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Birdsong flies over the flow

Published: 
Friday, August 15, 2014
A fun moment for members of the birdsong Academy Steelband. PHOTO: SEAN NERO

“Have wings? Let’s fly to the moon and beyond” might well have been a suitable slogan for last Sunday’s Birdsong vacation camp closing concert at Queen’s Hall. The packed audience (admittedly partisan of family and friends) was treated to a programme which by any musical standards must rank as superb. 

The title of the concert, Against the Flow, aptly summarised the Birdsong anima or guiding spirit—community as agents not dependents; excellence through hard work, discipline and co-operation, rising high above the swamp of mediocrity. 

While this is a concert review, it would be remiss not to highlight the Birdsong example of social re-engineering. What began in a panyard 40 years ago has blossomed into the model of sustainable development our political leaders are still fumbling for. The horrendous irony is that Birdsong remains underfunded, neglected and largely ignored by the establishment, while millions are squandered or simply stolen from the patrimony. 

But let the music speak for itself. The entire programme, as carried by children, 12 to 18 years old, members of the Birdsong Academy founded in 2004. The complete range from novice to budding virtuoso was represented, and besides the two Birdsong scholarship recipients—Nyol Manswell, the blind vocalist and Derriane Dyette, who will shortly be completing studies abroad—there was evidence of a whole new cohort of young musicians ready for flight across the musical world. 

The Academy Orchestra, comprising pan, woodwind, brass and strings and fronted by the choir, opened with a truly memorable rendition of the national anthem, followed by the far less performed God Bless Our Nation. There was a crispness and professionalism matched by a clean sound mix, which immediately alerted the audience to the level of performance they could anticipate. 

First soloist up, 12-year-old Coby Fletcher, who’d probably never heard of JS Bach before he began the vacation camp, manfully negotiated the higher register of Thou Prince of Life, overcoming nerves, pitch wobbles and the occasional croak to embody the first lesson any performing artist must master: continue, whatever. The ovation he received was as much for his spirit as his ability. The junior pans backed by brass gave us Henry Mancini’s Charade, with a slow tempo allowing individual pans to be heard with clarity. It was heartening to see a young girl on French horn, a prelude to many surprises, challenging gender and ethnic barriers as well as musical stereotypes. 

By the time the juniors hit Pharell Williams’ Happy, they were cooking, swinging and smiling, handclapping in bridges to the syncopated rhythm. The junior guitars showcased technique with Finger Style Form in C before converting exercises into the upbeat bossa feel of Bobby Womack’s Breezin. The senior guitars delved into our folk trove with a medley seguing from Kitch’s take on Old Lady (Walk a Mile), to signature song of the night, Fly Me to the Moon. Their second offering—the folksong Every Time I Pass—was led by a young girl on electric bass and their rendition would have made kaiso jazz pioneer Clive Zanda proud. 

The Junior pans resumed with an in-house arrangement by Ricardo Persad of Tea for Two, reworked in Afro-Cuban style as a cha cha cha, a la Tommy Dorsey. Jumping nearly a century, we were brought up to date with the best pan interpretation I’ve heard of Bunji’s Differentology, with some interesting tonal and melodic improvisations. 

With energy rising, yet another Birdsong innovation was unleashed in the form of a tassa group, which made its entrance on the upper gallery, before skilfully negotiating the stairs down through the auditorium and up onto the stage. Defying gender and ethnic stereotypes, the tassa group was led by Afro-Creole Candy Morgan on cutter, supported by another girl cutter, Shania James; unsurprisingly they received a roar of approval and the review of our Trinidad rhythmic roots continued with voice and the skin of African in Ella Andall’s Rhythm of A People (“to shake the living and raise the dead”). 

Mr Suavito himself, Nyol Manswell, conducted the Academy Voices, full of soaring harmonies to match their swaying bodies, for Rise and the traditional John Boulay. 

At this stage in the programme the Birdsong achievement was radiant: here was a group of ordinary kids, effortlessly delivering the extraordinary and glowing with the fulfilment of talent nurtured and matured through teamwork. I have to confess that by now the music had me in tears, joyful all the way. Appropriately enough the first half reached its climax with the panside’s rendition of Happiest Man Alive—with a small boy whose head barely crested the congas, leading the rhythm his body was dancing, his smile a palpable expression of the vibe he was both agent and participant of. 

Paco and Dave and Andy Narrell’s Baby Steps gave full range to complex technique in terms of Latin feel, polyrhythm and demanding fast tempo. 

All the promise of the first half was stunningly resumed after the intermission with another level of achievement Birdsong and the national community can be proud of. William Pfaff, composer and SUNY Plattsburg professor, led the inaugural performance of the New Music Ensemble in the specially commissioned A Ballad for Birdsong. Pfaff composed and rehearsed the piece in a minimal timeframe, extending Birdsong’s range into the realm of new (classical) music, uniquely combining pan with brass in a minor key, to the accompaniment of woodwind. However short, this piece marks a new era for Birdsong and local musicians. The performance emphatically demonstrated the ability of T&T musicians to perform at the cutting edge of international experimental music. Pfaff, along with Sarah Hannigan of Oakland University, shared classical expertise which was eagerly absorbed by the youngsters. The Birdsong diaspora continues to evolve exponentially. 

Allowing for no break in momentum Academy Brass wowed with three Leonard Bernstein compositions from West Side Story: Cool, Maria and Something’s Coming, before a talent-dripping aggregate of the Small Ensemble (without their usual leader Raf Robertson) gave us a set which would have been well received at the Village Vanguard, New York’s premier jazzspot. Derrianne Dyette treated us to her distinctive atonal delivery on the opening (All of we is) Family, which served as an intro to another Birdsong discovery—the incredibly mature jazz blues voice of 18-year-old Raeshma Kissoon, delivering that famous tabanca song You Don’t Call Me Any More, with all the panache of Amy Winehouse meeting Aretha Franklyn and Janis Joplin on high heels. Jasmine Adams was more than equal to the demands of Jobim’s Dinde, delightfully scatting off Derrianne’s pan as prelude to the instrumental highs of Derriane’s arrangement of the Bud Powell composition Wail and the climactic Ras Shory I’s Who God Bless. 

With the full house ramping behind them the Academy Orchestra closed the show and brought down the power with a folksong medley, Bruno Mars’ Treasure, Let It Go (from the Disney movie Frozen) and Clive Bradley’s Ah Goin an Party Tonight. 

And what a party it was. Patrons anywhere in the world would have been ecstatic at what they’d witnessed. T&T should not only be proud of the whole Birdsong phenomenon flying in the face of lost youth, the culture of corruption, nepotism and mediocrity, but it should recognise what it does have and support it. It is never too late to become what you might have been; this is the hope Birdsong gives. 

Now maybe the State will support some real investment in the future by making Birdsong a flagship social project, capable of transforming the society, launching local and international careers and establishing a real foundation for a cultural industry.