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“University of Calypso” – an Andy Narell and Relator Music Experience

An Exclusive Interview with Andy Narell

Global - The time period is whenever - the setting and place is wherever - and the agenda is good music.  That’s pretty much all you need to know about producer, performer, composer and recording artist Andy Narell's latest project called the “University of Calypso” - soon to be released on the Heads-up label.  This time Narell teams up with noted Calypso singer “Relator” (real name Willard Harris) to produce another musical nugget that showcases the steelpan instrument and it's often associated sidekick, Calypso music, in a major way.

According to the Heads-Up promotional material, ‘Relator, a major known talent of the Calypso music genre brings his special brand of storytelling, humor and musicality to the project.  What’s more, 15 unforgettable compositions by legends of calypso such as Lord Kitchener, Lord Melody, Mighty Terror, Roaring Lion, Spider, and Relator himself - are presented by the Narell/Relator tandem.’  We indeed concur.

In an exclusive interview with When Steel Talks  (WST) Andy shares his thoughts on this, his latest musical venture, and a host of other steelpan music matters.

Andy Narell

WST: You’re back here in the US - what’s Andy Narell up to at the moment?

Andy: I have about a month of work here, a mix of guest artist appearances, teaching and playing with steelbands. This is the time of year for the University spring concerts, to perform the music they’ve been working on all year, and I’m visiting some of the schools that are playing my music. I was at Eastern Kentucky University, which has a very good steelband, and just finished a residency with the University of Akron steelband, who are also very good. There were 1,800 people at the concert - how’s that for a steelband show?

WST: On your latest project you and noted calypsonian Relator have teamed up to produce “University of Calypso.”  How did that title come about?

Andy: Relator and I had been playing together in a variety of situations, and I was so knocked out by his total artistry, I asked him if he’d trust me to put a band together around him. The idea was to get a group of heavy jazz musicians together to play calypso, with a real calypsonian out front.

He said he’d give it a try and we did a show at Jazz at Lincoln Center last year [2008].  It went so well that we decided immediately to move forward and record, try to get the project up and running so that we could play more gigs.  The idea to call it the ‘University of Calypso’ came from something I heard him say onstage at a concert we did at Queens Hall - a tribute to Lord Kitchener.  Relator said that he had been to the University of Kitch and was proud to be one of its best students.  That really resonated for me.  We’re drawing a lot of inspiration for this project from Kitch’s forays into jazz in the 50’s - he made a lot of recordings with jazz musicians in London - and calling this the ‘University of Calypso’ seemed natural, and a name that we could keep for the band.  Calypso school’s in session, and we’ve got our professor.

Andy Narell and Relator Live in Concert

WST: WST was fortunate to catch your live performance with Relator in New York last June. You struck a special cord with the audience. Are there any plans for you and Relator to take this show on the road?

Andy: The whole idea is to perform live. Records are a losing proposition financially these days. We recorded so we could get the music out there to the public and breathe life into the project. The goal is to be able to play live, tour, keep developing and improving.

WST: Every listener is going to leave with something different after listening to this CD. Is there some something that you would like each listener to leave with?

Andy: The beauty and richness that is Calypso, and the love for it that everybody brought to this recording. The musical compositions are beautiful, the lyrics are witty and complex, Relator sings his way through the stories like a master storyteller, and there’s great chemistry between him and the band.  I’ve been telling everybody to check out the words to the songs, because they’re so funny and brilliantly composed, and I have put all the lyrics on my website - andynarell.net.  But I also wouldn’t want anyone to miss what happened musically on this date - Relator laying down 13 beautiful live performances in two days, the way the band is swinging, the amazing solos by Paquito D’Rivera.

WST: This collection is in the true sprit of calypso - beyond the excellent musical arrangements and performances -- it embraces part life and culture, part history, part news, and a lot of humor.  It reminds me of a time long ago when as a child, I remember people gathering around the gramophone listening to the calypsos to be entertained, while discussing the merits of the arguments presented by the calypsonian.  With so much music to choose from - how did you decide on what tunes to include on this project?


