What do Caribbean musicians actually do?

Most people know of musicians; in fact, some even know them.
And when I speak about musicians, I am not speaking about lead singers* or DJs.
I am speaking about those who spend their days trying to manipulate sound using instruments.

But what do musicians actually do?

Here is a meme that shows what I am talking about.

This meme is funny because it is pretty much true.

So this post is going to show you where the truth lies when it comes to Caribbean musicians.

In the Caribbean, musicians do one of the following.

  1. Teach.
  2. Play live.
  3. Produce or arrange tracks in a studio.
  4. Any combination of 1-3.

I know there are other careers within the wide world of music but generally speaking jobs like acoustic engineers, instrument builders are generally found elsewhere.

Playing

Musicians who perform for a living. Do the following:

  • Practice – getting a decent sound and playing songs to perform publicly takes forever. And when we deal with highly technical genres like classical music and jazz, then even more time has to be dedicated to learning repertoire. The old figure of 10 000 hours is passed around to be a professional musician, and even if some Caribbean musicians do half of that then you are still looking at 208 days of practising alone.
  • Find and learn songs clients want – There are thousands of songs throughout human history, and no musician knows every song, sorry to disappoint you, clients. Therefore, when a client requests a song and a musician does not know it, the musician has to learn it. This takes time.
  • Sourcing or creating backing tracks -Caribbean hotels generally pay as little as they can for musicians, the only way to survive therefore is to cut the size of the performing group. This means that most musicians perform these days as soloists. So for example, violinists, saxophonists are frequently seen in the Caribbean performing by themselves. This means that they have to source backing tracks that have the other instruments in them -think karaoke!  For weird song choices or Caribbean song choices then, these musicians would have to build these backing tracks.
  • Rehearsing – For large shows, like Handel’s Caribbean Messiah pictured below, rehearsals are necessary. For nearly all ensemble show performances rehearsals are required. This means that performing musicians find themselves in rehearsal spaces for many hours throughout their lives.
  • Touring – on the rare occasion musicians from the Caribbean get to tour. Touring is very expensive which means in genres such as soca, the main singing artists tours by himself leaving the musicians at home.
Musicians and singers from Handel’s Caribbean Messiah

Musicians and singers from Handel’s Caribbean Messiah

  • Looking for work – performing musicians have to hustle without exception this means that part of their job involves dropping off or emailing their portfolios, press kits to potential clients or working on their social media presence. This is incredibly time consuming but a demand that is placed on all performing musicians.

Teaching

Teaching is a big part of musican’s income. Musicians either teach privately, as in one-on-one lessons like piano lessons or they are connected to institutions which provide them with a part-time or in other cases, a full-time salary.

Producing and arranging 

Musicians can also be found in the studio where they produce music for records and public release.  Given how the technology works, musicians usually produce in small bedroom studios or sometimes just using a laptop or keyboard. The same is for arrangers, who write out music on paper for bands who need a laptop and scoring program. It must be said that in the English-speaking Caribbean outside of Jamaica, most of this work is seasonal and connected to Carnivals. This means that studios are hardly sustainable unless they do commercial work which is decreasing.

In truth, to be called a musician in the Caribbean you have to do a mixture of at least 2 of the above. The economies are way too small to accommodate specialists. This means when you see a working musician; they always tell you how busy they are.

*unknown singers could enter the musician fold as well.

 

 

Computer Calypso! Replace the writer, it’s all cliche!

There is a song called “In Time to Come” by Crazy.  In it he lists numerous events that he thinks will happen.  Check it out below.

For those unfamiliar, or those that just can’t be bothered to listen, Crazy makes a number of claims. Like,

1. The coming of a black President. Which he was right about.
2. Trinidad developing a nuclear program. Which I am not sure about.
3. A computer writing calypso. Which is what this blog is all about.
Because Crazy was right. The age of the Mighty Microchip or Lord AI is definitely upon us. How may you ask?

Because modern calypso is a cliche with repeated ways of doing things. And computers love cliches.
Let me show you.

