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.

 

 

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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.

Juan Formell RIP

Juan Formell

There have been a number of notable deaths this year and in Caribbean music none more significant than the recent one of Juan Formell.

As this blog’s readership is made up of mostly English speakers, (the global stats indicate this), many of you may have not heard of Juan Formell before.

Formell was the founder, composer, arranger and leader of the most popular post-revolution music group ever to come from Cuba, Los Van Van. This group, which has been around since the late 1960s is to Cuba what Bob Marley is to Jamaica, Kitchener to Trinidad, Blades to Panama and Red Plastic Bag to Barbados.  If you doubt me, take a brief look at minute 20 when they managed to get 270 000 people to a concert in Santiago de Cuba.

 

 

In short, Formell was immense.  Thanks for the music Juan, a Caribbean music great. Music aLive, now and forever more, Amen!