Andy: Besides being a fine composer, Relator is a walking encyclopedia of classic calypsos. I would venture to say that he knows more of them than anyone alive today.  Some of his tunes were automatic selections - ‘Gavaskar’ and ‘Food Prices’ are classics, I wanted to do a steelband arrangement for ‘Pan on Sesame Street.’  The rest of the tunes that he sings were selected from the gold mine of calypsos that he has in his head, and the emphasis on Lord Kitchener’s music was natural, as he is such a great interpreter of Kitch’s songs.  I added Terror’s ‘Sugar for Pan’ and Kitch’s ‘Pan in Harmony’ as instrumentals. To answer your question about how we decided which ones to do - before we take the music to the band, he and I got together and play through the music with just Relator’s guitar and a keyboard (me).  For me it’s non-stop fun, learning new tunes and revisiting ones I’ve been listening to since I was a kid.  We pick the ones we want to do with the band, sketch out an arrangement. Then I write out charts for the other musicians, and we start rehearsing with the band.

WST: Where does “University of Calypso” fit in your body of music work?

Andy: Quite often people ask me ‘what happened to the Caribbean Jazz Project?’ (the group I co-led with Paquito D’Rivera and Dave Samuels).  While I can tell them the reasons we’re not playing together in that formation anymore, the real answer for me is that the idea of the ‘caribbean jazz project’ is ongoing for me.  It’s what I do.  Playing with Sakésho is a part of that (Mario Canonge and Michel Alibo from Martinique, Jean Philippe Fanfant from Guadeloupe); ‘The Passage’ and ‘Tatoom,’ - featuring Mike Brecker, Paquito D’Rivera, Hugh Masekela, Mike Stern, David Sanchez, Luis Conte, and myself soloing with a steelband - is a part of that.  And putting a jazz band together to play calypso with Relator is a part of that. It’s another branch of the same tree.

WST: At risk of being controversial (which has never stopped us before) Calypso has been relegated, much to many calypso fans’ chagrin, to a seasonal music in the land of its birth - much like Christmas carols - Trinidad and Tobago (TnT).  What is your take on that?

Andy: There’s nothing new about calypso being seasonal music, heard between Christmas and Carnival.  People have been talking about that for a few decades now.  In fact Relator wrote a very funny calypso called ‘Radio Stations’ about it, with lists of dozens of artists who were getting all the airplay in Trinidad.  The more recent phenomenon is that even during the Carnival season you don’t hear calypso music.  It’s becoming increasingly marginalized in its own birthplace.

WST: Every generation has the right to speak to each other, and tell its story in its own voice - but is the calypso art form ‘a dead man walking’ in TnT?  Given some of the timelessness and universality of the themes and concerns voiced in many of the past calypsos you have chosen - it easily could have been 1960 - or 2009.  Why is not the art form embraced more in Trinidad?  Should we look at the genre more from a global perspective?  Is the calypso genre about to make a comeback?


Andy and Relator

Andy: I don’t think that calypso is dead as long as there are calypsonians singing.  Obviously there are fewer good calypsos being created today than in its heyday, but that doesn’t need to be a death sentence.  There are still a number of artists who are committed to singing and composing calypsos.

I agree with you that the songs we’re choosing to perform are timeless and universal, and hope that there will be a public that feels that way too.  ‘Food Prices’ sounds as timely now as it did in 1980, and I hope that the humor in these songs will touch people everywhere and make them laugh.  I think the best way to describe what’s happening in Trinidad is that the young people see calypso as their parents’ and grandparents’ music, and by definition, that’s not hip. But I meet a lot of young Trinis who are impressed by the artistry of the great calypsonians - the musical compositions, the humor of the lyrics, the level of singing and musicianship. The same way young people in the USA are going back to listening to the jazz artists of their parents’ generation.  And I believe that if we approach calypso music with love and respect and present it in a sincere way as a living, breathing artform, that people will get it.

This album is not a remake, and it’s not a pop production trying to soften up the calypso and make a crossover album for the masses.  Relator is guy who lives this thing, who sings calypso and composes extempo every day of his life, and in my own way, I have lived and loved this music since I was a child.  My goal for this project was to surround him with a world class band, encourage everybody to be creative and have fun, make a beautiful sounding recording, and let Relator and the calypsos shine.  Our aim is to take this music to a global level, and if we can be part of calypso making a comeback, that would be a dream come true.

