Keep on rocking

For a brief, exciting period in the mid 1990s, Trinidad’s indigenous rock music scene looked like it might achieve the kind of critical mass that could change the sound of the calypso island for good. But the revolution hasn't quite happened - yet

  • Skid "Nevely lead guitarist Shane de Silva (left) and frontman Andrew McIntosh (right) rock to their own beat. Photograph by David Wears
  • jointpop's Gary "Rega" Hector has channelled a blend of rock and roll and calypso for 20 years. Photograph by David Wears
  • jointpop at one of their final performances in December 2004. Photograph by David Wears
  • Photograph by David Wears
  • Insert Coin (clockwise from top left): Anthony Grant, Orlando Pyle, Scott Johnstone, and James Amow. Photograph by Bertrand De Peaza
  • The Orange Sky, in their pre- Pyramid Records days. Photograph courtesy Showtime Magazine
  • Nigel Rojas. Photograph by David Wears
  • The Orange Sky, backstage before a recent concert. From left: Adam Murray, Obasi Springer, Nigel Royas, Nicholas Rojas, and Richard Hall. Photograph by David Wears

Radio in Trinidad and Tobago has traditionally had a love-hate relationship with all forms of indigenous music. The further away a musician gets from accepted or mainstream sound, the slimmer his or her chances of making it to a radio playlist.

Calypso, soca, ragga soca, chutney, and parang fare just as well as Trini-mutations of R&B, dub, conscious reggae, or rock. Whether or not your song gets played on the radio depends on many factors — the time of year, who is in the programmer’s chair, the way you look, the way your product looks, who you know, and who knows you. American mainstream sounds dominate radio throughout the year. But while other genres have managed at least to squeeze through some space on FM radio, local rock music can be heard regularly (i.e. a few songs a week) on only one of the 17 stations.

Some programmers say it simply does not fit into the format. But the bands continue to perform at small clubs and car parks, they find the money to fund albums, they happily open for aging 80s rock bands from North America on tour, and, despite the fact that the cards are stacked heavily against them, Trini rock fans and musicians are united by their love for the music. Chances are you’ll catch the same faces at gigs all over the country. They go wherever the music takes them.

The four young men of Skid”nevely are bold, impulsive, and might get asked for their IDs by club bouncers. They’re all under 25, only two of them have jobs, and they all still live with their parents.

They laugh easily.

The band’s 16-year-old drummer, Anthony Abraham, has been playing drums since he was 12. Nineteen-year-old bass player Mark Wallace previously handled bass for local metal band Kryptic. The old man of the quartet, Shane de Silva, is 22, and plays guitar. He’s been plucking the strings since he was 15, and prides himself on the fact that he’s taught himself everything he knows about the instrument.  Lead singer, guitarist, songwriter, and pannist Andrew McIntosh rounds off the set. McIntosh has played the steel pan for 13 of his 20 years of life, and it was his idea to incorporate the instrument into the band’s rock sound.

Skid”nevely became the toast of Trinidad’s rock community when the band won the Anchorage Pop Rock Awards competition in 2004. This annual “best of bands” competition, which celebrates its ninth anniversary this year, usually draws amateur and professional bands and thousands of rock enthusiasts to the popular Chaguaramas nightspot during the months of July and August. Competing bands are required to play from a list provided by the Anchorage judges, which includes cover versions of alternative, hard rock, reggae, and pop music. In recent years, bands have also been encouraged to play original rock or pop pieces.

Skid”nevely had been together for only a couple of months before their Anchorage gig. They first played together in public in April last year, at a small Port of Spain club called Tosca Latina. Although only sixty people turned up, the young men were a hit. After McIntosh started beating out notes on his pan, the audience — and the media — were sold.

There seemed hardly a newspaper or magazine on the island that didn’t seek an interview with the young group. They had a song on the radio, and they got calls from every club that plays host to rock musicians on the island. Everyone wanted them to come out and play. Then came their Anchorage win.

For Anthony, Mark, Shane, and Andrew, life couldn’t be better. They just love to rock.

Their manager Karissa Lewes (who is also a rock musician and poet) is convinced that her wards have what it takes to draw the interest of an international music label. Since no member of the band claims to be a virtuoso, they practice “three or four times a week” in their giddy pursuit of this goal. They know it’s impossible to be a “rock success” in the land of calypso, steel pan, and limbo, so Lewes is concentrating on promoting the crew through contacts she established while with her former band, MaxBitU, and as a solo artist. As a musician, Lewes performed at a few music showcases in North America, but never moved label executives enough to score a deal.

“Sadly, Trinidad is not prepared to promote rock music,” Andrew conceded. “No real industry exists here.”

