After a hiatus of 10 years, we returned to Dominica to cover the 20th edition of the World Creole Music Festival, the leading Creole music festival in the Caribbean. For years we had been covering the event given its diverse representation of creole music and presentation of a who’s who list of leading Caribbean and African performers. We recall dozens of special musical moments from the four previous festivals that we attended, and were able to witness stellar performances by legends who have since passed including Jeff Joseph, Byron Lee, and Oliver Ngoma. After the devastating storm in 2017, we had incorrectly assumed that the festival would be postponed for several years and were therefore surprised and encouraged when we learned that the 2018 World Creole Music Festival would be back again, stronger than ever. The lineup, which includes Kassav, Sweet Micky, Midnight Groovers, Chronixx, Yemi Alade, Klass, Kai, the Swinging Stars as well as Zouk All-Stars and Mizik a Nou Dominican showcases, demonstrate the strength of the festival organizers and support of the Dominican people. The community realizes the communal need to regroup the festival and present it’s 20th anniversary with strength and fanfare. What follows are our observations of the highlights of three evenings of music of music where music fans from Dominica and beyond gathered to share the community and celebrate the unifying spirit of Creole music.
After performing the Dominica national anthem under a full moon, the early evening audience was treated to a half hour performance of traditional creole dance and drumming. The ensemble, Tradibelle Cultural Group from Grand Bay in Dominica, presented a chronological medley of bélé dance, followed by a homage to the Caribe Indians, then a reference to the Colonial history of the island, and culminating with traditional drum dance. Founded in 1981 to celebrate Dominica’s African heritage by Adriane Henderson, who was a featured dancer at this performance.
First Serenade Band
The first music group was Dominican legendary band First Serenade who have been thrilling audiences with their high energy performance of a unique blend of Cadence Lypso, Bouyon, Soca and Zouk. First Serenade band was formed over 34 years ago and the band received a lifetime achievement award during the 1999 World Creole Music Festival. They have been performing frequently at the festival in years since and have released over 20 albums to date including a recent 2018 single.
The band’s set was full of energy and leaned heavily on soca and calypso, but with a strong local Dominican element - most notably the percussion and drums which added local rhythmic styles to the musical stew. The cowbell rang out and bass drum undulated expressing a local music reflecting elements of cadence and a strong Dominican identity. The superb horn trio comprised of trumpet, trombone and saxophone blasted out highly-synchronized horn riffs through the foundation of bass, drum and guitars. It’s important to note that this was one of the most expressive horn sections that we have witnessed in a live music event. The two lead singers criss crossed the stage with synchronized dance steps driving the music to higher and higher heights. The band’s energy level never let up; they presented an extended medley that lasted the entire musical set, with one song lead seamlessly into another, showcasing cadence lypso, bouyon, zouk and calypso. The band wrapped up their set with a Carnival medley pushing the horn section to the front of the mix, leaning heavily on classic calypso and soca.
Between set we headed for the food court, and en route were intersected by the Newtown Lapo Kabwit band. The street parade band is a hit with the audience, returning every year playing Carnival rhythms. The band is similar to the Haitian rara sound and experience. The band includes several percussionists with snare drums, cymbals, shakers, scratchers and horns. By the time we ran into Newtown Lapo Kabwit, a mass of people had gathered behind them in a frenzy of dance and movement. It was a veritable street parade.
One of the top ranked latest generation Haitian compas bands, Klass Band has produced two recent hit albums and has been receiving rave reviews for their live concert performances. Fe L’Vini Avan (2013) and Fe’l Ak Tout Ke’w (2016). The band featured Richie on vocals, Soso Brezo on drums, JP on Keyboards, El Poso on lead guitar, Nixon Mesidor on bass and two horns (Saxophone and Trumpet).
Klass played a high energy, hard driving set of compas music that highlighted 5 songs, each with extended solos. Songs started off accentuating the harmony, with call and response vocals and building rhythm section. Then Richie would drive the song to a higher tempo, entering the extended solos, first keyboards, followed by lead guitar, and extended dance routines. The nature of live compas music jams shares a similarity with the Congolese Sebene, a trance induced, repeated guitar and keyboard riffs with hypnotic reputation and dance moves. Klass ended their set with audience participation, inviting 3 women from the audience on stage to perform along side them in a dance competition that received thunderous applause from the packed stadium audience. The hard hitting compas was mixed well, the arrangements allowed clear hearing of each instrument, a sparse yet driving wall of sound.
