Shervonne Rodney, of Arima Central Government Secondary, is the 2017 National Junior Calypso Monarch champ.
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Martin ‘Mice’ Raymond: From Ash Wednesday Soca music an endangered species
As Carnival comes around, the perennial opinion of many is that the music of the season leaves much to be desired, yet the fetes are sold out and thousands sign up to play mas, lapping up the same music. Two veteran musicians agree that the seasonal nature of local music, which focuses almost exclusively on Carnival, is a threat to the industry and its creativity. Bu producers Martin “Mice” Raymond and Carl “Beaver” Henderson parted ways as they contemplated the music of Carnival 2013.
‘Excellent music this year ...but too many centred around Carnival’
Raymond, a much sought-after producer, who was recruited by Henderson to join the band Fireflight as second guitarist, gave it the thumbs up. “The music this year was excellent,” said Raymond. “I don’t think people realise the sheer amount of music that is released every Carnival. On Boxing Day alone, over 400 songs were released, in 37 different rhythms. A colleague of mine in Japan said, making comparisons per capita, that this is equivalent to releasing 15,000 songs in one day in Japan.”
Raymond, who mastered the music for five Road March winners since 2004, speaking from his Champion Sound Studio, said, “It was good to see the return of SuperBlue. He is the guy who created the power soca genre of music. Power soca is actually a term I hate. Two of the most powerful pieces of soca music have been Shadow’s Poverty is Hell and (David) Rudder’s High Mas. The thing is that neither of them were particularly fast. To me it is actually ‘fast soca’. Groovy soca songs are not less powerful, in impact. “The one thing about Super is that his songs have context and content. They are never about just putting your hands in the air or waving a flag.”
Many claim that riding the rhythm is Jamaica-born and has been adopted by local artistes. “I have no problem with riding a rhythm,” said Raymond. “Look at the roots of calypso music. Isn’t the melody of extempore and the ray minor not riding a rhythm? It makes good economic sense to ride a rhythm. Calypso evolved from every song having the same melody, in the true ray minor tradition. I have no problem with it. “Among my main concerns, though, is that composers need to explore topics. Soca songs don’t have to be about Carnival, jump and wave, or wining behind a music truck, and calypso doesn’t have to be about the Government and the social and political issues of the day. Young people are being programmed to think that for a soca song to be a success, it must be about wining or some bedroom scene. Composers need to be more imaginative.
“I use the example of Shadow’s Tumble Down to support this, because this is an example of a soca song that was a huge party song that had nothing to do with Carnival or wining. “Also, another good example is the American star rapper Ice-T. He said that calypso is the music that gave him the idea for gangsta rap, citing Sparrow’s 1958 Road March Pay As You Earn as his inspiration. This was a popular song in Carnival about a government’s fiscal regime, and it won a Road March—no wining or waving anything. “Ice-T was actually introduced to calypso by a guy named Seymour Stein, the head of Fire Records in the US. Stein was the guy who signed Madonna back in the ’80s. He was a hardcore fan of calypso and Carnival and used to be here every Carnival.”
‘Can’t see the music making it big globally’
Raymond has some serious concerns about the integrity of calypso music. He said, “I understand that singing ability is a, if not, major element of performance in the monarch competition. A great song in the hands of a mediocre singer is a travesty; an okay song, delivered by a great singer, can be a masterpiece. “Calypso has always been blessed with great singers—Sparrow, Baron, Christopher ‘Tambu’ Herbert and more. The calypso monarch competition has always been unique in that it judged singing and songwriting ability at the same time.
“I do not know when the singing criteria were removed, but this is a huge mistake, in my opinion. When did the Calypso Monarch competition turn into a songwriting competition?
“If we want our artistes to be competitive globally, there needs to be greater focus on singing ability. Singing ability (pitching, phrasing, diction, expression) should be no less than 60 per cent of the marks; 30-35 per cent for songwriting (lyrics, melody, arrangement, etc); and five-ten per cent for presentation. “It is a song contest, so singing and composition must be the major criteria. Presentation and performance fall beneath these two critical aspects of the competition.”
Despite the wealth of music produced for C2K13, Raymond doesn’t see the music making it big on the global market. “I don’t see soca music going very far, mainly because it continues to be a seasonal music. “No other popular music in the world is seasonal. During the year, from Ash Wednesday, soca music becomes an endangered species, as too many soca compositions are centred around Carnival. “In general, the music is in good hands and there’s a lot of great music around. All the complaints I heard this year about the crop of music is the same stuff I’ve been hearing for the past 30 years. I have been hearing the same complaints since I was ten years old. Trinidadians just love to complain too much. “Despite the complaints, the music continues to fuel our national festival nevertheless.”
Not impressed...‘The music has to level out to rise again’
Speaking from his Beaver Studios in St James, Henderson isn’t too impressed by the quality of music produced this Carnival, singling out Bunji Garlin’s Differentology and SuperBlue’s Fantastic Friday as two of the very few outstanding releases. He said, “I don’t get disappointed any more, as I no longer have high expectations for music across the board in this country. The industry has gone through myriad changes, all of which are not good for its health. Basically the music has got to level out before it can rise again. “T&T is the only country on the planet that as soon as something new emerges, we discard what was there before. There was the ray minor, then calypso, then Lord Shorty and soca, and this created discord in our music of the old versus new. The divide was widened by competition in the artform and the music genres. From soca, which spawned SuperBlue and Shadow, evolved various hybrids of soca, like ragga, chutney and groovy.
“So the music, as it proceeded down a chain, whatever was there before was considered no longer good or relevant, and was consigned to the garbage, whenever something new came about.” Expressing admiration and respect for this year’s joint International Power Soca Monarch and Road March champion, Henderson said, “The SuperBlue story shows you that the music is still relevant and good as he created an impact doing the same music he did before. The public’s response to SuperBlue was not just about sympathy for a man coming back against all odds, or fighting and overcoming his demons. It was about this being a form of music that still moves the masses of this country. At first, some people claimed it was ‘long time thing’, but look at how it swept the country.
‘SuperBlue’s re-emergence... the plus of the season’
The re-emergence of Super was one of the biggest positives for C2K13. “I must say as well that Bunji Garlin and Nigel Rojas also stood out this Carnival.” Henderson said there was hope for the future of made-in-T&T music as the nation is blessed with talented musicians and artistes. “I am happy that the songwriters are beginning to put more melody in their songs,” said the veteran musician. “They haven’t reached where they ought to be as yet, but they are getting there.
“To go forward, the music must expand outside of Carnival. We must start getting rid of some of the competitive aspects of the industry. Let us compete with the rest of the world instead of competing against ourselves. If we, as a people, get together and compete against the world, we stand a better change of leaving our footprint on the global sands of music.
“For me, the plus of the season is SuperBlue. He returned and writers are now understanding how it was done and are stepping up their game to doing it the right way. “What needs to be done as well is that producers need to step up their game of quality. Once that is done, and the writers and producers are on the same page, calypso will again be on solid footing.”