. A fusion of cultures herself — born in Connecticut, bred in St Andrew, Jamaica, and currently a Miami resident — Rekha was discovered by Black Shadow Records and the influential Jamaican producer Troyton Rami (best known for his work with Sean Paul). Her debut single Too Close is a smooth, sultry Kingston-Miami hybrid, with highly contagious lyrics. Today she’s working with Sean Paul’s producer. Tomorrow — collaboration with the dancehall prince himself? DK
When Barbadian prime minister Owen Arthur had Tony Blair over for dinner last summer, he didn’t take chances with the menu: he summoned Paul Yellin from the Ti Kaye Resort in St Lucia. Another triumph for one of the Caribbean’s youngest star chefs. Born in New York in 1971, Yellin moved to Barbados in 1973. Discovering a passion for cooking, he trained at the ultra-luxe Sandy Lane resort before helping to open restaurants in New York, Berlin, and back in his home island. Now with his new book, Infusions! he’s set to spread his signature culinary style. PS
Dylan Kerrigan and Philip Sander
Between Silence and Silence Ian McDonald (Peepal Tree Press, ISBN 1-900715-37-6)
“Between silence and silence, there should be only praise,” writes Ian McDonald in the final line of the final poem in his new collection. A statement of both moral imperative and aesthetic faith, it aptly summarises this rich, wise, beautiful book, contemplating love, desire, and gladness, fatherhood and friendship, and all life’s other praiseworthy gifts, all of which must fade into the silence of dusk.
From what the book jacket calls “the vantage point of later middle life” (the Trinidad-born, Guyana-resident poet is in his early 70s), McDonald celebrates the sheer goodness of being alive, the pleasures and freedoms of remembered youth; but the great truth of time — it passes, and consumes all — is a constant presence. Between Silence and Silence is a frequently joyous book, but it is ultimately an elegy, and the gentleness of McDonald’s tone only emphasises the ferocity of his attachment to a world that must end: “Remember how love burns / before flesh and bone are parted / . . . Fire-falls, the dying of the day, / and then the intensity of the night.”
Elsewhere, McDonald reminds us that “Silent’s anagram is listen”. Some of his best poems begin simply with the act of listening, of readiness to be astonished, of paying attention. And surely no other West Indian poet has been so attentive to the world’s actual and potential beauty — “as when the hawk with sheathed wings / plummets in the morning air” — except perhaps Walcott (always at once our greatest exemplar and our greatest exception). But the master most clearly recalled by the music of McDonald’s poems is Yeats — the later Yeats, his style stripped clean, “cold and passionate as the dawn”. Yet whereas Yeats struggled in his final poems to achieve a saint’s detachment from the chaotic cycle of life, McDonald embraces that chaos, “the endless fate of man”, certain that the world, transitory and broken, is still an undeservable blessing.
“Chrome-polished ’57 Packards glint beneath the mango trees”
The visitor’s first reaction is of being caught in an eerie 1950s time warp . . . High-finned, voluptuous dowagers from the heyday of Detroit are everywhere: chrome-laden DeSotos, corpulent Buicks, stylish Plymouth Furies and other relics of 50s ostentation, when American cars reflected the Hollywood Zeitgeist for excessive wealth, fantasy, gaudiness and sex with which Havana was at that time synonymous. The tail fins of chrome-polished ’57 Packards glint beneath the floodlit mango trees of nightclubs such as the Tropicana, the open-air extravaganza — girls! girls! girls! — now in its seventh decade of stiletto-heeled paganism.
Cuba Classics (Macmillan Caribbean, ISBN 1-4050-1335-4), featuring photos and text by Christopher P. Baker, pays homage to the thousands of vintage American cars still on the roads of Cuba, and to their resourceful owners, who manage to keep their pre-Revolution automobiles running despite a chronic lack of spare parts and modern equipment.
JAMAICA, everything about
Encyclopedia of Jamaican Heritage Olive Senior (Twin Guinep, ISBN 976-8007-14-1)
Jamaican Heritage, Encyclopedia of: a compendium of history, art, culture, natural history, and anthropology by Jamaican fiction writer and poet Olive Senior, in her incarnation as a social anthropologist. Looks at the island and its people through attributes great and small. Don’t know what to call your new Jamaican in-laws? See: ADDRESS, Terms of. Need an immediate and impressive list of the country’s literary luminaries? See: LITERATURE. Think that MADAM FATE has to do with cosmic alignment? How little you know Hippobroma longiflora. Unaware that “C fe Puss, him name Mariah”? See: ALPHABET, Jamaican.
Satisfyingly thick and heavy, this volume inspires confidence. Not a smug “I know all there is to know about Jamaica now. I need never even visit”; rather, a feeling like the one you may have had about encyclopedias as a child: that they told you much, but it was only the beginning.
