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 😉

 

 

 

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Blurry Lines – Musicians Listen Differently – Part II

“It is the same, it isn’t the same, yes it is…” Round and around we go.

Since the Blurred Lines verdict for the Gaye family the above argument has been dominating my social media pages. For those of you unfamiliar with what this whole thing is all about see below.

http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-blurred-lines-copyright-trial-verdict-20150310-story.html

So Did Williams and Thicke steal from Gaye? Is Blurred Lines a smokescreen for Got to Give it Up?

Well once again, as outlined in my last blog post, it depends on WHO is doing the listening.

To show you this, let us take a look at one of my global blogging colleagues, Joe Bennett who did a fantastic breakdown of the nuts and bolts from both songs. Here is the link below:

Did Robin Thicke steal ‘Blurred Lines’ from Marvin Gaye?

So I believe that Joe shows conclusively that the songs are indeed different given his expert musical analysis. However, Joe’s expert ears were not part of the jury, instead the panel was probably made up of non-musicians whose opinions were ultimately similar to those expressed below:

“Not understanding the anger about this expected Blurred Lines ruling. Don’t blatantly copy songs, & if you do, get it cleared beforehand.” – Michonne

“‘Got To Give It Up’ is one of my all time favs, had no idea these fools claimed original production and didn’t share royalties.” J Vincennes

The two Tweeters here are absolutely convinced Blurred Lines stole from Got to Give it Up, so why the discrepancy?

Once again, as in my other post, it is because musicians listen differently. So while Joe can analyse the chord changes and bass lines to the cheques come home, to others that stuff was not even THERE! In other words, to many non-musicians the aural similarities between the two tracks are blatant, while to musicians, the songs are obviously quite different. Who is right? Apparently the musicians are NOT, at least for now. So once again, let me repeat my summary from the last time, musicians listen differently.

I therefore hereby decree an end to all social media arguments.    

 🙂  

Musicians Listen Differently…End of story…(sort of)

Musicians generally have certain types of ears.

Stefan Walcott taking a listen
Stefan Walcott taking a listen

It is pretty important to have those ears if you deal with sound all day.

Musicians, no matter the style, have all developed awareness towards the components which make up music – melody, harmony, rhythm and texture.

For example, dance/house/electronica musicians are what I call textual bosses, in that so  much of their work revolves around the ability to make sure the synthesized sounds are performing their assigned function.  Check this link below.

For Dancehall producers on the other hand, it is all about the rhythm. For them the groove needs to be right. See King Jammy below.

I can go on and on and include performing musicians as well because the ability to hear and decode/work out what the hell you are hearing on stage is equally important as in the studio setting.

Musicians therefore feel justified in thinking (by their years of discussion and reproduction of what they are hearing) that everyone should hear like them. After all, what is music education other than – this is music – listen to it this way. However, given the general lack of traditional music education in many places, musicians find themselves frustrated when people do not hear music the same way they do. Watch the following link which has done the pandemic viral rounds on the Web.

If you did not hear those four chords no problem. It just means that you listened to those songs completely differently to how I did.  However, Classical musicians, in whose company I do not include myself, must be saying, can’t they hear that?? Those are the same chords over and over damn it!  While jazz musicians (not the pop-smooth ones) are saying that second chord could have been a lot more tasty with some harmonic tension. In short, they are all listening to it with musician’s ears recognizing what they think is musically important and what is musically lacking.  But are they in fact justified? Should their (our) listening practices be more respected, appreciated or ‘righter’ than those of the ‘Average Listener’?

These are not easy questions to answer. What I do believe is that everyone has a musical opinion and what musicians do is provide different perspectives on that particular experience. I do not however subscribe to the idea that the musician’s way of listening should be the ONLY way a song should be listened to. Take this example from Gyptian.

When this song was released in 2006 it was extremely popular. However, musicians would identify some glaring mistakes in the second verse not to mention the horrible tuning of the instruments. But should this take away from the pleasure of the so-called ’Average Listener’ ? In my view, it should not and there are other factors like Gyptian’s approach and singing style that still make this a TUNE!!!

To end, the listening experience and who is ’right’ within it is not a topic with easy answers. To me this is the difference between the arts and sciences, all interpretations are valid one, even if musicians think otherwise. So don’t be ashamed when a musician gives you strange looks, we just listen differently! Just look here at  Harry Connick  Jnr. who is dumbfounded at the aural ignorance of Jennifer Lopez.

*There are several good discussions on this by Tagg and Middleton. Check them out.

Singing – Am I Really that Bad?

