An Unconventional Maestro

ORVILLE WRIGHT continues his series of interviews with pan arrangers who took their bands to this year’s Panorama Finals.

Carlton Alexander has the distinction of taking a band with its roots in Tobago to the pinnacle of the Medium category in Panorama 2010. Like a selected few arrangers in T&T, he also had the task of grooming a band from Trinidad—Siparia Deltones—in addition to his Tobago chores. The judges saw his Tobago band’s performance and his arranging prowess as the best alongside some of the most talented in the arranging business. Steel Explosion made history, and one of the reasons I wanted to chat with Carlton was because of his unique approach to arranging—but more importantly—his
choices regarding the tunes he has made regarding Panorama performances. It was at his brother’s office in St. James on March 17, 2010 that I sat with him to get an insight into his craft and methodology.

OW: The last couple of years you have had a rather unorthodox approach to the choice of tune for Panorama. Last year, I critiqued you when you chose ‘I’m Not Drunk’ because I felt that there was not enough contour in the tune and it was quite repetitive. This year you chose Radica—a tune I never would have chosen for a Panorama performance—but you won with it. What drives you to choose these unconventional tunes for Panorama?
CA: I have a belief in music that does not have too much skirts in terms of—let’s say playing too many bass lines—in other words telling me where to go. I look for certain rhythmic things inside the song for example, the drum. I like the way the guy was expressing this song in terms of the rhythm and it didn’t have many skirts around it.

When you say it didn’t have many skirts around it, what do you mean? How is the skirt metaphor fitting into the whole Panorama/choice of tune thing?
Well, it’s like a building—it’s open. It’s like an open building that’s telling me, well listen—as opposed to a song that has a lot of bass lines. What I realize is a direction that is taking place with the younger artists like Bunji and Machel, and they are going back into a lot of the lavway—the African thing—they may not know they are going back into that. Coming from that Better Village roots that I have in Siparia, I recognized from backing up a lot of calypsonians like Bryner, Sparrow, Dougla that there is a change taking place relating to the total art—and I see art as architecture, music, sculpture, poetry. You see, you don’t need to have a lot of chords for music to become festive—a lot of life—you don’t have to have a lot of bass lines, you don’t have to have a lot of chords, and I pick up from those things. I realize it makes me more creative, more innovative when I have to think and cut sections through the song and say to myself, ‘from that rhythm I could develop a bass line’ or let’s say a specific direction where I want to go.’ Now this is as opposed to so many things going on in the song that it kinda locks me in. Going through this process, I say to myself, music is based on melody, harmony, and rhythm and as long as I am knowledgeable of those elements, if I have a verse and chorus, I can make use of that.

