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…..