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.

 

 

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.

Viral

I saw this video below today.

And it has gone viral.

For those who don’t know, going viral is when a lot of people watch your content, and in his case some quarter of a million shares on Facebook alone.

The fact that this video had so many views will obviously offend some artists. All the techie videos on YouTube will tell you that this track is poorly produced, not mastered, has poor editing and isn’t even in time.

But you know what, and this is what I want whoever reads here to leave with:

GOING VIRAL HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH QUALITY!

Going viral has everything to do with DIFFERENT. BEING WAY DIFFERENT! (or having millions of dollars)

For example, a cat eating a mouse will not go viral. However, a cat eating a Mouseketeer might. Similarly, a plus-sized black female singer belting Amazing Grace with all the vocal tradition that is impeccably recorded will not go viral, however, a poorly recorded Chinese child in a village singing, in the same manner, WILL definitely be shared on millions of pages.

So artists, unless you are truly willing to be odd-ball or you embody the tradition of another culture, you can give up your dreams of being shared and liked and trolled.

Just keep focussed and remember with each post what you are hoping to achieve, if it is just to let others know you still exist or to get a specific gig, then that is cool. In fact, on a personal level, I prefer just one like than to have a production like “Take you to the movies”

It is so catchy though!!! Maybe I should re-think that.

Below is a cat viral video compilation that has more views than any of my work combined x 10.

 

 

JAB to the JAB

Jab Jab is a certified sub-genre of modern Soca

The Jab character is a staple of J’ouvert carnival celebrations and looks like the guy below.

jab2.jpg

The music itself is characterised by melodies with small ranges usually in minor with little harmonic movement. Check a Jab classic by the Grenadan boss Tall Pree below which explains the whole thing.

When it comes to Jab Jab tunes, the certified capital of the world is Grenada. and no one does Jab Jab like them.

So here are some of my favourite Jab Jab tunes from Grenada carnival 2017.  ENJOY!

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

School + Caribbean Culture

Every two years I teach Caribbean Music and Culture to students from the University of Delaware.

These sessions are a mixture of theory and practice. And when I say practice I mean practice.

Check this Bajan Dancehall session below led by the amazing Shameka Walters.

 

Isn’t this great?

This to me this is the gift of all Afro musics, the lived community!

Big shout out to Juanita Clarke on drums who also made this session happen.