Island Soul City Dreams

I love New York, but my heart has a Caribbean beat. It pulsates to the traditions of my people. Attuned to the rhythms of this City, I stay West Indian to the bone. I reflect. I analyze. I speak my mind. ~ I Keep it Irie ~

Feels Like I’m Home Again

“Raga Beenie children fall in line.” – Anthony “Rebel” Bailey

I officially retired from the party scene in 2006 – after almost 20 years of partying and more than a decade of covering entertainment as a reporter. Considering my now ripe old mid 30’s age, some might say that I retired young. Those who knew me in my prime party days growing up in Barbados knew that I was in the dub (Reggae/Dancehall party) from as early as 14 years and in the Calypso tents and nightclubs from a couple years after. My “Uncle Mac” – Mac Fingall, one of the Caribbean’s top emcees, introduced me to the calypso tents and for many years took me to countless performances during our annual carnival known as Crop Over Festival. Even before then, I was already a fan of Calypso and its “offspring” Soca  music.

For those unfamiliar with a Calypso tent, it’s a sit-down, concert-type setting featuring singers, or rather calypsonians backed by a full line up of musicians performing songs that tell stories primarily of social issues. Among the key elements of stellar calypso are: sweet/catchy melodies; crafty lyrics (often with emphasis on wit; double entendre, satire, etc); eloquent rendition/phrasing and scintillating presentation (props, costumes, sound effects etc). While much Calypso is designed for a listening/watching audience, many songs are also created to get people dancing; what we West Indians call, “winding,” “wining,” “wukkin’ up,” or “wucking up.” Calypso/Soca is infectious; it’s hard to hear these pulsating rhythms and not want to move. In every Caribbean island that boasts a carnival, Calypso is the magic that sparks the excitement. So much so, that thousands of patrons throng stadiums across the region to watch calypsonians compete for coveted titles of Calypso King/Queen or Soca Monarch.  Calypsonians “crowned” are usually awarded prizes of thousands of dollars and motor vehicles. It is Calypso that also ignites the frenzy as revelers gyrate in Mardi Gras-style costumes and masquerade on the streets during our carnivals.

Me with Edwin “The General” Yearwood of the band Krosfyah from Barbados.

I love everything about and around Calypso/Soca, a love cemented during those years of “schooling” with Uncle Mac. So when I became a reporter and was first sent to cover a calypso tent, despite some nervousness, the assignment was a dream. I went on to write my own Crop Over column at the Barbados Advocate newspaper and established a wide range of sources, not just from within the calypso arena, but across the wider entertainment circuit. When I moved on to work at The Nation (Barbados) newspaper, my contacts expanded beyond local shores and across the islands, in particular Trinidad and Tobago – the birthplace of Calypso/Soca. There, I made great connections with the directors of Calypso Spektakula, then known for hosting some of the region’s biggest Calypso shows/parties and greatest calypsonians. This ultimately led me to review many of their events from The Mighty Sparrow in concert and annual parties in Barbados to shows in Antigua, St. Lucia and Trinidad. It also afforded me the chance to be on the road with top Soca artists such as Edwin Yearwood and Krosfyah, Alison Hinds and Square One, Machel Montano and his then band Xtatik, Red Plastic Bag, Rupee, David Rudder, Iwer George, Super Blue, Ronnie McIntosh, Denise Belfon, and more. I was also privileged to often see perform and write extensively about a true maestro in Calypso, Anthony “The Mighty Gabby” Carter. Overall, this lifestyle allowed me to enjoy the best of carnivals and Soca parties in the Caribbean, where until I moved to New York, I had never missed Barbados’ Crop Over and had in some way participated in Trinidad’s Carnival, annually for almost a decade.

Apart from the carnivals and Soca parties, I was still partying – almost nightly. My friends and I made it a ritual to go and support our local bands Krosfyah, Square One, Coalishun (which featured Rupee) and any other artist with a regular gig on our nightclub/party scene. In particular, I hardly missed a performance by Krosfyah, as one of its founder members, Anthony “Rebel” Bailey is one of my dearest friends. Plus, at different points in the band’s history, other friends of mine were members. Some members of Square One were also my friends, so I always felt a special loyalty to that group as well. In fact, perhaps because the island is so small, or due to forming so many friendships out of covering entertainment, I felt a certain allegiance to our artists. So even when I wasn’t reviewing their performances as a reporter – which I managed to do  in a “fair” manner – I was still attending their gigs as a “fan.”

