What is so great about Whitney Houston?

Whitney Houston

February, 2012, saw the passing of Whitney Houston and along with the outpouring of sadness especially here in the Caribbean, there were numerous TV segments describing how great she was.

But how was Whitney Houston great?

This may seem like a pointless question, as you must be screaming because she could sing, but yeah she was great because she could sing, like REALLY sing.

Whitney’s greatness differs from other artists coming from the United States because unlike let us say a John Lennon or John Coltrane, Whitney Houston was not the pioneer of any musical genre, did not play an instrument (to performance standard that I have seen) and did not write any of her songs.  So what is it then?

Whitney was a stylist, a REALLY REALLY good stylist.  A friend of mine once said that artists can be either great innovators and/or great stylists. Innovators are easy to identify because they start stuff; stylists on the other hand are more difficult to work out.   In short, innovators are those that open the doors to new sounds, while stylists decorate the inside their own way; so while Whitney did not create R&B pop, NO ONE sounded like her singing it.

Whitney’s style is based on traditional African American gospel singing.  Her greatness lies in the way she makes musical choices within this style. So Shakespeare used English, which he did not come up with (I don’t think), but it was how he used English that made him great. Whitney did not come up with gospel singing, but to me she made some GREAT stylistic choices using the musical vocabulary.

The key element to Afro-American gospel singing is vocal improvisation; what the layman refers to as runs/riffs. An important part of this approach is that the melody is hardly done the same way twice. Of course the changes made between melodies are not random and are based on stock phrases. It is the performer’s use of these phrases that determine their mettle, along with, of course, singing in key. Check out a great example below by Dr H. Beecher Hicks Jr. of the Metropolitan Baptist Church.

Now here is Whitney singing the US anthem. 

One of Whitney’s other performances that show me her stylistic greatness, and this may come as a surprising choice, is her rendition of “Do You Hear What I Hear.”  I have chosen this because it displays Whitney’s complete command of the gospel tradition as she makes some highly creative changes to the melody, especially if we consider the original. To understand what I am saying, listen to the two versions below. The first is done by Bing Crosby and the second by Whitney.

Wow what a vocal performance!

Some may argue that others did this as well, others may even argue that some did it better, but hardly anyone would say Whitney did it badly!

To end, thanks for living Whitney and thanks for showing the world what stylistic GREATNESS really is.

For further discussion, leave a comment!

Contone beats Rihanna…Hmmm….

The following video is taken from Toby Gad’s Vblog.

In case you do not know of Toby Gad…

he is a pop producer from Germany.

On this Vblog Gad interviews Livvi Franc, a naturalized Barbadian, who at the time was signed to Jive Records. The thing is that although Livvi was producing music, the producer asked her to sing something from her island.  Watch!

The original song from Barbados she is singing went like this.

The thing about the original is that it was seen by many as a joke! However, for better or worse, My Car Brek down is uniquely Bajan and thus representative of a certain kind of Caribbean identity that is seen as authentic.

Livvi could have easily sung Umbrella by Rihanna, but when it came to defining her culture, she chose Contone.

So take a bow Contone, you trumped Rihanna and to think they said you would never go international!!!!

Top 10 Books on Caribbean Music for (Academic) Dummies

Firstly, let me say that I, of course, would recommend my book, Caribbean Composers’ Handbook on Amazon.com for all of those interested in the actual music of Caribbean music but outside of that, here are some others. 🙂

1. Cooper, Carolyn.  Noises in the Blood: Orality, Gender, and the “vulgar” Body of Jamaican Popular Culture. Durham: Duke University Press, 1995.

Carolyn Cooper is one of the premier academics on Dancehall culture in Jamaica. This book is seminal in how it seeks to re-examine the common perspectives on Dancehall. Even though she is an academic, the book is generally accessible and Cooper’s points are still valid some near 20 years later.

2.  Bradley, Lloyd.  Bass culture: when reggae was king. London, Viking 2000.

Bradley’s Bass Culture is one of the best overviews on Jamaican Reggae music I have ever read.  Bradley takes the reader from the pre-sound system of the nineteen forties to the emergence of Dancehall. All the major figures are there from the three big sound system operators of the 60s to the early Dancehall pioneers like Yellowman.

3.  Cowley, John. Carnival, Canboulay, and calypso: traditions in the making. Cambridge [England]; New York, NY, Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Cowley presents a well-researched book on carnival. Cowley provides a great volume of historical information on early Carnival. He also gives many 2nd hand references on important events, such as the Carnival riots and early Calypso competitions. A good one for those who have to teach calypso history.

4.  Pérez Fernández, Rolando. A. La binarización de los ritmos ternarios africanos en América Latina. Ciudad de La Habana, Cuba, Casa de las Américas, 1987.

Pérez Fernández’s book is in Spanish. However, this should not put off persons who do not speak the language. Pérez Fernández ideas are fascinating and unlike many other academics, he deals with the musical sounds of Caribbean music. His main idea is that there was a process which changed African music into the folk music of the Americas we know today. The influence of this work is obvious as he is frequently quoted.

5. Guilbault, J. Zouk: world music in the West Indies, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1993. 

There are few texts on Zouk in English, Guilbault’s book is one of them. Guilbault details the origins of this music as well as the identity implications it creates as a French Antillean identity emerges through Zouk. Guilbault also interviews the important players within the movement and provides transcriptions. Another plus is the inclusion of a CD which is also fantastic when dealing with music as a subject.

6.  Kenneth M. Bilby and Michael D. Largey. Caribbean currents: Caribbean music from rumba to reggae. Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 1995.

This book seeks to be an overview of Caribbean music in general. It does a decent job within the introduction of describing the conditions which led to the creation of many genres. It also seeks to detail the important regions within the Caribbean giving summaries and identifying important figures. This book is a good entry into the multi-faceted world of Caribbean music.

7.  Rivera, Raquel Z, Wayne Marshall, and Deborah Hernandez Pacini. Reggaeton. Durham: Duke University Press, 2009.

Reggaeton is possibly the youngest popular genre to have a book about it in the Caribbean region. This book is excellent and through the different perspectives of the contributors, we get a wide view on Reggaeton from its sexual to musical implications. If you want to know anything about the genre, seek out this text.

8.  Lesser, Beth.  Rub a dub Style: The Roots of Modern Dancehall, 2012.

This book is the only one that is available online free of cost as a pdf download. Beth Lesser said she did this to avoid the usual accusations leveled at outsiders who write about other cultures. Lesser’s book is good though and she details all the important figures in the genre; from U-Roy to Beanie Man. Pick it up!

9. Rohlehr, Gordon. Calypso and society in pre-independence Trinidad. Port of Spain 1990. 

Rohlehr, like Cooper, was an academic from the University of the West Indies.  Rohlehr is a literary scholar and in this book, he provides thorough analysis and documentation of the literary form of the Calypso. Rohlehr also details important historical events and how they impacted on the Calypso. It is a formidable text in terms of length so be prepared for the long haul.

10.  Mauleon, Rebeca. Salsa Guidebook: for piano and ensemble. S.I. Sher Music 1993.

This is another book which deals with the sounds of the music. Mauleon is fantastic at providing the necessary listening for the genres she is looking at. She also provides direct transcriptions from these songs. As it deals with Salsa, Mauleon also transcribes from the lesser-known Puerto Rican genres of Bomba and Plena.

So there it is. Remember it is only “a” list and there are other fantastic books out there. Leave a comment for other books you would recommend.