1. Horns come the same place.
Since the rise of Soca, calypso has become a very predictable form. Firstly, most of them feature horns. These horns play the same role in all the songs. So for example, all songs have band choruses, melodies and sections where horns fill the spaces. So let me demonstrate this by using what has become the template for female calypso songs, Die With My Dignity by Singing Sandra.

The band chorus here plays the melody of the chorus at the beginning of the song and after each sung chorus. Here it is separated.

The horns also play in between the vocal phrases. And believe me, the majority of the melodic verse phrases last for four beats and the horns then play for two beats. Check below:

  1. Tempos vary, but not that much.

Since the birth of Soca 40 years ago, calypso has come to live in a particular tempo range, that is 85 to 120 b.p.m.

  1. Harmony

All calypsos these days are in major or harmonic minor. In addition to this, since the Chalkdust years, a particular harmonic progression has become prominent. Of course, this is too much to explain here in this blog, but I will be releasing some videos to prove this. But trust me, the harmony is very much cliche as well.

  1. There are three main beats

Calypso uses three basic drum patterns these days.

  • Traditional calypso drum pattern.
  •  The 1980s Soca pattern.
  •  The Shango rhythm.
  1. Lyrics are clever but not original

Lyrics have been seen to be the centrepiece of the calypso. However, like all good things, they have become cliche. The majority of well-written calypsos are based on the working class point of view on politics, world events. Calypsonians these days take the topic and use everyday objects as a metaphor to frame the argument. To get what I am talking about, take the Chalkdust song Chauffeur Wanted, as he is a leading practitioner of this type of calypso.

 

The same can be said of Red Plastic Bag, a noted admirer of Chalky.

Endings

Ok, Stefan, you have identified the cliche but how do you code all of this?

By laying out the rules, of course! Check these basic functions.

  1. Use major scale
  2. A tempo of 93 BPM
  3. Use 1980s Soca beat
  4. Use melodies in verse lasting for four beats with a range, maximum 6th.
  5. Have horns play for two beats in response to verse melody.
  6. For lyrics – get a local event from the front page, get a metaphor, rhyme it using AABB lasting for 32 bars in duple time, use ballad form of three verses.
  7. Band chorus between verses.

Boom! Calypso!

10 Rum Songs I like – For Carnivals and Beyond – English

Caribbean festivals (including Crop Over)  are propelled by spirits with the biggest fuel being rum.

Over the years many artists have dedicated songs to this deity. Here are 10 of the best:

10.

Chutney Soca is possibly the rum genre of the Caribbean. This one by Ravi B from 2010 also manages to include the marriage scenario, another common theme.  One of my favourite songs period.

9.

Contone was a part-time singer and full-time car washer from Barbados. Through the years he has scored some massive hits at Crop Over with his rum lyrics.  This Bashment Soca number, “I Like Drinking Rum,” is fairly direct. You also get a two for one in this video as he throws in, “Fire in the Hole” (Live I may add).

8.

The first of our Christmas rum songs is sung by Barbadian DaCosta Allamby speaking of how important it is to consume rum in large quantities.  *Warning, drinking a gallon of rum is never advised.

7.

Lord Kitchener, another artist from the Trinidad carnival canon, is not to be left out.  This one is another Christmas song and rum classic. The name speaks for itself.

6.

This song from 2014 comes from the biggest soca artist from St. Lucia, Ricky “One to Dem” T. As it is new, it does not have the legacy of the others on this list. However, this is still a ‘big tune’ from the Helen of the West.

5.

The Mighty Sparrow is one of the most prolific artists in Calypso and Soca.  This one is a favourite among the mature crowd throughout the English-speaking Caribbean and speaks to being drunk and disorderly. It won the Road March in 1972, showing that unruly behaviour fuelled by alcohol has always been part of carnival.

4.

USVI Soca has one of the most fascinating soca sub-genre scenes. This riddim is just called Rum and Rave. 

3.

To back up my point about Chutney’s relationship with rum, here is another one by Adesh Samaroo where he confirms his “undying” relationship with it.

2.

Gorg is known as the drinks boss in Barbados and this song from 2014 is but one in his catalogue. Borrowing from the Chutney approach, Gorg uses the rum-troubled-relationship theme.

1.

