Reggaeton — a cross-cultural musical fusion of Jamaican dancehall rhythms, US-style hip-hop, Latin American vocals, and Caribbean “bump and grind” — is currently storming the mainstream. A decade after its birth in Puerto Rico, the genre has produced infectious international smashes like Gasolina and Oye Mi Canto.
Ivy Queen, aka Martha Ivelisse Pesante, has been part of the scene from the start, with hits like Yo Quiero Bailar, In the Zone, and Sabes Que Tu. Born in the small town of Añasco, Puerto Rico, and raised in New York’s Spanish Harlem, Ivy Queen has used her around-the-way-girl charm, good looks, and rugged contralto rasp to earn her status as one of reggaeton’s biggest stars. Her urban poetics take aim at the male-dominated world and preach female empowerment. They embrace street life with all its misunderstandings, tough situations, and love problems. Some critics label her a rowdy and tempestuous rap artist, but they’ve only scratched the service — dig deeper and there is a powerful voice speaking out for womanhood, Latin culture, and the art she loves.
With over a decade of musical collaborations, umpteen tours, and several hit albums behind her, Ivy Queen is in a good position to comment on reggaeton’s meteoric rise. “When we started, our voices sounded like Alvin and the Chipmunks, because the beats were really, really fast,” she laughs. “This music has grown so much in the last couple of years, and I just see it expanding even more. We’re selling a lot of units, not just in the US and Latin America, but everywhere. I’ve been in the music game for 11 years, and I know others who’ve been doing it for almost 20, and it’s just now these great opportunities are being presented. The key is to stay focused.
“You have to take what you do seriously. You have to work, sweat, and sacrifice. With this music thing, you can’t just take it as a hobby and think you’re going to make a bunch of money to buy some shoes or whatever. All your benefits come later, but for now, you have to work and sacrifice.”
Fifteen years after she left home at the age of 18 to follow her musical dreams, Martha Pesante’s work, sweat, and sacrifice have paid off. She’s the undisputed queen of reggaeton, ready to expand her kingdom by conquering the world.
An Oxford-educated attorney bitten by the acting bug, Maxine Williams splits her time between various Caribbean islands and New York, plying both trades. She’s known for her portrayal of the scheming Isis in the Trinidadian TV soap opera Westwood Park and roles in Earl Lovelace’s The Dragon Can’t Dance, and Geraldine Connor’s Carnival Messiah. In New York, she has hosted BET shows, starred in an independent movie, and appeared on the Dave Chappelle Show. Williams describes showbiz as a tough trade, but says she has a “no half-stepping” approach to life.
Stephen Joseph, aka DJ Ras Jahreal, was born in Dominica, and had his first DJing gig at a club in Guadeloupe. Today he is the Alaskan king of roots-rock-reggae, with his popular Friday night prime time radio show Vibes of the Times. Booming out across the Anchorage listening area and beyond, thanks to the Internet, he plays “hot music from a cold place”. From all the calls and emails he receives, he knows the world’s listening. “It’s exciting,” he says, “it feels good that people get inspired by my show.” Tune in at krua.uaa.alaska.edu/listenonline.htm
Jamaican poet Niki Johnson is what many of us strive to be — a master of many trades. The former forensic scientist, ex-British Council Jamaica manager, sometime poetry judge, teacher, and current UTech executive assistant, however, laughs off the suggestion. “I wouldn’t say I’m a master at anything,” she says modestly. “I envy people who do one thing excellently. I only do a lot of things well.” After the launch of her 15-poem chapbook Weights and Measures at the 2005 Calabash Literary Festival, many would dispute that, and say Johnson is only ever excellent.
Karl Williams’s first encounter with acting wasn’t driven by a passion for the art. “I basically wanted a course that didn’t have any exams,” he says. Fast-forward a few years, and such sentiment might seem serendipitous. With a steadily growing body of work, flattering reviews, and a prestigious Actor Boy Award for his portrayal of Pharaoh Rameses in Moses, Williams is quickly becoming a leading figure of the Jamaican stage. “Some people want to start off as a star, but I believe in paying dues,” he says, “so you can get the roles that make people really take notice.”
