It comes with the territory; when you achieve some sort of prominence in the arts, people are naturally curious about the process. The queries come at me from many angles: what led you into music; how do song ideas come; what advice would you give to young song-writers; etc.
I’m not sure how valuable the answers to those questions may be, because no two situations are ever alike and the surrounding circumstances, as well, change dramatically, even within a few years. However, given that the interest is certainly there – I hear it or read it frequently – let me spend a few minutes answering the intriguing question of “what was it about these songs that made them so popular?”
To begin with, anyone who proposes to tell you specifically why songs get popular will suggest some factors (melody, beat, topicality, etc) but then end up conceding that we never know for sure; there are too many intangibles. That said, however, and given the interest in the question, here are some responses I’ve given over the years.
Part of the appeal was the distinctive “sound” of the band, the style of the music, and the verve of the various Tradewinds musicians over the years (Clive Rosteing, Terry Dyal, Jeff Japal, Harry Cupid, Richard Terry, Joe Brown, Glen Sorzano). The vocal structure, using several singers, all playing and singing, was also new in Caribbean popular music. Apart from the Barbadian Merrymen, out just one year ahead of us, all the Caribbean bands at that time operated with a stand-alone singer; our format was different. Also, the arrangements were always danceable and always entertaining, and part of my approach was to write interesting instrumental introductions and interludes for the songs – musicians have remarked on this. But the enduring impact of the music rests on something else.
Although the band was born in Canada, when I formed Tradewinds it was with the specific aim of generating music for a Caribbean audience; I had come to a stage in my own musical development where that was the music I wanted to play. And so when I began writing songs for that Caribbean ear, at the foundation level, where I was creating the music, the songs were inevitably about the Caribbean people, and that, ultimately, is why the people embraced them; it was their life I was dealing with. My approach was an oddity. I was living in North America, surrounded by North American culture (music, food, art, language, politics, sport, etc) but I was writing for Caribbean people. The songs were in Caribbean rhythms, in Caribbean dialect, with Caribbean idioms and lexicon, with Caribbean attitudes and mores. Indeed, many of the songs were incomprehensible to North American audiences.
I was writing, as my Guyanese friend George Jardim pointed out many years ago, about the sociology of the Caribbean. I was writing about how the people lived, and how they spoke, and how they felt. It was not about the why – that’s the psychology road – but simply about the how. I was writing about the highs (We Are The Champions) and the lows (Where Are Your Heroes, Caribbean). I was writing about our crutches (Wong Ping) our insecurities (Copycats and It’s Traditional) and our ability to perceive (Civilization and Famous Lies). Along the way, although I would occasionally lecture them, most of the time I was making Caribbean people laugh at themselves and also, as a man in Toronto told me, making them feel good about themselves.
I follow politics because it affects my life, but often it disheartens and confounds me and ultimately it’s not my realm, so it’s not there overtly in my songs. I had come to a decision, years ago – that’s another story I will get to another day – that I should focus on reminding those who already knew, and on pointing out to those who did not, that Caribbean people are indeed, as Rex Nettleford said, “a powerful people”, with great potential, coming through sorrows and burdens with humour and grace.
And that’s what I’ve been doing, sometimes openly, sometimes subtly, and usually humourously. In It’s Traditional, I’m joking about some things we need to change. In Copycats, I’m telling Caribbean people don’t be ashamed of your dialect. In Cricket in the Jungle, it’s our obsession with cricket – we even see animals playing it. In Wong Ping, I’m showing our guys that machismo is often artificial. (Although this isn’t in the latter song, it’s often true that women are simply laughing at us when we go through this charade of proving our vitality. As even the Oriental selling “Chinee Brush” will tell you, “What ees sex? He sweet; he done.”) In an album I recorded in Guyana soon after returning here to live, one of the songs, Tell Me You Love Me, is essentially a comical reminder that our dialect is so often the best way we can communicate intra-culturally. Writer/performers like myself usually go through a searching process, reaching into various forms of expression, until they find their own subject or their own slant on an existing subject. Looking back at the early Tradewinds albums it is now clear, as it wasn’t to me then, that I was on such a journey, and the turn, in my later work, to the more cultural topics, as crystallized in the song Not A Blade O’ Grass, came as a result of my growth, but also from my own awareness of the slant that had crept up on me during the trip.
An integral part of my song-writing, as I was saying to some friends over dinner recently, was also my coming to recognize our ability in the Caribbean to cope with various dread circumstances by embracing the humour ingredient. It is particularly true of blacks in the Caribbean (to a lesser extent, those in North America) that we find these humourous balloons that float over every traumatic occurrence, readily available to all who choose to pull them down. In retrospect, it was something that had passed unrecognized before me during my growing up years in Guyana. It was during my time in Toronto, and in seeing it so trenchantly among the Trinis I had come to know there, that I gradually began to appreciate the value of this approach, and of the acceptable teaching lessons it contains for dealing with life’s difficulties.
But that’s an aside. To look back upon it now is to see that the popularity of the music, then and still, is on the matter of the subject. My focus with the Tradewinds was the Caribbean people, and they recognized themselves in what I was projecting. Certainly the musical quality of the songs were good; they were arranged well, and recorded well; they were amusing; all of that was in play, but the subject matter was the key. Caribbean people saw themselves in those songs, and that’s why, many years after they surfaced, you still hear them on the radio, and people on the street shout lines from the songs at me; they’re about them.