Last update: 12-Dec-2013 1:01 am
Thursday, December 12, 2013
Trinidad & Tobago Guardian Online
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On the wings of birdsong
Natural birdsong has therapeutic qualities; we may hear peripherally but still absorb some of those sweet improvisations and calls. Similarly, to judge by responses in the packed-out auditorium of Queen’s Hall, last Thursday night, the birdsong tenth annual vacation camp closing concert was a moving experience, for both performers and their multi-generational audience.
As Shadow sang in one of the many songs presented in a programme embracing first time and accomplished musicians: “Old lady, young baby, anybody could dingolay!” Proud grandparents, vocal infants and half of Tunapuna come to town, joined to applaud a concert, which was about much more than the music.
The birdsong Academy, founded in 2004 out of the same name panyard in the East, started as a music literacy and education programme for children aged 12-18. In the past nine years, besides the 700 who’ve graduated the programme, three gifted graduates have been funded by birdsong scholarships to begin realising their potential: visually impaired Nyol Manswell is in his final semester in Voice studies at the prestigious Berklee School of Music; pan player Derriane Dyett has completed two years study at the Prince Claus Conservatory in Holland, while Alisha Wallace is a third year medical student, at the Republic of Georgia’s Tbilisi State Medical University.
The birdsong Academy shows all the signs of a potent, progressive antidote to the virus lodging so desperately in new-millennium Trinidad’s society. Just as the late Hugo Chavez’s national orchestra project demonstrated in Venezuela, young people and their elders in local, regional and then national communities can be mobilised through the discipline, creativity and cooperation, which playing communal music instils. Social cohesiveness, rather than the rampant individualism and divisiveness which characterises so much public life in T&T, is a birdsong reality.
But back to the concert, which curtain raised with compositions featuring junior pan, brass, guitar, percussion and woodwind performers, none of whom were fazed by appearing on the big stage. The Academy Voices choir followed with John Lennon’s Imagine (which might stand as a birdsong signature tune for the idealism and compassion it evokes). On both their opening number and the Spiritual Ride on King Jesus, the young singers demonstrated control and excellent timing with their contrapuntal harmonies.
The Academy Steel pan side, led by director Terrance Sealey, did themselves proud with their crisp renditions of Wetting, Fog and Andy Narell’s composition Sea of Stories. Their delivery was enhanced by sound engineer Yoichi Watanabe’s skilful mix. For once it was possible to distinguish bass lines in their rich colourful sonority, from the bright peal of the tenors. Watanabe’s mix should be studied as a template for amplifying steelbands, as all too often unless we’re deafened by loyalty what we hear is cacophony rather than the wonderful clarity Watanabe gave us.
The mix was particularly suited to interpreting Narell’s piece, with its slow-paced intro led by the bass pans, introducing the melodic motif which was developed and embellished in the second movement. As the third part flowed, full of passing references to well-known (Kitch) melodies, it was delightful to see a small tenor boy in the front row, head level with his pan, totally absorbed in the music.
After the intermission Academy Brass blew off brightly with El Gato Gordo and Cute before the audience was treated to a set by the Small Ensemble, featuring Director Raf Robertson on keyboards, Nyol Manswell vocals, his Berklee roommate Jonte Samuel from St Thomas on sax, Derriane Dyett on pan, Clint de Coteau on bass and David Richards on drums. The ensemble, which with the exception of Richards, had played
a brilliant Emancipation gig at Trevor’s Edge in St Augustine the week before, was ably backed by young singers from the Academy Voices.
The classic samba Mas Que Nada (penned by Jorge Ben and immortalised by Sergio Mendes) proved a hot opening for birdsong alumnus Nyol Manswell to showcase the skills he’s been honing these past few years at Berklee. With Robertson riffing off Dyett’s pan, Manswell delivered the vocals, usually sung by a female, with light sensitivity trading off Samuel’s lyrical sax, before improvising with the deliciously sexy sibilant Brazilian lyrics and adding his own percussive bouladjel (Guadeloupean-style voice drum) to the mix. This was a virtuoso performance by any standards.
As if to demonstrate that our own musical heritage provides all the raw material and inspiration for endless improvisation and reinterpretation, the Ensemble surprized with a jazz rendition of Roaring Lion’s classic Trinidad is the Land of Calypso and later with their own version of Shadow’s Dingolay. Edith Piaf’s Hymne a l’Amour was another opportunity for Manswell to showcase his range, this time with an effortless counter tenor (falsetto) delivery, again enhanced by his roommate Samuel’s sophisticated sensual sax solo.
After such riches it was left to the full Academy Orchestra conducted by Richard Quarless to conclude a concert which will certainly be fondly recalled for years, not only by the young performers. Marshalling such a mixed, large group was never going to be easy and at points in their renditions of, Entry of the Gladiators, Reggae Nights, Shame and Scandal and the Sparrow classic, Memories, the orchestra seemed to sit ponderously on the beat. However, they came good thanks to the brio of the pans, concluding to unanimous applause.
Now the vacation camp and concert is over it would be remiss to let birdsong slip out of mind until Panorama time. The youth programme with instrumental classes throughout the year and master class workshops with the likes of Andy Narell, Raf Robertson, Earl Rodney and Etienne Charles, is the kind of initiative in “sustainable development” that the State could do well to study. It has not only been proactive in developing our young human resource but also in providing community employment and a sense of pride and achievement. It seems inconceivable that such a project, which could be used as a model throughout T&T had its government funding (to pay teachers) cut back in June. We all need to raise our voices to ensure that birdsong continues to sing and help spread the wings of our future.
birdsong Steel Orchestra was founded in 1973 at the University of the West Indies. The organisation has since then grown to include the birdsong Academy and birdsong Enterprises and the birdsong Small Ensemble in addition to the orchestra.
Since 2004, the birdsong Academy has focused on providing youth in the Tunapuna and neighbouring areas with structured music literacy courses and related training in areas such as steel-pan technology and history. The academy also has a scholarship programme for students pursuing careers in music.
Many birdsong scholarship students have continued on to prestigious institutions such as the Berklee College of Music and The Royal Conservatory of the Hague.
The band has toured both regionally and internationally and has competed successfully in the J’Ouvert Bomb Competition (four time winners) and Music Festival (Test Piece winner 1980).
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