CD reviews (November/December 2008)

Reviews of some new Caribbean CDs

  • A Christmas gift of Love
  • Calypso Gold

Carnival in Trinidad: Calypsonians, Steelpans and Blue Devils

Parang: Caribbean Christmas with the Lara Brothers

Winter and Winter

The Winter and Winter record label, based in Munich, Germany, is a very unusual entity. In an age when most companies are cutting corners as Internet downloads replace physical CD sales, Winter and Winter are issuing music in specially handcrafted audio “smart-packs,” made of ecologically-sound materials, with a specially-designed pouch for the actual disc and its accompanying booklet. And while most labels focus on only one style of music, Winter and Winter have classical, jazz and experimental items on their roster, which follows a certain logic, as head man Stefan Winter is a former employee of Polygram’s jazz division, as well as a student of baroque musicologist Konrad Ruhland.

Part of Winter’s concept is to present “cinema for closed eyes,” in which a CD takes the form of an “audio film.” This is especially the case with Carnival in Trinidad, which is presented in the form of an aural journey through the streets of Port of Spain during Carnival. Thus, after encountering an elderly Midnight Robber in the form of Charles Harrington, the listener finds the St Augustine Senior Comprehensive Steel Orchestra blasting out Crazy’s Band From Space, before coming across the mounting tension and wild chants of stick-fighting championships. Then comes cuatro virtuoso Robert Munro with three intense instrumentals, and after a tassa interlude from St James’ finest drummers, calypsonian David Bereaux relates some lewd classics by Kitchener, Mighty Sparrow and Roaring Lion. Later, the Laventille Rhythm Section bangs drums and tyre irons to fantastic effect, before the exquisitely expressive Earl Brooks delivers his sensitive Pan For Carnival. Then the listener finds his way to the downtown Kaiso House, where Nelson bawls out Meh Lover to the delight of the crowd, until Exodus Steel Orchestra finishes things off with an extended version of We Jammin’ Again.

Whether you’ve ever been to Carnival or have yet to reach Trinidad’s shores, this CD paints a magical picture of the musical diversity of the island’s traditional forms; the only thing missing from the sense-surround experience is the all-pervasive soca.

Caribbean Christmas, Winter and Winter’s other Trinidad release, focuses on the craft of the Lara Brothers, Trinidad’s most longstanding parang group, formed in Caura by brothers Tito and Willie over 60 years ago. The brothers learned their craft from their father, Ignacio Monastero, who migrated to Trinidad from Venezuela; today, with other brothers and sons, the group still travels from house to house in rural Trinidad each Christmas, singing songs of the Nativity and other biblical matters in improvised Spanish, as well as relating tales of everyday life.  The nine songs here were recorded live, giving the listener a sense of the group’s unbridled energy; the most outstanding number, presented in two different renditions, is De Ahi Abajo Vengo, a lamentation.

As both discs present somewhat neglected portions of Trinidad’s audio culture, and as each is so lovingly packaged, we can but hope that Stefan Winter will return to deliver further instalments.

David Katz


 A Christmas Gift of Love

Los Amigos en Musica

There is a line on the jacket of this disc which simply defines the group Los Amigos en Musica: “people giving without looking for anything in return.”

The fun in the pun is that Los Amigos en Musica is made up of mainly visually impaired people, including its producer/arranger Anthony Tom. But, as Stevie Wonder and other sightless singers have proven, you don’t need to see to sing.

Los Amigos churns out a pretty decent yuletide treat that mixes parang (songs celebrating the birth of Christ, sung in Spanish) with soca parang (a concoction of Trinidad and Tobago’s festival music and parang).

Songs that will bring out that warm tingly Christmas feeling include Quesha Pierre’s Yo Me Voy De Paranda and Belen Bendito, and Scrunter soundalike Curtis Phillip’s Parang Ragga. Well-known sightless extempore artist Lingo also puts in an appearance with Father Christmas.

The only off-putting element of A Christmas Gift of Love is the echo sound effect added to every vocal. Otherwise, put this one on the table with the ponche à crème and black cake.