Reading a Colin Channer book is undoubtedly satisfying. Just ask the hordes who’ve bought his two novels, Waiting in Vain (1999) and Satisfy My Soul (2002). But to truly get the Colin Channer experience, you have to hear him read his work.
Sometimes loud, sometimes lewd, always entertaining, Channer is at his best telling a story; whether from the printed page before him, or culled from his memory or imagination. With perfect pacing, an engaging voice, and a limitless talent for impersonation, Channer delivers each tale with a deliciously contagious relish that could prompt the most jaded listener to pick up one of his books.
Channer’s passion for storytelling may well be the inspiration for his greatest work — the literary event he unabashedly describes as “the greatest little festival in the greatest little village in the greatest little country in the world.” Held annually at the charming Jake’s Hotel in Treasure Beach, Jamaica, the Calabash International Literary Festival is the culmination of Channer’s vision to create the literary equivalent of the music festivals for which his native Jamaica is renowned — a space where the best and brightest of Caribbean writers can assemble to celebrate their work. In Channer’s words, “a space for Caribbean writers to own; one into which we can invite the rest of the world.”
Channer and his friend the poet and playwright Kwame Dawes kicked the idea around for years. Inspiration fueled feverish discussion. Discussion turned into action. The result was the founding of the Calabash International Literary Festival Trust, the mission of which is to “transform the literary arts in the Caribbean by being the region’s best-managed producer of workshops, seminars, and performances.” Throughout the year, the Trust hosts writing workshops to coach local writers, and publishing seminars to provide knowledge of and access to local and international publishers.
But it is the festival, the third prong in the Trust’s approach, which has captured the imagination of writers and readers from the Caribbean and beyond. Before its debut in 2000, few outside of Calabash’s organising committee believed in the possibility of its success. “There was resistance to the idea that Caribbean people were interested in books to the point where they could sustain a festival,” says Channer. But in its four-year existence, the festival and its growing number of loyal supporters have proven the naysayers wrong. Year after year, a truly democratic audience — from well-heeled Kingston doyennes to youngsters from the local village to visitors from other Caribbean islands, the UK, and North America — crowd the festival’s seaside tent to listen to a staggeringly talented array of writers read their work. Under Dawes’s expert programming, Calabash has hosted Sonia Sanchez, bell hooks, John Edgar Wideman, Earl Lovelace, and Louis Simpson, among others. Equally memorable have been the performances by the emerging authors who round out the programme, and the aspirants who flock to the open-mike sessions.
Channer is proud of the opportunity for these aspiring writers to learn from the legends that Calabash attracts. “This is a way of establishing a bar for an emerging writer to aspire to,” says Channer. “When you come to Calabash and hear these great authors, you get a sense of what it really takes to be a writer.”
And yet Calabash’s greatest legacy may lie not in setting the bar, but in making the bar seem attainable. The magic that transpires as literary giants shed their one-dimensional dust-jacket existences to reveal themselves in their myriad forms — short or tall, fat or thin, black or white, Caribbean or foreign — and tell a diverse range of stories in equally diverse voices — is the demystification of the idea of a writer and the legitimisation of the storyteller in each person seated in the audience.
What Channer has created is a venue for falling in love, again and again, with the art of storytelling — a place to prompt jaded listeners not just to pick up a book, but to dare to dream of writing one.
This year’s line-up
The 2004 Calabash International Literary Festival takes place from 28 to 30 May at Jake’s Hotel, Treasure Beach, Jamaica. “It’s the best year ever,” enthuses Channer. This year’s all-star cast of readers includes Bajan-Canadian Austin Clarke; Maryse Condé from Guadeloupe; Arnaldo Correa, from Cuba; Chris Abani, from Nigeria; and Percival Everett, from the US; plus Bob Marley’s widow, Rita, who will read from her new memoir No Woman No Cry.
Other festival highlights include a celebration of the reggae lyrics of the late Peter Tosh (he would have turned 60 this year), with Ibo Cooper of Third World, Wayne Armond of Chalice, and guitarist Stephen Goulding uniting for an acoustic set; and a reading from Roger Mais’s classic novel Brother Man by a cast of Jamaican icons — journalists John Maxwell and Barbara Blake Hannah, DJ Big Youth, and actress Leonie Forbes — to celebrate its 50th anniversary, and launch a new edition published by Macmillan Caribbean.
Ready for Revolution: The Life and Struggles of Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture)
Stokely Carmichael, with Ekwueme Michael Thelwell (Scribner, ISBN 0-684-85003-6)
C.L.R. James placed Stokely Carmichael in the front rank of Caribbean thinkers, along with Marcus Garvey, Aimé Césaire, Frantz Fanon, and George Padmore. The Americans took a different view. The smart middle-class boy from Trinidad who became a key figure in the American civil rights movement of the 1960s would not have lasted five minutes under George W. Bush and the USA Patriot Act.
