In Life and in Music ….Change is a constant – By Dave Martins

Probably because it causes disruptions of varying levels in our lives, we tend to see change as something revolutionary, one of a kind, when in fact it is always going on. It is a constant. Because of the incremental nature of it, with the shifts gradually taking place in small movements continually happening, the changes don’t trigger any alarms – on a day-to-day basis they are virtually invisible so that when the alterations become noticeable to the mass of mankind, they have actually been gradually happening over a period of many years, or even decades.

Of course, once the realisation sets in, as for example the changes in human behaviour caused by cellphones, we often then become alarmed or angered by the negative aspects of the change; there is an element of surprise, but in fact what seems like a sudden alteration has actually been taking place, bit by bit, over a long span of time.           

A good example of the phenomenon can be found in the business of popular music, in all its forms, at home and abroad, with hardly a week going by without complaints, sometimes in the public media, sometimes in social conversation, about the change in popular music today.  There are other examples, but I chose music because it is one with which we are generally familiar; music comes to us not only by choice, sometimes alone, but also uninvited as we watch television or listen to the radio or go the cinema or attend some social function. It is a creature intricately interwoven in our lives, entertaining us, stirring or irritating us, triggering memories or sorrow or regret, and the modern technologies now allow us to hear the music we want virtually at will, whether we are in our homes, or in a vehicle, in a restaurant or a bar, on a drive to Lethem, or on the beach.

I narrow the topic further by looking specifically at popular music of the day in the Caribbean as we hear in the many comments in the society about the loss of music from that earlier time, the regret for its disappearance, usually accompanied by some irritation often expressed clearly, sometimes in the identical words, such as “Today’s music is a mess.  Whatever happened to the music from years back? Why do we have to listen to crap today?  That’s not music; that’s just noise.” The words will vary, but the irritation is constant.

Frankly, every time I hear such comments, and I hear them frequently, I am, to a degree, bemused by the rancor of the change. Change is not an occasional or now and then thing in our lives. It is a constant. It never stops. It is part of what life is, change. But many of us, of average intelligence or better, having seen enormous change in almost everything in their lives – in the technological revolution alone there are dozens – somehow expect that the music industry should still be dispensing the same product it dispensed in that earlier time, often going back 50 years or more.

When I was growing up, for example, while one could hear Caribbean music forms on the radio or played by local bands in social functions, the bulk of the music played on radios, or on records in people’s homes, was American, with the US hit parade material featuring well-known American singers or bands.  Ballroom music, with cheek-to-cheek dancing, as it was termed, was popular then, and American singers, such as Bing Crosby, Vaughan Monroe, and Doris Day, were on the Hit Parade list, along with the full-scale dance bands of the swing area, the likes of Tommy Dorsey and Glen Miller, to name just two. Even in Guyana, in those days, it was big bands with brass, the likes of Tom Charles and the Syncopators, and the Muttoo Brothers, and we see that same form also appearing in Trinidad with Mano Marcellin, the Dutchies, later Joey Lewis, and in Barbados with Tropical Islanders and later on Troubadours.

Those were essentially dance bands playing a mix of Caribbean calypso and American pop, with some Latin-American music, and that same mix pertained when the bands with electric guitars and Hammond organ emerged here with the likes of Combo Seven, Rhythmaires, and Young Ones. We can look back and see the nuts and bolts of the industry changing – eventually the big dance bands in both North America and in the Caribbean gave way to the more economical combos operating with amplification and, later still, the disc jockey development, still vibrant today, with, basically no live musicians.

“What happened to that lovely music?” is the question one gets. The answer is in one word, and that one word is “life.” In a sentence, life happened to it, plain and simple. Popular music, wherever one hears it, whether it is Carnegie Hall or a bar in New Amsterdam, is ultimately the work of people with musical skills living in a society, and the raw material for those creators, the mix out of which they come, is a reflection of the hundreds of minutiae in the particular society they inhabit. We are constantly told, I’ve heard it dozens of times, particularly when people find a particular form of music not to their liking, that music influences people. In fact, the influence is mostly working the other way. Any attempt to unravel “What happened to that lovely music?” will fail if it doesn’t understand that the artist is merely reflecting what exists in that society in that present time, and, as that society changes, inevitably the raw material the artist is working with changes.

The artist generally reflects what is already there and the audience sees themselves in those creations, and they take to them and make them popular, they are “of the people;” they are how the people live, what they value, what they enjoy, at that time. And – this is the critical bit – as life changes and those values or edicts or tendencies change or become altered, certain ways are abandoned, new ways are formed, and the artist inevitably reflects the changes. When the calypsonian Lord Shorty told bandleader Ed Watson in Trinidad, “Calypso is dead, we need a new music,” change was in play and the public’s embrace of soca proved Shorty right; the changed Caribbean wanted music to match. And now we see change again, as the Endless Vibrations Lord Shorty take has itself given way to the more intense, energetic approach of Machel Montano or Bunji Garlin.

Notice that Sparrow, who himself widened the calypso genre with American influences, has not had a monster hit in over a decade; notice that musicians now in Trinidad and Barbados and Jamaica talk about “the vibe” in a music.  It is a very specific feeling matching this time – “feeling” is actually the word Machel uses – and it, too, will be replaced by artists not yet known, in their turn, in the coming time.

Take some time to listen online to David Rudder, a master composer, talking about this topic. Google “David Rudder on Bahia Girl, Uzi diplomacy and High Mas.” Master composer David is reflecting on the changes in Caribbean music and describes it as the “generational thing” it is. He is right. Music doesn’t stay static. Life doesn’t let it.


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