While their repertoire focused on Caribbean rhythms, these artists also occasionally performed other genres to complete the party experience. But ultimately they were and are all Calypso/Soca ambassadors. I watched over the years as many of them  “grew” from drawing  just a small room of local partygoers to commanding regional and even international venues with tens of thousands of patrons. I remember being there as my then friend, college mate and colleague from our first job, Rupert Clarke won a local talent competition and then took the Soca world by storm as Rupee with his hits “Jump” and “Tempted To Touch.” I can recall every member that replaced another in Krosfyah, leaving now only two founder members on stage with others now managing the band. At the same time, I noticed that throughout its 19 years, before becoming defunct in 2005, Square One practically remained unchanged, except for adding a percussionist/steelpan player/keyboardist in the early ’90s.

I watched. I partied. I wrote. The scene pretty much became my life. Many nights after leaving a 10-12 shift in the newsroom and in the field reporting, I would go home, shower and hit the party. Most of the time on arriving to work the next day, I was doing so on about four hours sleep. This went on for most of my journalistic career – even when I simultaneously covered other beats like sports, breaking news or business. Over time, every party seemed the same. I could often predict the order of songs the artist would perform and even the crowd’s response. Still, I never stopped loving the music or the party. I never stopped loving or following the artists. But I was getting tired of the lifestyle. My exit from the scene came with my decision to leave my job and country and move to the U.S. to further my education. For the first time in my life, I was going be away from the regular performances of the artists whose sweet music was like blood pumping through my veins.

As much as I thought I’d grown tired of the scene, my first year in New York missing Trinidad Carnival found me in tears on Carnival Monday. And Carnival Tuesday. It was even more agonizing missing my first Crop Over. But as the second year, third and so on went by, I got used to being away from the scene. I wouldn’t even attend performances when the artists occasionally came to New York. But I followed and still bought their music and a couple of years ago when I was in Barbados for the Christmas holidays, Rebel ensured that I went to watch Krosfyah on New Year’s Eve. The feeling I got that night was rekindled this past weekend. Last Friday night, despite my protests that I’m no longer on that scene, my friend Shanna took me to Brass Fest at the Brooklyn Museum. It’s one of the annual events over the Labor Day weekend hosted by the West Indian American Day Carnival Association  to celebrate Caribbean heritage. Shanna and I were joined by several other Caribbean friends and as is tradition at such parties, we wore our national colors or carried our country flags.

Me, Shanna and Kautre at Brass Fest, Brooklyn Museum.

Some of the big names from my past were scheduled to be on stage. I found myself getting excited to see the energetic performances of Machel Montano and his band HD, featuring my friend Dwain Antrobus on keyboards. As a huge Reggae head, I was stoked to see Mr. Vegas, whose recently released album “Sweet Jamaica” has been on repeat on my iPod for much of this summer. Above all, I couldn’t wait to see my Krosfyah with upfront vocalists Edwin “The General” Yearwood and Khiomal Nurse, and my Rebel on guitar. As we entered the Brooklyn Museum, it appeared that an artist had just been introduced. We missed the announcement and the stage was not yet in view. The music was barely starting up, the song not recognizable and no vocals heard yet. But I know that “sound” and Rebel’s distinctive guitar strumming any day. I said to Shanna, “Krosfyah is on stage.”

For the next few hours in sheer abandonment, I allowed myself to party – for the first time in six years! The haunting melodies of Krosfyah, that Soca music – such food for my soul – had me jamming, waving, wining, jumping. It totally took control. Edwin Yearwood puts it best in one of his songs (see video below): “Anytime I hear sweet Soca pumping, feels like I’m home again.”

To the Creator and to the artists, I say, thanks for this undisputed sweet Calypso/Soca music.

~ I Keep it Irie ~

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10 thoughts on “Feels Like I’m Home Again

  1. “Billboard chart, me no know about dat.
    Grammy award, me no know about dat.
    But me know iz a music fuh one hour straight could keep bout sixty t’ousand hands up!”
    – Bunji Garlin

    Nice one! I thought I was a soca junkie… but clearly you are head and shoulders above me! I couldn’t tell you any artist’s stage set in order… although if the DJ dropped two notes from the next track, I could probably tell you what song it was!

    There’s something about this music, isn’t there? I would like soca artists to improve their range of topics. I would like DJ’s to stop playing “de same ting, over and over.” And I would love if most (local) calypsonians gave me melodies and harmonies that I could get emotionally invested in, instead of focusing only on the lyrics (for so it seems sometimes). But still, the music has a hold on me.

    • You’re right Reynold and RPB said it, or rather sang about it too, “Something in this music…”

      Overall, music is powerful. But as many genres as I love and appreciate, there’s something unique about how Soca can take control.

      When you speak of the range of topics, what are some you’d like the artists to write about?