Under Kennedy and Johnson, he survived for about eight years before being driven out of the US with his first wife Miriam Makeba (he was still only 27) and settling in Guinea to work for Kwame Nkrumah and Sékou Touré. By that time, he had been beaten and jailed in the land of the free, gassed almost to death, terrorised by the Klan, and banned in England, France, and the Commonwealth. His friend Martin Luther King had been murdered in Memphis; all Makeba’s performing and recording contracts had been cancelled.
In his day, Carmichael panicked the white western world with his “Black Power” oratory. The headlines gleefully demonised him and all his works. It wasn’t until 1996 that he could legally re-enter Trinidad, the place of his birth. In Ready for Revolution, he finally gets to describe, calmly and at length, his vision of “black power”, non-violence and pan-Africanism, and his reservations about Black Panther fantasies and “integration”. The chapters on his 30 years in Guinea are sketchy; but the inside account of his civil rights years in the US is riveting.
Carmichael did not write this book: he began taping it after he was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 1996, and left it to his friend and colleague Ekwueme Michael Thelwell (author of that classic Jamaican novel The Harder They Come) to organise the material and finalise the text. He saw only a few chapters before he died in 1998 (“Well, Thelwell, looks like you’re going to have to finish the book”). The result is a vivid reminder of how dangerous the battle for basic African-American civil rights was — and how recent.
Paint the Town Red Brian Meeks (Peepal Tree Press, ISBN 1-900715-74-0)
In dis ya concrete jungle . . .
We gonna put on de pressure
Sounds and pressure
We gonna keep on comin’ in
To this dance
I was down in deep meditation
Singing songs of love
When Babylon took I away
And hurt I so bad
Now I want to go home
Kingston in the 1970s. A generation, across class and colour, awakens to reggae, Rastafarianism, socialism, and Black Power. The rocksteady and reggae songs quoted in this slim novel offer a concise and apt summary of the plot. It is not a lyrical read, no more so than the history it recalls mainly through the lives of two youths: Mikey (light-skinned and middle-class) and Carl (dark and poor). The idealism of the times brings with it the certainty that old prejudices and class distinctions have no relevance to these long-time friends — that is, until a clash with the police kills 11 people, including Carl. Imprisoned that very night, Mikey emerges more than a decade later to a different Jamaica, and to the explanation for his own survival.
Half a century ago, as an immigrant in the UK, Sam Selvon found that the dialect of his native Trinidad need not be confined to the repartee of his characters, but could be used by a thinking, feeling, philosophising narrator. In Paint the Town Red, Meeks uses the powerful and highly idiosyncratic speech of Jamaica to effectively conjure up a time and place that continues to fascinate the world with its politics, ideology, and faith. This is the long-play, prose version of the poetry of Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, and Burning Spear.
Living in the Positive Nasio (Higher Love Music)
Putumayo Presents World Reggae Various Artists (Putumayo World Music P221-A)
On his fourth album, Dominica-born Nasio Fontaine tackles the enduring themes of roots reggae — spiritual liberation, African identity, anti-materialism, positivity, the benefits of the holy herb, love both spiritual and secular, the wicked ways of Babylon. There’s nothing particularly innovative about this album, but roots doesn’t require its present-day exponents to be musical pioneers. As the musical manifestation of Rastafarian spiritual values, it’s a genre that thrives on the repetition of its subject matter and on the immutability of its central concerns, and Nasio, with his clear tenor voice and Bob Marley-ish touches, contributes admirably and authentically to the canon. Now working out of St Maarten, he offers 11 easy-rocking numbers, backed up by a group of fine musicians.
Nasio wouldn’t be out of place on World Reggae, the latest reggae offering by world music compilation specialists Putumayo. Citing the genre as the world’s “most widely spoken [musical] dialect”, the CD features 12 tracks from the far-flung corners of the globe, including Mauritius (Kana), India (Apache Indian), Algeria (Intik), Brazil (Alê Muniz), the Ivory Coast (Alpha Blondy), and French Guiana (Chris Combette). Each selection is informed by local influences, of course, with departures from a standard roots reggae sound coming from Cape Verde’s Maria de Barros, performing Riberonzinha (which falls in fact into the Cape Verdean coladeira genre, a cousin of reggae), and the UK/Spanish group Más y Más, whose Agua incorporates Celtic violins.
Wild André Tanker (André Tanker Music Limited)
This follow-up to 2003’s introspective Sayamanda shows us a different side of the late, extraordinary André Tanker. It’s Tanker in Carnival gear, a place he seemed to be gravitating increasingly towards at the time of his death in 2003. This 12-track CD includes well-known performances such as the Jouvay number Wild Indian Band, the cheeky 2002 allegory Ben Lion (Tanker’s biggest-ever Carnival hit), and 2003’s Is Heat and Ruff Jammin’. Steelband Times and Roller Coaster remind us that Tanker composed for the steel pan as well, and collaborations with Machel Montano, Maximus Dan, 3Canal, and Destra point to his legendary spirit of inclusion and willingness to absorb and evolve.
