On Trinidad, a new generation of artists is reviving calypso – the comeback of folk music there is also earning new fame for old heroes
Keshav Singh sits in his studio on the island of Trinidad and basks in glorious memories of how he rocked, how he danced last year, on the other side of the Atlantic. What a get-together that was at London’s Notting Hill Carnival in 2017! English DJs and Caribbean musicians all together, standing on a truck bed, pumping out their beats into the crowd of revelers. Long after connecting on the web, the party experts had finally come together on a stage. Singh raves as though it all happened yesterday: “It was a rave and a soca party all in one.”
His studio is located in the east of Port of Spain, the capital of Trinidad and Tobago – two islands, one state, with a good 1.2 million inhabitants just a few sea miles off the Venezuelan coast. Vacationers head for Tobago, the smaller of the two, where the Caribbean still looks straight off a postcard. On Trinidad, a 25-minute flight away, visitors have to look for the beaches. Business is booming here to such a degree that Trinidad and Tobago was recently removed from the list of third-world countries.
Singh’s music has always been a small but exquisite Caribbean export item. In the 1980s and ’90s, music fans from the West began investigating sounds beyond pop, soul and rock. On the islands between North and South America, they found something different: reggae on Jamaica, mambo on Cuba, and calypso on Trinidad. Life-affirming music, fired by horns and steel pans, once old oil drums but today, lovingly crafted instruments. “Give anyone here a rhythm instrument and they’ll hammer out a calypso on it,” says Singh. He, too, grew up with music, came to dancehall and hip-hop later, and then turned his attention to soca, the calypso’s impetuous younger brother. Singh once dreamed of a career as a professional soccer player and even made it onto the national team, but only got to experience Trinidad and Tobago’s games at the World Cup in Germany in 2006 as a spectator.
Today a successful musician and producer, Singh, 35, is regarded as the reviver of the Caribbean sound. On his most successful project to date, Jus Now, he performs as Lazabeam alongside DJ Sam Interface from Bristol. Thanks to streaming services, their hits, including “Tun Up” and “Truck On D Road,” have found their way to a worldwide audience. “Sam comes from British bass music, and he can do it all and he knows everything that’s going down in the clubs. I supply the beats,” Singh explains, “together, we are part of the international rave culture.” At the mixer, Singh clicks through the samples from Indigisounds, a company based close to his studio that has recorded and digitized the countless sounds that can be produced from steel pans. “Incredible how much they’ve got together,” says Singh. Playing now is the song “Beat The Drum” by Mansa Musa, a group of percussionists who accompanied many of the island’s musicians in the 1970s. Now they want Singh to trim the number so that it can be played in clubs all around the world. The remake will be released on Cree Records, a small label located close to Bremen in northern Germany that scours the planet for almost forgotten treasures, polishes them up and releases them onto the market again. “Beat the Drum” was discovered by Merten Kaatz, who works as a graphic artist but is a music enthusiast to the core and these days also works at Cree. As a DJ, he used to work in Hamburg clubs and collect soul, reggae and ska records.
That’s how Kaatz came across a used copy of the funk number “Wajang Woman” by Embryo in a record store. As a single, the title was long out of print as he soon discovered. “I hoped some people would be pleased if the song were available again,” says Kaatz. He began tracking down the musicians and located the son of the late band leader, Richard “Nappy” Mayers. The son immediately sent him more of his father’s music, and Kaatz used the tracks for the album Music Man. When he found himself with two free months after a change of job, Kaatz traveled out to Trinidad for the first time. The trip became a time of awakenings and discoveries. The operator of a small TV station told him about his late friend Lancelot Lane, a pioneer of rapso – a fusion of soca, calypso and hip-hop – who had never received the recognition he deserved. This was clearly a case for Cree Records: In 2017, the company released Blow Way, a sampler featuring Lane’s best numbers.
The cover design came from Peter Doig, a Scottish painter who splits his time between his first home country and Trinidad. His pictures fetch millions across the world, but music fan Doig wanted no money for this cover design. He asked Kaatz why he didn’t move to the island, too, since his music was already there, and as a graphic artist he could really work anywhere. Kaatz didn’t need to think about it for long: “The friendliness of the people here decided me. “Today, he lives in St. Ann’s district on the slopes of the Northern Range, a string of hills sheltering Port of Spain to the north. Looking up from his computer, he has a fine view right across the city and the ocean. This is where he cleans up music files and looks out for new projects for Cree Records. His rule of thumb: “When I see 500 or 600 people looking for a record on the music marketplace Discogs, I know I can expect to sell a new issue of 1000 copies.”