      And re: the focus on lyrics, that has long been a debate among Kaiso lovers, in particular as it relates to the various competitions. Thing is, as you know, many of the artists write songs for competitions that weigh “heavily” on lyrics. Additionally, as again, I know you know (being a scholar of history), lyrics have always been a key component of the art form. Traditionally, It was that storytelling element rife with humour, play on words etc, that provided the main entertainment, and of course in earlier times it was through “lyrics” that messages were relayed on the plantations.;-) Sure, the music aspect has always gone hand in hand with the lyrics, but you may recall early Kaiso melodies were very simple. I like to call them the forerunner to what became a popular phenomenon with Dancehall rhythms, where pretty much many artists sing different lyrics/different songs to the same “track”/music lol!

      We need not go into the history of the evolution off Calypso to Soca, but even with the many changes over the years, several elements are inherent in the art form – lyrics will long be seen as a strong point.

      I do agree, that there needs to be improvements melodically; very few artists have mastered the art of creating sweet melodies. I often feel like all/most of the really sweet Soca melodies are from 10, 20+ years ago. All biases aside, I have to give Edwin Yearwood props for consistently bringing us memorable and infectious melodies. Gabby, Stalin, Sugar Aloes, David Michael Rudder, Red Plastic Bag and Rupee are among the names that quickly come to mind that have also repeatedly brought great melodies. Of the current crop of young artists, I give kudos to your peops Kes. And as always, I hail the the risks Machel Montano takes with the music, though that’s a separate discussion for another time and place lol! Truth me be told, very few up and coming or current young artists offer any melodies in which one can be emotionally invested. Still, there’s so much magic in Soca!

      • Hey Maquita, on the issue of lyrics and melody in kaiso, I was not suggesting one over the other; I was simply bemoaning the fact that there is often a serious investment in the lyrics, but often no corresponding investment on the musical side – or at least it feels that way to me. To be honest, when I’m listening to songs, it is the music that hits me first, more often than not. So I am probably not going to listen too often to a droning song with good lyrics (the lyrics then must really grab me) – although truth be told, I am also turned off by the fact that many calypsonians seem to think that social commentary must be written in a style reminiscent of a eulogy!

        Don’t get me wrong, I don’t need an orchestra to impress me. For example (to step right outside of the soca/kaiso arena), Musiq Soulchild has a song called Halfcrazy. And I was sold on the first bar of the song, a relatively simple melody. The addition of instruments and the storyline add punch to the song, but essentially I’m in love with that first bar which repeats throughout the song, and I can listen to it for quite a long time without getting bored! On the flip side, sometimes kaiso music has complex arrangements, but the melody is unappealing to me. Of course we could get into discussions of personal bias, but I don’t feel I’m being too biased when I say that there is quite a bit of kaiso with uninspiring melodies.

        In soca now, the situation is reversed – I more often find melodies that appeal to me (although there can be monotony in this arena as well), but then there is a dearth of lyrics – almost all the soca lyrics fall under ‘jump and wave,’ ‘we love to party’ or ‘grind de girl.’ Very rarely can I get a song these days with an actual story line.

        De General does tend to have songs with a storyline (although he seems to be moving to lyrically simpler uptempo tunes), but I can also think of songs like ‘Poor People Song’ (think that’s the name of it) by Maddzart, ‘Yeast’ by KMC, ‘Two Sir Grantleys And A Errol Barrow’ by Contone, ‘Offset’ by Pong, ‘Saturday Night’ by Madd… so I know we don’t have to be limited to the above three topics in soca. But still that’s what almost everybody would like to sing. So if I had my way I would want to re-invent the genre so that every and any topic was fair game in soca.

        That’s my ten cents. Oh, and I appreciate the “scholar of history” comment, but it’s really not true. The little bit I know about kaiso and soca comes from attending a truckload of fetes (but not as many as you! lol), plus buying the music and reading the liner notes (which unfortunately you can’t do when you buy digitally).

      • Well said, Reynold.:-)

        Indeed, the ongoing debate of Calypso and Soca lyrics and music continues lol! Thank goodness for the few artists that have managed to find that winning combination.

      • Btw, ever thought of trying your hand at writing some kaiso?:-)