In the early 90s, rock and alternative music fans would find solace at the Infinity pub, located on campus at the University of the West Indies in St Augustine. Bands like Escape, Smith Tuttle, and Oddfellows Local were regular performers. By the mid 90s, other small clubs realised rock fans made a market worth tapping into. Just Friends at Bretton Hall, on Victoria Avenue in Port of Spain; Moon Over Bourbon Street and Club Life at West Mall in Westmoorings; Club Coconuts in St Ann’s; the Anchorage in Chaguaramas; Café des Artistes and Outer Limits in Maraval; they all jumped into the fray. Each venue had a revolving roster of bands, and almost every night there would be at least one place in Trinidad where you could catch a live band playing Trini-flavoured rock music.

Mutikram “Bees” Bartoo, owner of Bees Hi Fi record store in Chaguanas, also kept up an endless string of promotions. Bees won popularity and respect for organising the first rock concert to feature an internationally known band in Trinidad, by hosting A Flock of Seagulls and The Fixx in 1983. Though his efforts didn’t make him a very rich man, Bees has continued to be involved in the promotion of local rock concerts with shows like Localpalooza, BeesFest, and Guitar Wars.

To fans and bands, it all seemed like the beginnings of a solid scene. A massive “Just Like Woodstock” concert in 1995 featured 14 bands, and more than two thousand tickets were sold. Concert promoter Kerwyn Escayg even announced plans to record the concert and market the CD.

1995 also saw local rockers Smith Tuttle score a major endorsement deal. The band was contracted to star in a big promotion by the Trinidad Guardian, which thrust Sean Young Wing, Richard Singh, Howard Din Chong, and Rene Coryat into the spotlight with television and radio spots.

Then, in August ’95, the club Just Friends hosted the Ruby Tuesday Awards. Brown Fox (Scott and Lisa Johnstone, Marlon Callender, Kirk Collens, and Simon Laughlin) took awards for best songwriting, best original song, and best new band; Brothers Grimm (Francesco Emmanuel, Orlando Pyle, and Andrew Moffat) won the award for best live band; Corey Wallace of Oddfellows Local won the award for best bassist; the trophy for best drummer went to Lawrence Morales of Tribal Darkness; Steve Brereton of Bleed won the award for best guitarist; and Jason Bodden of Joshua took the award for best vocalist. Oddfellows Local (Gary Hector, Corey Wallace, Bernard Abreau, and Bruce Bressler) took the award for best band. At least for one night, the calypso city was jamming to a rock beat.

And the band that was sure to have top billing wherever they were scheduled to perform was Jaundice-I.

In fact, Jaundice-I was probably Trinidad’s first rock supergroup. Robert Beadon (formerly of Touchdown), Nigel Rojas (formerly of Orange Peel Groove), Mark Dobson (formerly of Taxi), and Arthur Reid had a tremendous following of dedicated fans. The release of their debut album drew the attention and aid of American engineer and producer Jeff Glixman, who had worked with the likes of Kansas, the Georgia Satellites, and Black Sabbath.

But none of those bands even exists anymore. Only a few of the clubs are still in operation. For some bands and fans, it was a matter of economics, or education; some were soured by years of rejection by radio and the wider Trinidad society. But some of those rockers still find time for their passion.

James Amow spent two years as the vocalist for Bleed, and along with his friend Steve Brereton recorded one album, titled 5 days no sleep. The album wasn’t a big seller, and the pair went their separate ways. Brereton migrated to the US, where he still performs with a band. Amow hooked up with Scott Johnstone (guitar), Anthony Grant (percussion), Dion Howe (guitar), and Orlando Pyle (bass) to form Incert Coin in 1998.

From the first guitar strum, the band was focused on the creation of original music. In 2002, Incert Coin won the Anchorage Pop Rock Awards, and, according to Amow, the victory “changed people’s perception of original music”. It was the first year an original band won the competition (all previous winners were cover bands). But three years on, Amow says it is still difficult to get their songs played on the radio. “Someone once referred to the music we play as funeral music,” he said. “With the radio stations, if it’s part of the ‘in’ thing, like Korn or another of those American bands getting airplay, we get some airplay.”

The lack of support from local radio stations seems to have no effect on whether or not the band gets gigs. “We normally play around 20 shows per year,” Amow explained. “Promoters are treating rock bands better . . . if we are together and practising regularly, we would be able to play out twice a week, and now there are venues all over the country.”

But still he concedes it’s impossible to just chuck everything and make a living as a rock musician on the island.