Machel Montano is another massively popular Trinidadian artist. Here is Bottle of Rum, a soca song off the hugely successful 3Zero riddim from 2012. Love and/of rum are again the themes.

Can you add any more?

* Stefan Walcott does not condone mass consumption of spirits of any kind. This post was not sponsored by any beverage retailer, the Holy Spirit or any other related product (although a donation would now be welcomed…;)

Handel’s Caribbean Messiah #global

I am very proud to announce that Handel’s Caribbean Messiah has been selected for the Handel-Festspiele in Halle Germany for 2021.

The Handel-Festspiele is an annual festival celebrating Handel’s music in his birthplace by local German and international acts.
I am incredibly moved by this selection as we were chosen based on my re-imagining, orchestrations and in some cases compositions, with the performances executed by a 100% Barbadian cast.

The fact that this was done by a panel of Handel experts makes the achievement even more rewarding. Also, the fact that the negotiations began through my completion of the Caribbean Export process, which involved some sacrifice, made me more reassured in my music business decisions.

 

2019 HCM Messiah Poster


Handel’s Caribbean Messiah is one of the only locally created indigenous works that brings the strands of Caribbean culture together and even though we might not make the last financial hurdle to reach Halle, the fact that it has been looked at as having international quality by unbiased experts shows how we should rely on our own confidence as Caribbean cultural practitioners in what we do.
I encourage all who are in Barbados this week, December 20-22nd, to come out to the Frank Collymore Hall and see this production that will soon be leaving these shores by the 100% Bajan ORIGINAL cast.
Thanks to my team who supported the dream and to Fran Wickham and Ronald Grant whose support allowed for the first staging of the production in 2017. Also to Carol Roberts who was enthusiastic about it when it was only an idea and suggested the use of a Bajan nation language narrator who is now Jabari Prince Browne.

A Symphonic Arrangement – Emmerton

One of my life dreams was to write for an international symphonic orchestra. Because of the work of the Barbados Embassy in Brazil, I was finally granted that opportunity.

Here is Emmerton, the Barbadian iconic piece written by Dr Anthony ‘Gabby’ Carter and orchestrated by me with ideas from my previous string arrangement for my mentor Nicholas Brancker. (some chords and voicings heard here are ABSOLUTELY him.)

Big thanks to Ambassador Sealy-Thompson.

 

PS – I was hoping there would be a drumset there but the space for the Tuk Band Waltz is obvious.

Plates…not the ones you eat With

There has been some debate on the use of plates or riddims within Soca.

For those who do not know, plates/riddims are instrumental tracks.

The unique thing with plates/riddims is that unlike other types of popular music, the same instrumental track can be used by multiple artists to create different songs.

The innovators of plates were the producers in downtown Kingston.  One of the most famous uses of these plates/riddims is with the Sleng Teng riddim, a dancehall staple.

As all the songs have the same instrumental backing, as in the Sleng Teng Riddim, Djs generally find them easier to mix (to transition from one song to the next). Kingstonian sound system operators, who were also record producers, realised this early on and they all made the recording of plates a priority within their work.

The penetration of Jamaican music into the rest of the Caribbean as well as the rise of the DJ within Soca made the introduction of the riddim concept inevitable. However, this practice is more frowned upon in Soca than in Jamaica because:

  1. It was not part of the tradition. Calypso and its offshoot Soca always prided itself on the original single recording. From the days of Lion to David Rudder.
  2. The use of plates is seen as the conquest of Jamaican culture, a sensitive topic with the rest of the Caribbean.
  3. Plates mean the DJs have won.

My personal view on riddims is a realistic one; they are here as a result of the modern carnival scene. Will they be around forever? Nothing lasts forever but possibly a while to come as the economy and value for producer buck make them attractive.

Are they any worse than what went before? I never try to judge that way cause the older I get, the better my youth music used to be, but what I can tell you is that

  1. some rhythms I like, others I don’t. And
  2. all songs on the same riddim, I do not like equally.

The last point shows that even within the same instrumental, there is still much divergence. Here are two songs I love on the same riddim.

So until global popularity switches from the DJ, look out for them for a while longer.