Sir George Martin Montserrat Foundation
Blog 13: Frustrations/Satisfactions, Performances & Lovely Visitors (Mar-Apr)
So much has happened in the last couple of months!
I had my brother visiting and made sure he experienced as much of Montserrat as possible. That included taking him on a trail-blazing hike in Centre Hills, scuba diving off Carr’s Bay, driving around the “ghost towns” of Richmond Hill and Cork Hill, and enjoying the opening of St Patrick’s Festival. It was very rainy during the time he was here, but he enjoyed it thoroughly. Shortly after he left, we had another fantastic visit by Rebecca Chalmers, the past Montserrat Foundation musician who had stayed two years on island and whom I had taken over. It was superb having her around, not only because she is such a nice person, but because sharing so many of our experiences and stories proved great fun. Knowing the similarities and differences through the different challenges we each faced was great, even soothing.
St Patrick’s was wild and fun. This year seemed bigger and slightly better organised, despite the problems with the ferry (and others). During that week I performed with ReBEAT (with Becky joining us on stage for a jam!), ran the Cudjoe Head Freedom Race, and had a fair amount of Guinness to celebrate. A couple of weeks later ReBEAT also performed at the Montserrat Idol competition final and cheered the crowd up with our booming of barrels, buckets and cans.
We have done great shows these past months, but one thing that is sometimes still missing from all the performances is, well …the performance aspect of it. Especially teenagers and adults, they forget the importance of body language and expression, and how a simple lack of a smile can portray wrong or negative impressions. I know it’s very normal to get self-conscious on stage, but it seems to be a pervading thing not to let your self out of that rigidness. I’m sure there is possible fear of ridicule and other factors, but all those negative aspects in societies need to be shoved off using positive examples of joy and wellbeing. If the choirs and ReBEAT decided to engage with the sounds and the music, both individually and as a collective, and let go of that rigidness (and occasional apathy), their singing/playing would immediately boost itself up to higher levels. All the groups have done a fantastic job regarding the music. These were my final performances with big groups, but I hope they will keep working on getting out of their shell and improving on projecting and showing the joy of a music performance.
However! An exception to that rigidness, and an example of enjoying the performance, was the successful production held with the children’s section of the Youth Choir in late April. We put on a show called “Dung Inna De Market”, a selection of songs accompanied by a small script, highlighting traditional culture and folk music from Montserrat and other Caribbean islands. The show was put on thanks to a great team effort between choir manager Loni Howe and myself. We were confronted with many difficulties during the process, but still managed to pull it through. The main idea for putting on this production was about reviving some old Caribbean folklore and songs, and nurturing a proud cultural identity in younger generations. The children (despite some bad behaviour and difficulties in discipline) put up with heavy rehearsal schedules and pulled it off fantastically on stage.
And so, the end comes near, only 8 more weeks to go until this experience comes to an end. This residence has been a fantastic opportunity for growth and is very special in its essence. Whilst the island does prove certain difficulties, the creative freedom that the residence gives us to work in is invaluable and difficult to experience elsewhere in other professional settings. We have the freedom and responsibility to shape activities according to our own professional views, abilities and interests, making sure a deep impact is felt in the community through the work we do.
I still have a bit more work to do before I sign off from this 2-year blog. Hopefully we’ll have fun with some final activities, leaving a bit more to add to the last chapter of this narrative.
Here are a couple of videos from the Youth Choir and ReBEAT performances. Enjoy!
Blog 12: George Martin
On March 8th, Sir George Martin passed away peacefully at age 90 in his countryside home in England.
I recall the couple of days I met him in early January 2015. I went and had tea with Sir George and Lady Judy on a couple of afternoons and sat with them in the veranda of Olveston house talking about the work in the foundation, the Montserrat community, and music in general. We also spent a few moments in silence watching a family of agoutis roaming around the garden very close to where we were sitting. He mentioned how he loved observing them whenever they visited, roughly at the same hour every afternoon. What I remember most from those brief hours with him was still seeing a very lively sparkle in his eyes; a special sparkle that came across as being slightly mischievous, but very observant and witty. I liked that.
In video interviews he talks about his talent in tuning into people and working from their level, taking each situation as unique and helping how to get the best out of individuals. That is a great skill, which requires someone who is full of knowledge but also very finely tuned to individualities, subtleties, and precious sensitivity (and sensibility).
People who knew him well describe him as a true gentleman. You immediately picked up on that the moment you met him, a proper gentleman with no need to impress, overact or be unkind. An example of what we should all achieve for in our different paths (artistic or otherwise).
It was beautiful watching how the world reacted to the passing of this great man. Unparalleled in his work as a producer, and regarded as an example of many human qualities. He was overtly generous to the people of Montserrat. The whole world was deeply saddened by his passing, but the Montserrat community suffered a deep loss and will miss him dearly. It was a very grey and rainy morning on the island when George passed away. ZJB Radio Montserrat dedicated most of its morning show to playing Beatles songs and talking about the Martin’s impact on Montserrat. The Montserrat Reporter newspaper displayed the sad news on its full front page. At the National Awards Ceremony, there was a minute of silence in honour of George Martin. I played a private guitar recital at a home the weekend after his passing where different people from the community shared their experiences of meeting him followed by a moment of silence and a toast in his name. People all over seemed to be affected by his loss.
George Martin and AIR Studios became the window between this tiny island and the rest of the world. It wasn’t until after AIR Studios-era that many people started shifting their attention to this island instead of any other in the West Indies. There are two main things people immediately know about this island:
-it has an active volcano with a buried city, and
-it was home to AIR Studios where some of the best hits from the 80’s decade were recorded.