  2. As a lover of Calypso/Soca music myself, I find it very interesting that Anthony “Mighty Gabby” Carter was never mentioned in this article. Gabby is the epitome of of Calypso/Soca music in Barbados. He is a man whose writing style is varied and who has written over 1400 songs and every one a different melody. A man who has given songs on every subject, politics, love, sex, cricket, Africa, children, diabetes (Ian Webster’s ‘Dah Sugar Killing We’ for 2012), like West Indian Politician, Culture, One Day Coming Soon, Conversation With Mr. Barrow, Black Man Wake Up, Miss Barbados, Lord Send An Answer For We, Calypso, Jack, Hit It, Boots (Government Boots), Chicken and Ram and Dr, Cassandra, Obama killed Osama, just to name a few. A man who has written for some of the very artists whom you are mentioning. One can not write about Calypso and Soca and melody and not mention the Mighty Gabby. As talented as the above mentioned artists may be, without the vast knowledge,expertise, experience, and skills of the Mighty Gabby, Calypso/Soca music in Barbados would not be what it is today. He is a connoisseur of Calypso/Soca music. We are speaking of a man who took “taboo” and controversial subjects such as the aids epidemic in Barbados and sung about it openly in his song entitled “the List”, when other calypsonians wouldn’t as they were fearful of the scrutiny and their song being banned from the radio. This is a man who sings without fear. He also has the title of the most banned artist in Barbados. You mentioned that “ultimately these calypsonians were and are Calypso/Soca ambassadors, but you conveniently forgot to mention that Gabby was a cultural ambassador of music for Barbados.Not only was he a cultural ambassador but the first Cultural Ambassador of Barbados whom has represented Barbados worldwide for over forty years. Barbados’ greatest MC’s Trevor Eastman introduces him as ‘The God-Father of Barbados Calypso’ and your Uncle MC Mac Fingall ,Introduces him as ‘One of the greatest calypsonians/ singers /songwriters in the world.
    You said “when I wasn’t reviewing their performances as a reporter-which I managed to do in a “fair’ manner-I was still attending their gigs as a fan”. I do not see how that could be when you cannot seem to mention the godfather of Calypso/Soca music in Barbados. It is my humble opinion, that you were only “fair” to the artists in which you favor. To write about Soca/Calypso music in Barbados and not mention the Mighty Gabby, that would be like writing about Boxing and not mentioning Muhammad Ali.

    • Hahahaha! Keisha, thanks for reading and your “insightful” comment. Since you obviously don’t know me, I’ll forgive you for implying that I do not favour my dear friend Anthony “The Mighty Gabby” Carter. While indeed, I should have listed his name among RPB and Rudder etc in my reference to reviewing artists or shows (although there I was specifically speaking about artists with whom I’ve been on the road), in the context of this post, I wasn’t seeking to chronicle the achievements of the calypsonians. I’ll revise the post to add his name, but there was no malice in not citing him. Thank you.

      There’s nothing you can tell me about Gabby’s career that I do not know. And any friend of mine would be quick to tell you that I’m perhaps more biased toward him as the consummate “entertainer” over any other artist in the Caribbean. Period. There’s no pedestal upon which you can raise him, that I can’t surpass. As a reporter, I’ve interviewed and written extensively about Gabby. Such is our relationship, that he chose me for the exclusive report on when he’d “disappeared” after the 1994 general elections and started growing dreadlocks. He refused then to be interviewed by any other reporter but me. You can request the series of exclusive articles from the Barbados Advocate. Off the stage (even before I was a reporter) Gabby and I have maintained a solid friendship over the years as have his daughter Julie and I. In one of my previous posts, you’ll see I both mention her and featured her photography. Hers are also among the comments on my blog. And just like many of my close friends, both Gabby and Julie call me by my childhood moniker, “Queenie.” As a friend, there were many storms in my life for which Gabby was there. My love for him is strong both on and off the stage.:-)

      So again, I thank you for reading and commenting, but my saying that partying to Krosfyah at a fete in Brooklyn and being made to feel like I was home again, is not being disrespectful to The Mighty Gabby.

    • By the way, Keisha, I must take issue with your “accusation” about me only being fair to artists I favour. Really? I’d advise to do your research before casting such aspersions on my character. The Nation library, unlike The Advocate’s where you have to make a formal request for articles, is available to the public. They have available entertainment pieces I wrote, from the Richard Stoute Teen Talent Competition, to Comedy Festival, to the Barbados and Caribbean Song Contests to gospel events to Crop Over and more. I’d love for you to show me proof among those articles of the allegations you made. Thank you.

  3. I ask a favor of you, PLEASEEEEEEE click on my name which will take you to my facebook page, and find out who I am, when you are through with that, come back and tell me again that there is NO pedestal as to which I can place him that YOU cannot surpass. Oh and by the way I said”it is my humble OPINION” Opinion being the key word.
    Thank You

    • Pardon the expression Keisha, but it’s not a “pissing contest”. And as I alluded to before, the point of the post has nothing to do with handing out prizes for Kaiso’s greatest. It was simply a slice of “MY” life on my blog. If or when I so desire to feature any particular artist at length, that will take a different forum. I’m sorry you clearly missed the point of the *blog* post.

      Re: your opinion, it remains flawed. How are you promoting a view, without having done your research to reach a consensus? And I need not check your FB page for a number of reasons, the key being as you clearly don’t recall, we met before and secondly, who you are does not change my “personal experience” or any of my beliefs. Not sure why you come “fighting” on a post that is about someone’s personal experience. But the debate ends here; I detect too many negative vibes wrecking the mantra of this space. In that regard, with all due respect, as moderator of this blog, I will unapprove any further comments that go against the goal to “keep it Irie.”

      Thank you.

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