This year with Radica, it was not one of the tunes for instance that was composed for Panorama, and with all those tunes out there—about forty all told—did you have any difficulty zeroing in on Radica?
No. Let me tell you about Radica. There is a teacher named Mr. Bailey in Siparia—Mr. Stephen Bailey—he is an ex-RC Boys teacher in Sipiria, and interestingly one day I was walking on the street and he knows the family very well—my father, Clive and I as musicians, and he said to me, “Zan, Radica boy!” Yuh know dat kinda way? Ah say, “Yeah boy, ah hear it yuh know, but if I did hear it before I’m Not Drunk, ah might ah do that.”
 So I walk away and he say, “Radica, yeah boy, Radica is a good song!”
So anyway, then the gentleman in Tobago, his name is Iran Anthony, manager of Steel Explosion—alias “Douce”—he called me and said he got my name from Forteau and them, and said that he liked my work and had been listening to I’m Not Drunk, past music, Bee’s Melody and told me he liked the song Radica. I said, “Radica? You sure?” He said “Yeah man!”
 I said to him: “Radica! Those songs take work you know.” And I said, “What about Preacher’s song?”, because I said, okay, I would do a medium band but it had to be a back-in-time, because songs come out kind o’ late. So I said to him, “You sure about Radica?” And he said, “Yeah man.”  I introduced him to Preacher’s song, but he still came back and said, “I really like Radica!” And I said, all right. So he chose the song really.
You know Orville, I have been looking at the mood that is being created among the East Indian Chutney thing for a while now. There is a certain mood that is being created, and there is another song that I shared with Clive one time which was Bring It- another Chutney song by Bunji and Hunter. So what I realize is that certain music is coming through the country, and a lot of guys are ignoring it and they are not seeing where the music is going, and for me, I don’t know if it is the background coming from the folk, coming from the gospel, coming from the choir with my father, I get to hear those types of rhythms. Now all those little things were very important. I remember as a young fella, I used to go every Easter to the Siparia fete where the East Indians come down to give their gifts to the La Divina Pastora- it’s a famous religious thing all over the world where people come to give their blessing to the saint- and I remember in that thing something interesting used to happen. They had an activity where they trimmed a little baby and they would take the hair with some money and throw it below the school. In doing so, they will then dance with their rings on their ankles and then paint up themselves, and my hustle then was to go and trim the kid for twenty-five cents. When I did that, I was only interested in listening to them—listening to what they were doing because at that time I was playing guitar in the church with my father—so I used to listen to the instruments like the dholak and the ghungroo. And of course some of my Indian friends used to teach me Indian love songs, so I never divorced myself from that oneness. Another interesting thing about these songs is that it reminds me a lot about the roughness as you would find in the folk, the strumming like they have no fear of those types of rhythms—very natural. When I heard the song, I said there is not too much bass, there is just a I-V And it is very interesting also, you might think that as in I’m Not Drunk that those kinds of overlays and harmonies sometimes make you think, and I said, ‘Wait, wait, wait! Hold on a second here—in the second part of the song, he starts in a major on the fourth, and he moves up now to a whole tone from the fourth, but he stays on the D flat major—interesting!” It’s the same thing I discovered in I’m Not Drunk. So I said to myself, these guys are playing very simple bass lines and I could now cut sections through the songs and develop rhythms from inside of the song and harmonize it.

It is evident that you and “Douce” agreed on Radica as the song of choice for Steel Explosion. While that approach to choosing a Panorama tune is different from an autonomous arranger’s choice and/or a committee’s choice from the band, how did the members of Steel Explosion embrace Radica as the choice of tune?
Very interesting! There were about one or two guys and one in particular who was very close to “Douce” who was there when “Douce” made the decision, or was in the process of making the decision and understood what was going on. The other guys in the band—“Dat song boy? Radica boy? Dat song slow boy!” So they were sort of skeptical about the tune. Additionally, the guys in the band hearing all the different tunes the bands in Tobago were playing, kept them wondering about the choice. By the time the song was half way done, I saw a change—they began to see some sort of quality—because of course, they didn’t know what was coming.
Did you consciously or subconsciously go into the yard knowing that you had to convince some of the skeptics, or you just did your thing?
I did my thing. You see, they didn’t know what was in that song. I knew what was in that song, and I am seeing myself as a Trinidadian/Tobagonian with knowledge of certain rhythms that I can put in the tune that they will respond to because of the rhythmic thing. They are just listening to one aspect of the song and I as the arranger, am internalizing a lot of rhythmic aspects of the song that I could pull out.
This is a question that I ask every arranger so now’s your turn. The issue of choosing the tune for Panorama varies from band to band, and for me- and I guess for the readers too- it is quite interesting how different or similar arrangers approach this aspect of Panorama. With a tune like ‘Radica’, and having informed me that there were not many players in the band who were enthusiastic about the tune, did you go into the yard with a set plan for the arrangement or did you try to get inspiration from the yard—so to speak?
Before I go in the yard, just hanging out by, say Beer Gardens which is where my house is, I notice a long time now that people wait for this part of Radica, and this other part. I always recognized that when I pass by certain places like bars that are crowded and I see them waiting for that particular part. I said that is the key here. For instance in the intro, I sing it in my head and I saw it before I reach in the yard, and of course, other things. While I am in the yard now, I say, what part is that? I say that is ‘Radica, Radica wine down she bam-bam now’. Certain inspiration comes in the yard, but the concept—it came by just listening to the song and just letting things flow. Radica now—it start nice and it just builds up to all these elements that I could use in my arrangement. So all these other factors I will look at and I start to paint, I start to paint, and then as I go along in the yard now, I say, “Aha! Aha! Maybe I might see a situation here with something!”And I see in this part of Radica—just in the yard—you know that kinda way? That is how the tune develops. Now, I have a piano in the yard, and I sit by myself, and then I hear the voices and while all this is going on, I will say, “You see this song, this song needs double tenors”, and I would tell the manager this song needs a certain kind of players. (At this point Carlton demonstrated a particular rhythm.) So I said to the manager, “You will win if you have a judge that knows this song and is listening to this arrangement and recognizes these rhythmic patterns in the arrangement. That is fifty marks.”