Incert Coin has now released five albums and has opened for American bands like Sugarcult, Firehouse, Lit, Hatebreed, and Six Feet Under. Amow thinks even the recording process has become easier for bands, recalling that Bleed had to rely on the skills of a producer more versed in calypso than rock for their album, whereas Incert Coin has had their pick of studios, engineers, and producers for their albums.

The first hundred copies of their latest album, Futility, released in October 2004, sold out, and in December the band was busy securing more copies for record stores. Amow had learned a hard lesson about album distribution and production with Bleed, whose album was pressed in the US. The pressing plant insisted on a minimum of one thousand copies. Sparse sales meant that Amow was left with a huge stack of unsold copies of 5 days no sleep.

“We do it because we like it. We just love to play music. If we had no gigs, no radio airplay, no deal, or whatever, we would still be playing,” Amow says confidently.

December, and the sound of Christmas carols, parang, and pumping soca dominates the radio airwaves. The fact that jointpop, the longest surviving rock band in Trinidad, has taken the decision to call it quits, has almost completely escaped the attention of the local media.

Their last performance draws hundreds to a little club in Newtown, a north Port of Spain neighbourhood, on a rainy Saturday night. Part of the “anti-pop” concert series, the event drew a crowd that was a mix of ages, races, and budgets, and jointpop frontman Gary “Rega” Hector is staying true to his credo: “Do what we damn well want, performing how we want, no rules, no clichés.”

This is rock and roll, and jointpop fans are not disappointed. The band sweeps through the club like a hurricane.

The union of Hector, Damon Homer, Corey Wallace/Graham Granger, and Gerard Rajkumar, as jointpop, lasted for eight years. Before jointpop, Hector and Wallace played together for five years in Oddfellows Local. Wallace alternated with Granger as bass guitarist for jointpop, but he and Hector had an unmistakable chemistry. Wallace, who also performs with his own band, Athelny, left jointpop in mid-2004 to concentrate on solo projects, and Hector admits things were just not the same.

And after years of battling every other thing (from radio airplay to concert promoters), it seems perhaps that Wallace’s departure was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Hector was exhausted.

“Corey left the band, so we were looking for a bass player, and we tried out a few guys, but you have to feel out a good person, you know, and the longer it took, the more time we had to think about it . . . and you just can’t have somebody join a band of guys who have been together for eight years,” he explained.

“We would have needed that person to put blood out there, you have to be as damaged and hurt as us to join us.”

jointpop released three albums together: Exile, baby, Port of Spain Style, and the five-track jointpop in 2004.

“In a way, all those albums are about being lost in a two-world situation, being here, not being here, nobody knows who we are,” explained Hector.

“We’re too rock for radio stations here — and, abroad, we too Caribbean . . . we can’t please either one. We’re never overly bothered about these things. I suppose it’s a kind of suicide, but we try to stay honest to what we do. We try to make our own success.

“Once we’re making music, let’s be successful at that. We love what we do, so we are one hundred per cent successful. We are totally satisfied with what we are doing.”

Together, jointpop faced the crowds at the Midem festival in Miami and the legendary CBGB’s in New York, and came back home to play the World Beat festival and at any small, dimly lit club that could pull a decent sound-system together.

“Trinidad is too mainstream for their own good,” Hector concludes. “We have enough culture and history to draw from, so why be so throwaway? Why we decide we want what is not ours?

“We have all these radio stations playing mainstream music, everything is mainstream and nobody is a star. How can you survive on that?”

“You must recognise the power you have in your hands”

After two decades, Oddfellows Local and jointpop frontman Gary “Rega” Hector (aka Mick Richardson) has decided to walk away from Trinidad’s rock music scene. Through the years, Hector’s lyrics dealt with all the obstacles they faced — radio programmers who thought they were too rock or not rock enough; fans who thought they were cool enough to listen to live, but wouldn’t trouble their wallets for an album purchase; a nation of people who think “white rock music” has no place on a Caribbean island; a nation getting more and more steeped in American culture as time goes on. It was hard-hitting social commentary told in calypso, extempo, punk, funk, rock and roll, all wrapped into one sound . . .

Just after jointpop announced their break-up in December 2004, Hector talked to Tracy Assing about the ups and downs, the beat, the sound.

Arrest, Arrest

I first picked up a guitar in 1983, and was in a band in ’84, so I really started performing as a guitar player. With Oddfellows, I started to dabble in some songwriting, and Arrest, Arrest came out of that. In 1989–90 there were two major things which influenced the red, black, and white in me, and they were the Strike Squad [Trinidad and Tobago’s national football team, which in 1989 barely missed qualifying for the 1990 World Cup] and David Rudder. Both things gave me a quick flash education about Trinidadianess.

port of spain style
Coming across the style had to do with simplicity in the sound. I am not a gifted guitar player, I tend to think my playing is a bit laboured, and we saw it as a way to touch on local topics rather than pretend with the things you’re not sure about.