I came up with a project last year with the Montserrat Youth Choir in which we recorded a CD with choir arrangements of several hit songs from the AIR Studios era. I’ve been asked recently why I thought this was a good idea and what is the reason behind it. Personally I think part of the answer is to give a loud shout that, despite all the natural disasters and tragedies, we are still alive on this island and music and joy are still present. Another equally important reason is paying tribute to the artists who shared their time and creativity on this island and to George Martin who through his vision connected this place with the rest of the world.
George Martin was a pioneer: as a classical composer in the rock and roll world, a groundbreaking producer, an innovator in the music business world, an ever-curious musician, a gentleman with a lovely sparkle in his eye.
Rest In Peace Sir George Martin and condolences to Lady Martin and family. Your work in Montserrat will be remembered for many, MANY years to come. Thank you.
Blog 11: On Collaboration and Live Music (Feb-Mar)
Intention, trust, awareness, observation, direction, work. Collaborative work can be the trickiest, but can also be the most satisfying. Pretty much always it’s both those things together, but guided correctly it can be unbeatable. People don’t always get that. Sometimes they might think it unwise for giving too much leeway for individual creative input, or doubt a good end result when they can’t see how things are tied together. There is a feeling you have to trust and when people can’t tap into that and won’t trust the guidance you give them, then unnecessary problems arise. On occasions, those ugly problems might be a necessary part for a collaborative work to develop properly. As leader in the process you still have to look beyond those problems, despite how difficult or hurtful they might be, and always keep tuned towards the goal.
The “Vision of Love” Valentine’s show was a great success. It was not easy to pull it off, but the outcome was a standing ovation. The pleasure of playing music, having all the group feel that special sizzle of performing on stage, and doing an all-live music show was definitely worth it. Thirteen songs in total, at least one per decade starting in 1959, with styles varying from barbershop a-capella to reggae to hip-hop and soul to soft pop rock.
I never tire of arguing how live music is better than backing tracks. That’s karaoke. Karaoke is fun in bars, restaurants, homes, with friends, etc. But whenever there is an option of live band vs. backing track, always the live band. There are a lot of singers on the island, but not enough musicians. And those who can play usually reserve themselves to playing in church. Many children learn to play one or several instruments through a long-going program called Small Beginnings, but develop only very basic skills.
I put together a live band with the instruments that were recently bought by the foundation. I imagined many students would be interested in developing themselves further but only two members remained consistent, bass player Joshua Golden and drummer Delroy Joseph. I decided to have the band back up the singers for all the songs in the Valentines show. They did an amazing job! I pushed them hard, and they responded. Maybe tired at times but always with positive attitude and disposition. We had many rehearsals, working with and without the singers, working on subtleties for each song, listening and responding appropriately to the singing, and keeping the music organic. I am very proud of them and their hard work! Silford Moore Jr was on piano and did a great job in learning all the songs. He came in a few weeks late but managed to learn the entire repertoire. A big thank you to Sunny Lea, an accomplished keyboard player, singer and songwriter on the island, who came in to backup the keyboard section.
The singers did a great job also, and all the soloists shined on stage. I am very grateful to the teenage group who in an emergency had to learn a whole new song just one week before the show and nailed it. Yeah! Proves that you’re never defeated until the last breath is over.
It was a first time for me in writing the script for a show (with some editing help from Michelle Cassell, a member of the adult section). I’ve never been a big fan of musical theatre, so decided to follow up the same idea of last year’s show and developed a narrative to which the actors played out. A huge thanks to the actors Bettrice Jones and Delbert Williams. They helped putting on the acting part of the show and did a great job again in making the audience laugh and sigh.
For me, it was a great exercise in patience, perseverance, keeping humble at certain moments, and a lot of trusting my instinct despite going against the current. I am very glad with the way it came out, even if it’s taking a few weeks to heal the bruises.
St Patrick’s is on the way and that will feature ReBEAT Recycled Percussion Band in at least one presentation. Shamrock decorations are starting to appear around the island and festival village in Salem is getting ready for the big party, possibly Montserrat’s biggest of the year.
(I don’t know why Clip 2 doesn’t want to visualise, but here is the link for it)
CLIP 2 – VISION OF LOVE:
Blog 10: Carnival, Christmas and New Year on the Rock (Dec-Jan)
September to December are very quiet months in Montserrat. Everything seems to be dazing from the relaxing summer months. Tourist season is on a low and Montserrat’s fluctuating number of inhabitants is on its low side. Around mid-December, you start seeing more cars around. There are more (and better) products in the supermarket shops, and suddenly, in a matter of weeks, Montserrat’s population is up by 25% or so, from all the ex-pats and snow-birds coming to their holiday homes. Relatives arrive from UK, USA, and Canada, coming to visit their family members. For some of them, they come to see their home country they had to flee 20 years ago, coming to remind themselves of the home they had to leave after the volcano took everything away.
Slowly, street life starts to increase, and with that, a joy and happiness that shakes the lethargy of previous months. Social activities start with the Calypso Monarch elimination concerts. They are held on stages propped on the street, and usually free of charge. Even though a fare number of contestants would have to rely on auto-tune software to get them through, the events still get a big crowd as everyone gathers to hear what the singers are speaking about. Calypso is like a sort of news channel in the form of song, where writers share their perspectives on social matters. It is usually very political, but you sometimes hear songs on other subjects, like personal stories, global refugee situations, or open opinions on same-sex marriage.
When Carnival week starts, you have some sort of party event almost everyday. The announcement in Salem for “we ah gettin’ carnival started” was a jump-up truck (a trailer truck packed with huge speakers and usually a live band, if not a DJ) at 4:30am with music blasting out and moving at a very slow walking speed with a crowd of people dancing behind it and getting hypnotized by the strong rhythms. It carries on until almost midday.