Anyone familiar with the US TV series American Idol will know Nadia Turner, the former beauty queen from St Eustatius whose blistering renditions, big hair, and midriff-baring tank-tops wooed viewers and took her into the final round of eight. A favourite across North America and the Caribbean, she’s generated weblogs in her honour, rallied newspapers to her side, and even impressed the cantankerous judge Simon Cowell, who told her, “in a competition full of hamburgers, you are a steak.” On the back of her Idol success, can Turner move on to an even bigger stage?
Born in Grenada in 1979, Private Johnson Beharry moved to the UK in 1999 and enlisted in the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment. In March 2005 he was awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest military decoration for valour in the British and Commonwealth armed forces, for two individual acts of great heroism. Under intense fire and at great personal risk to himself, Beharry saved the lives of 30 of his comrades. He is the first living recipient of the VC since 1969. “Maybe I was brave,” he says modestly. “I don’t know. I think anyone else could do the same thing.”
Far side of paradise
Suspended Sentences: Fictions of Atonement
Mark McWatt (Peepal Tree Press, ISBN 1-84523-001-9)
It was a dark and stormy night. Dark, because it was in fact night; and stormy, not in the meteorological sense, but in the way that tends to characterise the carousing of young, somewhat highly strung, politically aware types. On completing their A-level exams, a group of obscenely articulate students set out for some good old school-leaving fun. It was also their belated celebration of Guyana’s independence. But you know how it goes with teenagers — give them an inch and they’ll vandalise the premises, deface the walls with polysyllabic, anti-colonial slurs, and immobilise the bartender and handyman.
As punishment, the students are tried (in a real court) and sentenced (by a real magistrate) to write essays for an anthology on their newly independent country. Suspicions aroused, perhaps by the fact that the trial took place on a Saturday, few of them actually write the essays. More than 30 years later, the promised collection gets pulled together.
In Suspended Sentences, Guyanese-born Mark McWatt attempts a brave and challenging narrative. Each “essay” (they’re really short stories) demands a different authorial voice, taking into consideration such trivia as gender, ethnicity, and age — some stories were written in youth, some revised later, others written for the first time in adulthood. Although the book’s introduction says the stories are supposed to be for, of, or about Guyana’s independence, evidence of this is not everywhere apparent. It is clear only in the last story (ascribed to McWatt himself), where the author is made to explain the circumstances that led to the writing of the pieces. And elsewhere the issues of an emerging nationalism lie a layer or two below the surface: as in the tribute to Wilson Harris written by the disappeared Nunes, or the futuristic story about a bohemian kind of Catholicism in the 70s — the 2070s — in which Sister Iqbal, the transvestite nun, gyrates for Jesus.
To write as a bunch of different people can’t be easy; the task becomes even more onerous when your author-selves aren’t really writers. Some of them are still in high school, working with that most rigid and unforgiving of forms, the high school essay. McWatt does not absolutely succeed in creating distinct voices; at their worst, the stories sound more like different phases or moods of the same writer. However, what is excellently managed is the idea that these stories were not written by writers but by school-age boys and girls, and the adults they become. In parts showy and self-conscious, preachy and nostalgic, the authors McWatt take you back to the awkward, uncertain time when life goals were easily measurable by the good Cambridge examiners, and everything in your life smelled like chalk.
Looking at Jamaica
My Jamaica: The Paintings of Judy Ann MacMillan
Judy Ann MacMillan, with an introduction by Edward Lucie-Smith (Macmillan Caribbean, ISBN 0-333-99717-4, 155 pp)
Judy Ann MacMillan is a painter of the traditional kind — “her aim is to render what she sees, and her motivations are a love of the actual processes of seeing, and also of trying to make an exact likeness” — and My Jamaica is a retrospective of thirty years of her work. It is divided into sections on women, men, still lifes, landscapes, and Rockfield, the artist’s country retreat in St Ann. MacMillan’s portraits are the most compelling, particularly her rendering of Kingston street people. The painting Lunatic stands out in its stark eloquence. MacMillan captures an almost mystic quality in her subject, who stands with one arm upraised in what seems both mute appeal and commanding gesture. Though the figure of the lunatic occupies only a quarter of the space, it radiates an energy field far beyond the frame of the painting.