Wild also includes a rare live recording of Smokey Joe, one of Tanker’s earliest calypsoes, a clever cautionary tale which demonstrates his skill as a storyteller. An unusual and interesting addition is a 2002 BBC interview in which Tanker plays acoustic versions of Ben Lion and Dougla Dancer, and where we once again hear his voice, quietly and thoughtfully defining soca for the world.
Press Play Shurwayne Winchester (Chinese Laundry Music)
Mid-tempo ballads touching on the subject of love, the joys of partying, or combinations of the two are soca’s current “It” formula, as the recent signing of both Rupee and Kevin Lyttle to international record deals would attest. Shurwayne Winchester, lead singer for the Trinidadian soca band Traffick, appears to have what it takes to follow that path as well. Press Play is a formula album if there ever was one, featuring 18 serviceable — and sometimes more than serviceable — numbers, blending soca with R&B, synth-pop, lover’s rock, and light dancehall reggae. Winchester has a clear, appealing voice and good diction, and label-mate and fellow traveller Destra is his perfect foil (or is he hers?) on Come Beta, one of the 2004 Carnival season’s certified party hits, notable among Indian-themed soca songs for not belabouring the Indian theme. Winchester also had success this season with the ragga-soca Front, and The Band Coming had Road March written all over it from the word go.
Everybody say si!
Back in the late 1970s and early 80s, the US trade embargo successfully kept consumer goods out of Cuba — but it couldn’t keep out the Sugar Hill Gang. A new sound called hip hop was filtering out from its birthplace in New York’s South Bronx on to the US airwaves and across the Straits of Florida, where it was captured by makeshift antennas on the rooftops of Havana apartment blocks. Once there, it quickly took root among Cuba’s black urban youth.
Hip hop, or rap (the two terms are often — albeit inaccurately — used interchangeably), spoke to modern young Cubans in a way that no local music had ever done. Salsa — still the dominant soundtrack of urban Cuba — didn’t address their increasing sense of estrangement from a society on the brink of economic collapse. If anything, salsa was meant to help you dance away your feelings of disappointment in the system. Rap, on the other hand, even when it wasn’t overtly political, even when it talked about parties and good times, even when it was all about the beats and breaks and made you want to drop on the floor and spin around on your back, was hard-edged and gritty, kind of like your life. It was also, undeniably, a black thing.
Race wasn’t supposed to matter in post-revolutionary Cuba. But even after 1958, Afro-Cubans, who make up 60 per cent of the population, continued to find themselves occupying a less favoured position in society than their lighter-skinned compatriots. There may be reasons for Afro-Cubans to feel culturally marginalised as well. For while there is a strong acknowledgement of African traditions as one of the country’s main cultural inputs — santería is widely practised, and African percussion and other kinds of instrumentation are central to Cuba’s musical traditions — it’s a sense of Africa as history, as a romantic vestige.
So for a contemporary discussion of blackness and a medium through which to express their concerns, young Afro-Cubans had to look to North America. By 1989, a home-grown rap scene had started to take shape, notably in the community of Alamar on the outskirts of eastern Havana, widely considered to be the centre of the Cuban hip hop movement. In the absence of electronic gadgetry — turntables and mixers, for instance — Cuban rap took its own unique direction. The DJ culture that is an essential ingredient of US hip hop never developed; Havana MCs did their thing against a background of music recorded on cassette or to live accompaniment.
This embrace of an “imperialist” musical form, especially one that was a natural vehicle for social and political discourse, wasn’t a development welcomed by the Cuban authorities, who shut down rap events and arrested the more outspoken raperos with regularity, before deciding that co-optation might be the smarter move. In 1998 the minister of culture declared rap an “authentic expression of cubanidad [Cubanness]”. In 1999, at the national baseball championships, Fidel Castro took to the stage and rapped alongside the group Doble Filo. And in 2002 the Cuban Rap Agency was established to promote and market the music, taking a handful of the top rap acts under its wing. Only in Cuba.
In the grand scheme of things musical, hip hop still occupies only a tiny niche in Cuba, and there’s still resistance from the older members of the country’s cultural establishment, who scoff at this music which emphasises word play and simplistic electronic rhythms above the instrumental virtuosity that is the cornerstone even of Cuban popular music. But today there are more than 500 rap acts in Cuba. There’s a rap magazine called Movimiento, and a rap show on Havana radio. The state-funded National Rap Festival is now in its tenth year, and has in recent times featured foreign acts. Cuban rappers, in turn, have performed in the US under the auspices of the Black August Collective, an organisation which aims to promote progressive hip hop culture globally. And rap events are a fixture on the Havana music scene, attended by young devotees sporting branded urban streetwear purchased on the black market with hard-earned dollars, or close approximations of such.