My second Carnival activity was going up to St John’s Day (a busy area/village in the north part of the island) where they closed of the main road and had a huge street party. All the small bars on the road that I had never seen open in a year of being here were now very busy serving fried fish, jerk chicken, beers, rum and other drinks. About 3 different sets of speakers at different points in the road all blare out different music.
There are a few other events lined up during the week: Steel Pan Night (which had the amazing Hell’s Gate steel pan orchestra from Antigua closing the show, inspiring and showing us all how you play good steel pan), the Montserrat beauty queen and princess pageants (which I’m not too fond of), some good concerts (singers singing to backing tracks, no live bands), and some other daytime activities mainly directed for tourists. But the big party is on New Years Day when Carnival closes. A big parade walks from Brades down to Carrs Bay and finishes at Little Bay’s carnival village where music and dance keep happening on the main stage until late night hours. Everyone is dressed extravagantly, each group with a different theme. Even the whole British sector of the Governor’s office was dancing, dressed up as smart-looking marines. All in all, it’s a great celebration and puts the community in right track to start the year off with a positive and vibrant energy.
Before all this started, schools were kept busy with their Christmas concerts and an all-schools Art Festival. Unfortunately, most of them (not all) never seem to be pulled off efficiently. It can be very frustrating when you get involved to try and help in whatever way you can, but you can’t see the effect of it. It is a general lack of understanding (here and everywhere else) that music and audio engineering just happen like miracle through talent or luck. Most people don’t realise that live performance is something you have to prepare for, and that audio systems have to be properly setup and checked before any concert. As music teachers involved in all the four primary schools, we are pulled from pillar to post with everyone expecting that we pay our full attention to them and resolve all musical issues. Programs are changed just before the start of the concert, song orders are moved or new things added without any previous rehearsal, and so musicians, teachers, organisers, MC’s and children, are caught unaware and unprepared. However, when it is all done, everybody gives a sigh of relief and comments on how good it was. At least things are positive, if not a bit surreal at times.
ReBEAT Recycled Percussion Band performed towards the end of the Arts Festival and, thanks to the venue’s weird reverb, we filled the Cultural Centre with powering drums, which earned the band a well-deserved ovation.
Unfortunately, due to the audio engineering problems throughout the concert, all the original songs we had composed collaboratively with the primary school students weren’t pulled off efficiently, and all the work put into them was not properly appreciated. But I’m still happy about the work done and proud of the groups as they were great songs, both in lyrical content as in melodic ideas.
Now it’s all about spending working hours in preparation for a professional music production done in mid-February. We have the Adult and Teen section of the Montserrat Youth Choir, plus the new rhythm section band I’ve started in MSS. But more of that will come on my next blog!
Blog 9: Year 2 on “The Rock” starts now!! (Sep-Nov 2015)
We’re back, almost three full months in! Hurricane season is almost over, seas are calm, but things are BUSY!!
Busy, busy!! So happy to be working on music creatively. Keeping my philosophy of PLAY-CREATE-TEACH stringed together. I’m presently engrossed in composing music for 2 short films being done in Mexico with fabulous social themes! They’re both short notice, so having to work extra night and morning hours to get through, but so happy to be doing it. And happy to be working creatively with students and musicians in Montserrat: song-writing, grooving on recycled percussion, and exploring sound-making.
Great news: we’ve got new instruments in!! A very welcomed change as there isn’t much working material here. The Music Foundation UK has very generously purchased a new drum set, electric bass, a couple of electric guitars and three amplifiers, plus leads, drumsticks, extra sets of strings for guitar and bass, and an acoustic guitar pickup. Getting a band together and coaching them has been something I’ve wanted to do since I landed on the rock one year ago. I’m hand picking a few students and helping them work through different music styles and hopefully getting them ready to perform in a few months.
ReBEAT Recycled Percussion Group is growing. Still getting more buckets, barrels, tins and broomsticks to increase our small (20+ people) local-style “Batucada”. We’re performing for an All-Schools Arts Festival held every two years, and will hopefully also be making groovy beats for this year’s Carnival.
The National Youth Choir has also grown after holding new auditions, and is on the way with two big productions to be held between January and March. The Children section is working around the theme of “Local Songs and Culture”, which is a great way to keep some of the old folklore alive. These are songs from about 4-5 generations ago that slowly start to get lost, especially in the transition of this new generation that’s growing up so differently from others before it. Teens and Adults are working on a production for mid-February around the theme of different visions of love, singing a selection of songs from different decades from the 60’s to the 2010’s. Hopefully we can include some original song-writing in all that.
What else? Ukulele club has more than doubled in size with a big group of newcomers!!
I’ve also decided to coach individually one of Montserrat’s young talents, a great potential for a music career if the right opportunity and guidance is given from as early as possible. This is the only individual lesson I give as part of the Music Foundation work, but I trust it will be worth it. When real interest, discipline and talent come together, I believe it is part of our responsibility to help in the best possible way. Along with the private lessons I’m giving this student, I’m also organising some small performances together so we can achieve a good balance of academics and experience.
Lately (for the past few years) I’ve been thinking a lot about what “the best possible way” means, specifically in education. Although my whole development and career has been very heavily inclined towards academic achievement, I feel I don’t believe in that world completely. For a long time I’ve doubted the value of most academic institutions. Not that academic study has no value (I really encourage all students to pursue professional studies), but most schools undermine the importance of other more creative factors, like learning through experience (which is a key element to most successful careers). Some sort of bond and balance between what used to be the way of learning in pretty much all musical folklore around the world (learning by ear and through constant interaction with professionals), and the right dose of academics, has to be achieved. Careers can be stifled if the balance is tipped over too much to one side or the other. Education in general (that includes music education) has to find ways of being more creative. I don’t claim to have the answer, but I find it good to reflect on this as often as possible.