How to paint the play of light on black skin remained for a long time an obsession with MacMillan. Like Albert Huie before her, this was something she had to learn on her own. My Jamaica allows one to see the gradual perfection of technique that takes place from the 1970s to the 1990s. Purely as a published object, this is an exemplary book; its sheer beauty is matched with an engaging introduction by renowned Jamaica-born art critic and poet Edward Lucie-Smith, and MacMillan’s own refreshing asides on her work. It gives a vivid sense of a traditional way of painting that can still delight and reveal.
When we are gods
Moko Jumbies: The Dancing Spirits of Trinidad
Photographs by Stefan Falke, preface by Geoffrey Holder, introduction by Earl Lovelace (Pointed Leaf Press, ISBN 0-9727661-3-8, 216 pp)
German photographer Stefan Falke, with his resplendent book Moko Jumbies: The Dancing Spirits of Trinidad, has made it unlikely that Trinbagonians can look at these walking, dancing, towering Carnival characters in quite the same way again. With his camera, Falke has looked beyond the physical characteristics of height, colour, and even movement — although all these features are inevitably and gloriously captured — by breaking them down, as it were. By focusing on the artistic process of becoming a moko jumbie, we are forced to appreciate them in their human whole. Working for over six years with the Kilimanjaro School of Arts and Culture, founded by Glen “Dragon” de Souza 17 years ago, Falke delivers a 200-picture photographic essay that boggles the imagination.
Moko Jumbies is superior to the average Carnival coffee-table book in that, just as Carnival is only partly — perhaps not even chiefly — about colour, Falke’s book is really about feeling and emotion, which means that he must have fallen in love with his subject. He goes behind the scenes to record the effort required to become a moko jumbie, the preparation, the first cautionary steps of the novitiate, the hours and dimensions of practice, the weariness, the camaraderie, the joy. These children are making to become gods, even as this gifted photographer contrives to produce not only a fabulous book about a living art-form saved from the death, but an underlying snapshot of all-too-familiar aspects of the enduring human condition.
The malice of memory
The Godmother and Other Stories
Jan Lowe Shinebourne (Peepal Tree Press, ISBN 1-900715-87-2, 116 pp)
The UK-based Guyanese writer Jan Lowe Shinebourne has two novels to her credit — Timepiece (1986) and The Last English Plantation (1988). Her new book is a collection of 11 short stories, all snapshots of Guyanese in crisis, usually over their feelings for Guyana. A woman lies dying in a London hospital, her head clamouring with names and memories from her Guyanese childhood. Another Guyanese woman in London falls out with a childhood friend because of the different political paths they have taken; “I live with Guyana all the time”, she moans, “I want to stop the memory, to stop remembering, so I can start to live here.” An elderly teacher who went to England to study music returns home after a breakdown and is terrified of re-entering a world he no longer understands (“only local culture, local music, nothing classical . . . I am foreign now”).
Lowe is good at these intense moments of despair which may pass by in a few minutes, but which speak volumes about history and pain. A few well-chosen words establish the hollowness of the word “comrade”, or the way a new local elite steps into the shoes of the departing colonial elite at independence.
Return to roots
I passed a man bathing in the drain
he said “I am Jesus Christ come back again”
and as I passed I turned to see
a man across the road cussin’ he for blasphemy
but as I walked I started to wonder
which man of the two was the blasphemer:
the one who said he was the Lord himself
or the next one who cyan’t see the Lord in someone else
— King Kalenda, Corbeaux
Drew Gonsalves is the face and the voice of King Kalenda. About to release their debut album, tentively titled Return to Corbeaux Town, the Canada-based outfit is trying to break into the international music scene with a classic sound, the sound of old-time calypso.
Gonsalves was born in Trinidad and moved to Canada at the age of 13, but the musicians who back him up have come from even further afield: Cuba, Slovenia, India, Canada, Chile. Growing up in the Caribbean, Gonsalves had no shortage of musical influences. He was even a member of his school’s folk choir. In Canada, as his interest in music developed, he studied classical and flamenco guitar, as well as the cuatro (the small stringed instrument that’s a staple of Trinidad’s parang music). Later he returned to Trinidad to write, perform, and study with virtuoso cuatrista Robert Munro and sitarist and Caribbean Indo-jazz pioneer Mungal Patasar.
