TEMPO: Gimme more Caribbean

Garry Steckles wonders where’s the Caribbean culture the new TV channel Tempo is supposed to showcase — and offers some suggestions to Tempo programme

  • Illustration by Marlon Griffith

I was chatting with my new buddy Frank the other day about Tempo, the fledgling television channel that was launched recently amid a flurry of hype unprecedented for this part of the world, and a self-professed mandate to showcase Caribbean culture in all its diversity.

Frank is a recent arrival in the Caribbean, and he hasn’t had the chance to absorb a great deal about the music and culture of the region. But he was dismayed when I told him I had some serious reservations about what Tempo was doing, and that I’d be writing about it in my next Caribbean Beat column.

“Don’t you dare say anything that takes them off the air,” he admonished, perhaps not realising that the channel’s owned by Viacom, a multi-zillion-dollar media giant.

“I love Tempo. It’s like having the Playboy channel for free.”

Unfortunately, Frank’s not far off the mark.

Tune in to Tempo, virtually any time of day or night, and chances are you’re going to be confronted by hordes of young women, most of them falling out of what little clothing they’re wearing, gyrating to the music of a bunch of cloned rappers (do these guys all buy their gear at the same store?).

It’s not a pretty sight.

It’s not a pretty sound.

And it’s not Caribbean culture.

Why on earth, I kept asking myself, do they have to keep on showing this stuff? Why aren’t they delivering what they promised? I was so concerned, I fired off an email to David Rudder, one of the most revered singer-songwriters the Caribbean has ever produced, asking what he thought of it all. His reply:

“It’s funny that you would write about those tired videos, ’cause just yesterday I almost threw something at the TV. If I see one more semi-nude gyal flexing or whatever the hell they call it and some rapper pointing a finger in my face, I swear I’ll not be responsible. Thanks, I thought that I was the only fed-up one out there.”

No, David, you’re not the only one. Not by any means. I was more than a little taken aback when I tuned in to Tempo for the first time and was confronted by a rapper — I think his name was Nelly — trying on what appeared to be diamond-crusted false teeth while a bunch of woefully out-of-shape women, scantily clad and looking about as erotic as Miss Piggy on a bad-snout day, attempted to dance.

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What has this got to do with the Caribbean? I wondered, as I recoiled in horror and scrambled for the mute button. It was a question I kept on asking for the rest of the day, as I was bombarded by a seemingly endless parade of American rap, pop, and hip-hop videos: Outkast, Jill Scott, Mia, Pit Bull, Destiny’s Child, Jennifer Lopez, Mariah Carey, Beyonce, 50 Cent, Dilated Peoples (nifty name, pity about the music), Black Eyed Peas, Kanye West, Will Smith, Ray Run, Jay-Z, Buster Rhymes . . . all the usual suspects from BET, which just happens to be another of the TV channels owned by Viacom (along with MTV).

After what seemed like an eternity, a handful of Caribbean artists started to crop up in the rotation. But most of these were of the dancehall or ragga variety, people like Sean Paul, Shaggy, and Machel Montano.

Occasionally, and mercifully, we’d get a little roots reggae, in the shape of Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Jimmy Cliff, or Burning Spear. But with the notable exception of a “new” Marley song called “Slogans”, most of the reggae I saw and heard over the next few days came in the shape of videos most Caribbean music fans have seen dozens, if not hundreds, of times over the years.

Tempo also shows some good second-generation ska, virtually all of it courtesy of the two-tone revival in the 1980s. And the channel’s also where I first saw and heard a new and refreshing figure on the reggae scene, Matisyahu, a New York-based reggae-rapper who happens to be Jewish and who performs in full Hasidic garb — black suit and hat, long sideburns and beard, the works. He’s sensational, and my sincere thanks go out to Tempo for introducing his music to the Caribbean.

Most of what appears on the channel, though, isn’t of that calibre or that originality. And I must confess to wondering, frequently, why they’d bombard us with the same tired old rap and hip-hop we can watch on virtually any other video channel. Okay, there’s expediency — they’ve got access to BET’s music library, and they sure are using it. And there’s no doubt the music they play is popular with the market they’re clearly targeting — the teenage and early-to-mid-20s crowd with plenty of money to spend.