But if the clothing and performance styles resemble those from US hip hop, the music is undeniably Cuban. There’s no bling-bling to speak of in Cuba (though there is a local beer called Cristal, and of course Cuban cigars, if you know how to get them), so Cuban rap remains free of the references to Hennessy shots and gangsterism and luxury cars that have crept into genres like Jamaican dancehall and soca from hip hop’s leading commercial edge. Another fundamental difference between Cuban and US rappers is the level of education: whatever critics may have to say about the curriculum, Cuba’s young people do for the most part stay in school. “They are a brilliantly educated and eloquent bunch,” says Cuban-American journalist/DJ Jauretsi Saizarbitoria, who is producing a book on the scene. “They have a lot to say about their place in history, the revolution, its gifts, its shortcomings, and their love of the patria [homeland].” There’s also a rich musical heritage to draw upon.
The next hurdle for Cuban rap is, of course, commercial distribution, and it’s going to be a difficult one to cross. Certain groups now have access to EGREM, the state recording studio, but the country has no CD pressing plant, nor the funds for marketing and distribution.
The only hip hop producer to make any inroads has been Pablo Herrera, a university professor who was instrumental in organising government support for the movement, and who serves as mentor to many young rap artists. Herrera collaborated with New York label Papaya Records on the 2001 compilation Cuban Hip Hop All Stars Vol. 1, one of the few Cuban rap CDs to achieve some degree of commercial success. He also produced and recorded Amenaza, one of the scene’s earliest and most revered groups, before they landed a record deal with EMI France and defected to Paris (where they have achieved considerable success under the name Orishas. They won a Latin Grammy in 2003, and are currently appearing on the Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights soundtrack). To date, no other Cuban hip hop act has landed a record deal, and even the pro-government Herrera, who has been quoted as saying that the formula for success in rap is to “write great lyrics, have dignity, and be hard-working”, admits that foreign investment is going to be necessary if Cuban rap is going to go anywhere.
“I think the trick is, ‘if you leave, you succeed’, which sucks,” says Saizarbitoria. “Because some of these rappers will tell you that they love Cuba and don’t want to leave and want to raise their kids there . . . In short, the rappers need protection from foreign labels attempting to sign them, then rip them off. And at some point they will need to understand the world market if they plan to join it one day.
“For the time being, most of them cannot leave the country, and if they could, they could not afford a plane ticket, much less expenses once they’re out. So the problems of trying to rap sometimes seem to pale in comparison to other bigger problems. The music has become their most precious form of therapy to put this all in perspective, and have a common platform to talk, and not feel utterly depressed . . . Rap is allowing them to discuss the possibility of dreaming about the future.”
Jazz it up
In Touch Ray Holman (Ramajay Records, RR70009-2)
Pan-Jazz Conversations Gayap Workshop (Sanch CD 0306-2)
Those familiar with Ray Holman’s elegant compositions for Trinidadian steel orchestras like Starlift and Pandemonium will recognise his gentle spirit and loping, lyrical style in the first of these sparkling new releases. In Touch represents Holman’s first foray into the pan jazz arena, as both composer and performer, and for the occasion he’s assembled a lineup of musicians from the US and elsewhere for a lively eight-track set flavoured with calypso, bossa nova, and West Coast jazz. There’s a particularly nice interplay between Holman and Andy Glynn, whose saxophone floats alongside Holman’s feather-light tenor pan to lovely effect, notably on Memory of Your Smile, a languorous calypso blues which appears in both short and extended versions. The mood of this fine addition to the pan-jazz catalogue is consistently relaxed, informed by the easy calypso groove that is Holman’s trademark.
Pan-Jazz Conversations, by the Gayap Workshop — made up of some of Trinidad’s finest musicians, including pannist Anise Hadeed, sitarist Mungal Patasar, guitarist Fitzroy Coleman, and bandleader and multi-instrumentalist Clive “Zanda” Alexander, one of the earliest exponents of calypso jazz — represents pan jazz in a more demanding mode. This two-CD reissue of a 1991 recording features 14 compositions, primarily in the bop and hard bop modes, cleverly interwoven with calypso. This is listening jazz — several of the tracks are in the 10 to 12 minute range — with challenging mood changes and spry improvisations. The album features four skilful covers — the Gershwins’ Summertime, Kitchener’s Pan in Harmony and Ol’ Lady, and Sparrow’s Jane — plus ten sturdy original compositions (by Zanda and Hadeed) of great beauty.
For Caribbean music lovers, this May could be both the best and the worst of months. Best, because across the region a series of festivals to suit almost every taste adds up to three weeks of nearly non-stop music; worst, because conflicting schedules will force fans to make some hard choices.