WST: You have consistently challenged the normal expectations and accepted settings for the steelpan instrument.  In this regard what’s next on the horizon for Andy Narell?

Andy: Fortunately, right now I have a big project on my plate that’s very exciting. I’m working with the WDR Big Band in Koln, Germany.  They’re one of the best big bands in the world, they hire the best arrangers, and recently they’ve been winning Grammy awards pretty consistently.  We’re putting together a concert of music for steelband and big band - 14 horns, 15-20 pan players, and a rhythm section.  I’m composing most of the music, and we’re bringing Relator in to do some of his tunes and Kitchener’s music with this 35-piece band behind him.

The WDR band is so versatile - they play so many different instruments and have experience in so many styles of music. I’m thinking about the music in terms of it being a 35-piece orchestra with a steelband at its center, and all the colors of the woodwind and brass instruments around it.

The concert will be at the Philharmonic Hall of Koln, February 6, 2010, and everything will be recorded and videotaped.

WST: Do you have any thoughts on the G-pan family?

Andy: I’m not up to date on the project, but I did see the instruments in late 2007, about the same time that the prime minister presented the G-pan to the public as the future of steelband music. I was not allowed to see the lab where they’re doing the actual construction, because I refused to sign a confidentiality agreement, but they brought the instruments out where I could see them and play them.

First of all, you have to realize that the ideas they’re pursuing are simultaneously being worked on by pan builders in other countries, particularly the idea of producing bigger drums from separate materials, instead of using the traditional oil barrel. In effect, the G-pan project is an effort to keep pace with what is happening internationally.

Brian Copeland gave me the tour.  I saw what I would call early prototypes, designs that will undoubtedly change and evolve. I think there’s a lot of potential in the idea of using different materials, bigger drums, etc. I thought that the instruments I saw were interesting attempts, but nothing that would be in much demand by pan players yet, and I told him so, and gave him my reasons. I haven’t seen the instruments since, so I can’t comment on what they’ve been doing the past year, but Brian seemed very open minded and not at all cocky like some other people I know who are working in this area of pan design.  And I have a lot of respect for Bertrand ‘Birch’ Kellman, who is the primary tuner involved in the project.

It’s unfortunate that the G-pan project is so politicized - that they went public with it before it was ready, that they handed out the Chaconia Gold for a project that was still in its early stages. That was not only an insult to our collective intelligence, but an insult to people like Ellie Mannette, Neville Jules, Winston ‘Spree’ Simon, Bertie Marshall, Tony Williams, and all the others who were responsible for actually creating the instruments of the steelband.

WST: You are based in France now; what’s happening with pan in Europe? What’s different there, let’s say, compared to North America?

Andy: I can’t generalize what’s happening in Europe, any more than I can describe pan in North America in one sentence.  The good thing is that there is a lot of energy and enthusiasm here, and on the whole, pan playing and steelband music are growing. There are some very good players and arrangers here, as well as a lot of steelbands that have no idea what they’re doing. :-)

We had some good moments this year in Paris.  I took a 22-piece band to the Olympia Theatre in Paris (which is like Carnegie Hall - everyone has played there) as part of a Caribbean Jazz Festival, the first one to be held in a major hall in Paris.  Last week I went with 20 players from my band and Calypsociation to play at the Stade de France as part of the 30th anniversary concert of Kassav.  There were 65,000 in the audience.  Quite a thrill for everybody.

The downside of the European pan scene is that the steelbands in Europe are doing less than before to organize big events - Steelpan European has ceased to be much of factor in promoting anything. The Steelband Music Festivals in 2000 (Paris) and 2002 (Sete) were major events, with 60-piece bands from all the European countries playing. There’s been nothing like that since, and not much in the way of smaller festivals.  Pan Kultur in Dortmund, Germany is one of the few organizations to successfully mount international events, inviting steelbands from other countries to perform, and there are some small festivals being organized in France and Holland. But there is less cooperation and organization for large events than when I first came over here.