Cree Records had a small hit with the reissue of Leston Paul’s funk number “Lets Party Tonight,” which has now also made it into the clubs in Munich, London and New York, says Kaatz. But the “key album” was the reissue of Dat Kinda Thing, on which pianist Clive Zanda mixed calypso with jazz back in 1975. For a long time, it was impossible to lay hands on the album. “Now people with influence are praising us for bringing it out again,” says Kaatz, “and that kind of acknowledgement gives us a big boost for new projects.”
These days you can reach kids better with rhythm than with reason (Clive Zanda, Calypso Jazz Musician)
Kaatz picks up Clive Zanda in his car. Zanda is a friendly gentleman of 79 who lives in the west of the city. He’s supposed to be giving a lecture at the college of music; his opinions and his music are still in demand. As a teenager, Zanda discovered jazz, but his parents sent him to London to study architecture before he could carry on making music after returning home, sometimes in a trio, sometimes with a big band. When Kaatz contacted him, Zanda was surprised that anyone in faraway Germany was interested in compositions he had left behind long ago. “Old stuff,” he says, laughing, “but I’ve moved on.” Zanda is planning a trio again for his new band and looking out for a saxophonist for it. And he wants to bring in a steel pan, too, because “these days, you can reach kids better with rhythm than with reason.”
Kaatz’s car patiently wends its way from west to east through the heavy traffic the just under 40 000 people of Port of Spain cause. After a good hour, the industrial zones to right and left of the main highway have melted away and the landscape is green. Kaatz stops outside a light-colored wooden house in Sangre Grande, a small town not far from the dream beaches on the east coast. A gaunt man with a rasta mane comes to the garden gate, Emrold Phillip, known on Trinidad as “Valentino,” a name given to him back in the day by calypso superstar Lord Kitchener. “I actually chose ‘The Mighty Robin’,” says Valentino, “but you don’t argue with Kitchener.” Now 77, Valentino rarely performs, but Kaatz has chosen one of his songs for a sampler, and today they are going to pick out photos for the cover.
I only know six chords, three major and three minor – and that’s all I need (Valentino, Calypso Musician)
Valentino takes his visitor into a sparsely furnished living room, where the shutters are closed against the afternoon sun, although sufficient light still finds its way in through the gap between them. There’s a cheap acoustic guitar propped against the sofa. The man of the house says, “I only know six chords, three major and three minor.” That’s all he needs, he explains, that way he can concentrate on his lyrics. A book on the side table with closely printed pages contains the lyrics of his more than 140 songs. Because his songs were political commentaries and spoke of his countrypeople’s plight, Valentino also earned himself the nickname “The People’s Calypsonian.” He is known as a master of extemporization, verbal improvisation. “Calypso works like a daily newspaper,” says Valentino; “when the first airplane landed on Trinidad, it was celebrated in a calypso song.” What is different today from when he was young? They used to put chairs in the music tents, says the veteran, and the audience would listen to the lyrics. Like Zanda, Valentino bemoans that young people no longer have the patience to listen for any length of time, that all they want to do is dance. “Our own music has fallen into oblivion and it’s time for us to come out of there again.”
Lou Lyons, 34, is a singer and guitarist who wants to take his music off the islands and out into the world. He grew up with the songs of the great calypso musicians, the likes of Lord Kitchener, Mighty Sparrow and Valentino, but today he hasn’t much time for the old sounds: “For me, it’s like with cricket – something for old people who aren’t interested in anything new.” Lyons admires the folk music of many singer-songwriters, but he also likes it when the music goes wild, as it does with soca, reggae and dancehall. His own music varies, is sometimes very loud, then soft. With his partner, Muhammad Muwakil, also a 34-four-year-old guitarist, he runs the Freetown Collective project. When the pair stand on stage with three female backing singers, they coax gentle folk and blues from their instruments, but as a duo, they let rip. They are seeking collaborations with international dancefloor teams. They recorded the lyrics to “Believer” on Trinidad and then sent them to the U.S. trio Major Lazer, who added on the beats underneath.
Freetown Collective are proud of their concerts on St. Lucia and in Scotland; Keshav Singh has long become a global traveler in the cause of music, performing with Jus Now in Europe and the Caribbean and also in India, the home of his forebears. “Our music is constantly developing,” says Singh, adding how fascinating it is to discover new ideas all over the world. “Then back in Trinidad, I sit down in the studio and use the ones I like. Then I’m back on the road with my music, world music that sounds like the Caribbean.”