Singing, as most of my friends and family will say, is not a strong suit of mine.

Singing was also not an activity I was particularly interested in either.

However, as this blog generally poses questions to accepted norms, it is only fitting that I ask, am I really that bad a singer?

Actually, I think I am not a good singer but definitely not a bad one. Here is why.

To start us off here is a clip of me singing.

 

It is obvious that I am not a technically gifted and by that I mean I don’t have the natural ability where my voice apparatus, vocal muscles etc, creates sound that matches pitches. Of course this was no big deal before the modern recording age. In fact, many communities before modernity were communal and their music activity was centred around participation, think Amazonian or West African village life, so no matter your voice, you sang!

What modernity did though was create the professional singer. And the recording of the professional singer gave value to a certain kind of singing which in some ways eroded how people considered singers globally, this ultimately made singers like me…

 

BECOME BAD!

 

Listen to the following clips, first up is Wendy Moten then Beyonce.

 

 

 

These songs are damn fricking hard to sing.They also have a certain history and tradition behind them that many people globally were not a part of. So for example, if a Tuvan tried to sing these, he might not succeed, even though he might be an excellent throat singer.

In other words, Wendy Moten and Beyonce are not only PROFESSIONALl singers, they are also showing a CERTAIN TYPE of good singing based on the values of their music culture. It does not make the Tuvan a bad singer. If you are unsure what Tuvan throat singing is let us reverse this now and take a listen to some Tuvan throat singing.

Here is a clip from American Idol where this guy was dismissed.

 

The judges and audience thought he was crap but was he? They were just using the value system from their music culture which was totally inappropriate to judge Tuvan throat singing. If I used the Tuvan method, Beyonce and Wendy Moten were rubbish because they only produced one pitch, in fact where was the drone Queen Bee!!!???

In short, there are no universal values when it comes to singing. Singing is dependent like all value systems on who makes the rules. So if I someone calls you a bad singer, just ask them if they understand the discourse of power at work in aesthetics. If the look at you blankly, continue singing just like I will now…

 

* This post does not condone karaoke. Any suggestion that it does is just a coincidence. 🙂

Tessanne Won, Great, Now What? – Musings on Tessanne Chin on The Voice

This article was published on http://www.cwn5.com in April.

 

 

 

tessane cartoon

 

“Tessanne won the Voice!” That was what my wife screamed to me as the results from Season 5 of the American reality show, The Voice were announced.  Tessanne Chin, the Jamaican reggae-rock fusion singer who produced the wonderful album In Between Worlds, had won. Wow! I thought to myself with an unmistakable uneasiness. Why worry? Well The Voice to me has proven to be, as we say in the Caribbean, a bit of a sweet talker and like most sweet talkers, their intentions are not always the best.

The Voice, for those (un) fortunate enough to avoid this particular reality offering,
is a televised, season-long music competition which involves singers blind auditioning for coaches. If the auditions go well then the contestants get to choose which of the coach’s teams they will join, in the hope of that coach helping them facilitate their dream of mesmerizing the viewing public and winning the competition.

The benefits of winning this competition are obvious and since conquering on Season 5, Tessanne’s public profile has exploded globally. She has performed at the White House, courtesy of an invitation from the Obamas no less, signed to talent firm ICM, which deals with artists as from Al Jarreau to Pamela Anderson, and headlined more Caribbean festivals in the past year since winning The Voice than Sizzla and Machel Montano combined. In addition, she has an album coming out on Universal Republic Records with contributions from hit writers Toby Gad and Dianne Warren.

Sounds good doesn’t it, especially for an artist who has been heavily involved in the pop music business for a number of years like Tessanne was. To me, not quite and while I am hopeful, being an early Tessanne fan, I am also very wary for the following reasons:

  1. The Voice does not have such a great track record

The past winners of The Voice, and they have been a few now, have not gone on to garner much mainstream success. Unlike, American Idol, no one from The Voice — winners or otherwise — has managed to crack the Billboard pop charts. As Dave Holmes, television host and reality-TV recapper told The Daily Beast, “It’s like people win The X Factor or The Voice and enter the Witness Relocation Program.” Funny and true and only the ardent pop culture buffs can actually name all the winners from The Voice.