The St Lucia Jazz Festival (7 to 16 May, stluciajazz.org), now world-famous, seems the obvious first choice. Ashanti and Arturo Tappin, Billy Taylor and Babyface, Kassav and Third World, plus spectacular sunsets over Rodney Bay and the drama of the seaside stage on Pigeon Island — what, you haven’t already booked your ticket? But maybe you have a taste for something rootsier — the Grenada Drum Festival, perhaps (7 to 9 May, www.spiceisle.com/drumkrumah), where local performers will be joined by drum groups from Trinidad, Tobago, Barbados, and Senegal. But Creole music fans will probably be looking north, to the Haitian Compas Festival in Miami (15 May). Last year a combination of 30,000 fans, 95º F weather, and some of Haiti’s hottest musicians made for a truly sizzling experience.
Closer to the end of the month, Martinique’s Malavoi, South Africa’s Miriam Makeba, and Trinidad’s Mighty Sparrow will join hometown diva Camille Soprann at the Festival Créole Blues in Marie-Galante, off the coast of Guadeloupe (28 to 31 May). That same weekend, a couple hundred miles south in Aruba, the Soul Beach Music Festival (26 to 31 May, www.soulbeach.net) will assemble some of the world’s coolest R&B stars for a groovin’ beach party sponsored in part by HBO.
Talk their talk
The Best of 3Canal 3Canal (Revolution Records)
One of the highlights of Trinidad’s 2004 Carnival season was the pitch-perfect live performance by 3Canal at their eponymous show at the Little Carib Theatre. The millions who missed that opportunity will have to settle for this double CD, which gathers seven years’ worth of material, from 1996’s Blue to 2004’s Good News, Iere Vibes, and Run Come. The Best of 3Canal offers listeners the opportunity to trace the group’s evolution, re-examining underappreciated numbers like Power Music and Welcome as well as revisiting hits like Talk Yuh Talk, Salt, Over the Mountain, and Mud Madness. Also included are three previously unreleased tracks, the folksy Open Wide, from the play Clear Water; Grave Situation; and the sexy ballad Wonder. And there’s a third disc included in this handsome package: a well-designed DVD containing all the group’s music videos, which are some of the best produced and most conceptually interesting in the business, among them a previously unreleased video for Over the Mountain.
You’d have to be hiding under a rock not to notice dancehall’s current crossover success. TOK is burning up the airwaves, Elephant Man is everywhere, and Sean Paul just walked away with a Grammy, capped by a performance on the awards show with music legend Sting.
At the centre of the phenomenon is VP Records, a label with a crossover story as authentically Caribbean as the music it produces. VP’s history dates back to the 1950s, when founder Vincent “Randy” Chin began selling discarded jukebox records in Jamaica. With his wife, Patricia, he then opened a tiny record shop called Randy’s Records, in downtown Kingston. Following the success of this landmark outlet, in 1979 Vincent opened a second retail shop, this time in New York — specifically, in Jamaica, Queens.
Chin’s company quickly became an important outlet for a Caribbean-American audience hungry for a connection with home. Taking their experience, and their music, to the next level, they formed their own record label and distribution company in 1993.
Twenty-five years after its humble start in Kingston, VP has become a global music empire, celebrating its anniversary with the most successful year in its history. The largest distributor of Jamaican music outside of Jamaica, VP releases an average of 60 reggae and soca albums each year, including its top-selling Reggae Gold, Soca Gold, and Strictly the Best series. Billboard ranks VP as the number-one reggae label imprint. Sean Paul’s win brought the label its first Grammy. But it’s the roster of premium reggae acts — not just Sean Paul, but Beres Hammond, Buju Banton, Beenie Man, and Elephant Man among them — that makes “V” and “P” the two hottest letters in reggae music.
All of which has mainstream companies courting the label as ardently as a pop artist looking for a hot reggae hook. In 2002, VP inked a deal with Atlantic Records, strengthening its promotion and distribution resources. Companies like Puma, recognising the marketing clout of VP’s roster, are striking promotional alliances. This year VP and Puma will co-host an international sound system tour, culminating with an Olympic fete in Greece.
The tour forms part of the label’s 25th anniversary celebrations, which will include appearances at key West Indian carnivals — Brooklyn’s Labour Day, Caribana in Canada, and Notting Hill in London — an art exhibition featuring the history of dancehall and VP, a 25th anniversary box set and DVD, and an all-star concert at New York’s legendary Radio City Music Hall.
And after the confetti has settled? “It’s business as usual,” says VP’s vice president of marketing Randy Chin. “Our focus and vision is the same it’s always been . . . to expose the best of our music and culture to the widest community possible.”
Kellie Magnus talks to VP’s Randy Chin
What’s been the most challenging aspect of running a reggae record label from a New York base?