Not much else to report on at this moment. Except that it’s a very different start of year. It takes time to learn the ins and outs of Montserrat’s culture and way of functioning, so starting on a second year has a huge advantage compared to a first year.
Here are a few photos of Montserrat plus a couple of videos of a performance I just had with 15-year old singer Nia Golden. This is her first solo performance, and the first of a series of presentations I plan doing with her. I’ll be back with another blog in a month or so, with news on performances from the Arts Festival and Carnival.
Blog 8: First Year Done, Bring On The Next (July 2015)
Back in March-April, my wife and I were confronted with a difficult family decision to make: would we be interested in staying on for another year? It took a lot of time to think about it and decide. There were so many factors that came into play, i.e. future employment (for both of us), artistic projects, family plans (we still ask ourselves, will we ever establish ourselves in one particular place?), etc. Anyway, after thinking about it for a couple of months we decided to keep things rolling and formally apply for a second year in Montserrat’s placement. Overall, we had lots to gain and little to lose. Our son, now at age 2 and a half, is the perfect age to be able to do this. Other jobs can wait; this opportunity is only here once. More importantly, there are a few of projects that were started between February and June that would benefit greatly of continuity and that I would love to evolve them myself into the next stage. Although there has already been a big impact in the community with what has been achieved throughout the year, I feel it can still progress some more so as to really appreciate it.
I leave the island for summer vacation with a National Youth Choir CD under way, more developments on ReBEAT Percussion group, rhythm section ensembles to start coordinating, and a few concerts to plan ahead.
I can’t say the first year has been easy. There was indeed a fair share of frustrating moments, at times confusing and desperate. But as I kept treading, things started falling into place. It takes time to understand certain aspects of Caribbean culture (or any foreign culture), and I believe it is extremely important to try and blend in a bit to wherever you are so you can determine the best possible way of developing work. A subtle game of leaving one foot in a place where you can be objective and sharp, and the other foot in a place to be in tune with cultural/individual/community necessities.
Outside work it has been a lovely experience living in a place where you don’t worry if you left your front door unlocked, or left your car keys in the ignition. To see my son slowly gain independence by running up and down the beach, each time slightly farther away. Teaching him to swim in the calm seas. Saying “Hi! A’right!” as much to friends as to unknown friends. The lack of any urban noise. The list could go on…
Throughout the year I worked with a wide range of ages (from about 7 year olds up to 50+ year olds) visiting primary and secondary schools; leading five different extra curricular activities weekly; planned and recorded a CD with the National Youth Choir; set up a number of performances for the National Youth Choir, ReBEAT Percussion Group, and Ukulele Group; played and performed with many of the local artists; gave a couple of guitar recitals; learnt and played steel pan; improved my confidence in singing; did a few song arrangements; worked creatively in a collaborative way with all my groups; started running again; developed a real liking for G&T’s, ginger beer, and the occasional bush rum; and met a whole array of fantastic people in the process.
I leave for summer holiday with these thoughts on Montserrat. It is a funny place, in a way trapped in time and trapped in a bubble, with all the good and the not so good (because it never really amounts to the bad). There might be things that happen that I can disagree with; one can complain about things a lot, but nonetheless most of the things one complains about are actually also the cause of why we love it so much. So you quickly learn not to complain too much, and ride along.
We got bitten by the Montserrat bug, its symptoms are opening your eyes to the value of what surrounds you and to some of the most important aspects of what it means to have “quality of life”. Of course we miss going to the cinema occasionally, being able to buy a coffee cappuccino anytime of the day, or just driving on a different road than the same one I drive on every day (thankfully it has amazing views of the sea and hills). But what it does have is far greater than what it lacks. I leave this year thinking of what it will be like to leave after a second year and head back to the “real world”. But maybe it’s all upside down. One of the first things that I was told having just arrived in Montserrat was precisely that, “Welcome to the real world.” I’ve ever since wondered about it.
Blog 7: Recording AIR Studios (May-June 2015)
When the first four girls aged 10 walked into the recording booth and put the big Audio-Technica headphones on, the first thing they said really excited, was: “This is a dream come true, I feel like I’m in HOLLYWOOD!” Ha,ha! …Smiles!
It’s been a great experience overall. Slightly insane, but well worth the effort.
The children section of the choir did a great job. They all recorded at the Montserrat Cultural Centre and then half of them went on to record extra takes in the studio. I had to stay inside the recording booth with them to make them feel more at ease, and they all did a great.
Being inside a recording studio/booth for the first time is extremely intimidating. As an adult, I can only imagine comparing it with the fear of standing naked in front of a crowd, being observed and having to convey that you feel completely comfortable with who and what you are. Being in front of those microphones for the first time makes you feel that way, naked and under the microscope.
It is fair to say that I think we were all quite tired of the songs from all the practicing and putting them together. But that is part of the experience, especially when you record under time constraints and have to get things right.
The Adult section had a fun time recording, but I think they definitely felt that pressure and nervousness. They have been doing terrific singing lately, but they still remained very serious during their late evening recording session.
Each group had roughly about two 2-hour sessions either at the Cultural Centre, at the studio or both. Except for a section within the teenager group that had to do extra work singing solo parts and recording backing vocals to some of the children’s songs.
The teenagers flourished quite well throughout this experience. They got involved creatively, re-arranging sections of melodies, coming up with introductions and interludes, working on vocal harmonies, and even writing their own rap for The Police’s “Every Breath You Take”, making the version similar to Puff Daddy’s rendition of the song.
I am glad that some members of the Ukulele Club also got to record. Four of them were chosen to lay down some ukulele tracks for Jimmy Buffet’s “Volcano”. I’m equally glad that Re-BEAT Recycled Percussion Band did some nice grooving in the studio for the same song with their barrels, buckets and tins.