You mention that you have a piano in the yard and I suspect that you teach from the piano. When you give, let’s say the double tenor a part as opposed to the quadraphonics for instance—are you taking into consideration the configuration of the notes on either of those pans and the ability of the pannists to execute the parts?
Coming from the pan, second pan is my instrument and I have been playing that since I have been about seventeen and I know the instrument—like when I’m doing something, I say, “Ah boy! That fella, the hand pattern dey! —umm, nah.” So that has an impact sometimes and I might change around the voicings. I know the three pan, I know the four pan, the double tenor is a pan that I have always been amazed of in the sense that it is—I can’t say that it is a cycle of fifths, I can’t say that it is a minor thirds, I can’t say it is a major thirds—but I like the tone of it. So I remember the tone of that instrument, and in terms of hand pattern when I am laying down the arrangement, I have a very good technician—one of the boys in the yard—and he always tips me off if indeed I might be putting something down that could be a challenge for the players. Sometimes I would say let’s do a drill on it, and if he thinks it could give the players some horrors, I would change around the voicings.

You mentioned drilling in your last answer, and I have been in a number of yards where the drillmaster would be going over a particular section over and over, and I would hear and see different rhythmic interpretations, but I am not always sure the drillmaster is really zeroing in on the purpose of what he is drilling. This drillmaster that you have, are you confident that he is focusing on the shortcomings within a passage?
The guy that I have now is a panman that plays all the instruments, and has a good background in theory. There are times I would say to him, ‘I want you to go down to the yard and do so and so for me’, and I would pinpoint a bar or a number of bars that I want him to work on. I sometimes even ask him to change a voicing somewhere in the arrangement and when I come in the yard we would listen to it. He is very good at that and he knows about breaking the whole thing down—even to the point of what the iron man does and stuff like that—which is a key to drilling. He has some experience with my brother, too, in the jazz idiom, so I am confident that he knows what he is doing when he is drilling the band.

I heard that during various stages of this year’s Panorama Steel Explosion at one point was at the top in terms of scores and at another point they were at the bottom. Can you talk about how you dealt with that sort of disparity?
I am not sure what you are talking about, but … Oh! Oh! Is that when we came third in the zonal finals in Tobago?

Something like that—a couple of people brought that to my attention.
I think that night the band was not very comfortable—the performance wasn’t that good, you know, and I am sincere with that. The performance at semi finals was really, really good. The performance in Tobago wasn’t good—they didn’t set up right in the first place, and I myself was not hearing the interplay of the interior coming out, and when the judge came out and say what they said, I had to agree because I was fighting to hear it.

Did the judges come to the panyard in Tobago and give oral feedback?
No.

Is it that it was only done for the large bands?
Yes, that did not happen for the medium bands.

When you get your feedback from the judges, talk about your process.
The feedback the judges… I got more with Deltones, can I talk about Deltones?
Sure, sure.
This was kinda strange. When they came to the panyard to do Deltones in the prelims the judges’ comments were hard to figure out, and they really put me in a different mind-set. One judge in particular talked about “those type of songs” and I guess the reference was directed to the choice of tune I made. I think that is not a good way to give an arranger feedback on the choice of tune, and I think they have a tendency not to respond to what they are hearing on the night of a performance. There was also one adjudicator, and it might have been the same person who said that there was not much of a motif to work with, and I think again that some of the adjudicators are not really listening to what I referred to earlier on as the interior of the arrangement. There is a lot more to a verse and chorus and the judges have to be able to listen to what’s going on outside of the verse and chorus.