Reggae is still a relatively small genre of music. Convincing the bigger retail outlets that reggae is more than Bob Marley and Peter Tosh has been the biggest challenge . . . explaining to them that reggae was evolving into the Shabba Ranks and Yellow Mans and now the Sean Pauls . . . a more contemporary kind of music with reggae roots.
In the last few years VP’s evolved from a niche label to one that plays on a much bigger field. What was the turning point?
Our first big breakthrough into the crossover market was the Beenie Man song Who Am I? . We’d had other records before that bubbled under the scene — in the early 90s there were hits by Shabba and Ini Kamoze and Patra that brought major label attention to dancehall music. But Beenie Man was our first foray into the big leagues.
Is dancehall’s current success a fad, or is it sustainable?
We’re trying to promote the best that dancehall has to offer, in a form that’s authentic. The phenomenal success that Sean Paul and Wayne Wonder [have had] and now Elephant Man is having is because the audience — both our core audience and the wider mainstream market — saw it as real and authentic and just plain good music. In the past, when artists have been signed to majors, the music was tinkered with, and it lost too much. Our vision is to bring our culture and music to the mainstream in its pure form. For us, that’s the formula for continued success.
What would it take for soca to achieve the same level of crossover success as reggae?
Soca has great potential for finding a path to the mainstream. Like any other small genre, there’ll always be the one-off hits like Who Let the Dogs Out that become phenomena but then disappear completely. In order for soca to have the longevity and sustainability that reggae is now developing [in the mainstream market], there has to be an effort to build a base outside the core market . . . Song after song, artist after artist. There needs to be a consistent effort to widen the fan base, then build a bridge to the mainstream.
Top five VP albums of all time
1. Dutty Rock, Sean Paul (2003)
2. No Holding Back, Wayne Wonder (2003)
3. Many Moods of Moses, Beenie Man (1997)
4. Reggae Gold 2002
5. Reggae Gold 2003
Art for life’s sake
“My paintings an construckshans talk about the evils of socitee and the joy of innocence . . . an evereeting inbeetween. My art is about telling stories, saying prayers, expressing social concerns/injustices.”
Not many small hotels in the Caribbean can boast that they have a resident artist whose work is on permanent display. But at the Grand View Beach Hotel, a converted family home on the south coast of St Vincent at Villa Point, a regularly expanding series of paintings — arresting, disturbing, and touchingly hopeful — can be found stretching along the corridors, up the stairs, and into the bar and dining-room. This unique collection is the work of Caroline “bops” Sardine.
Born in 1977, “bops” (she prefers to use the nickname her godmother gave her when she was 10 or 11 years old) has made a habit of winning prizes for her work since she was a student, first at the Barbados Community College, then at the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts in Jamaica (in her year, she was top student at both colleges). In 2003 she returned to St Vincent with an MA in painting from the Royal College of Art in London. Her four-year stay in the UK produced exhibitions at six different galleries around London, as well as in Llandudno, Wales. More recently, her mosaic Icons of Caribbean Unity — described as “an optimistic dream” — was one of the 12 winners of the 2004 CLICO Calendar Art Competition.
I caught up with “bops” via e-mail to find out more about her work. Which artists or styles influence you, I asked?
“I am an allweys have been captivated by the work of the mexican painter frida kahlo and by the work of intuitiv/self taught artists from all over the world, becaws I connect deeplee with the intence honesty in their imaginary an the undiluted levels of emotion they xpress,” she replied, in her deliberate and distinctive idiolect, her own linguistic speech pattern.
How does she create?
“Using paint, other materials and objects that I find an collect . . . ‘recycle’ things an mix together with emotions an ideas to xpress mee . . . to xpress lyfe . . . my art is my vision, my voice.”
What subjects is she drawn to nowadays?
“Now-a-days is jus like everee uddah deys where my ideas centre around thoughts of identitii, love, hate, hurt, happiness . . . hope for healing, both personal an universal.”
London-based art historian Anne Walmsley finds in Sardine’s work “a distinctive individual voice from earliest student days. The bold, often raw expression in painting and printmaking, assemblage and construction, has a confident and fluent command of line and form, colour and materials, in which she combines image and word . . . with verve, humour, and challenge . . . From the start, her work rung with an individual voice of disturbing sensitivity and vulnerability.”
Strong colours and child-like representation characterise her vivid paintings and “construckshans”. Her images are not for the fey or faint-hearted, and are not easily erased from memory. An important feature of both the paintings and their creation is that they transgress various boundaries. “bops” spent considerable time collecting useful rubbish from London dustbins — for example, hundreds of discarded cigarette packets and matchboxes, many of which are painted over in a lime green wash to form the basis of the work titled strike, a sort of artistic environmental warning. Some of her figures trail what appear to be bodily fluids.
