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Life on the bandstand
“The book is an experiment in storytelling,” says Jocelyne Guilbault, lecturer in ethnomusicology at University of California, Berkeley and scholar of Caribbean popular music.
She’s in Trinidad working on her forthcoming book, Roy Cape: A Life on the Calypso and Soca Bandstand. While it’s a scholarly text, printed by Duke University Press, it’s essentially an autobiography of Roy Cape, co-written by the man himself.
Some chapters are ethnographic accounts of Cape’s management of his band and the skill of keeping musicians together over decades—how he recruits, his democratic decision-making policy and transparent band wages. Another chapter is a photographic essay, with pictures selected by Cape for the stories behind them—visual histories of his musical life. One chapter is a transcript of an interview between Cape and Guilbault. In another, Cape pours forth words, dictating while Guilbault speed-types.
A 15-track CD has been compiled by Alvin Daniell, with recordings from every band Cape has played in since the 1960s. It will be released separately as a musical accompaniment.
The book opens with an unassuming introduction written by Cape: “I never thought that I would be writing a book one day. Being approached by Jocelyne, I thought about it and I knew that I had a nice little story to tell about my experiences and the people I have met…who became the pillars of my future development.” He explains how the book is his way of paying tribute to key figures including his teacher Sister Paul, Frankie Francis, Art De Coteau and others.
Recounting the challenges of writing it, he explains, “There was no documentation: we had to rely on pure memory of my living experiences. With no preparatory note, one had to dig deep inside to get back the memory and relive what has already been lived.”
To be released in September, the book will be a must-read for calypso and soca historians, a fascinating addition to the canon of work on the genre, documenting Cape’s star-studded half-century career. • Continued on Page B2
It tackles rarely discussed issues, something for which Guilbault has a track record. Her 2007 book Governing Sound: The Cultural Politics of Trinidad’s Carnival Musics, examined how colonial rulers used music as discipline to control the population— banning drumming and prohibiting calypsonians from playing on Sundays and during Lent. It also addressed the problems of royalties, the difficulties new artistes encounter trying to make money and the failure of international labels to succesfully market established artists like David Rudder and Machel Montano.
Her new book reveals how the orphanage system in T&T, of which Cape is a product, produced so many of the nation’s brass players (“a nursery school for the police band”). It uncovers the hidden roles and lives of the unseen, uncelebrated musicians in a society where the lead singer is the star and the backing band is virtually unknown.
It looks at the politics of gender and the absence of women playing instruments in bands.
“Women have always been known as teachers of piano and violin to private students, but certainly not onstage in a popular band,” says Guilbault.
She also examines the labour and work ethics of a band, the mechanisms that music fans rarely think about. As Guilbault puts it, “Music-making is not only a labour of love, it’s also labour, period. Most musicians don’t do it full-time professionally (in Trinidad); they don’t make enough money from it. They have a day job and perform at night. The few who become full-time professionals become involved in the diasporic circuits because you can’t live playing live only on the island. Half the population have seen a show in no time.”
And once they’ve seen the show, that’s it. There’s no economic sense doing nationwide tours.
Becoming an ethnomusicologist
Growing up in Canada, Guilbault became keenly aware of the Caribbean diaspora. “The West Indian population in Toronto is so important. Just Trinidadians alone number 100,000,” she says. Influenced by an interest in Caribbean music, she did her PhD fieldwork in St Lucia between 1979 and 1984. In Laborie (to the west of Vieuxfort), she studied traditional African-derived music and the quadrille dance, which originated in France and was exported to the Caribbean.
Having grown up just outside Montreal as a Québécoise, speaking French and English, her decision to choose St Lucia was linguistic as much as anything. The University of Ottawa needed somebody bilingual to do research on the island, which was passed back and forth between England and France 14 times. While there she studied French Creole, and is completely fluent.
In her youth, she trained as a classical pianist. Asked if she still plays she pauses, then ruefully says, “Right now, the keyboard of the computer has replaced the keyboard of the piano,” before adding that her time in St Lucia curtailed her playing. At the time she lived on the island there were scarcely any pianos except those in churches.
“There was a politics of import taxes,” she says. “Instruments were considered luxury items and you could pay as much as 90 per cent tax.
“That led me to think about music politically right from the start—the relationship with colonial legacies and post-colonial interdependencies.”
Becoming an expert on soca
Guilbault first came to Trinidad in 1993.
“I was attracted because Trinidad has been, if you wish, a crossroad for many islanders, because it attracted many migrants for work and in so doing has amplified the very cosmopolitan, multicultural population. And in terms of the (Caribbean) music industry, besides Jamaica, here is where it’s really happening.”
Over the five years she has spent researching and compiling the book, Guilbault has developed a close bond with Cape.
“2008 was the 50th year of his music career. I knew Roy from hearing him, from meeting him through friends and I wanted to work with him. At that stage there was no in-depth (ethnomusicological) work done on Trinidadian musicians.”
In her 20 year relationship with T&T, she has become steeped in the music and speaks about it with the ease of a true Trini. She pinpoints Lord Kitchener’s 1978 hit Sugar Bum Bum as the moment soca really took off with the masses.
“There were many popular songs before, but that one created an imprint, a kind of recognition that this is here and it’s here to stay. And it was commercially very successful.”
She talks about the different phases of soca—the technologies, the form and its evolutions (dancehall influence, rhythmic innovations and collaborations with the likes of Red Rat and Shaggy) the sound and the lyrics. Before the first Soca Monarch competition in 1993, she says, the terms soca and calypso were conflated, but after ‘93 soca was able to stand on its own with a different ethos, “more emphasis on partying and less socio-political commentary.”
Academic texts of this kind, sadly, are available in few bookshops in T&T. But, as with her last book, Guilbault is working on securing a deal with a local publishing partner so that it can be distributed here as well as internationally.