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!

6 Things (truths) NoOne wants to say about Crop Over!

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Crop Over is at an end. And here are some uncomfortable truths about it. Note, I am not saying whether these realities are good or bad, just shedding some light.
1. Crop Over is…
not about musicians it is about music. Musicians are largely on the side when it comes to the festival. Think about many of the events, how many guys do you actually see playing music? Even in production, they have been marginalised. If not for the calypso competition, they would have died off completely.
2. Calypso at Crop Over is…
only kept alive by government and kids. Calypso is centred completely on the national festival. Outside of this, no content is produced. This competition is, however, a loss-making exercise and if the government would withdraw its large largesse, the art- form, as it is known, would have died along with the cassette tape. The kid’s competition, however, is vibrant, due to the fact that is one of the few youth art competitions that gets full national coverage.
3. The tent system at Crop Over is…
an economic failure. The tent system was developed for a certain time for certain people. With the export of carnival came the export of tents. In modern times, this system is woefully expensive and dependent completely on the national calypso competition. It is attended purely for nostalgia and would have disappeared a long time ago if not for the taxpayer.
4. Crop Over is…
a carnival..despite the packaging. Not only a carnival but a Trinidadian franchise carnival. The clever entrepreneurs in Trinidad have managed to export the bead and feather, all-inclusive fete experience to Barbados in a big way. There is even a Machel Pre bank holiday show. Some might be screaming what about Bridgetown Market and the Literary Reading? These events are peripheral at best and the fact that there are no private promoters hosting crop over dance, crop over comedy or cane cutting competitions speaks volumes as to where the emphasis is with all-inclusive carbon copy events of boats, breakfasts, paint-and-powders, all whites holding sway.
5. Crop Over should have…
left Bajan Dub alone. Bajan Dub in 2010-2013 had an energy about it. It was young, it was underground it was urgent. Enter the re-christening as Bashmnet Soca and its entry into a competition for the festival. Also cue standardization, blandness, and boredom. The artists, through their need ( and rightfully so given how expensive the country is) for short-term cash, have killed the pig to eat the ear. Or killed the pig to have Lil Rick eat it.
6. Crop Over has….
killed any form of US type of industry forming in Barbados. The US type of music industry is the holy grail for many. From politicians to artists to technocrats, all of them want the glitz glamour and more importantly the US dollar from what goes on north of Cuba. In the early 70s, Barbados had the foundation for this. However, Crop Over killed that for instead of having music created and consumed all year round, all creative activity through Crop Over became confined to a six-week period where 300-500 songs compete for public space.
So there are 6 unpopular truths about Crop Over. I know many enjoy the festival as it is great fun and many won’t care about these truths but not bringing them to light is like wukking up in the dark. Fun for a while but dangerous in the long-term.
Can you add any more?

Crop Over 2017 – The Lazarus 5

The early results from the Soca competitions are in.

This means that Barbadian radio rotation will now be based around the competition songs chosen to go forward

leaving the other 600 to die.

Before these songs go into the afterlife altogether though, let me try to keep five of them alive. Here is my Lazarus 5 of Crop Over 2017. a.k.a 5 songs that didn’t make it into the next round of competition.

  1. Makka Tree – Vybz I Love

I was introduced to this guy earlier this year when my Caribbean Ensemble from the Barbados Community Collge did the National Cultural Foundation’s Cavalcade. I was immediately blown away by his voice. Check this one produced by Quantum Productions.

2. Jafar –  Bang

Like Makka Tree, I met this guy in person on the Cavalcade gig. This Bajan Dub song, although not progressing further, has all the qualities of a really good Bajan Dub song.

3. Aidan – Life Nice

This song, written by the Waterstreet Boyz and produced by super-producer Chris Allman,  is in the tradition of the modern Ragga Soca. With a great hook and super saccharine melody, it should not be thrown on to the rubbish-heap. A good rendition by Aidan as well.

4.  Chenice – Sweet Carnival

Like Life Nice, this is a modern Ragga Soca. Chenice does a good job here as well.

5.  Contone – Come Back Tomor

Contone has been around a long time and has of late been battling his own demons. This year he reconnected with long- time producer, Anderson ‘Blood’ Armstrong to produce this. Like My Car Brek Down and 2 Sir Grantleys, this is Contone at his Bajan Blues best.

These are not all the songs obviously.

And I would be glad to hear more suggestions.

What are your five?

Special mention.

Here is my group’s offering featuring the super talented Jabari Browne.  We didn’t compete with this but keep checking it anyway.

 

 

 

Crop Over – The Curious Case of Red Plastic Bag

Red Plastic Bag has been one of the foremost contributors to Crop Over music. He is also one of the most loved human beings in Barbados and its overseas departments in Brooklyn, Toronto and London. This love not only relates to his music, (he has won the national calypso competition more times than I can count) but also to his personality and public image.  Here he is live in 2009.

 

 

I grew up a Red Plastic fan and still am for that matter. However, after outgrowing the blind acceptance forced upon me by my equally Bag fanatic family (who as it goes in Barbados was also Gabby non-lovers, which I am totally not now by the way), I asked myself:

“Why do Bajans like Red Plastic Bag so much?”

The answer to this question is really not obvious when I began to think about it. Let me show you why…

In terms of popular music, an artist’s potential fan appeal is based on a number of criteria. These are:

  1. Good looks and sexuality.
  2. Name branding
  3. Amazing Ability – dancing, singing, singing while doing acrobats á la Pink, singing while accompanying yourself on an instrument from a comb to a rocking guitar (Hendrix, Prince).

