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With a wing and a prayer
The fourth annual Birdsong benefit concert was appropriately held in the Lord Kitchener auditorium at Napa on June 22. As an icon of T&T’s musical patrimony, Kitch would surely have approved of the proceedings: Compositions inspired by pan; a new generation of musicians shaped and nurtured by some of our extant maestros and the sheer ebullience that goes with vibrant, live performance.
Despite its status as premier performance venue, neither Napa itself or Kitch’s auditorium is audience- or performer-friendly. The opening segment was performed by the Birdsong Steel Orchestra, augmented by a brass and woodwind section composed of students and faculty, positioned at the back of a cavernous stage, too far from the audience to establish the kind of intimate rapport necessary for a sizzling collaboration.
Initial wobbles were compounded by sound system problems: Distortion, pans and percussion drowning out other instruments.
But under Richard Quarles’ direction, the Birdsong fledglings found their wings, as Napa sound engineers refined the mix.
Their set was ambitious and challenging, beginning with the syncopated rhythms of Perez Prado’s Mambo Number 8 and introducing a Latin-jazz theme often returned to throughout the evening. The vibe mellowed with Jobim’s languorous One Note Samba Corcovado and began to swing stateside with the Neal Hefti standard Cute, a fixture in Count Basie’s repertoire.
Kitch got his due with The Carnival is Over, which could have done with some more brass but by now the little birds were cooking with gas, confidently hitting their Latin jazz stride with Celia Cruz’s La Vida es un Carnival. On this number the rhythm section came into their own, with drums and congas outstanding.
After this sweep through the Americas, the orchestra flew home on the wings of Shadow’s tribute to music, Dingolay, during which, amid the pan exuberance, there were lulls featuring a fleeting but perfectly executed flute riff.
Next up was blind vocalist Nyol Manswell, the first recipient of a Birdsong scholarship, which has funded his nearly completed degree at the prestigious Berklee School of Music. If any endorsement is needed for Birdsong, listen no further than Manswell, whose blossoming in five short years is transitioning into full bloom. This year he has demonstrated both maturity and versatility: Winning the Stars of Tomorrow contest, placing second in the Young Kings calypso competition and featuring in the annual Jazz on the Greens concert. Now he can add laconic MC to his credits. After generously sharing his set with students in a series of duets, he introduced with picong panache and praise, setting the young singers at their ease.
Backed by the Birdsong Voices and accompanied by fellow Berklee students Noe Socha on guitar and Andre Jack on bass, with local Rajesh Mohammed on a mean keyboards, Manswell opened with a soulful solo: the jazz standard My Funny Valentine. After ending in falsetto he called onstage “One of the big-mouthed students”—Jasmine Adams—for a stirring rendition of the Stevie Wonder Shelter through the Rain, delivered with gospel punch, and then segued into the David Foster composition Through the Fire, with Kayla Persad reminding us of a youthful Chaka Khan at her belting R&B best.
Joining Manswell for his own soul composition I Win (dedicated to his cancer-survivor sister) was Jabarry Narine, whose emotive delivery recalled the young Michael Jackson and whose palpable delight and confidence in performing, are all the tribute Birdsong could ever need.
Rudder’s Calypso Music introduced another coming star in the shape of Anika Edwards, with both the voice and moves to fly high. This number was also an opportunity for Manswell’s gifted classmate Socha to add harmonica riffs and new colour to a regional anthem. The final Kees Dieffenthaller song, Live Your Life, brought Dion Mansingh onstage for a fitting boys-to-men finale.
Raising curtain and pores for the second half was the second Birdsong scholarship recipient, pannist Derrianne Dyett, currently studying in Holland. Her diminutive form belied her major talent and while it was immediately possible to hear the hand of Andy Narell in her technique, it took sharper ears to pick out the subtlety of her harmonics, which some have compared with Rudy “Two Left” Smith. Backed by the Birdsong Small Ensemble, she played her own arrangements of such demanding jazz compositions as Oregon’s Creeper, Etienne Charles’ Kaiso (with Daniel Ryan on tenor sax), Dave Holland’s Conference of Birds (featuring Katie Gainham on flute), concluding with maestro Chucho Valdes’ Mambo Influenciado. Once again we have the Birdsong Music Academy to thank for nurturing and funding this budding virtuoso.
Wrapping up and gifting the entire performance came the Birdsong Small Ensemble, led by the inestimable duke of the ivories and “perhaps the greatest living exponent of calypso jazz,” Raf Robertson.
Students can only truly excel when exposed to the best practice, and the excellence the audience enjoyed that night became self-explanatory as the masters played for their students. Reprising an earlier Brazilian theme the ensemble set out to seduce with a sunnily sinuous samba-So Nice, with Theron Shaw’s guitar at its mellifluent best. While the audience basked in the musical sunshine of the Susaye Greene and Stevie Wonder Can’t Help It, Raf reminded them that this was a free gig (as in, no loot for the musicians) and queried whether it was possible to put a price on the happiness and joy music brings.
He answered his own rhetorical question with the Dizzy Gillespie scorcher Con Alma and the beautifully arranged and balanced Prince Clemendore, with Shaw showing all the signs of being a worthy successor to Trinidad’s and the one of the world’s greatest jazz guitarists, Fitzroy Coleman, in this ecstatic, free-flowing pan-inspired take on kaiso. Concluding with honour and respect, the huge but Small Ensemble paid tribute to calypso jazz pioneer Clive Zanda, with their final number, and his classic Fancy Sailor, a favourite wherever Caribbean jazz finds an audience.
It seems ungracious to end this review on a downbeat, but it is necessary to point out that the whole Birdsong project struggles along woefully underfunded, while ridiculous sums of money go unaccounted for or are wasted on ineffective cosmetic exercises. The faculty of gifted and experienced musician/tutors are no longer state-funded, making a mockery of what all who have experienced Birdsong realise is precisely the kind of community educational programme T&T so desperately needs.
Every community needs its Birdsong, not least to rescue youth from crime, disease, early death and wasted life, but also to give them the opportunity to become as confident, talented and socially conscious as the Birdsongsters.
What a shame not a single government minister, MP, official from the Ministry of Education or Culture official saw fit to attend this concert and discover a ready-made answer to so many of the problems they seem committed to compounding rather than solving.