Wadadli style

In Antigua reggae and dancehall are just as popular as soca. David Katz explores the island’s hidden reggae scene

  • Omari Harrigan. Photograph by David Katz
  • Jus Bus & Logiq. Photograph by David Katz
  • Corporal Mantana. Photograph courtesy Corporal Mantana

For many people, Antiguan popular music means the longstanding soca band Burning Flames. Older heads may recall when King Short Shirt’s calypso commentaries brought the island overseas interest during the 1960s. And recent visitors may have caught an earful of the hotel act Dread and the Baldhead, led by cricketers Curtly Ambrose and Richie Richardson.

But spend a little more time on the island and it becomes clear that reggae, dancehall and rap are just as popular as soca. In fact, the island’s reggae scene has quietly thrived since the 1970s, and has an impressive array of talent on par with its counterparts in Jamaica, Trinidad or the USA.

To learn of Antigua’s hidden reggae history, I visited Corporal Mantana’s record shop in the trendy Vendor’s Mall, close to the cruise ship port in the island’s bustling capital, St John’s. Mantana, a veteran producer and sound system operator otherwise known as Delvin M. Dorset, is a gentle giant whose dreadlocks reach his ankles. He says the first reggae band on the island was Wadadli Experience, whose moniker was a reference to the island’s Amerindian name. “Everybody in the band was from Antigua,” he proudly explains. “What they were putting on their records was original, and they had a hit song around 1977 called ‘One Love’—people still talk about it now. Other bands playing in the hotels might do a reggae song here and there, but it was all calypso in the seventies, because reggae didn’t really start to catch on yet.”

Mantana says the shift happened through the circulation of cassette recordings made at sound system dances in Jamaica, which led to Antiguan sound systems that played Jamaican reggae exclusively.

In 1987, Mantana took local reggae to another level through the album Rubadub Train, recorded at a local studio called Third Eye with DJs such as Eke Robbie and Vigilante, who hit big two years later with a song called “Every Man A Don”. By then, Mantana had established an important connection with Jamaican producer Bobby Digital. In 1991, Mantana began building rhythms at Digital’s studio in Kingston, which he would then voice in Antigua with local singers. The result was a number of singles that sold by the thousands and an album called Finders Keepers, featuring Antiguan artists such as Wanski and Lady Slim.

Because the island is so small, Antigua’s music industry has lacked infrastructure: there are no pressing plants and only a handful of recording studios, although its abundance of radio stations allows locally-produced music ample airplay. So with no international label or distribution company on the island, Mantana sold his productions piecemeal, through individual record shops on neighbouring islands, but was eventually able to arrange distribution deals in Jamaica, Barbados and New York. He continued to build rhythms in Jamaica for voicing at home until 1995, when Hurricane Luis destroyed Antigua’s most prominent recording studios. Two years later, he recorded a various-artists album called Body Language at a studio near the picturesque Falmouth Harbour, but was unhappy with the result and took an extended break from producing to concentrate on running his record shop.
Although Hurricane Luis caused a lull in the reggae scene, over the last five years it has revived, thanks largely to the efforts of Omari Harrigan, whose Chosen Sounds studio is a focal point for many of the island’s most noteworthy hopefuls. “We focus on making people popular,” the level-headed Harrigan explains during a brief break between recording sessions, “bringing something that might have been previously neglected, making it into something that everybody understands is credible. That’s a big part of what we do, bringing artists from the creation stage to professional.”

The son of a prominent accountant, Harrigan moved to Toronto as a teenager, where he immersed himself in the burgeoning world of reggae sound systems whilst studying political science. Though he planned to practise law, music increasingly took a hold, so Chosen Sounds began—as a bedroom studio, where Harrigan cut a track with an artist called Blessing, which ultimately won a Juno award, just before he moved back to Antigua in 2000 to run a nightclub. The following year, he linked up with the highly creative Jus Bus (Justin Nation), an intense beat-maker and graphic designer from Texas who spent most of his youth living rough in Antigua. Harrigan describes the combination as “instant combustion”, saying their initial collaborations with previously undiscovered talent gained regional popularity almost immediately.

“Jus Bus is a dynamic individual, extremely talented as a producer,” Harrigan emphasises. “He knows what he likes to hear and when he has a goal, he works feverishly towards it. “I could not record as many artists as Justin could make beats for, so we started with Soulja Man, an energetic dancehall artist with good lyrics, and then moved on to Jashan Hughes, a songstress, R&B style, who does some reggae and crossover, and everything we started putting out was really a buzz.

“For a while, nobody recognised that this music was coming from Antigua, especially with Jashan, so all the songs we started putting out with her got insane amounts of radio airplay in Antigua, St Kitts, Barbados and Trinidad.”

Chosen Sounds released a soca compilation called Wave It, distributed overseas by VP and featuring local chanteuse Claudette “CP” Peters, who seems destined for an international breakthrough (watch for her upcoming videos on Hype TV and Tempo).

To broaden the label’s appeal, Harrigan arranged collaborations with Jamaican dancehall heroes TOK, American R&B star Bobby Brown and Trinidad’s Mr Slaughter, though regular overseas distribution has so far proven elusive. Nevertheless, Chosen Sounds continues to record all kinds of material with a range of Antiguan artists who deserve international recognition.