WST: WST has noticed a dramatic increase in inquiries about the steelpan instrument outside of the Caribbean - we suspect this is probably due to our tapping into Facebook and Ning. What do you think is driving this increase in popularity globally?

Andy: I think that interest in pan in general is on the rise, and the more we use the internet, the more we’ll see people inquiring, listening, watching, getting involved.

WST: Do you Twitter?

Andy: No.

WST: The music business is going through major changes as a result of the emerging technologies, changes in taste, and the economy.  Is this a moment of opportunity for the steelpan instrument, and music created around the instrument?

Andy: Let’s hope so. At this point I think we have no choice but to explore the vast possibilities for communication that the internet offers.  At the same time, I think we have to remember what makes the pan and steelband music so special.  It’s not about technology.  It’s about the relationship we have with this instrument and with the music.  The pan is at its heart anti-class, anti-technology.  It’s a participatory artform that involves amateur and professional musicians alike.  Everywhere the pan goes it breaks down social and class barriers, and the sound of the pan has already made its way into so many kinds of music in so many countries.

I think the current woes of the music business are going to affect all of us - those of us that are trying to making a living at music, as well as those of us who just want to hear good music.  It’s becoming increasingly difficult to create and play music in an economically viable way.  But I believe that good music, the pan, the steelband, etc. will survive, and I agree that this could be a moment of opportunity for the steelpan.  Let’s not forget where and how the pan was born, and all the difficulties it’s been through.  The lack of business has never stopped it before.  This is something people do because it feeds their souls.  We just have to continue to nurture and develop what we love.

WST: In regards to music education: have you seen sustainable working models that maybe the rest of the world should know about, and/or should be focusing on?

Andy: There are so many ways to teach music, and so many musical cultures.  It’s impossible to create a single model that applies to all the different kinds of music.  Having said that, there are some interesting things going on in pan education.

The Trinidadian model of learning music by rote continues to be a powerful way of getting people to play steelband music, and it wipes out a lot of the distinctions between schooled and unschooled musicians, readers and non- readers, which create barriers to people getting involved in playing music. There is also the beginning of what I hope will be a trend - some bands are encouraging pan players to read music and study theory. I recently visited Pamberi, which has a whole side of players who are collectively learning to improvise.  Birdsong is running a summer music camp in their panyard where kids are learning guitar, keyboards, vocal music, drumming, dance, as well as steelband music.

Outside of the New York Trini pan scene, the vast majority of steelbands in the USA are reading music.  Most of this is going on at the university and high school level, but not only there.  The players can learn the music faster, and it opens up the possibility of being able to play an increasingly large repertoire of published music for steelband. It doesn’t necessarily translate into better playing, but some bands are addressing that by memorizing some of their music, to have the best of both worlds.

I’ve recently worked with some very surprising high school bands. The common denominator is that the kids play every day and stay with the program for 3-4 years.  It’s amazing what you can do when you have the kids every day.

An increasing number of pan players are going to music schools, studying harmony and scale theory, world music, drumming, recording, computer music programs, etc.  For many, this is invaluable to becoming a working musician, arranger, composer, improviser, whatever.  This has been a long time coming.  I’ve always felt that the barrier between the panman and the educated musician was an artifact from the pan’s beginnings that should be dispensed with.

There are some interesting books coming out in the area of pan pedagogy.  Phil Hawkins’ book on stick exercises for pan players could be very helpful to pan players who have not studied drumming already, and Chris Tanner has some very good ideas about how to develop beginning and intermediate level steelbands in his book. There is more and more good original steelband music being published, and can be found at places like Ramajay.com and the pan dealers like Panyard, Coyle, Mannette Steeldrums.... and YouTube and MySpace are becoming important sources of information.  There is so much potential in using video as a teaching tool.

Copyright 2009 - When Steel Talks   All Rights Reserved.

Steel pan master Andy Narell joins forces with guitarist/singer Relator to explore the role of jazz in vintage calypso on “University of Calypso,” set for release on June 23.  It’s been over 50 years since a major calypsonian went into the studio with a group of jazz players (including special guest Paquito D’Rivera)...

Click for more WST moments on Andy Narell - click here

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