These two bands that you arranged for, are there any similarities with regard to your approach to arranging and/or teaching or putting down the arrangement? For example, with Steel Explosion you knew what you wanted to do as far as choice of tune was concerned, did you have the same kind of autonomy with Deltones?
No. Deltones, for some reason, by education over the years, they have had a fairly young committee and I have been exposing them to fellas like yourself—to Happy, to Clive—I was the first arranger who brought them up to Port of Spain to hear Rudy play, hear you play, and Ron so I have had them listen to you guys, listening to Robert, listening to Andy, listening to whoever and educating them. And I had a group inside there called the Coal Pot Band doing all these different things, so they were beginning to see the essence and the direction of what it is I am trying to do. So when I said Roll It the first time, they say Roll It boy?—that was Alison Hinds song—so what happened after that is they sort of developed a respect for me and they more or less had the kind of confidence in me when I made a choice for a Panorama tune. Sometimes they would say, what Zanda t’ink he doing dey?, What Zanda t’ink he doing dey? because I show them all the African drumming, the folk and rhythms inside all these tunes that make me develop the arrangement out of these tunes that are out of the ordinary.

During this carnival season, I heard on more than one occasion—either through the media or among all these know-it-all folks in Trini—I heard them describing your creativity as having a strong jazz influence. Do you see yourself as doing jazz in a Panorama arrangement?
OK. I would say more extempoing you know. For instance, I worked with Barry Harris.

Let me interrupt you. For the reader, can you define extempoing?
Coming from Siparia again, backing up fellars like Lion and them, we did spontaneous extempo—you talk about your shirt, your pants and I take it and I work with it. So I remember the spontaneous way and the rhythm of the extempoing, and that kinda lavway ting. Jazz—I would say—it could have some influence because I did some courses with Barry Harris and hearing a lot of jazz players could influence the type of harmony that I used.

So from your perspective, it is more of a subconscious thing than a concerted effort to shape your arrangement in a certain way.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, I really don’t set out to do any jazz.

(Interviewer’s note: Barry Harris is a well-known pianist and educator in the US and there are countless musicians who have either gone to his workshops or studied privately with him. A few years ago he was in Trinidad for one of the local jazz festivals.)

You spoke about the interior of the arrangement just now and I interpret that as your also delving deeper into the original composition looking for motifs and rhythms inside the tune to develop your arrangement harmonically and melodically. Can you talk about your process with these hooks in the tunes?
Okay. I know what the verse is doing, I know what the chorus is doing, I really get the song; but before I choose a song I come up in the north and get all the tunes and I would go to the different sources with all the tunes. As a matter of fact, when I heard Battle Zone I liked the song, but I said to myself, ‘if I have to go that road, this is a song that would compete with “Boogsie,” I competing with “Professor,” I competing with Robert—all them fellas I have to compete with if I choose this song’. But to answer your specific question, I tend to look at rhythm—and make it the centerpiece of my arrangement—and then I work melodically and harmonically from those rhythms. For example, last year when I did I’m Not Drunk, if you remember, I took a rhythmic motif from Drunk And Disorderly and used it in the arrangement, because I said to myself—I’m Not Drunk and Drunk And Disorderly, these songs are sort of saying the same thing, so this is how I sometimes take rhythms inside a tune and use it in an arrangement.

Much has been made about arrangers weaving fragments of other tunes into their arrangements, and a prime example of this was Silver Stars, who won this year again, and was quite successful with that sort of amalgamation. You obviously did it a year ago. What’s your perspective on this technique?
That is a very good question. I have also been checking myself too because when I listened to I’m Not Drunk the song is socially about the disorderly behavior of this person, and with Drunk And Disorderly, it happens to be the same thing—“every weekend ah in the jail”, embarrassment and all that kinda ting—so when I look at that, I have to say, that is a nice enhancement, and I have to see how I could tie that in, in terms of the orchestration. I was questioning the introduction Silver Stars used for Battle Zone. My understanding is that the title of Edwin Pouchet’s composition, Battle Zone, is also the title of a movie, and when he used a movie theme as an introduction, I really did not see anything wrong with it, but from my perspective, I thought it was a little disjointed.