I was never comfortable with that whole “calypso rock” label. The rhythm, the construction just makes it easier for me to write songs.

We were all born in Trinidad, so it was easy to just be Trinidad about it. Both Oddfellows and jointpop were comfortable with just doing their interpretation, it wasn’t contrived, it was all just waiting there. I write the songs, but the bands had a lot to do with it.

So I set about writing songs with Oddfellows, and we went about supplementing the cover songs in our sets with originals as we went along. We recorded two of the songs and, to tell you the truth, at that time we weren’t even thinking about that . . . about recording and demos and things like that, those words were not even part of our vocabulary at that time.

King Radio
We sent Arrest, Arrest out to the radio stations on Disco 45 [12-inch vinyl] and cassettes. When we launched it, we took about a hundred cassettes to our show in a garbage bag and gave them out.

At the time, there were two or three FM radio stations and about two AM stations . . . so you can imagine walking into those stations and telling them you have a rock song. Thankfully, Radio Tempo had just come out, and their thing was a local music format, so we got some support from them, and that was maybe the last song I had on the radio.

Then Walt Lovelace, who we knew from hanging out and surfing and that kind of thing, suggested that we do a video, and so we made the video. It was all very experimental, very low budget. So the video was used as a filler on the only local television at the time [Trinidad and Tobago Television] and people started to notice us and hear the song — you know, it was rock and it was local, and it sorta perked the press up.

Bashment to Halloween
I think the advent of cable changed a lot. When cable and all the new radio stations came, we got the full Yankee music view of the whole scene. We had a small scene just trying to take some shape, but then with cable, people suddenly thought, “Oh, this is what rock is supposed to sound and look like”.

The time came when the whole scene became really corporate, and there was Sandblast [a two-day rock fest which took place in Chaguaramas in 1995] and all the games, and all of a sudden it was like this Cancun Beach Break s–t, and it got really stink. And local promoters bought into that whole thing and Oddfellows realised it was not what we wanted to be.

It wasn’t no flare-up argument kind of thing that caused us to bring an end to Oddfellows. But the end of Oddfellows led to jointpop, because I realised I still had songs to write and music to play, so I called these guys and said, let’s get together and jam.

In the first two or three years, we did not play any rock shows, we made a five-song recording before we started to play out, and we played in places rock bands didn’t normally play, and we started building a following from that. That following was a mix of Oddfellows fans, musician types, artist types, that kind of thing, so it was a mixed type of following we were getting, and they were the “calypso rock” kind of people. In the middle of all that, we would blast out some heavy rock in the set . . . because I have nobody to please . . . no radio, no press, no people to please . . . sometimes we would even drop an extempo kind of thing.

There were no rules for us.

We went to LA and hooked up with Nerve Records, they did a small EP for us, and we got a lot of airplay on college radio in the US. The song Little Miss Popular came out of that, but we needed funding to go out on tour and support the single, but that never came, so . . . anyway, that deal fizzed out and we took it in stride.

People think we should have been bigger than we were, and in a sense they’re right . . . they think we should have had some marketing and stuff behind us, and if you can market our madness, fine, and if you can’t, then stay far away.

New Fast Food in Town
I generally check out most of the bands out there. I’ve even dabbled in promoting some of them with the “Filth & the Fury” concert series . . . there are good musicians . . . I mean, they are all new bands, and the thing is a lot of them have to find out what they are trying to do . . . they don’t last that long either. They don’t have their growth periods . . . they’re more like, we’re out for a year and we have a demo, and we’re looking to get signed — but you could get hurt.

It is good to dream, but you have to do the work, you have to go out there and bleed for people.

We just thought, we have done what we have to do, so I said, you know what, let’s take a long break to reassess. I wanted to just take a break and reassess everything, because the guys have stayed for eight years and I respect them and I know they like what they do also, but I have often wondered if I am really just dragging them along with me . . . maybe they’re interested in doing something else.

Exile, baby
I want to experience what it is like to not be in a band, to not write and not think about music.

I haven’t dealt with my two children as a normal person, you know, communicating with them properly, because everything has always been about the band. I’m always organising something for the band or out playing or practising. I just want to live life clear of that.

There are three things I believe in; three things that are important to me . . . family, rock and roll, and football are the three things I am most passionate about. These are the three things that I am. These are the only three things that I am ever bothered about. I coach the St Mary’s [College] under-14 football team now.

