Pan Sweet - But...
Skiffle Bunch & Stalin's Live At The Naparima Bowl was released in 2003, sponsored by TCL and the Tourism and Industrial Development Company of Trinidad and Tobago Ltd. (TIDCO - a rather unfortunate acronym that nobody ever seems to have stumbled over).
By way of a preamble, necessitated all the more by what is to follow, let me introduce Skiffle Bunch a little here. When I was still living in Trinidad until about twelve years ago, they were the greatest little traditional pan-around-de-neck band anywhere. The following year, band leader, or captain, Junia Regrello, one of the finest contemporary band leaders and pannists, transformed Skiffle Bunch into a fully-fledged full size "conventional" steelband and within the space of less than a decade a force to be reckoned with that can happily hold its own against and indeed has joined the elite of giants Desperadoes (Despers) and Renegades. Skiffle Bunch then are one of the finest of Trinidad & Tobago's - and therefore, the world's, since no bands from outside Trinidad & Tobago can come even close to these lofty standards - steelbands today, make no mistake, and I have nothing but the highest esteem and respect for this wonderful band and its extraordinary leader Junia Regrello. A small ensemble from Skiffle Bunch under Regrello recently visited the UK, and a couple of illustrated reviews of their sensational performances will follow soon.
All that said, the present Skiffle Bunch & Stalin - Live At The Naparima Bowl, most sadly fails to do such an outstanding band any kind of justice. First there is the recording quality itself, and the mixing and mastering. The technical quality is, by today's standards, sadly lacking. The gain sometimes varies greatly from track to track and one quickly has to reach for the remote to adjust the volume. The top half octave or so of the tenor pans suffers from horrendous clipping and distortion, and the alto sax of guest artist Roy Cape, a superb altoist and band leader, is made to sound absolutely ghastly. Now, it is a well known fact that steel pan is notoriously difficult to record well. However, it is not impossible. That the perfect steelband recording is achievable has been proven with for example Despers' Steel In The Classics album. Sorry, this kind of sub-standard technical quality really does not cut it and does artists injustice and disservice, and those responsible should either get their act together and learn their trade properly in double time or leave the recording industry altogether. And no, playing the CD on different types of equipment does not make the slightest difference.
It is also something of a disappointment that of the thirteen tracks on Skiffle Bunch & Stalin - Live At The Naparima Bowl, only two are purely pan, all others featuring a variety of guest artists, and of course approximately half feature calypsonian Black Stalin, fair enough. The disappointment at this is only further deepened by the selection of guest artists and the quality of their material and arrangements. For a tiny nation of less than 1 1/2 million, Trinidad & Tobago has always been blessed with an amazing amount of musical talent. It is all the more astounding therefore that we do not witness more of this on this album.
Skiffle Bunch & Stalin - Live At The Naparima Bowl opens with a Len "Boogsie" Sharpe composition, Ashley, with "Boogsie" playing with Skiffle Bunch (or rather than the full band, it sounds like this album has been recorded with a medium sized ensemble). For those not familiar with the Trinidad steel pan scene, "Boogsie" is one of the legendary contemporary pannists and (pan) arrangers and enjoys huge popularity in T'n'T. Both the Skiffle Bunch ensemble and Len "Boogsie" Sharpe cannot be faulted, it is a sleek, wonderful performance only marred by the aforementioned poor technical quality. Indeed, throughout Skiffle Bunch & Stalin - Live At The Naparima Bowl, the pannists perform superbly. With the next track, Ra He Na Ra He Ham, you immediately lunge for the remote to reduce the volume to a tolerable level. Guest vocalist Nadia Madoo's screeching vocals remind of a desert ass in heat being strangulated and most of the time completely drown out the pans. Indian Bollywood film style songs are definitely not everyone's cup of tea, and admittedly this totally bastardised abomination, to quote the late great Indian classical musician Shri Gowr Goswami, certainly is not mine. Even so, I took the trouble of seeking out the original and it certainly was a lot more tolerable to say the least; actually, as these things go it was not altogether without a certain charm. I gather that Ms. Madoo is considered one of the leading Indian singers in T'n'T today, a circumstance that bodes ill for musical standards there. However, some of the better "chutney soca" and one of its better exponents such as the excellent Ricky Jai might have been a better choice here. Some really outstanding pan can be heard (albeit, sometimes barely due to the incompetent technical production) on Amparita Roca [sic!], a Spanish paso doble from the 1930s (proper title Amparito Roca) featuring classically trained violinist Anselm Walters. This is played somewhat on the fast side for a paso doble, but it works. Walters is no doubt a competent, perhaps even talented violinist, but the repetitive violin part quickly gets tiresome, and one really would wish for the pans to play alone here. The track also seems to suffer from drop outs, although this may be a manufacturing fault.