Organising and making this project come together has been a huge task. It has required many hours of work: preparing arrangements, rehearsing, recording, over-dubbing, editing, plus organising the logistics of having about 50 people involved. Fortunately there has been great support from Loni Howe and the National Youth Affairs and Sports Department, which has helped everything flow much easier. Kemson Fenton has also done a great job at his Island Records Studio, helping to get the best possible sound out of sometimes unusual recording circumstances.
We recorded quite a lot of material for the three sections of the choir. On my part, it now comes down to a few hours to finish off the editing. It will then fly across the Atlantic through several gigabytes over to Peter Filleul in London where he will be adding some more post-production before doing the mixing and mastering. It’s a long process, and we won’t be having the finished product until sometime in October-November, aiming to present it with a big production near those dates.
On other notes, it has been incredibly dry, apparently the driest it has been in over ten years. Slowly it has started to rain again in the very early morning, which is a nice relief to the heat. But amid all the dryness, the flower trees are blossoming beautifully: Bougainvillea (red, white, pink and purple), Heliconia, Hibiscus, different varieties of Plumeria or Frangipani, Golden Shower Tree, and others that you can spot on the hills similar to the bright red Royal Poincianas. Hummingbirds still fly about, agouties roam around the gardens, and iguanas lay around near the roads to keep warm(er).
Another big surprise that you wouldn’t imagine unless you live in these islands, is the amount of Sahara dust that we are getting. Yup, sand from the Sahara blown across the ocean! It layers your car, table, windows, floor, etc with very fine yellow-golden dust.
Amazing, all part and parcel of living in the Caribbean.
Blog 6: National Youth Choir in the Recording Studio (March-April 2015)
As I had briefly mentioned in one of my previous blogs, we have embarked on quite an ambitious project: to create a National Youth Choir CD. I decided that the best theme to suit this would be to choose a selection of 80s hit songs that were recorded in AIR Studios Montserrat and rearrange them with the choir members.
AIR Studios forms an important part of recent Montserrat history. During 10 years it was one of the world’s most important studios and was host to many famous recording artists such as: Paul McCartney, Rolling Stones, Elton John, Stevie Wonder, Dire Straits, The Police, Sting, Eric Clapton, Earth Wind & Fire, Simply Red, Boy George, Duran Duran, among several others. A number of world-known hit songs were recorded here including: Every Breath You Take (The Police), I’m Still Standing (Elton John), Walk of Life (Dire Straits), Fragile (Sting) to name a few.
Montserrat’s own local music culture scene was impacted by the visits of all these artists. Late night jams between local artists and visiting artists used to happen frequently in nearby bars. It was surely a very vibrant place musically. In 1989, Hurricane Hugo hit the island and caused a lot of devastation, including damage to AIR Studios which led to its shutting down. Just over five years later the Soufriere volcano started erupting and continued eruptions for the following 10 years. This has left Montserrat in a very different place than what it was 25 to 30 years ago.
Choosing a selection of these AIR Studios hit songs, arranging and recording them with the National Youth Choir is our way of paying tribute to that great time lived in Montserrat’s history and of showing how musical culture is still alive and regaining itself on the island.
The choir will be recorded in the Montserrat Cultural Centre and in a small local studio, and then post-produced with musician and friend of Montserrat Peter Filleul in London, UK. Peter Filleul was lucky to be in the first band that ever recorded in AIR Studios, Climax Blues Band, in 1979. He has continued his ties with Montserrat visiting the island every year and helping in the arts and culture side of things, a valuable cultural asset for the island.
Our first adventures in the recording studio happened with the teenage division of the choir. We first did an afternoon of recording at the Cultural Centre. The following week we spent three afternoons in the recording studio. Because the studio is small and not enough equipment is available, I had to split the choir into smaller groups of 3-4 singers to record on separate tracks. We had our moments of difficulty trying to figure out the best way to record everyone. Because the members are used to singing as a group and they balance the harmony parts between them, recording separate tracks for main melody and different harmonies was at times challenging. We ended up with a varied set of tracks that were recorded with different mixed harmony singers and soloists. I am happy to say that so far everything looks quite promising.
Schools start again this week after a nice break for Easter Holidays. This last term with the Secondary school students I will be focusing on listening skills and exposing them to a large array of styles. The ReBEAT Recycled Percussion Ensemble will get back to practice and we will start collaboratively creating our own beats and grooves. Ukulele sessions start up again and we need to focus on some particular chords and rhythms. I would like to include the ukulele group as accompaniment in one of the songs in the Choir CD. I might have to double up rehearsals with the Adult division and Children division of the National Youth Choir to get them ready for recording. So it looks like quite a busy few weeks ahead, but very glad that things are going the right way.
Will keep you posted next month on how the recordings are developing!
Blog 5: Full steam ahead! (February/March2015)
Work is full on now. Schools, choirs, percussion ensembles, ukulele groups, everything full steam ahead.
The concert that was put on by the adult division of the National Youth Choir for Valentines Day was a great success and had people talking about it for days after the show. It was a group of 5 singers (one of which came from the teenage division to support the lower harmony section) that presented a diverse array of songs about love: happy songs, sad break up songs, back together songs, etc. About 16 songs all arranged to follow the storyline of a small play that was set between 2 actors pantomiming while following a narrative. It was sweet and very comical, with a few improvised moments added by the actors that were hilarious. The singing was great, a lot of rich vocal harmonies, and very well expressed on stage. It was the result of a lot of effort and good will to get it done. The group met twice a week for about 1 month and then 3 times a week for 3 weeks and finally one week of rehearsals every day leading up to the performance. It was well worth it!