Chosen’s man of the moment is Lee Pee Ching (aka Lindy Charles), a charismatic toaster (and fashion designer) from Potters village whose “Badda Bing” style has made him one of the most in-demand performers on the island. “He is a style unto himself,” says Harrigan. “He keeps it real and has a particular twang which is Antiguan, the way he speaks his lyrics. He also has a determination and a mindset for music, wants to be a international artist, so he’s consistently on the grind, and his pulse is on the street, which gives him a lot of promise in the future.”
In direct contrast is Kiyode Erasto, a Rastafarian singer. “He’s an extremely conscious youth who’s about being positive in the music, speaking of truths and rights and justice, earthly and unearthly things,” says Harrigan, “trying to use whatever talents he has to make the world a better place. He writes for some of the other artists as well, and has books and books of material.”

Also of note is the stylistically versatile Mack Truck (Germain Martin), who is equally successful as a singer and DJ, while Guyana-born Naycha Kid (Junior Edwards), a radio presenter and former member of Dread and the Baldhead who records both reggae and soca, is currently making an impact with a song called “Lion Paw”. His cousin Fucha Kid, who sings and DJs, has had a hit with a song called “Rich And Greedy”, and Jamaican-born dancehall crooner Kenne Blessin is particularly popular with female fans.

Harrigan recently gathered some of Chosen Sounds’ best artists for a “Divine All Star” tour of the Leeward Islands that also featured Trinidadian reggae stars Isasha and Million Voice, playing to appreciative audiences in St Kitts, Anguilla and Montserrat, as well as Antigua.

But a recent coup by two former mainstays of Chosen Sounds means the label may have competition in the future. It’s a breakaway company, Free Entertainment, led by Jus Bus and Logiq (Vincent Pryce), veteran of a popular group called The Rock, and Jus Bus’s closest collaborator.

Their first release, an atmospheric Logiq track called “Sometimes”, is causing a sensation on the island right now, partly through its award-winning video. Though Logiq’s delivery shows signs of his formative years in New York, lines about “steamed fish and fungee” and local concerns make it clear he’s speaking from a Caribbean perspective. He comes across as thoughtful from his lyrics, which is perhaps why his upcoming album is called Brain Food.

“We try to educate and entertain at the same time,” says Jus Bus, “’cause we don’t want to bore people, but we have to get the message across. Because music is one of the most influential things ever. It touches people in so many different ways.”

They are taking a two-pronged approach with Free Entertainment, creating dancehall and hip-hop with a distinctive Antiguan flavour, with some rhythms being voiced abroad by leading toasters and rappers. “For the Shottas mix tape,” says Logiq, “I got dub plates with Killa Mike, Sadiqqi, Kardinal Offishall, Alozade, and Alaine, and I’m collaborating on that CD with Walshie Killa, a DJ from the [Miami-based] sound Black Chiney.

“The other half of it is my mix tape, the Bread And Cheese. My album is called Brainfood, so we’re doing a mix tape as a preview.”

“Then we’re releasing the Torpedo rhythm,” continues Jus Bus. “Free Entertainment in collaboration with Taking Over Entertainment. We’ve already got Vybz Kartel, Delly Ranks, Alozade, Chino, Mr Pepper and Movado on it and this will actually be Antigua’s first official dancehall rhythm, ‘cause I’m also featuring the local dancehall artists like Kenne Blessing, Soulja Man and Aaron Culture.”The hope is that these collaborative efforts will bring greater international attention to Antigua, an island brimming over with diverse musical talent.

“In Antigua, for all those people who are reading, there’s a goldmine of artists with lyrical and performing abilities,” says Harrigan. “I would love for people to recognise and realise that and also to invest in bringing some of these artists to a larger-scale audience. But I think it’s gonna grow, just by default, because the music is converging so much that it has no choice but to grow. All we really need to do is to continue to be consistent, to make positive moves, trust in God and everything will have to be right.”

Where to buy it

Although quality overseas record stores should be able to order the more prominent Antiguan titles such as the Wave It release, it can prove oddly difficult to purchase this music, even in Antigua itself, because some of it has never really been released officially, being instead only readily available to radio disc jockeys.

But an obvious place to head for music on the island is Corporal Mantana’s record shop, while street-side vendors also have select local material, particularly in “mix tape” format.

Other likely spots for CDs include the Progress King Music Shop at VC Bird International Airport and the nearby Clarke’s Calypso Shop.
Another option is to head online, to purchase and/or download direct from these sources:



Where to hear it

As for live music, events of high musical quality regularly take place at various venues around the island, such as the hip Coast Bar, the trendy Funky Buddha and the prestigious Cathedral Cultural Centre in St John’s, as well as By Betty’s Rustic Eatery on Factory Road and the St Paul’s Rectory Grounds in Falmouth—just check the local press or radio to find out what’s on.

By far the most grittily authentic presentation of upcoming talent takes place at a late-night, locally-oriented dancehall event called Shashemane (named after the community in Ethiopia settled by Jamaican Rastafarians), held monthly at the playing field of Potters Village.