One commanding and disturbing image is parshaleetee. The painting presents a heavily pregnant two-tone, two-headed, hermaphrodite figure in x-ray on a background of what also appears to be a row of x-rayed teeth. The life-enhancing optimism often associated with childbirth is represented on one side of the painting. This is offset on the other side by the parental figure holding, in a menacing way, a heavy club or broom in his or her right hand. Destruction and nurturing — life and death held in balance, a combination that can resonate within many cultures.
Now back in St Vincent, “bops” divides her time between her small gallery and the bar and restaurant in Villa Point, both of which she runs with her partner. With a strong sense of community spirit, she has identified a sad neglect of art and its teaching in her home island, and aims to set up an art workshop programme for schools and community centres.
“I am ah chile of dee caribbean civilisayshan whooes passhan for art goes far beyond dee noise of dee ‘art worl’”, she says, “an manifess itself in dee need for art for lyfes sake.”
Art “livicayted to owah safe jurnee”
“Dee need to create sumpting from eneeting — diss is I art attitude. Objects foun on dee streets of london — memerobilia from my home — st vincent an dee grenadines — an images imbedded in i myne of evereeday happenins are dee crewshal ingredients for my idiosyncratick paintings an intimate construckshans.
“Usein art as ah meens of heelin an identitii tru ah visshan loaded wid honestee — diss is where i life source is rooted an where prayers livicayted to owah safe jurnee home are chanted.”
— Caroline “bops” Sardine
Founded in 1968 by Anthony “Boysie” Nieves, the Carib Magnolias hockey team marked its 35th anniversary in 2003 — three and a half decades during which they’ve become famous as one of Trinidad and Tobago’s, and the Caribbean’s, top women’s teams, with many titles to prove it. Since winning promotion to T&T’s championship division back in 1971, the “Mags” have built a large base of loyal fans, and their players have included many national team players, including Stacey Siu Butt, national team captain and 2002 Pan American Indoor Qualifiers MVP.
The team’s actual anniversary may have been last year, but they’ve planned their big celebration for 2004. And who knew hockey players could throw such a super party? In recognition of good times over the years, and as a means of promoting both hockey and the culture of Trinidad and Tobago, the Magnolias have set about creating the Carib Magnolia International Hockey Festival.
Scheduled for 25 September to 1 October in Tobago, the inaugural edition of what will become a biennial event will be the first international hockey tournament ever held on Trinidad’s sister island, with finals carded for the Dwight Yorke Stadium. Cultural stakeholders like TIDCO, the Caribbean Development Company, the Tobago House of Assembly, the Tobago Hoteliers Association, the National Carnival Bandleaders Association, and the Tobago Fest Committee have all lent their support — not to mention team sponsor Carib.
The festival is planned to coincide with the carnival-style Tobago Fest 2004 celebrations. Local and visiting teams will compete in an exciting competition, spread across three divisions and offering a US$1,000 first place prize for each division, then get to enjoy the Trinbago carnival experience — the Coco Devils J’Ouvert band and their customary bucket-loads of cocoa will be ready to welcome the players into their midst. On the rest day, they can explore Tobago’s many beaches and other natural attractions, and the grand opening and closing parties look set to be major social events.
Invitations have been sent to over 350 different hockey clubs around the world — from Europe to New Zealand, and including all the islands of the Caribbean. According to Magnolia chair Sally Hospedales, the variety of clubs attending is important “for the development of the sport,” especially for the younger generation, who will be exposed to “skills, ideas, tactical plays, and technique.”
One thing seems certain: a sporting good time will be had by all.
The deadline for team entries to the Carib Magnolia International Hockey Festival is 30 June, 2004. For further information visit www.geocities.com/caribmags2004, or e-mail email@example.com
Cricket calendar, May and June 2004
England tour of the West Indies
|5th one day international
Bangladesh tour of the West Indies
|28 May to 1 June
|4 to 8 June
Into the TIC of things
Port of Spain is a major Caribbean business centre, but in late May the region’s businessmen will be paying even closer attention than usual to developments in the capital of Trinidad and Tobago, at the 2004 Trade and Investment Convention, or TIC, organised by the Trinidad and Tobago Manufacturers Association.
More than 150 exhibitors from around the world will assemble at the Hilton Trinidad and Conference Centre to show off their products and services to hundreds of buyers and distributors from key markets. At the 2003 TIC, an estimated US$6 million in sales were reported from the convention floor, with almost US$20 million in anticipated sales following the event. 2004 exhibitors can expect similar levels of enthusiasm. And this year networking will be made even easier, thanks to a detailed database containing contact information for every buyer who has attended the TIC in the last three years, which will be forwarded to all exhibitors. All this, plus the amenities and attractions of a bustling, cosmopolitan city, and one of the Caribbean’s most dynamic and diverse islands. Get ready for four days of non-stop action.
The 2004 Trade and Investment Convention (TIC) will take place from 17 to 20 May at the Hilton Trinidad and Conference Centre in Port of Spain. See www.tic-tt.com for information