  1. The Contract Sucks!!!

According to Helienne Lindvall, the Voice in its Scandavaian version, makes the contestants, not only the winners, sign contracts where the production team get 50% of all their earnings. This not only relates to future earnings but past earnings including royalties and publishing. It is a 360 deal worthy of the worst gangsters of the old music industry. According to Lindvall, this is not only on the Scandanavain show and various national versions, like the American one, make the contestants sign similar contracts.  What does this possibly mean for Tessanne? This means that The Voice production team will probably get:

  • future earnings every time Tessanne performs,
  • royalties and publishing from sales of her album “In Between Worlds,” which was recorded long before her appearing on the Voice.
  • a piece of all her non-musical earnings such as sponsorship deals and endorsements.

After reading this I hope that you understand my concern. Hopefully however, it will work out for her financially and artistically, especially given the fact that her sister, Tami Chin Mitchell, who apparently has experience with the label machinery is joint managing her. So as a fan from her In Between World days with its monster track Hideaway, I wish her all the best. I sincerely hope that on this new journey the industry pitfalls will not consume her and she can buck the trend and prove there is indeed a musical pot of gold at the end of the Voice rainbow.

 

This article was published on http://www.cwn5.com in April. Since then Tessanne has released her debut album on the Universal label to a very lukewarm reception. See link below.

http://www.jamaicaobserver.com/entertainment/Tough-love-for-Tessanne

This story continues to unfold.

A Waka Waka Story – From Africa to the World and back

As Cameroon plays today in the World Cup here is a story from last time around…

World Cup 2010 is remembered for many things: the first World Cup in Africa, the Spanish conquest on a continent which historically had not been that kind to them. It is also remembered for the theme song, “Waka Waka.” Waka Waka” is a fascinating song, and the interest does not come from Shakira’s stomach alone, but from the story of cross circulation it represents. But just in case we forgot, let us remind ourselves of Shakira’s version.

Firstly, “Waka Waka” is not an entirely original song, which is not that surprising given the nature of pop music; what is surprising, however, is where it comes from.

I hope you had enough patience to get to, by my count, the 8th hook and tenth section of this song because that is where Shakira’s song is taken from. Taken from, but not directly, for Shakira’s “Waka Waka,” is actually twice removed from the original. Here is the remake which I assume is the one which really inspired Shakira’s team.

So what is the big deal? Well, this song represents to me the many sides of popular music. For one, there is the global popular, which Shakira is plugged into; this beast consumes everything before it. The other two songs represent the local popular, which has its own audiences and degrees of success but is inevitably outside the huge global pop complex where the Shakiras and Rihannas of this world reside. Shakira’s “Waka Waka” then, sends a reminder to the global pop world that the rest of the world DOES indeed exist, because ultimately they were responsible, (directly so and not through ancestral influence), on the making of Shakira’s version.

Although the Shakira remake might once again seem to be exploitation of the so-called Third World, I cannot help but look at the other side. “Waka Waka” has managed to escape the Western imagination, for when we consider the Cameroon and Colombia depicted here, we see images represented in these videos that are not commonly seen of either country. In the case of Cameroon, some guys having a ball with tied on pillows, and with Colombia, a variety show. There are no jungles, no cocaine or Sylvester Stallone

In short, Shakira’s “Waka Waka,” was more of a World Cup song than people realised and can even be said to embody the made-up notions of equality which sport sometimes alludes to; see pop music is not all that bad.

Waka waka!

Award Show Time! Time for my Fix!

academy grammy

Every February/March the global art and film complex, well really the European /American art and film complex, gears itself up for the award season.

The interest shown in these awards is quite astounding, especially among those whose countries and cultural expressions (film, music, costume design, make-up) are not even remotely represented.

On my Facebook for example, (the measurement of all things cultural of course) people become very touchy when their favourite artist does not take home the miniature man/woman or gramophone.

Being honest, the awards are local affairs with only Britain, (a specific part of Britain let us not fool ourselves) and the US (the two coasts) represented. These two communities then pat themselves on the back for being so great. In fact, the rest of the world looks on, hoping, those involved in the arts that is, that somehow, some way, they too can perhaps be there thanking God and their nursery school teacher.  In reality this is not going to happen and in fact, only a small subset of people from anywhere else get to have their speech cut short by the orchestra. The fact is, this isn’t your party mate/Caribbean person/West African/Aborigine etc. etc.

But we on the outside still care. We care what dress our actress we just paid or pirated to see in Movie Overblown II is wearing. We are concerned about if an actor that looks like us might get an award. Why? Because we are all junkies, junkies addicted to the American dream project. And who can blame us when drugs like this are available. Here is Rihanna accepting her Grammy award in 2008

You heard what she said? She said Barbados?? So come on awards season, help out this struggling addict and give me a surprise as I peep through the window at your party from the non-Western alley, like all good addicts do!