That done, I met the next challenge of developing Re-BEAT, Recycled Percussion Ensemble. People in the community were very kind in donating all sorts of things that I thought could work. Eventually, I settled into arranging the ensemble into 3 sections: barrels(lows), buckets(mid) and tins/cans(highs). Here is a brief explanation on each section:
-Lows: There are metal, plastic and thick cardboard barrels. Cardboard ones make great thick low sound. Of course, it all depends what you hit them with. So for those, I constructed some mallets by putting a champagne cork in the tip of a drumstick, covered it with a few layers of scraps of cloths and then securing it with duct tape. Otherwise, they can also be hit with thick cardboard tubes that are used for the inside of carpet rolls at carpet stores. Metal barrels are tricky because they resonate too much, so I filled part of the insides with bubble wrap and put a layer of cloths on where the barrel would be hit. Worked quite well.
-Mids: Mostly plastic buckets with two holes drilled into them to adapt a strap, again with scraps of cloth. These are played with broomsticks cut to adequate length.
-Highs: Mostly big Nido(powdered milk) tins and some paint cans, again with holes drilled in for straps. You need to dampen the sound a bit, so a bit of duct tape across the top(bottom) makes it work (but not too much because then the high sound dies out). Those are best played with ordinary drumsticks.
I had about 15 volunteers joining in to form the first version of the ensemble. We had three rehearsals to create a couple of pieces before presenting it in the opening concert of St Patrick’s festival. Despite technical limitations in an open-air stage and lots of wind, the performance went really well and was very well received by the public. So good that they asked us to play for the main concert on St Patrick’s Day, the biggest day in the week-long festival.
St Patrick’s festival here in Montserrat is a very interesting and unique event. It’s the only place outside Ireland that St Patrick’s is celebrated as national holiday, but not entirely for the same reasons. A large number of Irish Catholics settled on the island in the 17th century, which explains why there are so many Irish names to towns as well as Irish surnames and why Montserrat is called the Emerald Isle of the Caribbean. It was during a St Patrick’s festivity in the mid 18th century that the first slave rebellion happened. It’s true that present day St Patrick’s Festival is held to link up with past Irish cultural ancestry, but mostly it is to commemorate the bravery and importance of this first slave rebellion in their Afro-Caribbean heritage. Everyone and everywhere is decorated with shamrocks and green, white and orange colours, but the reasons that are behind the celebration are much deeper and meaningful. It’s a very good example of how Montserrat is a unique, very interesting, and curious little island, and a great meeting place of different world cultures that are well embraced in its society.
More on choir activities next month!
Blog 4: Back on island! (January 2015)
Look to one side and you enjoy beautiful ocean views.
Look to the other and lush green mountains rise up.
Look up during the night, and you see probably one of the most starry night skies you’ve seen. Full moon is better than having a street lamp on.
Snorkelling, diving, and hiking.
Barefoot most of the day.
Nature nightlife sounds are so amazing and loud.
It’s beautiful to be back.
Had a great time (busy!) back home in Mexico. It made all the experience in Montserrat feel very surreal, a bit like a dream. But it’s not a dream, and after a necessary break, we’re back and ready for more activities!
The first project that was just concluded involved an overseas collaboration called Digital Dialogue, with Barbican Guildhall Creative Learning in the United Kingdom. I was to do a collaborative project on the theme “People Songs” using the visual and audio stimulus that was sent to me via the web. I used this opportunity to work with the primary and secondary schools in Montserrat to create different musical compositions. We had amazing results and used two of the highlights to send back to the UK and which will be exhibited in the Dialogue People Songs event in London at Barbican Arts Centre in late February.
That done, I now put my attention to the next immediate projects that will keep me busy for the following months:
#1: Re-BEAT (or the Recycled Percussion Ensemble): I’ve been collecting all type of recycled materials that could be used to create a 15-20 piece percussion ensemble in a similar style to Brazilian batucadas, the show Stomp or World in Motion Drumming Barbican. This includes: barrels (metal, plastic and cardboard); buckets and paint cans; PVC pipes and thick cardboard tubes; champagne corks, scraps of cloth and rubber bands (for the fabrication of mallets), etc. Once collected, cleaned and tweaked, I will hold auditions for it and hopefully in about 3 weeks we will start rehearsing for it. We might even be in time to do a performance in St Patrick’s Festival in mid-March! I think group percussion is one of the best ways to engage teenagers in a fun and productive musical activity. It’s rhythmic, physical, and involves developing an awareness of group work and collaboration. I’m trusting this will have a positive effect regarding musical activities for the Secondary School students.
#2: CD Recording with the National Youth Choir – Hits from AIR Studios Montserrat:
I will keep this very exciting and ambitious project reserved until next month’s blog once things have fallen more into place and rehearsals have started. But it will definitely be a great experience for everybody to get into the recording studio and I believe it’s something that will have a very positive impact on the island’s community in general.
But in the meantime, I’m quite busy with the Adult division of the choir rehearsing for an event that is being held for Valentine’s Day. Should be a fun show. All romantic hit songs, done acoustically and filled with great vocal harmonies.
Just after arriving back, I had the pleasure and honour of meeting Sir George and Lady Martin. It is always fantastic to meet musicians you admire, especially when you meet them in a personal level. Meeting George and Judy Martin, sitting in their veranda at Olveston House a couple of evenings, having tea and talking about Montserrat and music in general will be a memory that I’ll cherish for a long time. They are extremely kind people, very down-to-earth and an example in many ways. I am very thankful for having had the opportunity to be here and have met them.
Great example of collaborative music making: (All lyrics, melodies and arrangements were co-written with the children, Grade K up to Grade 5.)