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After watching the channel for a few days, it crossed my mind that the people who decide what goes on the air at Tempo are probably not much older than their target audience. Which probably means they don’t know a great deal about Caribbean culture beyond what’s gone on over the past decade or so, along with Bob Marley and a few other major reggae figures.

But they don’t seem to have heard of calypso. That’s genuine Caribbean culture, it’s been around for a long, long time, and thus far I haven’t seen or heard it on Tempo. And there’s no sign of any of the Caribbean movies and other cultural delights we were promised during the pre-launch promotional blitz.

So, rather than just criticise, I decided it would be a lot more useful to point Tempo towards a few treasure troves of authentic Caribbean music and culture.

Let’s start with calypso. Which takes us — always a pleasure — to Trinidad.

Banyan Productions, in Port of Spain, is a gold mine, not only of calypso, but of a wide range of Caribbean culture. Among their treasures are 50 live recordings from Trinidad calypso tents from 1985 to 1988 (for the benefit of readers not familiar with the tents, they’re the showcases for calypso in the weeks and months leading up to Trinidad’s annual Carnival, and many connoisseurs swear this is where you’ll hear the best live calypso in the world).

Banyan also has Raw Kaiso, a classic calypso concert video, along with David Rudder’s “Madman’s Rant”, one of the most powerful music videos I’ve ever seen, and live versions, taped in New York, of Rudder’s “Calypso Music” and “1990”.

Then there’s interviews with just about all of the great names in calypso. Among them: Lord Melody, Roaring Lion, Rudder, Blue Boy (later Superblue), Lord Pretender, Lord Kitchener, Growling Tiger, Organiser, Cro Cro, Watchman, Ras Shorty I, Black Stalin, and Merchant.

There’s more, much more, in the Banyan vaults. And if what they have to offer isn’t enough to satisfy Tempo, the producers of Calypso Dreams, the best documentary ever made about Trinidadian music, have about 60 hours of footage that they’d be delighted to share with viewers.

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On the reggae front, my old friend Roger Steffens, the leading collector of Bob Marley and reggae memorabilia in the world, has interviews with some of the music’s legends. Roger’s library, from his TV show LA Reggae, includes classic interviews with Peter Tosh, Bunny Wailer, Jimmy Cliff, the Heptones, Cedric Myton, Sly and Robbie, the original lineup of Black Uhuru, Ken Boothe, Johnny Osbourne, Judy Mowatt, Culture, Eek-A-Mouse, Musical Youth, and scores more, along with African stars Fela Kuti and Miriam Makeba.

And that’s just the tip of the Caribbean cultural iceberg. It’s out there, it’s been woefully underexposed — with the notable exception of Robert Nesta Marley — and Tempo, with the deep pockets of Viacom behind it, has a unique opportunity to bring our singers, songwriters, dancers, actors, artists, moviemakers, and poets to mainstream television for the first time. It’s an opportunity I hope the people behind Tempo seize, and they’ve got a standing offer from yours truly to help in any way I can.

Calypso Rose, on her way to becoming Trinidad’s first woman Calypso Monarch in 1977, begged “Gimme More Tempo”.

Almost 30 years later, I’m sure Rose won’t mind my paraphrasing her by begging Tempo:

Gimme more Calypso Rose.
Gimme more Sparrow.
Gimme more Joseph Hill.
Gimme more Mighty Diamonds.
Gimme more Celia Cruz.
Gimme more Bunny Wailer.
Gimme more Gregory Isaacs.
Gimme more David Rudder.
Gimme more Wailing Souls.
Gimme more Willie Chirino.
Gimme more Dennis Brown.
Gimme more Tito Puente.
Gimme more Kitchener.
Gimme more Steel Pulse.
Gimme more Jimmy Bosch.
Gimme more Roaring Lion.
Gimme more Mutabaruka.
Gimme more Compay Segundo.
Gimme more Wailing Souls.
Gimme more Ras Shorty I.
Gimme more Crucial Bankie.
Gimme more Lord Blakie.
Gimme more Freddie McGregor.
Gimme more Nasio Fontaine.
Gimme more Rubén González.
Gimme more Toots and the Maytals.
Gimme more U-Roy.
Gimme more Big Youth.
Gimme more Caribbean culture.