One of the most intriguing aspects of the music business is the hold that a particular style or era of music has on its followers. It is a subject that comes about often among musicians who have come to know each other as friends and are meeting on those rare occasions when they are in the same city at the same time. The anecdotes will cover a range of subjects – dishonest promoters, defective sound systems, good hotels, etc – but always in the mix are the stories we hear from our various fans in various places that reveal – sometimes humourously, sometimes touchingly – their connection to the music of that particular artiste. It is a widespread revelation, and while it is more common with the more popular performers, it touches anyone who performs music professionally. A veteran music producer in Toronto told me with a laugh years ago, “Don’t get too caught up with the praise you get from the public. Every performer, even the guy playing two spoons as percussion, will have somebody tell them they’re the greatest.”
Ironically, I took that advice so much to heart that in my early days with Tradewinds I was very cavalier about accolades from fans – the producer’s remark was always at the back of my mind. (Of course, I can see now that my own insecurity was obviously in play in my reaction to the praise, but that’s a separate story.) Suffice it to say that over the 50 years of Tradewinds existence I have come gradually to understand the significant impact of music, particularly popular music, on people’s lives, and that understanding has come essentially from the folks themselves. It is a fascinating condition, particularly to someone like me, who is by nature shy, and uncomfortable with compliments, and I am often amazed, even shocked, to see how strong the feeling is; people come up to you, almost as if they can’t help themselves, in fact sometimes apologizing for the approach but making it anyhow. Indeed, over time, they have taught me, from the obvious urgency in them, that what was coming to me was a genuine expression, and I remain embarrassed by my earlier reaction to it.
This column was triggered by three incidents this week that relate to this issue. The first was a completely random encounter with a man in Georgetown as I was getting into my van. I turned to see this smiling person, a total stranger, walking up to me with his hand outstretched. I’ve seen it many times; it’s a Tradewinds fan coming with a greeting. This one was a man from the Pomeroon (my father had a farm there) by the name of Robeiro, who was clearly happy to see me. He was almost stammering as he talked, kept shaking my hand, and letting go, and then shaking it again. It was clearly an emotional encounter for him; the Pomeroon connection was in play. He talked about the songs, and called me “Cos” saying, “Pomeroon people call each other ‘Cos’, you know.” Like so many of these encounters, the genuine feeling coming off this man was almost something one could touch. He eventually continued on his way, but I could tell this had been a moment for him; driving home I realized it had been a moment for me, too.
The second incident took place a few days later at the home of my friend Colin Cholmondeley. Colin had a house guest, Charles Stephens, who was arriving as I did (I actually opened the gate for him and his wife) so we came in together. I was sitting in the gallery gaffing with Colin, and Charles came out with a somewhat stunned look, “Wait a minute. You’re Dave Martins, the guy from Tradewinds? I can’t believe this. I have all your recordings. Man, I know those songs. We didn’t know that was you opening the gate.” Charles was slowly calming down, but when he asked who wrote the songs, and I told him “I did,” that set him off again. Driving home that evening, it occurred to me that this one-time Guyanese policeman, on holiday from Tampa, was gaining something from a chance encounter that rested entirely on the fact that he had come in contact with Tradewinds music.
The third happening was on the Charlie Rose television programme where footage showed an old interview with the late German conductor Kurt Masur who had led many orchestras including the New York Philharmonic. In response to a question of the value of music, Masur said to Rose, “Music makes you aware of who you are.” It was a simple statement, but I sat bolt upright.
I’m intrigued by the enduring connection that music has for people, and I will give you a different answer as to why that is so at different times or circumstances, but the response from Kurt Masur comes closest to what I think it may be, and the reason I say that is the intensity of the reaction. These people are not talking about whimsy, or some passing thought; it’s evident from the feeling they express, some of them are close to tears or stammering, that it is something very personal to them, that they have been touched in some special way that reveals something about themselves to them; some belief they hold, some longing that lives in them, some aspect they realize they value, some ambition or purpose they have found that drives them.
Whatever music one follows, old or current, popular or classical, dancehall or hip hop, more and more it seems that this twin process of connection closely followed by realisations is going on, and it is a major reason for the tenacity with which people hold to whatever music they love – it has become a part of who they are, as Kurt Masur put it, and they defend it assiduously even to the point of deriding or even dismissing whatever the current “new music” is. If you go back to the evolution of jazz away from the Louis Armstrong era to Miles Davis and Ornette Coleman, it is there. If you revisit the reaction to Elvis Presley and the arrival of rock-and-roll, it is there, and there, too, in turn, when hard rock came to the dismay of those Presley devotees who are still buying his recordings 20 years after his death.
The incidents with the Pomeroon man and the visitor from Tampa are on a smaller scale, but they are part of the same attachment Masur pointed to – the Tradewinds songs about life in the Caribbean, and particularly Guyana, drawn from how we live, are showing us as we are.