Jacques Schwarz-Bart (Emarcy, B000FG5PYK)
Two of the most exciting and flavourful Caribbean jazz releases I’ve heard in recent times have come from the young French Caribbean artists Buyu Ambroise (Blues and Red) and Mario Canonge (Rhizome). Both artists have origins in islands — Ambroise in Haiti and Canonge in Martinique — with deeply entrenched folk and roots traditions which have strongly informed the popular music (think Eugène Mona, Malavoi, or Kali from Martinique, and Haiti’s Boukman Eksperyans), and both have succeeded in producing sustained works that break out of the cool, pleasant, slightly toothless groove plied by a great deal of Caribbean jazz. And now they’re joined by another young French Caribbean, this time from Guadeloupe: saxophonist Jacques Schwarz-Bart (son of the late French-Jewish writer André Schwarz-Bart and Guadeloupean writer Simone Schwarz-Bart), with his outstanding new release Soné Ka-La.
The hype surrounding this album is all about Schwarz-Bart’s marrying the rhythms of Guadeloupe’s gwoka drum traditions with all the other styles (jazz, soul, hip-hop) that influence a person of his age, time, and experience (he was a member of the touring band for American nu-soul artist D’Angelo, playing alongside the likes of trumpeter Roy Hargrove). And he does this with spectacular success. The balance Schwarz-Bart finds feels satisfyingly and organically exact, the strands woven tightly together to create what sounds almost like its own sub-genre. Schwarz-Bart’s resonant sax (he also takes turns on flute, acoustic guitar, triangle, and mouthdrums) is supported by a beautifully spare piano accompaniment, unadorned drum rhythms and percussion, wah-wah effects, hand claps, and the like — plus some fabulous vocals (in kwéyol, of course).
The vocals (which range from rapping, chanting, and snippets of conversation to vocalese-like effects) are in fact far from incidental: on tracks such as “Gwoka”, they’re a critical ingredient in a highly complex mix. Guadeloupean hip-hop star Admiral T also delivers an energetic lead vocal on “Pé La”, one of the album’s most powerful, joyous tracks, with Kassav’s Jacob Desvarieux pitching in on the bluesy “Déshabillé”. Schwarz-Bart’s mother Simone (whose voice has a gorgeous, smoky quality) offers an evocative reading of her poetry on “Léwoz”. Soné Ka-La’s more “urban” sounding tracks are slightly reminiscent of some of Roy Hargrove’s outings with his band RH Factor, notably “Drum & Bass” and the second part of “Léwoz”, a driving, “urbanised” remix based on the melody of the title track.
Jacques Schwarz-Bart has succeeded in creating an album that evokes both a traditional past and a forward-looking urban present — rural Caribbean landscapes and gritty cityscapes in almost equal measure. A huge achievement.
Independence Kobo Town (KOBO 001)
Tierra de la Dulce Espera La Orquesta de la Papaya (Papaya Music)
A band like Kobo Town — diasporic, multi-ethnic, genre-straddling — would always have been a source of bewilderment to marketing executives in what you might call the “1.0” version of the music industry. How, where, to whom, would one sell them? The answer to that question, in the age of the Internet, is, of course: to anybody and everybody on the World Wide Web. Kobo Town is one of several emerging — and, more often than not, young — groups and artists from the Caribbean who have embraced the opportunities of the Internet, thereby dispensing with the need for the traditional structures which probably wouldn’t have paid them much attention anyway. Their web site, kobotown.com, re-directs to their page at MySpace (the social networking site which has become a sine qua non for independent bands and artists), which features a prominent link to their page at the well-regarded world music download site Calabash Music, along with full-length music samples (for your pre-purchase listening pleasure).
Kobo Town is led by Drew Gonsalves, a Trinidadian transplanted to Canada, and comprises an assortment of his fellow diasporians from Trinidad, Jamaica, and Cuba. The tracks on Independence alternate between uptown-style roots reggae and old-time kaiso layered with light punk and blues rhythms, with Gonsalves’s social commentary texts and twenty-first-century kaiso narratives in the foreground.
Part musical collaboration, part social experiment (and part marketing exercise!), Orquesta de la Papaya was formed in 2002 in an effort to showcase the rhythms of Central America to the world. It’s also a fine example of co-operation across national territories — one of which other regions comprising small nations might do well to take note. Tierra de la Dulce Espera, the orchestra’s second CD, brings together musicians from Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, Honduras, and Belize in a lively exploration of the rich, diverse, but largely unknown music traditions of the bridge connecting North and South America.
In My Mind
Heather Headley (RCA)
In 2002, Heather Headley was at the top of her game, fresh off star Broadway turns in The Lion King and Aida, and a hit debut album that earned her a Grammy nomination. On her follow up album, In My Mind, we find the Trini songstress in what sounds like not just a sophomore slump, but a full-blown depression. Gone are the gospel-tinged power ballads, spirited love songs, and tributes to sisterhood that showcased her phenomenal range. Instead, Headley’s beautiful voice and ballsy attitude lie barely recognisable, smothered by banal melodies and depressing lyrics that document love gone wrong. (Singing along to these lyrics would be advisable only if the album came packaged with coupons for therapy or self-esteem camp.)
Thankfully, dancehall artists Shaggy and Vybz Cartel crash the pity party to provide much needed relief. While the former’s turn on “Rain” is woefully predictable, it’s up-tempo enough to make you put down the Prozac. Dancehall’s man-of-the-moment Cartel puts his skills to better use, saving the album with the radio-ready track “How Many Ways”.
Despite production assistance from L’il John, the album comes across as middle-of-the-road R&B. The few exceptions are the dancehall, a misguided do-wop, and the gospel-flavoured “Change”, which provides a glimpse of the old Headley and finally puts her voice to work. Slim as it is, the latter is enough to make you hope for a third album and a chance for Headley to change her mind before her fans do.
Della Manley (DellaM Productions)
Sometimes lightning does strike twice. Della Manley finally serves up the long-awaited sequel to her plucky 1998 debut, Ashes on the Window Sill. Back then, the unknown daughter-in-law of former Jamaican prime minister Michael Manley scored a home run with a charming folk sound that wound through reggaeland like a fresh breeze. On Barbican Square, Manley rewards her loyal band of fans for their patience. Though it’s her second time around, Manley’s stripped-down sound and earnest lyrics still set her apart from the plastic pretenders that dominate today’s music. And while she plumbs the same themes — depression, love, loss — as Heather Headley (see left), she handles them with a maturity and restraint that make them not just bearable, but relatable. (The beautifully subtle “Fragment” should be added to the curriculum at Over-emoters Anonymous.)
Once again, Manley calls on a few famous friends, including her sister-in-law, writer Rachel Manley, who co-penned three of the album’s fifteen songs. Third World’s Cat Coore lends his cello to the stand-out tracks “Missing It All”, “Fragment”, and “Another Cloud”, while legendary dub poet Mutabaruka shows up for a surprising duet on the breakout single “I Know”. Earl “Chinna” Smith, Brian Jobson, and Dean Fraser round out the line-up of brand-name guest stars. But the accomplishment is all Manley’s. The haunting voice, the understated guitar, the lyrics that slip seamlessly from criticism to consolation: it all adds up to an album that will keep fans happy for another eight years. Here’s hoping we won’t need to wait that long.