The surprise addition to the World Creole Music Festival 2018 agenda was Antilles super-group Kassav. The band has been a regular over the years at the festival and festival goers were treated to a superb set of Kassav’s greatest hits, many of which allowed members of the band to stretch out into extended solos. Most notable was when Jean Claude Naimro, on keyboards, led an extended jam first on his Yamaha Motif keyboard and then moved center stage with a portable keyboard and synched breath mouthpiece that allowed him to take the music to an entirely experimental direction.
It is important to note the significance of the major Kassav musicians in the world music recording scene, most notably Jean Claude Naimro. In the late 1970s and early 1980s he contributed to literally hundreds of Paris based sessions for the leading Cameroonian makossa musicians who had established a base in the French capital. Although Jean Claude is known most for his work with Kassav, his music arranger skills and studio sessions for that era of Cameroonian artists was absolutely essential for the golden age of Central African music in the Parisian capital. Tonight, he demonstrated his dexterity on the keyboards and his strong identity of experimentation which has made him one of the most sought after musicians in the Antilles and Central African music scenes.
Yemi Alade was billed as the queen of afrobeats out of Nigeria. We had heard of Yemi Alade’s music but had never seen her perform live, so were eagerly anticipating her musical set. She did not disappoint. Afrobeats is different from the Afro Beat music style which gained notariety in the 1970s with the late Fela Kuti and retains a very strong following today, via performances by Fela’s offspring Femi Kuti, Sean Kuti, and Afro Beat bands such as Antibalas and Kaleta. Today’s Afrobeats features younger Nigerian singers fronting songs that mix reggae, soul and often vocals doused with vocoder effects. The resulting sound is catchy, commercial and smooth and has garnered hit after hit across West Africa and the Diaspora in recent years.
Yemi Alade’s band was small - drums, bass and support by pre-recorded keyboards and sound effects, but her vocals were soulful, passionate and direct with her messaging. She sang a set comprised of originals and also references to historic recordings (Soul Makossa, and several Highlife classics). Her songs reworked these melodies and refrains, and added her lyrics to the mix. Unlike some of the smoother sounding Afrobeats, Yemi’s set was punchier, with driving rhythm and stage show. Flanked by two muscular male dancers, she commanded center stage and worked her body through multiple dance maneuvers. She left an impression that she is “no longer looking for Johnny” which is also the name of one of her bigger hits. Her bassist referenced classic Cameroonian makossa basslines, and at one point the bassist also references the Congolese ndombolo bassline. Her music was progressive in its referencing of classic highlife and makossa numbers while retaining an originality with original lyrics, tight song construction and quick shits in rhythm and melody. Her presentation was non-stop and did not pause, exhibiting a constant energy. Yemi and her two male dancers had a strong stage presence and by the concert end had won over a large portion of the audience who had been curiously awaiting this Nigerian Afrobeats queen.
Following Yemi Alade’s performance, we decided to take a break from the upcoming dancehall performer Mavado and instead ventured outside the stadium for some local BBQ chicken, cooked roadside and a couple ice cold Kubuli beers. It was a moment to gather our thoughts after the music entourage that we had witnessed over the past 7 1/2 hours and prepare for the evening’s finale, local Dominica act Triple K. We have seen Triple K many times over the years as they are a local mainstay of the festival and watching their ultra high octane performance confirms why. The rhythms have a heavy dose of Bouyon and are hard hitting, with rapid fire bass, scintillating guitar and keyboard riffs and peppered percussion. In a follow-up interview with executive bandmember Jeoffrey Joseph we learned more about the bouillon rhythm. The beat is essentially broken down by band members into two parts, (1) the ridim and (2) the rhythm and each interact with each other in syncopated fashion. The three lead male singers keep the energy level at 110% and drive the audience into a dance and jump-up frenzy. Add to this a troupe of 3 extremely agile female dancers who enter and exit at opportune moments during their rapid fire non-stop set and you have a musical set that will keep everyone up and awake at 4:30am. The perfect way to end a long evening of superb music from all aspects of Creole culture.