The DuBose Heyward and George Gershwin classic Summertime not only suffers from a poor and unimaginative arrangement for the pans but far worse, is being completely murdered by wannabe operatic soprano Cheryl Ryan-Baptiste who manages to sound as strangulated as the earlier Ms. Madoo, albeit more reminiscent of a hernia suffered as a result of excessive pressure from the lungs. This lady is certainly audibly gasping for air with strain. And this woman was adjudged the Most Outstanding Vocalist and awarded the Jean P. Abdool Memorial trophy at the 1997 National Music Festival in Trinidad and Tobago? Oh dear. It will certainly take me a good while to recover sufficiently from this abomination of a rendition to be able to listen to this, one of my favourite standards, again, in any way, shape or form. Maybe Ms. Ryan-Baptiste's vocal activities would be better restricted to the privacy of her bathroom. The Andrew Lloyd Webber, with lyrics by Charles Hart and Richard Stilgoe, musical The Phantom Of The Opera is the next lamb to the slaughter, with All I Ask Of You. The culprits here are Faye Alibocas, last year's T'n'T representative in the Miss Universe contest, and Raymond Edwards. While the latter is perhaps not without merit, Ms. Alibocas should certainly do better sticking to the beauty pageant meat market and modeling.
If these guest artists that we have encountered on Skiffle Bunch & Stalin - Live At The Naparima Bowl thus far, Sharpe excepted, are truly representative of Trinidad and Tobago's finest, as the liner notes suggest, then something must have gone seriously wrong with the music scene in this beautiful country over the last decade.
We move on with another Len "Boogsie" Sharpe arrangement, Lately, and both Skiffle Bunch and Sharpe shine, in spite of the poor technical quality. However, it has to be said that this is not Boogsie at his finest - Skiffle Bunch's leading front men and front ladies would have had no trouble giving him a darn good run for his money given half a chance; I've heard these guys and gals, and they are phenomenal. (Even as an almost life-long Despers man, I have to admit, I have become a fan!) Skiffle Bunch are joined by 3 Canal for the latter's Blue, their first success from 1997. 3 Canal are more than a mere band, they are a performance and visual arts collaborative whose music is firmly rooted in rapso, originally an offshoot of soca that combined rap with soca and of a politically and socially conscious nature. They are a highly gifted bunch who have not failed to impress since their debut, providing a welcome relief from the endless monotony of "party soca" and the mindlessness of dancehall styles increasingly prominent in the Trinidad music scene over the years. True to form, this is indubitably the most successful track on Skiffle Bunch & Stalin - Live At The Naparima Bowl so far, even if Skiffle Bunch take something of a backseat most of the time.
The second half of Skiffle Bunch & Stalin - Live At The Naparima Bowl is, as the album's title might suggest, given over to calypsonian The Black Stalin with Skiffle Bunch. Black Stalin was once renowned for the politicised nature of his calypsos but at the dawn of the 1990s was perceived by many to have sold out to financial/commercial interests when he came out with banal party soca in order to gain the calypso monarch crown and wider popularity among the younger revelers - perhaps a rather cheap and certainly misguided shot. Never one of the finest singing voices or melodious singers in the tradition of say Kitch (Lord Kitchener) or The Birdie (The Mighty Sparrow), Stalin nonetheless still seems in good voice and fine form here. Both his more political material, especially in the classic Dorothy (originally coupled with Ism Schism) from 1985 if memory serves, and party soca are represented here. Skiffle Bunch are given plenty of scope to shine with Stalin, and this half of Skiffle Bunch & Stalin - Live At The Naparima Bowl is certainly altogether more enjoyable. Guest appearances by veteran leading bandleader and ace saxman Roy Cape are sadly all too brief and marred by the poor technical quality, and a further guest artist is vocalist Marilyn Williams, a singer in an altogether different league from the other ladies on this album.
Had Skiffle Bunch & Stalin - Live At The Naparima Bowl been restricted to performances by Skiffle Bunch alone and with Black Stalin, it would have been an altogether different, better album. It would have been sufficiently enjoyable to even forgive the poor technical quality, at least to some extent. Of course, the association between Stalin and Skiffle Bunch is also a very natural one. Both have their home on Coffee Street, San Fernando (Trinidad's second city, down south), Stalin having been born there as well. And early in his long musical career, Stalin also used to beat pan for a while.
The liner notes of this album could have gained vast improvement from being omitted altogether. They are also not enhanced by the poor and mostly indistinct photography, and the same unfortunately also applies to the cover shot with its lack of critical focus on Stalin and very poor composition. However, the last may have been dictated by a very poor position assigned the photographer, often a problem when covering gigs.
It is actually with great sadness that I had to give Skiffle Bunch & Stalin - Live At The Naparima Bowl such a mixed review, especially in view of the general excellence of both Skiffle Bunch and the great Black Stalin, but the interests of objectivity left me no choice.
© 2004 Rainlore's World of Music/Rainlore. All rights reserved.