In 2003, Gonsalves embarked on a project to “explore the roots of calypso music”, and King Kalenda was born. The name “is a tribute to the traditional stickfighting music that calypso grew out of”. Gonsalves describes the sound that’s emerged as “a traditional folkloric West Indian sound on top of a heavily urban rhythm section”. The King Kalenda members who aren’t Trinidadian came to know the music through old records, listening to Lord Beginner, Roaring Lion, and Kitchener. “They see the beauty of traditional music in Trinidad,” Gonsalves explains, adding that the band is very conscious of what might be expected from such a project.
“We focus on satire and storytelling to get a message across. A couple of the songs deal with the paradox of our independence in the Caribbean — we’ve not broken our dependence on first world colonial powers — despite our independence. Most of the songs deal with different political or social issues, and explore my emotional connection with the country — a couple of the songs deal with that whole thing of living away and having your roots here,” he says.
“The quality of writing and musicianship in old-time calypso is really brilliant, and we want to break the model of capitalist mass production in music and produce lyric-driven, melodic music, so it was a political choice as well. Trinidad is swinging in the tide of globalisation, and basic elements of our culture are disappearing — traditions still hold a lot of relevance today.”
Gonsalves first began playing with this “return to roots” sound in the late 90s, with a band called Outcry. All the members of Outcry have graduated to the King Kalenda project. Outcry tested their sound at various world music festivals in Canada, and they always felt the audience responded well to their sound. But, having just completed his studies, Gonsalves felt compelled to put his music dreams aside to focus on earning a living, so he got a job teaching English literature. But his dreams returned to haunt him last year.
“I had a burst of creativity, and had a strong desire to record the stuff I was writing, to do something with it. I called Lyndon [Livingstone, credited with producing several popular remixes for many of today’s soca artistes], he came to Canada, and we started recording up there, doing post-production in Trinidad. I left my teaching job and just decided to take the risk. I’m funding this entire project myself,” Gonsalves says.
“People that are really interested in traditional West Indian music are often those that care about the social issues in the Caribbean. I wanted to produce an album Trinidadians would be proud of. I want to add to the body of great Trinidadian songwriting.”
Anthony B does not mince his words. He has courted controversy throughout his career by directly attacking not only the government and prominent businessmen of his native Jamaica but also international politicians and world figures he sees as unjust. And unlike some of his contemporaries, the reggae vocalist has not been stuck with the tarnished image of a castigating bully; instead, Anthony B keeps his criticism as constructive as it is direct.
He was raised high in the mountains of the Cockpit Country, a remote region of Jamaica that has been home to the Maroons since the era of slavery; they are among the most historically defiant of the island’s inhabitants, and Anthony is a direct Maroon descendant. At the start of his teen years, to further his schooling, he went to stay with an uncle in Portmore, an aggregation of low-income housing projects built to ease Kingston’s chronic overcrowding. There he was drawn to the wonders of Rastafari and the irrefutable attraction of the microphone.
In the late 1980s and early 90s, Anthony B was just another neighborhood youth, chatting on an unknown local sound system. Then in 1994, after appearing in a prominent talent contest, he appeared at the Sunsplash and Sting festivals. Signed to the Star Trail label, he swiftly rose to international prominence with the incendiary Fire Pon Rome. Since then, Mr B has scored several other noteworthy hits, chalking up about a dozen albums and venturing into self-production along the way. His enthralling stage shows have also helped retain a loyal following on several continents, as has his uncommon vocal approach, which places him somewhere between a traditional singer and spitfire DJ.
His late 2004 album Untouchable paired Anthony B with hip-hop stars like Wyclef Jean, Snoop Dog, Bonecrusher, and Ghostface Killer, in an attempt to make the kind of crossover with conscious roots reggae that other Jamaican performers have achieved with dancehall. The album, released by Togetherness Records through Universal, contains a mixture of styles, and, though aimed at a wider audience, it still retains the hallmarks of his previous work. As Jamaican music is increasingly scrutinised by hostile listeners tired of being offended, can the sing-jay rise above the hullabaloo to reach greater popularity?
