Tuesday, 29 November 2011

ON BEING FIRST: “BOOGSIE” AND THE EVOLUTION OF PAN

Liner notes for Boogsie's new CD, A Tribute To the Mighty Sparrow: Len ”Boogsie” Sharpe on the PHI
Len “Boogsie” Sharpe has reached a point in his career where accolades are superficial. He is that temperamental genius who can compose in his head without the enhanced skill of an academy-trained musician, the scores for up to eight mini-symphonies for large steelpan orchestras in one short Carnival season. In Trinidad and Tobago, the Caribbean diaspora and the world, "Boogsie" is an icon of steelpan, that self-sufficient and brilliant musician who can do it all. In that sometimes erratic mind of his, “Boogsie” can cajole melodies and improvisations from any steelpan family member, making the familiar new, and the new, unforgettable. His new instrument, the PHI is an evolution of the acoustic steelpan into the digital age, and in the hands of this master, we can bear witness to some firsts.


Sun Ra, in 1956 was the first artist to release a commercial recording of the electric piano (a Wurlitzer) in jazz on his album Angels and Demons at Play. Walter/Wendy Carlos’ 1968 recording Switched on Bach with a modular synthesizer system, the Moog, heralded the commercial breakthrough for the synthesizer to the general public. These are artists in the midst of transition of the possibilities of sound, silencing the status quo and creating new moulds. Calypso music was first recorded in 1912, some five years before the first jazz recordings in the USA. In Trinidad and the world, as a matter of fact, aside from the 1940 Decca recording of the proto-steelpan side, The West Indian Rhythm Band accompanying calypsonian Roaring Lion, Casablanca Steel Band was the recipient of the honour of being the first recorded steel band with Trinidad Steel Band in 1948. [Brute Force of Antigua would have to wait a further 3 years before they could supply the fiction of their claim of being first.] That Casablanca recording heralded an effort to put into the public domain, the new sound emanating from the urban yards, those laboratories of sweat and spit and fire, where the steelpan was created and evolved. In the intervening years until now, the steelpan and the steelpan sound have evolved to a rich timbre and wide sonic range that have taken a place in the sound library of World musics with commercial crossover appeal and demand.

The technical evolution and skill of these early pioneers still amazes. To actually play tunes, or yearn to improve the sound and the instrument was heady pioneering stuff much like the work of the Wright Brothers or Thomas Edison. As steelpan researcher Dr. Kim Johnson says, it is “the audacity of the creole imagination!” The importance of capturing that first sound must have also been significant. From a foreign sound engineer’s perspective, this early sound might have been as much as he could perceive the steelpan could do for a while or forever! In 2011, that magic of captured innovation is so important to us as a nation. “Boogsie”, with this CD, A Tribute To the Mighty Sparrow: Len “Boogsie” Sharpe on the PHI, is entering that domain of those pioneers by recording his tribute to the Mighty Sparrow on the PHI. This recording is the first commercial recording using this Caribbean-created technology of the Percussive Harmonic Instrument (PHI), an electronic descendant of the traditional instrument. One pan, many sounds; the complete range of the steelpan family is within reach with a single PHI. Compact. Convenient. Creative. With it, “Boogsie” is an ensemble.

In our existence in the Caribbean, to be a first would need a recognition that comes from creating in a new medium, on a new instrument, for a new audience. “Boogsie”, whose infrequent recorded output as a solo artist exists in contrast to his numerous live arrangements, has now created a legacy project which can only add to the increasing catalogue of steelpan recordings dating all the way back to 1940. It also juxtaposes the creativity of artist and scientist in the Caribbean milieu and highlights how far we have come, and shows the possibilities that Trinidad-born Nobel Literature laureate VS Naipaul never recognized during his sojourn in the West Indies in 1960-61 that he had published in his definitive and seminal travel book, The Middle Passage: “History is built around achievement and creation; and nothing was created in the West Indies.” The steelpan was about 20 years old at the time of Naipaul’s indictment, evolved from its accidental birth and willed into communal acceptance. 50 years later, Trinidadian engineers have created an electronic instrument that merges the powerful facility of MIDI with a form inspired by the traditional steelpan. History will be vindicated!

Sparrow, that great calypsonian whose canon is unsurpassed in terms of range of melodies, lyric topics, and superior performance both on record and on stage, represents the ideal starting point for the evolution of the recording of calypso melodies. One pioneer interpreting another on a pioneering new instrument is a legacy that can’t be denied. It is the evolution of pan. It is the indictment of a version of history. It is the genesis of a new Caribbean musical aesthetic.

© 2011, Nigel A. Campbell. All Rights Reserved.