Essiba Small


The Rough Guide to Calypso Gold

World Music Network

Calypso sprang forth from Trinidad and Tobago over a century ago to wield a tremendous influence, not only throughout the rest of the English-speaking Caribbean, but also Europe, North America and parts of Africa. Stars as diverse as Harry Belafonte, the Carpenters, Barry White and William Shatner (of Star Trek fame) have incorporated calypso into their repertoires, and its influence was so great in the USA during World War II that Time magazine referred to it as “the living newspaper.”

Social commentary has always been a mainstay of the genre, but calypsonians have also used their satirical wit to describe the many potential pitfalls of romantic relationships, man’s inhumanity to man and the greater aspirations of their countrymen, particularly in the run-up to independence.

However, having been superseded by the more dance-oriented soca form, calypso has unfortunately been on the wane for decades; indeed, each recent Carnival has seen detailed newspaper editorials debating whether the art form is dying or has already reached the afterlife, making The Rough Guide to Calypso Gold a welcome collection, highlighting some of the genre’s all-time greats.

The set begins with an excellent version of the popular Scandal in the Family by Sir Lancelot, relating with considerable finesse the unfortunate tale of brothers involved in a doomed love triangle; Lancelot’s version was apparently part of the soundtrack of the 1943 film I Walked With A Zombie. Other favourites addressing human relationships include King Radio’s Mathilda, which speaks of an unfaithful woman who robs the singer and flees to Venezuela, Houdini’s castigating Caroline, and Caresser’s Madam Khan, which describes a woman “bad like crab” who will “cut out your pocket and leave you to groan,” before adding a few blows for good measure.

In the realm of politics, Tiger decries Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia in Gold in Africa, Caresser tells of royal abdication with Edward VIII, and Lord Pretender reminds that we are all related, despite foolish concepts of nationhood and ethnic origin.

Other delights are the Kiskedee Trio’s rendition of Congo Barra (a traditional song celebrating the release of community members from imprisonment), the equally patois-driven Amba Cay La by the pioneer Sam Manning, a violin take of Old Lady Old Lady by Monrose’s String Orchestra, and two gems by Houdini, the eerie Blow Wind Blow and the compelling Uncle Jo Gimme Mo’, which relates the misdeeds of a philandering banjo player and the effect his music has on hapless women.

Despite the pedigree of most of the historic material on this collection, for some strange reason, five of the tracks are recent re-cuts, taken from the Calypso At Dirty Jim’s film soundtrack, while the cover photo looks like an archive shot of the Jolly Boys, a Jamaican mento act.

Nevertheless, The Rough Guide To Calypso Gold has plenty to offer for your listening pleasure, and the explanatory booklet sheds useful light.



Soca Love Songs

Kenny J

Kenny J is known in his native Trinidad and Tobago as a soca balladeer. But it is the ballads, rather than the soca, that take precedence on this 16-track CD.

What’s more, the songs contained here are covers of those that are likely to bring back some memories for many listeners. Kenny J’s nasal yet melodic voice breathes new life into songs like I just Called, made popular by Stevie Wonder, Chris De Burgh’s Lady in Red, James Ingram’s One Hundred Ways and Jeffrey Osborne’s Wings of Love.

He goes even further back in times, certainly to the delight of older listeners, with songs like the Temptations’ My Girl and the Righteous Brothers’ Unchained Melody.

Kenny J, who is also known for his calypso compositions at Carnival, will certainly tap into a new listenership with this disc.


Feels Nas

Straight from Bim Vol 2

It was a CD like this last year—Volume One of this series—that spawned most of the soca hits for Crop Over in Barbados 2007 and Trinidad and Tobago Carnival 2008.

And the second in the series seems set to do it again.

Bajan soca export Alison Hinds kicks things out with the sobering Bumpers.

Also here is the latest dynamic duo—Machel Montano and Patrice Roberts—on the groovy soca Feels Nas. Roberts also holds her own with Tempa Wine, on which she tag-teams with Montano. Hypa Daug and Underdog pick up the pace on this otherwise mild-tempered disc, as does Timmy with Bucket.

Straight from Bim Volume 2 may not live up to Volume 1 musically, but you’re guaranteed to move your body to more than a few tracks.


CDs courtesy Cleve’s One Stop Shop, Frederick Street, Port of Spain

Funding provided by the 11th EDF Regional Private Sector Development Programme Direct Support Grants Programme.
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