Blog 3: Past and Present, Christmas, Calypso and Sinking Boats (December 2014)
In 1995, the Soufriere volcano explosion brought the country to its knees with the loss of the capital city, along with the southern two-thirds of the island. Since then, the country has been going through many struggles trying its best to regain its past renown. It has been almost 20 years since that devastating catastrophe and it looks like it is still dragging. However, from the short time I’ve been here, I feel it’s time for the country to move on and start walking forward. Dragging has become a habit I feel is no longer necessary. Montserrat is naturally beautiful. Its population is that of a village. Its people are very friendly, and it’s one of the safest countries in the world. Nonetheless, it doesn’t escape certain problems present in other countries worldwide, especially those we know as third world or developing countries. But because Montserrat’s population is so small, all these problems feel much more present at times. One would want a place so small to be better organised, looking forward in better ways, and problem free. One might think that because it is so small it should be easier, but it’s clearly not that simple (and that may be just a characteristic of humankind). It is out of a positive wish for this place to meet its fantastic potential that I share my comments in this blog. Fortunately, it is a beautiful place filled with incredibly friendly and capable people, and I’m sure Montserrat is well on its way to regain its past greatness taking care of its rich culture, nature and community.
On the more musical side of things, it’s been a busy month. The teen division of the National Youth Choir presented themselves at the opening of the Science Week, singing great and having fun on stage at the Brades Arts and Education Centre. All four primaries had their Christmas concerts with poetry, theatre, dance and songs. It is great to see all the young children performing.
The Calypso Monarch eliminations concert had to be delayed about 5 days due to some problems in organisation but it was still a good and fun event. Thirty-plus singers were reduced to 16 for the next elimination round before Christmas. Although some contestants lacked experience in singing and performing, they still deserve to be applauded for their courage in writing down their personal views on social issues and performing for all the island (on stage and on radio).
Another pleasant experience was performing at the Governors’ House along with my wife Abi. I performed a mixed repertoire of classical, jazz and brazilian music, after which Abi presented different Polynesian dances from New Zealand, Hawaii and Tahiti. It was a very well received performance, and it was a very nice occasion for both of us since it was the first time we’ve shared a stage together. Polynesian dancing and extra ukulele lessons might be starting soon in the island.
Plans for very interesting music projects are starting to become clearer now that I understand and feel more adapted to the community. They will slowly start happening once the New Year kicks in and I’ll keep you posted on what they’re all about and how they progress. In the meantime, we’re going home for a nice quiet rest with family for Christmas and New Year and will be back on island in about 2 weeks time.
Before I sign off, a very surreal experience worth sharing happened recently. Just as we were sitting down to have dinner at a beachside restaurant, a man came in completely soaked, gasping for breath and high on adrenaline. He tried saying something, but no words came out his mouth. Finally, as if slowly turning the volume knob up, he was able to start repeating louder and louder: “Help… my boat is sinking, help. …Help! My boat is sinking!” A few of us rushed out and got to the shore just as we saw the fishing boat capsize in the waves. Three of us dove in the water to help rescue the scattered belongings and help control the boat. We eventually managed to turn it over and tie to a sturdy post on land while the fire brigade arrived. Once they did, they managed to tow the boat out of the water and attend to the fishermen. Fortunately no one was hurt. Three fishermen from Antigua had gone fishing near the small island of Redonda but their boat started flooding as the waves got bigger that evening. They were very lucky to get to shore on time just before their boat could no longer advance. And just as randomly as the whole thing started, so did it end, and we went back inside to finish our dinner. Probably the most exciting night so far on the island!
Here are pictures of some events by the children. I’m including a great video done by the Lea family that gives you a good insight into Montserrat’s streets and society. Hope you enjoy!
Blog 2: Two months on the island and I need a haircut! (November 2014)
We are slowly adjusting into our new environment and starting to feel this is home.
Montserrat’s population is under 5,000 and it is spread out in several small “villages” or neighbourhoods on the north and west parts of the island. There is no cinema, no shopping malls, no McDonalds or anything of the sort. Activities are boiled down to much simpler and healthier things. You have two main options: either go on hikes, or go swimming in the sea; and both options are fantastic. The sea is crystal clear with beautiful fish and corals just off from any of the beaches. Hikes take you into lush jungle forest through trails with stunning views of the island. Each beach is different and each hike is different, so we’ve never been bored. And the overall safety of the island is what pushes you out your door and lets you really enjoy. Cars are left with windows open, houses aren’t locked and you don’t worry about someone stealing your mobile if you leave it unattended for a minute. That says a lot for what freedom and quality of life mean, something that is sadly missing in my home country Mexico with all the social problems that are happening right now.
Socialising has taken us from Government House reunions to beach bonfires on Guy Fawkes Day to hidden bars around the island (of which some happen to lead a curious double life as Bar & Bakery or Bar & Grocery!). As adjusting goes on, getting to understand the cultural and behavioural differences is necessary and helps greatly. It’s something that takes time, but is important for proper integration and development in communities. From what I’ve observed in the island(as well as other countries I’ve lived in) as a foreigner, you either stay in your own tower of comfort and communicate with people from that distance, or you try to understand differences and you integrate yourself into your society at ground-level in the best way possible. The second option is always the one that takes more effort and time, but it’s obviously the most valuable. So far, I’ve come across a bit of both in Montserrat’s international community, in all levels of economical/social situations.
As we adjust as a family to this new culture, so do I adapt for teaching at the primaries and secondary. Some groups’ behaviour has improved a lot and I can say we are now on a good path towards advancing in musical knowledge and experience. With certain groups we can finally do some fun creative work at some moments. Other groups continue to be a challenge. The most drastic (and slightly comical!) situation was having been locked in the music room (hut) by some mischievous 10year old boys. It was a serious matter because we were locked in with other 20 children and the building is far away from other classrooms. Thanks to mobile phones, we were quickly let out. Despite my anger, I couldn’t help looking at it from a slight comical angle also. Probably because I was so amazed that something like that could happen. To make matters worse (or laughs better), 10 days later it happened again with a different group…
The National Youth Choir is running well. The adult division had a performance within a Gospel event at the Montserrat Cultural Centre. We had some technical problems with overhead mics plus a bit of stage fright, nonetheless it was still well received by the public. With the teenage choir we’ve started writing a song, one with a good theme. About how life and love is great, but that doesn’t mean they are perfect: through imperfections, problems and challenges, we still enjoy the ride. A lot of the members in the group have excellent intuition for melodic material and we already have some structures for verse and chorus. I feel this is a good subject to expand on its many possible directions and hopefully this will be the first of many original songs.