Marcé et Toumpak
The surprise moment for us at WCMF 2018 was witnessing Marcé and Toumpak with their band perform a blend of traditional Martinique music infused with elements of Zouk, classic Compas Direct and Congolese rumba. The band plays music from a vintage era that features Marcé on lead vocals, Toumpak on traditional bamboo flute, and two traditional drummers from Martinque. Rounding out the sound is a lead guitarist, bassist, drumset and backing female vocalist. The first song had very strong Congolese rumba influences with a delectable lead guitar riff that swirled and built momentum throughout the rumba. Next up was classic Compas Direct song but with a strong Martinique identity with the traditional drums and bamboo flute soloing.
Next was Creole chanson with a rich chorus sung by backing vocalists and Toumpak and an extended flute solo. We were struck by the excellent mixing of this set, with the lead guitar rhythm and drums to the forefront mellowed out by the rich creole vocals. The audience was thrilled by the performance and couples danced under the rising moon. We spoke to band members after the set who emphasized the melding of Zouk with Traditional Martinique dance rhythms and the essence of the bamboo flute.
Kai is a new entry onto the Haitian compas scene but its founding member, Richard Cavé, formerly of Carimi, welcomed the crowd emphasizing that what they loved from Carimi is not lost but still an essence of the Kai band. But he has taken it step forward, and by the set’s end the crowd was clearly won over by Richard. We saw Carimi perform at WCMF over a decade ago and tonight’s performance had the crowd equally energized with classic hits and new songs from the band’s debut album.
The crowd grooved in unison to the extended guitar and keyboard grooves and crowd synchronized dance moved lead by Richard Cavé. Familiar Carimi songs included “Bang Bang” and “Get Ready” while Kai also performed recent hits from their debut album “Champion” including the title track, “Cocktail,” “Malad” and “Nou Lan Kai.” The band was tight and the energy level intensified throughout the set. Most of the musicians except for Cavé were younger and making their first performance in Dominica, and Cavé thanked the audience for confirming to his group that they are the best crowd outside of Haiti. The band played a mix of lower love songs, with zouk and compas love styles and also harder hitting compas dance tracks. We were surprised that Cavé has given up keyboards in his new lead role as singer, it would have been exciting if he had played at least one song on keys given his mastery of the instrument, but it felt as if he was emphasizing his new role as lead singer of Kai.
Next up was the Zouk All-Stars made up of Jean-Marc Ferdinand, Orlane, Francky Vincent and Stephane Ravor backed by a live band of veteran zouk session players. Orlane, originally from the island of Reunion, focused on a zouk love repertoire, singing her love ballads over slow undulating rhythms in French. Franky Vincent was a highlight, showcasing his risqué lyrics over fast paced and melodic song constructs. His stage presence was more similar to that of a calypsonian, prancing around stage with accentuating arm thrusts and singing about risqué topics including lolo. The crowd loved it and were singing along to his well known zouk dane songs. Jean-Marc Ferdinand and Stephane Ravor lead faster paced and harder driving zouk songs that had the audience grooving.
Legendary Dominican cadence band Poppa Chubby and the Midnight Groovers, have been a mainstay at the World Creole Music Festival since its founding 20 years ago. After some soundboard mixing issues of both saxophone and Chubby’s lead vocals during the first song, the band was able to regroup and captivate the packed audience for the remainder of their set at Roseau’s stadium. The set list read like a greatest hits of the Midnight Groovers. Strong guitars and bass played on vintage Fender bass and Les Paul guitars rippled over the cowbell rhtyhm that underpins cadence songs. The drum and bass, and keyboards filled out the sound as the 11 person big band performed hits including our favorite “Milk and Honey.” Rainfall started midway through the song sending some of the younger audience members off the main floor looking for shelter under the covered stadium seating but the rain soon passed and the stadium crowd continued to fill in and swell. We were struck by the large attendance numbers at this year’s festival - the massive concert area and also food/drink vendor areas were packed.