There are artists who tick all of these boxes and as a result are sought after commodities. So Chris Brown for example:

  • is/was young depending on your point of view
  • could dance and could sing.
  • In terms of good looks he ticks that box as well. *under advisement

When it comes to local soca, there are a number of artists who tick these boxes as well. Edwin Yearwood for example, when he emerged in 1995, used his real name, was young and could sing and dance. Thus his popularity can be explained away easily given the normal modes of musical popularity outlined above.  See clip below.

In terms of Red Plastic Bag however it becomes much less obvious and here is why:

  1. His name – No one would think that a guy called Red Plastic Bag would be a huge star anywhere in the world. Red Plastic Bag is not a name that one can imagine plastered in lights or in a stadium. Like most Bajans, I never thought much about this until I overheard Bag, as he is affectionately called, introducing himself to a US reporter. When she repeated it, it sounded hilarious. “Your name is Red Plastic Bag?”
  2. Sexual what? – Red Plastic Bag, even though coming on the scene as a young person, never emphasised sexuality in his performances. He was tall and slim then and since that time has never attempted to change. In fact, when he did expose his body, it was done for comedic effect as opposed to getting the ladies/men all warm under the collar.
  3. Ability? Hmm – I am sure by his admission, Red Plastic Bag would admit that he is no dancer. By dancing I don’t mean the “WOW” type dancing of James Brown, I mean the basic ability to move in time. In terms of singing, he is also not technically gifted. In fact, in live performances he is competent but no more. He is by no means an impact singer like Edwin Yearwood (in terms of range or intonation) or a rhythmically smash you around the ears vocalist like Machel Montano.

So is Bag loved because of his lyrical ability? Because no one can turn a phrase, pun a pun, meet a metaphor, save a simile like Red Plastic Bag?

Partially…

To me, Red Plastic Bag shows that there is something else going on when it comes to popularity. Red Plastic Bag constructs himself as everyone’s friend, everyone’s neighbour, everyone’s son and brother. To many, Plastic Bag is so cool because he ISN’T cool. He is not too flashy, his music is not confrontational or philosophically complicated, it doesn’t chide. He also doesn’t make non-muscle men like myself jealous, he doesn’t boast in song, instead he is just….BAG.

So my friends, if you are in Barbados and see people swooning over Red Plastic Bag, remember it is his kingdom. Also remember that you don’t have to tick all the popularity boxes to be a cultural icon; you just have to be honest and know who you are…

oh and being a brilliant lyricist and hook writer does help 😉

 

 

 

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.

Top 10 Caribbean Music Documentaries

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1. Marley

There are several Bob Marley documentaries out there. This one is the newest and unlike the others, seeks to present Marley as a complex character. However, I still recommend watching “Caribbean Nights,” which is one of the oldest, to get even more perspective on this Caribbean musical giant. However, you can’t go wrong with this one.

2. Sons of Benkos

I see the Caribbean as a cultural area and this documentary focusses on a music type, Champeta, that is not from the archipelago. Instead this popular music form is from Colombia and is a fascinating fusion of popular Western and Central African music and Colombian music. Although Champeta has changed, this documentary shows its roots as well as a fascinating examination of the Palenque region, which is seen as the heart of African culture in Colombia.

3. Made In Jamaica

Made In Jamaica is one of my favourite documentaries on Jamaican music. It does not only have the talking heads as in most documentaries but live performances as well. Each performer is backed by one of the premier rhythm sections in the genre, Sly and Robbie and the sound is fabulous. If you are one that likes more than just info and bios, this documentary is definitely one for you.

4. Routes to Rhythm

5. This PBS documentary from the 80s is one of the BEST on salsa.  Everyone is in here. Like Made in Jamaica, some killer live performances are also present. Watch all of it if you have any interest in Salsa music and Cuban music in particular, REQUIRED VIEWING!

5. La Musique Antillaise

This Banyan documentary looks at French Antillean music. Zouk is here as well as older traditional forms.  A short and good watch and for non-French speakers like myself, it is in English.

6. Soca Power

Soca Power is good, it could have been better, but it is good. The documentary follows monster soca artists Bunji Garlin, his spouse Fay-Ann, and Machel Montano at Carnival. While not being fly-on-the-wall, it still manages to capture some of the excitement behind Carnival performances. Worth a watch.

7.  Reggae inna Babylon

Reggae inna Babylon examines the music in the Caribbean diaspora as it focusses on the work of reggae artists in the nineteen seventies in the United Kingdom. The usual suspects Aswad and Third World are here, and though the documentary itself is not quite riveting, we get to see them in action at the time of their greatest popularity – for that alone it is worth a watch.

8.  Puerto Rican Bomba : A Search For Our Roots

This documentary, like Reggae inna Babylon, is partially based in the Diaspora, but then again so much of Puerto Rican culture straddles that divide between mainland and diaspora. It makes the Bomba, a traditional folk form its basis and for those interested in the sound of it, we get break downs of the indivudal parts. It is detailed and very enlightening.

9.   Straight Outta Puerto Rico: Reggaeton’s Rough Road to Glory

If you want an overview of Reggaeton, this is a good place to start. Despite the gawdy ads that seem to suggest a much less mentally stimulating offereing, this documentary manages to speak to the movers and shakers and highlight the events which were important to this genre as it emerged.  With plenty of loud music and imagery, this one would keep you watching for sure.

10. Calypso Dreams

 

Calypso Dreams is one of my favourites on this list. It has singing heads as opposed to talking heads, and manages to find many of the calypso artists in their natural environment. Due to this, we hear them without the trappings of arrangements and stage mics. They instead have guitar accompaniment most of the time. If that wasn’t enough, a history of calypso is also given. Every one is here, even Roaring Lion – this is a must see for anyone interested in Trinidadian calypso.