Part of my current stint as Artist in Residence at the University of Guyana, in the time of Vice-Chancellor Ivelaw Griffith, has involved interactions with students. During a session earlier this year with the students at the Tain Campus in Berbice, the matter of the how and the when and the process of song-writing came up a couple times. The occasions didn’t lend to anything other than passing comment, so to the young people who raised the subject then, here are some bits and pieces that pertain.
Writers make choices about what to write and for songs, one of them is the matter of the kind of music that propels you. In Caribbean music, the difference for me is that reggae is powerful, partly because it is, as my friend Henry Muttoo terms it, “real dance floor music,” that hip-grinding beat. On the other hand, calypso, while it does have a dance ingredient, has traditionally gone in a different direction; one of discovery (humour; life behaviours; satire; picong). To me, reggae is generally about the party, as is soca, whereas calypso is looking to titillate you with the rhythm, yes, but the main order of business is that laugh at life, picong, mauvais langue, Trinidad thing. That humour ingredient is, therefore, often not prominent in reggae; the focus is on the dance, hence the chopping guitar cuts and the unrelenting one-drop; drum feeling dominates. Even the bass lines in reggae are actually playing a drum rhythm; they are bass notes, yes, on the guitar, but the phrasing is a drum pattern. During my time in Cayman, Richard, our regular bass player, was sick once and I was doing some rehearsing with a Jamaican bass player. Before we started the tune he said, “What’s the riddim you want?” I said, “Reggae.” He said, “Mi know dat, but how de notes go yuh wan mi fuh play?” To me, he’s playing bass but he was asking a drummer’s question; the key to him is he needs to know the riddim of the notes. He’s thinking drums and bass creating that “mek I wan fuh dance” feeling where people start to tap their feet or sway to the rhythm.
It’s useful also to note (there’s an interesting video of Lord Shorty on this subject online) that this dance revolution we’re seeing in popular music was starting to emerge in the late 1970s. Back then Shorty, later known as Ras Shorty I, recalled Trindad band leader Ed Watson starting to experiment with reggae because, as he said to Shorty, “Calypso is dead. Reggae is what people want now.” Among the many factors behind Ed Watson’s pronouncement was that the more danceable reggae beat, and the emphasis on drums in recording, were the big draw in the Caribbean, mirroring a similar shift in the American music scene which influences us so much. Indeed, that trend peaked with Shorty himself pioneering a more energetic and uptempo Trinidad music to compete with reggae. What he came up with, working with other Trini musicians like Pelham Goddard, was soca, growing out of a calypso root and with beat ruling the day. Shorty’s album, “Endless Vibrations” was a sensation with this new music, more suited to carnival and bands on the road and partying year round. Even in Jamaica, there was a similar shift in their music to reggae and later dancehall, so that initially we found studios in that country taking a song from the American charts and rearranging it over a reggae drum pattern, with the cutting guitar, and the bass playing a drum pattern, and making a reggae hit from that.
For a more technical music point on the matter of writing construction, I should note that I am currently working on a new song and looking to record a UG piece for another singer, Diana Chapman, to perform. It occurred to me that in what I’m doing everything is almost the same in the process going back to 1966, when I started writing for Tradewinds except that back then the main thing to work out was the guitar/keyboard chords and the bass line. Most of the stuff was kaiso, so the drum part was the standard shookuh/shai Trini drum thing with the high hat and kick.
Back in ’66, and up to today, the first thing I establish when I’m creating a new song is the drum track, because that is the main ingredient in how you build a song in popular music; it’s the foundation of where you’re going. Indeed, in the Jamaica music scene, they lay down one drum track electronically, and they come in with several songs written with the same feel, and the musicians play against that track to back the song. In fact, sometimes they even do a whole album (they do it here too in GT) with that one drum track where even the introductory drum riff is exactly the same – some musicians call that the “falling down the stairs” piece because it does sound somewhat like a finely tuned snare drum being thrown down some place. Again, that’s because the intention is chiefly to get people to dance, and a guy who can build dancey drum tracks on the computer is the key man record producers recruit when they’re going to record in Jamaica, Trinidad, Barbados, etc. It’s a different music in demand. Also, of course, it cuts down on studio musicians’ fees. In fact, there’s no drummer; it’s an electronic drum machine.
Incidentally, on the UG song I’m doing, I started out with a Latiny kind of rhythm but then felt it needed something more edge, so I tried several things, and decided on a reggaeton drum beat as better for this piece—more propulsion—so I basically went back and rejigged the song, including the melody, to jell with the reggaeton beat. It did require me to change a few lines, tighten up a couple, and move to some tighter rhymes, but overall it wasn’t that much and after about an hour or so work I had a more commercial today song and, more important for me, more fun to sing because the whole song had more bounce.
Halfway through this, it struck me that this was a kind of unique column in that it is actually aimed at potential song-writers, not the general public, but I’m sure the latter group may still find some interest in it. If not, no worries; I will be back in your corner next week.