Last week I played with the house band for the Calypso Monarch competition held during Christmas vacation. The way it works is that anyone in the island can sign up. The only requisite is that you write your own lyrics as well as melody, and you have to perform it yourself at the competition. Most lyrics talk seriously about political and social situations, although others play in a comical and fun way about some community problems (like One Notes’ “Be on time, don´t be late!”). The lyrics and melody are then taken to the house band and they put down the harmony progression and arrangement. It ends up being about 30 to 50 new songs composed and played to accompany the singers on stage for the eliminations during early-mid December, leading up to the finals held just before New Years Eve. The players in the house band are very able. It’s a good example of how experience and old school philosophy of “learning on the street” are so valuable and, in my opinion, an important part in today’s music education philosophies. All 40+ songs are learnt by ear and memorised in a relatively short period of time. Although the harmonies are simple, it’s still a good challenge for musical memory!
So as we start settling in properly, things start to get rolling. Next month will be filled with Christmas and Carnival preparations and rehearsals. The weather is cooling down a bit and making afternoons and evenings more enjoyable. We are slowly meeting very interesting people on the island, and some with whom I hope collaborations can start developing.
I’ll keep you posted next month as more music starts to unfold. Here are some more pictures!
Blog 1: Hello Montserrat!! (October 2014)
It’s a tiny propeller airplane, maximum 7 people, and you have to be weighed before you are given your boarding pass which of course they don’t pickup as you board because they remember all the passengers faces. Like a mosquito flying it’s way noisily across the water, you begin to get a glimpse of a large mountain (volcano!) in the distance, and the island begins to appear. The landing was very exciting, very well worth the applause and sigh of relief that came from a few of the passengers. After clearing immigration, we were greeted very warmly and taken to what would be our house for the next year. When the sun went down that day, an amazing pool of sound began. Mostly crickets, frogs, and birds creating a wall of sound that bring the patches of forest that border our backyard much closer to my senses. This is what every night sounds like. And every morning at around 5:30 or 6am, roosters walking around the yard or in the street let you know you don’t need an alarm clock.
Montserrat is beautiful, no doubt about it. And what makes it different to me is that it’s not your stereotypical vacation-resorts-surrounded-by-white-sand-beaches kind of place. Filled with cliffs, a few black sand beaches tucked in small bays (there is one white-sand beach), beautiful mountain range in the middle of the island, ghauts and small streams, it makes you feel tucked in by wilderness, and at the same time really gives a sense of space around you (also probably because there is only about 5,000 inhabitants in the whole island). There is one radio station that tells you everything that’s happening in the island: local politics, festival planning, special movie showings, and even asks for all students who borrowed a ukulele last term to take it back to the secondary school. But what you hear the most is energetic Caribbean music, calypso and soka for the most part.
I had my first shot at playing steel pan a week after arriving. The simplicity of its conception and the great sound it produces makes it an incredible instrument. The high rhythmic energy of Caribbean music is really present in the teenagers and kids’ characters. I couldn’t help laughing when a few children responded to how they felt after listening to a piece I played for them. It was an arrangement for guitar of J.S. Bach’s Prelude from Suite 1 for Cello, and when asked most said it was depressing music. And although they liked more the fast brazilian samba with jazzy chords, they said it was hotel music. I love it how kids are not constrained in their comments because of social pressure. The honesty in kids makes them wonderful, and teaches us a lesson in how every kind of music should be placed on the same level of value. It also goes to show how music (and music appreciation) is completely linked to social/cultural elements. From the “out of tune” fiddle playing in the sierras of Mexico to the “out of tune” gamelan in Bali, music is appreciated and enjoyed as it is: beautiful sounds and rhythm put together by the people who create them.
The Montserrat National Youth Choir is back again, rehearsing old repertoire and starting new songs. Hats off to Becky Chalmers who did an amazing job with them! One of my goals with all the different age group choirs (kids, teens and adults) is to compose original songs with them. At first everyone is slightly intimidated with the idea, but I think we just need to get comfortable with each other after a couple of more sessions and then we can start bouncing ideas off each other. What we still need though, is some sort of theme. We have a small performance coming up with the adult group in a gospel event for the island’s Police and Fire week. We’re working on some small arrangements to get together a short medley for that day.
I’ve got usual classes going on at the local secondary school. It’s a challenge working with early teens, but I’m sure we’ll get something going. Most are interested in percussion/drums and Caribbean rhythms. Maybe we can get a small percussion unit going. Groups at secondary are big and discipline is not their strength, especially since music is an optional side subject. The instruments at most of the schools aren’t in very good condition. Some are completely unplayable, but as with other things on the island (such as food), you just deal with what there is. And it’s always good results! Makes me think how we are used to having so many extra (and unnecessary) things in our lives.
It’s been a really interesting first month, with both exciting and challenging things happening. Adjusting to the heat, the change of pace, and the change of work is gradual. Especially with family (yes!, I forgot to mention that my wife and baby son are here also!). But it has been a wonderful experience and I’m really curious and excited as to where all the music will lead itself as the weeks and months go by.
Will keep you posted next month!
Here are some pictures, courtesy of my wifes’ Abi Kamalei Studio. Link: facebook.com/abikamaleistudio