Given that I am known as someone creating music for a Caribbean audience, I am often asked by interviewers, or the general public, what kind of music I listen to. While I have an interest in a wide range of music, including Israeli and African folk, what I listen to most of the time would include classical music (the generally popular fare), Caribbean music (calypso, soca, zook) and mainstream American pop, including crossover country, but not conventional country-and-western. While there is quite a span involved, I have a particular love for the treasure trove of Trinidad music (a very early influence on me) with its songs about cultural life and the marvellous inventions of Trini humour; it is an unusual aspect of a popular music and I guess its appeal to me, with its indication of more than music, is a reflection of the kind of person I am beyond music.
That said, there is a wide span of music that draws me. Sometimes, it’s the lyric; sometimes the melody; sometimes the orchestral arrangement; sometimes the vocal work; but I am often also captivated by the drum patterns, or tracks, these days, and, particularly, by what the bass player is doing. Bass, for some reason, is a very important aspect for me when I’m evaluating a recording or a band playing live; I zero in on the bass.
The material, however, is across the board and there are certain recordings I play constantly, over and over, and they never become tiresome or stale for me. An example is the Procul Harum tune Whiter Shade of Pale with the almost spiritual quality of the melody but the equally evocative lyric. There is a particular recording of it done by the band live in Denmark in 2006; every few weeks or so I find myself playing that. It is a masterpiece that continually impresses me.
I’m also drawn to the vocal work of such performers as Nina Simone, Sarah Vaughan, Andrea Bocelli, Sparrow, Barbara Streisand, Seal, and Elton John. In particular, there is a recording of Nina Simone doing the George Harrison song Isn’t It A Pity that I find almost a religious experience. There are several singers who seem to perform with such ease that it is as if the song is singing them, instead of vice versa; the music comes out with very little effort; they don’t even seem to breathing; Nina Simone is one such; the music simply emanates like a breeze blowing. Andrea Bocelli has that same quality; what should be the fairly obvious exertions of singing operatic tenor don’t seem to apply to him. It is a kind of repose that I find both bewildering and intriguing. Look at videos of these people online and you will see what I mean. Listen also to Nina singing the George Gershwin classic I Loves You Porgy from the play Porgy and Bess.
Another example of this ease can be seen in a video of Simon and Garfunkel, in concert in Central Park, performing their song The Boxer where it’s as if they’re just a vehicle for the music; it is so perfect, so spontaneous, and so true particularly when they get to the “La la la” piece of the song where there are no words but the blend of the voices is so right, it’s close to heavenly – if there is such a state.
Jamaican piano boss Monty Alexander is another favourite of mine and you can see why in the online video of him and his group doing Marley’s No Woman No Cry at the Montreux Jazz Festival. It is simply captivating, from the delicate, almost jazzy intro with Monty alone at the piano, and then bringing the band in with a nod, and then his keyboard fills while the vocal is going on is another joy; the pure Jamaican reggae lift (there is another keyboard player contributing) makes the experience special.
Another one of my favourites is Lord Kitchener performing his classic Pan In A Minor, a steelband masterpiece in which Kitch’s composition marries the steelband instrument configuration perfectly with his cascading melody and fierce tempo. There is an online version of him performing it live in Europe with a live band, horn section, and one pannist – a young Trini – navigating the array of notes, cool as ice, and Kitch singing the song at high tempo, spitting out the lyrics percussive and clear. It is music to play over and over.
Sparrow’s Marajhin and David Rudder’s Praise are in my “favourite folder” as well. Marajhin captures our Indian culture vividly, and David’s Praise is a melodic gem. I vividly recall an event in Barbados some years ago when the poet Alfred Pragnell, Chalkdust and myself were being honoured for artistic contribution, and an item on the programme was the Rex Nettleford’s NDTC dance group Jamaica performing to a recording of David’s song. It was an occasion to remember; the crowd reaction in the auditorium was an eruption at the end; it made you proud to be a Caribbean person. David’s song is another to play often.
I listen to a lot of folk music, various countries, especially Africa, but I also spend a lot of time with traditional classical music, especially Beethoven. The Moonlight Sonata is on my play list, for its magical first movement with that entrancing mood music but also, by contrast, the almost thunderous third movement with virtually a river of notes such that one has to wonder how the pianist produces them. There are many versions; I like the one by Andrea Romano.
I’ve left two of my top favourites for last. One of them is the late Lord Blakie (a calypso hero of mine for his infectious music and joyous stage manner) for his Steel Band Clash and, tops for me, his hilarious Chinese Accident where he presents us with a Chinese immigrant, struggling with English in court, explaining a car accident to the judge. In that song Blakie epitomises the hilarious Trini sense of humour and joie de vivre in a way that few performers can match.
I cannot end without recommending a visit to the web and give a listen to Trinidad’s Black Prince doing his song Calypso, with David Rudder and Gypsy singing back-up. In that one song we see the essential Trini calypso genius in material that reflects the entire culture of Trinidad, the span and the variety and the tempest that it is, as well as the sardonic quality that calypsonians like Prince bring to the stage so masterfully. It is a Caribbean gem.
This is some of music I enjoy; have a listen; you will find some gems.