Bouyon star Asa Banton thrilled the audience with one of the more lively sets. Bouyon casts a wide musical net, artists mix traditional rhythms with pop musics blended into their own unique styles. Some bouyon artists such as Triple Kay place more emphasis on musically complex arrangements where as Asa Banton goes straight for the audience’s heart, with a presentation that is musically less interesting but explosive in the audience response.
The drama began with the arrival of a bucket loader and as the loader reached Banton’s voice rang out but not from the stage. He popped up from inside the bucket, hovering above the heads of fans, while the musicians performed on stage. Perhaps the gesture referred to the post hurricane recovery work. Throughout the concert Asa worked the crowd up into a flag waving fervor and later on threw dozens of cases of bottled water into the crowd which gathered the bottles feverishly before dousing themselves on his signal, again reminiscent, perhaps, of post disaster recovery efforts. The music behind him was a continuous face paced rhythm as his booming voice rang out. The set’s energy never let us and Asa Banton demonstrated once again that he is a master of audience engagement and beloved locally in Dominica.
I am not sure how long it had been since Machel Montano played Dominica but there was a roar and raptuous reception when he ran on stage. The return of a artist of his stature seemed a moment many Dominicans had longed for after a difficult 14 months. Montano responded with a well choreographed, extremely high energy set where each shift in rhythm signalled new acrobatic dance routines from his seven dancers. And chunks of familiar hit songs swirled on the wings a non stop continuous churning energy. The dancers balanced each other in the air, performed flips and cartwheels and danced suggestively in syncopated fashion.
Earlier in his career, Machel Montano seemed to embrace the madness his presence on stage unleashes. This evening felt more like a well tuned engine on a circular track, marvelous to exerience for its precision and power. It was clear that the band and dancers had rehearsed the act to a rare level of precision. It is a sound much emulated and aspired to, but left some listeners longing for a less predictable performance that was less premeditated in its structure. The contrasts between Marchel Montana’s well rehearsed stage show and Sweet Micky’s spontaneous demonstrations of artistic expression were striking.
Sweet Micky’s set sent different signals, alternating between sweet classic compas direct and more hard hitting compas with extended guitar and keyboard solos from the tremendously talented musicians onstage. These songs were curiously interspersed with ranting impromptu and somewhat puzzling discourses by Sweet Micky. Unpredictability is the hallmark of a Martelly show and this was no exception. His banter ranged over a number of subjects, at times offering conlicting staements some seemed to be coming from the first person and others were general commentaries on a range of world issues. Haiti and its importance in world history was followed up by an F&%$ laden rant about how millions of people are incarcerted for marijuana crimes at a time when it is becoming legal in many places, and then F&%$ those people in jail. These conflicting viewpoints came from an artist who generally has not performed before 1AM in his career and also as a politcal leader, the former President of Haiti, who addressed issues that decided the fate of millions of people in his country. In the end, festival organizers
The sound mixing issued which plagued sets at the festival (Midnight Groovers, Zouk All-Stars) also wrecked havoc with Sweet Micky’s first song (a compas direct classic) as the sound engineers were unable to get his lead keyboard functioning on the sound system. Sweet Micky demonstrated his skills as an entertainer, while remaining quite unfazed by the technical difficulties, by grabbing the microphone and fronting his group while walking back and forth across the stage singing and making the best of the situation. By song two, the mixing issue was resolved and his band sounded extremely tight with a driving compas swing with the kick drum, bass, keyboards and electric guitar. Sweet Micky first performed 4-5 of his original compositions, all with extended guitar and keyboard solos. He would start at the front of the stage, walking back and forth and singing to the crowd, all the while leading his band onwards into the higher tempo song mid-section, and then continue to urge the band up tempo. At which point Sweet Micky would move behind the lead keyboard, center stage, and launch into the extended solos with his lead guitarist and backing keyboardist. After these songs, he then shifting to the theme of “the world as a village” and the need for everyone to have peace and happiness, he segued into two Bob Marley covers, “Redemption Song” and “No Woman No Cry” which had the packed stadium crown singing along with him.
