Words by Greg Scruggs
In 1977, Trinidadian musician Lord Shorty released an album called Soul of Calypso. Music journalists truncated the two main words to arrive at “soca,” which came to describe his emerging fusion of traditional Trinidadian calypso with South Asian instruments and French Antillean zouk. Now the default party music of Trinidad and much of the Caribbean community, both in the islands and overseas, soca is not the only clever coinage to come out of the Trinidad and Tobago music scene. Rapso is a lesser-known genre from the prolific twin-island country perched at the tip of South America. The name conjoins “rap” with the end of “calypso” and the music marries the conscious lyrics of early hip-hop to West Indian beats, from ragga to soca to dancehall.
Last month, MTV Iggy sat down with Wendell Manwarren, artistic director of 3Canal, the talented performance and visual arts collaborative that is rooted in the rapso music tradition. 3Canal blossoms to upwards of 100 people as it produces its annual Carnival show and Jouvert band, but in the ebb period a month after the big event, life was a bit quieter in the tiny office below the trendy Veni Mangé restaurant on Port of Spain’s main drag of bars and eateries.
Start with the basics: Where are the roots of rapso music?
Lancelot Layne is the father of the rapso movement because of a particular song in 1970: “Blow Away.” He sings, “If a man wants to set false standards for you to follow,” then “blow away” went the refrain. It went on in that vein, it was really about knowledge of self, positioning yourself, and keep in mind this was 1970 – Black Power was the prevailing sentiment. He went on to record all kinds of other stuff, covers of Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made for Walking” and he celebrated big national moments with song and video, kinda cheesy. Always considered an oddball. He had a penchant for show tunes. A typical Trinidadian mix-up: Black Power and Diana Ross.
Who coined the term and developed the sound?
Brother Resistance and the Network Riddim Band in the mid-’70s and early ’80s. They defined the term rapso as “the power of the word and rhythm of the word.” [Their 1981 debut album Busting Out was the first appearance of the name.] It was a continuation of the oral tradition, the griot, the African storyteller empowering his people. It took on a much more Afrocentric tone and feel. Resistance was located in London for a good period during that time, so his sound took on an international flavor – the dub poets, Linton Kwesi Johnson, that sort of thing. There were a couple of songs that crossed over and got mainstream Trinidad appeal. [Including their 1992 album, Heart of the Rapso Nation.]
Which acts entered through the door that Brother Resistance and the Network Riddim Band opened?
In the early ’90s, there was a record label called Kisskadee Caravan promoting this style. Out of that, we saw the emergence of Sheldon “$hel $hock” Benjamin as a producer with more of a ragga vibe. We at 3Canal had the good, good fortune to work very early in our career with $hel $hock, who dominated the Trini music production scene from the early ’90s until the mid-2000s when he passed away. Back then, he produced for Kisskadee acts like Homefront, Ambush, Yard Fowl Crew, and Ozzy Magic. Kindred also emerged with a song called “Dis Trini Could Flow.”
How did the local music scene receive the emerging rapso sound and how did that influence you all at 3Canal?
In the mid-’90s, we went from having two FM stations playing adult contemporary and two AM stations playing news, classical, weather, and calypso to radio deregulation, which immediately led to urban youth programming. For the first time we had a station dedicated 24 hours to the urban sound of T&T and it happened to coincide with a huge amount of music coming out of Kisskidee Caravan. It was a time of great promise for the local music industry. It was out of that moment that we really became consciously engaged and interested in the whole scene in that sense, the whole Trinidad music scene. We really have to cite Ataklan as a major influence.
We’ve always been aware of Brother Resistance, David Rudder – I’ve always had an ear for the alternative Trini music. I love my calypso and I love my soca but with all those other things happening, in 1997, 3Canal came out under the banner of rapso. We call ourselves “rapso soldiers on a mission.”
How has the ideology behind rapso changed over time – what does it mean to call yourselves “rapso soldiers on a mission” today?
The rapso movement was parallel with that whole consciousness claiming, Africa in the New World, identifying yourself as black and beautiful, claiming your pride in who you are and what you are. We continued with that in 1997, but by that time you didn’t have to stand up and say I’m black and I’m proud. Instead, we were dealing with only ten percent local airplay on the radio in a country that makes so much music. Now at Carnival it’s one hundred percent local, full throttle. But after Carnival there used to be no local music. Luckily that’s changing, there is a lot more leniency and leeway. But there’s still that switch off effect that takes place. There’s a wealth of Trinidadian music outside of the Carnival sound that does not really see the light of day because we have this whole internal prejudice that goes back to the colonial era. Someone else telling you if your stuff is good or not. Our music at 3Canal is still about that: who we are, where we are, what we fought for ourselves.