When you do your arrangement, how do you get the spirit of carnival in the arrangement?
Interesting! I always had this thing about spirit of Carnival argument with them guys you know. If a drunk man coming down the road Carnival Tuesday and he swaying from side to side and he saying all kinda stupidness like ‘ah forget meh alpagat home boy’ and ‘star boy doh dead yuh know’, you go say that fella don’t have the spirit of Carnival? (This response brought about a prolonged chuckle from both Carlton and myself.) For you to capture the spirit of Carnival you must have the rhythms, and the instrument has to be an extension of yourself and you must be able to get that to the audience. So as long as you get that to the audience, you have the spirit of Carnival—it’s not any particular tempo, it’s not any particular tune, it’s just that you have to connect with the audience.

So from your perspective, is it possible to define the spirit of Carnival?
That kinda hard for me.

When it was announced that Steel Explosion won, where were you and what was your reaction?
I was at home because I had to get back to my daughter in Siparia who was alone at home. When I got home, I went upstairs and my daughter was looking at the broadcast on TV. I was a little tired and when I joined her looking at the TV, I actually dozed off. When they announced that Steel Explosion won, Peter Aleong called me and said, the band was successful, and I said, thank God.

What was “Douce’s” reaction?
“Douce” was happy. He cyah take the results and that kinda t’ing. He does run from all of that because he gets worked up. But he felt good about the result and all the fellas were happy with the result—especially the couple of guys I told you about who were skeptical about the choice of tune. Even after listening to the arrangement, I had more of an understanding of the song Radica and I felt it was a good statement that we won with it. Of course, the more investigation you do about music, the more knowledge you get, and I am still searching for some things, and by the grace of God, things are getting a little better and I want to know more.
I always remember when you demonstrated ideas from Bee’s Melody on the piano, (Orville interjected: ‘Wow! That was in 1992. That tape have real longevity boy!) I remember that well because I did the Bee’s with Deltones that year, and I said back then, that is what these guys who are arranging are supposed to be able to do—even judges I would say and this is why I responded to what you were saying. At least you could go and you could say, if you want to move from here you could do this, and this is what I do when I am orchestrating.

Now that you have had success with Steel Explosion with what I consider to be an unconventional approach to the choice of tune for Panorama, given that you chose I’m Not Drunk in 2009 and Radica in 2010, are you going to continue with those types of tunes as you go on with your arranging career?
Very interesting. What I see, what I look for—you see you don’t have to be going down that road—what could happen is that I look at what the kids do; it could be other social factors, and I say, ‘Aha! I watching them!’ I say okay, this is what is happening, that kinda t’ing, and I tend to move in that direction, and for now, Iinda staying on that same road.

Orville’s footnote:
Carlton’s interview was different from all the other interviews I’ve done, and while this statement has a clichéd tone to it, it was challenging for me to capture the sounds, rhythms, analogies and metaphors and put it down on paper. Because the interview was filled with the vernacular, I had to have my copy of Cote ci Cote la as I transcribed the interview from the tape so that I could find the appropriate colloquial sayings—or close to—in order to share the emotive passion that obviously could only be heard on the tape. At the core of this interview was Carlton’s choice of tunes for 2009 and 2010, and I must admit that the type of analysis he engages in as he selects his tunes for Panorama was very enlightening for me as a musician. While there are a few musical examples of what he demonstrated in this interview, there were many more that I would have like to have included. Much has been comparatively said about the qualities of bands from north, south and Tobago, and in the same way that Silver Stars was able to break through in the large band category after being in the medium category for a while, I predict that Steel Explosion—a Tobago band—will continue to be successful in the medium category. It is clear—that in spite of the fact that Carlton was adjudged the best arranger in the medium category, he is a humble and committed individual—conscious of the fact that he is still in a learning mode. This is refreshing.

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