The ever unpredictable performer interspersed the music with wide ranging commentaries,. The set ended in controversy when officials shut the power off and asked Sweet Micky to leave the stage, not because of his viewpoints but because of the profanity he used to present those viewpoints. Martelly the artist had perhaps never been broadcast live prime time into the homes of listeners as Martelly the president had, and profanity laced rants did not sit well with some in Dominica. Conflict in understanding his words was heightened by linguistic challenges within the audience, which was divided between french speaking and creole dialects of the Antilles crowd and english and creole speaking Dominican crowd. For example, at one moment in the show, where many artist say do you want to hear more, martelly asked “do you want me to leave the stage”? A roar went up from a tight group of his fans who may not have understood the English. In the end the authorites cut the power and escorted him of the stage. Afterwards the artist explained that he was exercising his freedom as an artist to express himself.Following the show, Sweet Micky hosted a press conference defending artistic expression while apologizing to any who he had offended. He also explained that people should let artists be who they are, do not try to change them to be like you. He explained that true artistic expression leads to unpredictable surprises at shows which is the artist creativity showing through, when an artist listens to their heart. Finally, he shared some memories of being President of Haiti and asked leaders to treat the world as a village - try to make your people happy.
Mizik à Nou
Following Sweet Micky, concert goers were treated to the Mizik à Nou presentation of Dominican music. The concept was started 19 years ago as a project to showcase the best of music from Dominica, featuring the pairing of Michelle Henderson and Carlyn XP on lead vocals. Michelle vocals deeply creole while reaching into gospel and R+B holding holding and bending notes in particular on a song dedicated to Elisha Benoit. Carlyn XP, lead singer of one of the more popular bouyon bands FaNaTiK. Her throaty blues inflected vocals paired with Michele sings in a higher pitch created an interesting and dynamic pairing and kept up a galloping pace, backed by a stellar band of local musicians.
The project released 3 volumes of discs focusing on Dominican music, particularly cadence and bouyon and melding it in with zouk, compas and kizomba. Tonight, 4 of the original artists, Michelle Henderson, Cornell Phillip, Martindale Olive and Carleen XP, returned backed by a big band to perform their repertoire live. The one notable absence was Elisha Benoit who was unable to make the event. The audience was treated to a 90 minute non-stop medley of Dominican classics predominantly sung in Creole.
We had highly anticipated the reggae performance by Chronixx which was our first time experiencing the band but had heard a lot about this performer. We were not disappointed. In an era where it is increasingly chalenging for younger reggae artists to establish a unique identity and sound without sounding like others, Chronixx had his own identity and aura. Where many artists at the festival tended to reach out and engage the audience, Chronixx on the other hand seemed to welcome the audience by opening a door for them to enter his own musical world and vision. Chronixx made a point in his opening remarks to acknowledge his rastafarian belief and also his Jamaican upbringing in the town of St Anns, Jamaica.
Each song opened a unique mood and identity that difffered from other songs, and Chronixx wove a musical tapestry throughout the evening. The band played hommage to Peter Tosh’s “Walk The Proud Land” and also Carlton Barret’s famous “one drop” drum rhythm. His band was superb, with rich basslines bubbling over the rock steady drumbeat, layered keyboards and guitars creating the unique soundscape. Chronixx had essentially three singing styles - his normal voice which was reminiscent of Apple of the classic reggae trio Israel Vibration, a higher pitched falsetto that reminded us of Prince’s earlier works, and finally a melodic toasting approach which added a contemporary flair to some songs. The song structured were slightly tripped out reggae, which presented rich harmonies and social commentaries, followed by extended instrumentation and dub sequences. We look forward to hearing more from this artist and discovering more about his music.
For a closing act, Kess did not disappoint. The soca act from Trinidad cycled through dozens of original hits each with a catchy melody and rhythm that had the audience transfixed and grooving to the non-stop medley. With a clean cut approach, the lead singer was flanked by bass and guitar players who danced with him in a triangle formation that moved up and back on stage while playing the fiery soca hits. The audience knew most every word and was dancing in sequence with the band.