“This is how we have to link up the music”
Anthony B on Untouchable“Togetherness Records, we’ve been recording together from 1999, when I did a song called Love Sting that was only distributed locally. Then they did a show in 2000 in Trinidad with me, Shaggy, and Bounty Killer. We got the vision that if we market the Rasta music the right way, like how they market this hype dancehall music, or this ‘bling’ music, then it can work, so we’re hoping to reach a wider audience with the positive side of the music.
”With Bonecrusher and Wyclef, we’re trying to marriage the music, just like how you could see a dancehall artist with an American superstar, same way we could see it with a Rastafari; this is how we have to link up the music to take it to a new audience. But we didn’t just want to do hip-hop tracks with hip-hop artists, we try to bring hip-hop to the sound of reggae music. That mama’s good old soul food cooking, that’s how I see reggae: it’s not like fast food. When you eat fast food, after a few years, you go to the doctor, they tell you that you need some little vegetable in your body, or you’re going to have some problems. That’s how I see reggae music: after all this fast food, you really need to go back and listen to some of these songs.”
Light the fuse
Music video director Nzingha Stewart’s rise to the top of her field has been both organic and meteoric. Known for her photocentric style and an adventurous conceptual approach, Stewart caught the eye of the industry with her video for Bilal’s Soul Sista. MTV award–nominated videos for rapper Common and singer Sunshine Anderson were followed by projects with Eve, Freeway, and Dashboard Confessional.
Born to Jamaican parents in Brooklyn and raised in Atlanta, Stewart came home to New York to attend New York University. After graduation, a reel of music videos she shot in college won her commercial work for clients like ESPN, Coors Light, Sears, and McDonald’s. Along the way she helped found the non-profit organisation Set It Off, devoted to empowering young women from inner-city communities.
In 2003, Boards magazine named Stewart one of the top 10 live action directors of that year. The Source magazine calls her one of the most powerful newcomers in the music industry, and Vibe magazine says she’s an A-list director. Her success as a music video director has been a dream come true; Set It Off was the birth of a new dream, a way for Stewart to give something back.
Imagine this scenario: you’re one of the hottest music video directors in the business, having worked with the likes of Joss Stone, Eve, Jagged Edge, Old Dirty Bastard, 50 Cent, and Erykah Badu, but once you set foot in Jamaica (your home away from home), you’re essentially treated like a professional disaster. Talk about being dissed.
Imagine further that the disrespect happens to come from your own family — who should know by now that you’re a big shot in America.Talk about being double dissed.
For Nzingha Stewart, the scenario is real, and funny.
“[My grandma] doesn’t get what I do,” says Stewart, whose parents are from the island’s rural western parish, Westmoreland. “She doesn’t have cable [TV], so all she sees in Jamaica are the little [low budget] local reggae videos. She’ll kiss her teeth and say: ‘I hope it’s not that foolishness yuh doin’. When I say, ‘Oh, grandma I’m working with [hip-hop megastar] Jay Z this week,’ she’s like ‘What is that?’”
Getting Stewart to stop long enough to tell a quip about her hilarious granny isn’t as easy as it may seem. She’s as busy as they come. I can hardly believe my luck when, after months of phone calls, garbled voice messages, and pleading emails, she finally fits me into her busy schedule.
So how often do you get back to Jamaica?
At least once a year. There’s a point [every] year when I tell myself it’s time to go home now. Getting off the plane — when that warm weather smell hits — I start to calm down. That smell is just Jamaica.
So where’s your favorite spot?
Negril. I like the beach. I don’t even [consider myself in Jamaica] until I go there . . . Everything moves slower. There’s something about a place where “soon come” means nothing.
Your directing style has been called photo-centric. How did Jamaica influence the way you make videos?
Growing up in Atlanta in the 80s, instead of posters of Michael Jackson and New Edition on my bedroom wall, I had these great high-fashion photos [by photographers Helmut Newton and Herb Ritz]. So I always had that sense of fashion. Plus I was coming into my own in New York when hip-hop and its heightened sense of style was [going mainstream]. And then I was into Blondie and the Ramones. But [I also credit] the Jamaican influence of being really “extra”, like wearing sequins to a funeral. There’s always this extra-ness on display the whole time. That was fascinating to me as a child. You don’t see the level of intensity in Jamaica anywhere else.