Let’s Pray For Rock and Roll
Playing at CBGB’s in New York was definitely a performance highlight. CBGB’s is a landmark; World Beat in Trinidad was really surreal, and both CD launches were quite cool. There are many great Oddfellows performances that I can remember.

But most of the great performances were in underground situations, because that is what we were, that is what we were best suited to. We don’t belong in the big venues, in the fetes . . . we’ve never really been a band you can dance to, we’re a band you listen to.

I think the corporate factor got too heavy, and you had to have the contacts, then you have to do something for them, and you end up on stage with a big banner behind your back. I was never into that whole thing. I was not up for it.

Radio is not in business to help local music, but I think you must recognise the power you have in your hands. There are people all over the country who know about us and that is with minimal radio or TV support.

On the scene

There’s no shortage of variety in the music that comes out of Trinidad’s rock scene, from the “steel” punk edge of Skid”Nevelly to the ska rock of the Orange Sky, from the “calypso rock” of jointpop to the metal edge of Incert Coin, and more and more bands are performing original songs rather than covers.

Tripped and Falling Formed 2001
Members: singer Chad Affonso, lead guitarist Barry Bibby, bass guitarist Chad Mouttet, drummer Jonathon Otway, guitarist Gerard Mendonca In 2002, this young group of punk rockers put together a self-titled EP and began performing in small clubs across the island. The five-song set, produced by Gary Hector, spawned a few radio-friendly tracks and secured the band a dedicated group of fans. They have just released a new EP, titled End is Now. Songs include: 1,000 Faces, In Tears and Bad Endings, End is Now

The Astral Garden Formed 2002
Members: singer Michael “Mikey” Ross, lead guitarist Joel Beazer, bass guitarist Christian Dopson, drummer Daniel Sammy Said to be mulling over whether or not they’re going to throw in the towel, the Astral Garden, lead by the charismatic Mikey Ross, have been known to thrill audiences with their electric live performances. Mikey hosts the only radio programme dedicated to local rock music, Total Local on Radio 95FM. Songs include: The Sparrow, Follow You, Out of Reach

Fever Dog Formed 2004
Members: singer Devin Harry Paul, lead guitarist Kewan Landreth-Smith, bass guitarist Jerome Girdharrie, drummer Stuart Gillizeau Serving up a mix of 70s groove and 90s grunge, Fever Dog performed as a unit for only a year, but breakout performances during the Circle of Rock 8 series and a second placing at Anchorage Pop Rock left fans wanting more. Although the quartet has no plans to continue performing  together in the future, the band has an EP and DVD on the way. Songs include: The Longing Song, Slingshot, Pillow

Necropollis Formed 2000
Members: singer Sievan Siewsarran, lead/rhythm guitarist Ghavri Duprajh, bass guitarist Khalil Cassie, drummer Peter Lord One of the country’s few death/trash metal bands, the music of Necropollis usually gets played after midnight (if at all) because of its hard rock edge. Despite the lack of radio airplay, the 80s-influenced band still manages to play 20 or 25 shows per year, and they have recorded one EP. Songs include: Enter the Necropolis/Orgy of Corpses, Midnight at the Morgue

Lanyap Formed 2004
Members: singer Wayne Hadeed, lead guitarist Kewan Landreth-Smith, bass guitarist Wayne Hachette, drummer Sean Gabriel Although they came together only in late 2004, Lanyap isn’t short on experience; many of the members came from other bands. (Hadeed shared the stage with the Orange Sky’s Nigel Rojas when they were both part of Sativa in the early 90s.) Their Caribbean fusion/rock/reggae album God Is Love should be in stores soon. Songs include: Go with the Flow, The Way, Our Father

Eye on the Sky

In our cover story on the Orange Sky in the May/June 2004 Caribbean Beat, we reported that the Trini rock band had taken on US representation and were working with producer Jeff Glixman to secure an international recording contract. Just as that issue was going to press, the Sky’s management announced that negotiations with a US record label had begun.

In late 2004, the Orange Sky — vocalist/lead guitarist/songwriter Nigel Rojas, rhythm guitarist Adam Murray, keyboardist Richard Hall, bass guitarist Nicholas Rojas, and drummer Obasi Springer — signed a worldwide record contract with Pyramid/Universal Records, and headed off to Atlanta for several weeks’ hard work in the studio. The band’s debut international album, Upstairs, is now scheduled for release on 10 May, 2005. The first single is an “electrifying” cover of Cat Stevens’s Peace Train. And in February the band’s Trini fans were treated to a major concert event in Port of Spain, filmed for a live DVD set to be released by Pyramid/Universal.


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