Winin' and Grindin' for Wills'burgh and the World
Lif Up Yuh Leg an Trample collects Trinidadian party music from the recent past. The compilation focuses on Trinidad’s annual Carnival celebrations, a period roughly between December and March, during which the island’s music industry typically produces over a thousand songs. The bulk of Trinidad’s music is the fruit of this event—as the record’s press release duly notes, Carnival in Trinidad is “a way of life and the entire calendar seems to be built around it”—and has been thoroughly documented through a glut of pastiche Soca Gold-type compilations. However, Honest Jons Records heads Mark Ainley, Alan Scholefield, and Damon Albarn (of Blur) crafted Lif as a spotlight for creativity rather than popularity. Therefore, Lif stands out from the aforementioned collections, which typically select tracks according to chart-status. Honest Jons—a label that established its credibility with critically acclaimed releases such as the forgotten Southern soul diva Candi Staton and the pan-Afro-reggae of Cedric “Im” Brooks—forgoes wide-blue-eyed wonder by presenting another diligent and well-researched document of pan-African music.
The intelligence of the compilation is immediately exemplified in its opening tracks’ connection of modern Trinidadian music to their African roots. The Laventille Rhythm Section’s aptly-titled “Rhythm” opens Lif with an explosion of marching band percussion, not unlike that of a Brasilian samba school, filled with clanging steel instruments, snare call-and-response routines, and group chants. The track, specially recorded for the compilation, provides an organic link to the heavily West African-influenced rhythms that bubble through contemporary songs, such as Dawg E. Slaughter’s soca stomper “Trample.” The latter features the genre’s trademark four-on-the-floor-on-speed stomp, but is driven and jerked by the Ghanaian-style upbeat accents on the and-of-2s and -4s. Similarly, amidst the farting keyboards, frantic chanting, and stock fire sirens of Timmy’s “Bumpa Catch a Fire”, another West African-styled rhythmic trait is used to drive the song: a flurry of drums crash in on the and-of-1 over a steady four pulse, creating a layered polyrhythm that is deceptively complex. While these are ideal examples of creative commercial hits—“Bumpa” first hit big in 2003 when it took the inaugural People’s Monarch, and was eventually featured in the 2004 Trinidad Carnival season—they also demonstrate music in active discourse with past and present tropes.
Lif also connects Trinidad’s current popular music with its past by reinterpreting the music of the previous generation. Maximus Dan (formerly Maga Dan, his new nom-de-artiste taken as a cue from the film, Gladiator) updates Winston “Gypsy” Peters’ “Soca Train”, originally recorded in 1982. Dancing bells on the upbeats and bright horns punctuating Dan’s ob-la-di delivery make the song something of an anachronism, especially against the rhythm-heavy, visceral tones of current popular music. However, Dan’s throaty delivery adds needed grit to the older hit. Machel Montano, who appears twice on this compilation, represents the old school himself, having jumped into the spotlight as an 11-year old finalist in the National Calypso Monarch competition in 1986. On “Fireman”, another veteran vocalist, Peter C. Lewis, joins Machel to ignite their steady heat, building tight harmonies higher and higher like a ragga Little Richard. Machel returns on “Love Fire” with Black Stalin, a remake of Stalin’s 1987 National Calypso Monarch winner “Burn Dem.” Oddly enough, the revision contains a riff that bears a similarity to Nate Dogg’s nod to Michael McDonald on Warren G’s “Regulate.” While the last is a passing point, each track displays a constant recognition and interpretation of the growth the genre has experienced, which is notable considering soca’s foundation as simple party music
Lif excels in how it documents this evolution in terms of content, style, and presenter. Andre Tanker’s “Food Fight” is an outstanding message song, employing the childish humor of a food fight to criticize the excess and arrogance of Bushism. As Tanker announces, “The dogs of war are coming out!” he uses child-like sing-song choruses to mask his biting lyrics: “The people eat lamb / But he don’t give a damn / He want dem eat Spam / When he check for Saddam.” The progressiveness of the music alone is outstanding: an atypical mid-tempo beat that makes the lyrics not as rapid-fire and comprehensible; plaintive playback background vocals; and ragga toasts co-mingle with the greatest ease. Massive Gosine’s “Chrloo” similarly displays a burgeoning Indo-Trinidadian presence in the island’s popular music. Even its rhythm name, Dougla, refers to the Trini term for people of Indo-African heritage. The music itself features shuffling and stuttering snares that emulate tables, which also create a garage-y two-step feel. Women make an appearance in the blatantly male-dominated field, although Denise Belfon’s"Saucy Baby” would hardly get Betty Friedan moving. Nevertheless, if Belfon plays Lil’ Kim, Michelle Sylvester represents like Lauryn Hill on “Go Ahead and Horn Meh”; she sings, “I have me own job / Me make me own money”, and summarily dismisses unfaithful lovers. Similar to the expansion of hip hop as a form of expression for countless ethnic and class groups across the globe, soca has been embraced across the spectrum in Trinidad.
As Albarn himself notes this music is no less susceptible to commercial excess, which weakens several songs on Lif. Bunji Garlan’s “Warrior Cry”, the runaway hit of 2004 that gave him the International Soca Monarch crown, runs a fierce 160+ bpm, but hardly excites past a second listen. Similarly, “Trample” and “Bumpa” are exciting dancers with some intriguing musical variations, but remain ephemeral party hits. Nevertheless, within the context of this compilation alone, each track plays a role in representing the whole that is the music of Trinidad’s Carnival.
The most curious aspect of Lif is its treatment of its audience. The expensive packaging—the CD is filled with Carnival images from both London and Trinidad across the decades—and intellectual pretenses make the compilation’s target demographic clear. Yet, for being a product of a specialty field, Lif stands apart by bucking the market’s conventional espousal of expertise, and providing next to no information. Half of the press release, which provides basic contextual information regarding the compilation’s genesis, is available on the website, but there are no notes in the CD that discuss the vast history of music in Trinidad and how each track plays its role in that story. However, the lack of information can also be interpreted as a celebration of art for art’s sake. Meaning, with next to no supplemental knowledge, each person can listen to this music with no outside opining or bias. The expectation that the listener, too, need to be an authority to listen is thus removed, and thus opens the compilation’s accessibility to a wider market.
Lif is not Honest Jons’ first venture into Trinidad and Tobago, having explored the islands’ influence in the UK on London is the Place for Me. In fact, the record label’s storefront is located in Ladbroke Grove in London, the home of an annual T&T Carnival celebration. The hope is that the label, or another with comparable creativity and resources, will continue documenting this vivrant thing that evokes a canvas of colors, grimy chalk, smells of food and sweat, and visions of the spirits and smiles.