Any thoughts on dancehall’s growing clout in the US?
It’s underestimated. The influence is huge. I really credit Jamaicans with starting hip-hop. Setting up dances outside the Bronx — talking over a mike. Hip-hop is almost like an orphan of reggae, they don’t recognise each other because they haven’t seen each other in a long time. There’s a family reunion thing happening, though.
When are you going to work with some Jamaican artistes?
It’s killing me that I haven’t worked with one. And I want to so bad. I’m Jamaican, and it’s the next thing to get into — we’ll see.
Who’s on your list?
Whoever has a hot record out. I like Sizzla, Sean Paul, Beenie Man, Buju Banton — he’s not so popular right now, but I love his music. Vybyz Kartel, although I haven’t seen much of him. He’s a little controversial.
Carnival in the north
It’s exciting to observe the way Caribbean culture survives when transplanted abroad, then evolves in its new home. Toronto’s Caribana, the largest Caribbean festival in North America, is a fine example of what happens when West Indian emigrants plant a seed and let it grow.
Now in its 38th year, Caribana developed from the Caribbean community’s contribution to Canada’s 1967 centennial year celebrations into today’s two-week cultural festival at the end of July, attracting over a million participants onto the streets of Toronto and generating over C$350 million for the local economy. It includes events and activities familiar to Carnival aficionados from the Caribbean: a kiddies carnival, the king and queen show, a steelband competition called Pan Alive, climaxing in the parade day, when bands of costumed masqueraders, dozens of music trucks, and thousands of onlookers converge.
One man who perhaps knows more than anyone what Caribana was and has become is Louis Saldenah, a 15-time winner of the band of the year title, who this year celebrates the 25th anniversary of his involvement in Caribana mas. Like the greatest Carnival designers, Saldenah once served as an apprentice to an older master, absorbing the skills and knowledge needed to continue the tradition and take it further. In his case, the older master was his father, the late, great Harold “Sally” Saldenah, one of Trinidad Carnival’s most influential pioneers.
“I grew up in Carnival,” says Louis. “All I can remember was growing up and mas was already there in the household.” Born in Trinidad in 1950, he was almost from birth surrounded by his father’s legendary Carnival portrayals, like the historical Imperial Rome 44 BC to 96 AD, and the fantasy band El Dorado, City of Gold. Louis moved to Canada in 1970. Seven years later his first Caribana band, Shangri-La, won the 1977 band of the year title. His productions bear the same hallmarks as his father’s iconic bands — intense research and scrupulous fabrication. “I try to create the same vision and visual impact in the air as my father,” he reflects. “I put a lot of emphasis on production, which he always did, and bring what I learned from him.”
With themes like Ontario, Yours to Discover, Theatre of the Streets, and The Lost Horizon of Atlantis, Saldenah and his Mas-K Club blend the historical, the local, and the imaginative, continuing the legacy of Trinidad Carnival but with North American elements. “The costumes here today are comparable to Trinidad, and our band has grown to 1,400 people, the biggest Carnival band in North America. In the early stages, the bands were small, only about 80 people. You need people to create the vision,” he says.
From conceiving a theme to making it a physical reality, getting a band on the road is a complex business. Saldenah works with designer and San Fernando native Steve Muradali. “We are like a family,” he says. “I come up with a theme. We talk, decide what direction we want to take, and develop ideas from there.” For costume building, they rent a 10,000-square-foot warehouse and bring together over a hundred volunteer band members and family.
Their anniversary presentation for 2005 is called Rewind, and reflects their 25 previous endeavours. “While Caribana participation first moved down from West Indian parents, from generation to generation, today it is a Canadian festival,” Saldenah says. Thirty-eight years ago, could the Caribbean community in Toronto already have known their memories of home would be so completely and lovingly absorbed by their adopted city?
Caribana takes place in Toronto from July 18 to August 1. For more information on Louis Saldenah’s Rewind, visit www.saldenahcarnival.com