This year the rapso group is celebrating an impressive two decades in the music business and looking at their beginnings and future.
Sunday Newsday spoke with the band members, Wendell Manwarren, Roger Roberts and Stanton Kewley at their theatre/art gallery/event venue Big Black Box in Woodbrook.
The trio was first asked to reflect on the success of “Blue”.
“I feel very proud.
Proud is the word. Because to have survived 20 years is no mean feat. And to have the kind of response we’ve had over the years is really encouraging.
I mean it’s been up and down but generally I think it has been an incredible journey so far,” Manwarren said. Roberts recalled that when they did “Blue” they had no idea the impact the song would have had. “It took us by complete surprise. And even today performing the song is such a joy because people still enjoy the song like it was fresh,” he added.
Kewley said it was the best start of a musical career they could have wished for.
“Mind you, we were actually catapulted into music after that. ‘Blue’ would have been the fourth J’Ouvert band we were doing and it was the first time we did a song for the band,” he recalled. Manwarren said they had been working in mas and theatre but entered into the popular arena with a song playing on the radio and video on television.
“By the time we got to Brooklyn because of BET the song was playing on the streets. And that was the last thing we expected,” he recalled.
“You reach New York and people bawling ‘3canal’!” Roberts chimed in.
Manwarren said: “It really shows you the power of popular media.
And we got something which most artistes work their entire life for.” Asked how they were able to stay together as a group for 20 years Roberts said they never intended to form a music group in the first place.
“We were just friends who was into mas and theatre. And I guess because our intent was just to create stuff, to create new ideas and to explore what was going on I think that’s why,” he added.
Manwarren said: “We got an opportunity, we seized it, it turned into something.
And I think that’s how we’ve kind of approached the whole thing. And if (no opportunity) exists we make it. When there’s adversity we find a way to respond to that.” He recalled the loss of fourth member John Isaacs three years into their career.
“And the question was ‘what to do?’ And John would have been the last man to say mash up so we carried on,” he said.
Three years after that their first record label, Rituals, folded but they pressed on.
Asked what Isaacs would think about the band now Manwarren replied: “John Isaacs smiling down on this whole enterprise. He is the one guiding the whole thing. He passed but he is still here.” Roberts recalled that he was a natural teacher, natural vocalist, steeped with all the talents in the arts and very proud of his university degree.
“He was never selfish with his talents,” he added.
Asked whether their music catering to small crowds as well as big fetes was a conscious decision, Manwarren responded that they have certain tastes.
“We like Carnival, we like Carnival music. So we weren’t prepared to put out something there that didn’t have that same kind of vibe. And then because we represent under the Rapso banner that idea of conscious lyrics and making statements was always a part of the mix. It was something we just did inherently,” he explained.
Kewley said they were lucky that a great bulk of their work was with late producer Sheldon “Shel Shok” Benjamin.
“And that helped us along the way to find that sound, that real stance that the music coming from rooted in the true elements of the culture but still fresh with the influences of the world,” he added.
Roberts recalled that Shel Shok loved experimenting with tones and beats “so he was always on the edge, on the tip of where the music might go. And he had a great understanding of how to get a crowd to move.” Asked about their personal favourites from their repertoire Roberts cited “Salt” for its message of people empowering themselves. Kewley’s choice was “Mix it Up” for representing TT citizens as a “callaloo people”, and Manwarren’s preference was “Good Morning” for all that it represents.
“Because I think (it) is a song that captured so many different qualities: it’s social commentary, it’s a feel good song, it’s a song that says with a simple intervention we could fix something. It is a recognition of the change in the society where we grow up as a big community and you know everybody and we say good morning but we getting modern real fast,” he said.
Their eponymous Carnival show turns 13 this year and Manwarren described it as one of the things he is proudest of.
“That is a big innovation.
To claim a space in the middle of the Carnival,” he said.
He explained that while it’s called the 3canal show “it’s not about us.” “The number of other people that are involved in the show...
(and) have used the show as platform to train and to develop and then move on to the bigger stages.
And for me that is as it should be. We were recognised by the Coco Dance Festival for our contribution to dance...(and they said) you have one of the strongest dance components of any show,” he explained.
He continued: “The opportunity for us to dig up in our repertoire and tell a story every year is always very exciting and challenging.
So for me the 3canal show is the biggest conscious innovation we have achieved apart from the (Big) Black Box” The band is named after a cutlass and was given to them by founding member of their J’Ouvert unit, Steve Ouditt, who wanted a “badman name”. And despite their music careers they have continued to hold a J’Ouvert band and they said they do not have a choice.
Manwarren said: “Most people who really involved in making an element of Carnival you really become a servant to the thing.
There are people who depend on you and your input helps make the festival.” On their unique and creative videos Kewley pointed to their partner Walt Lovelace.
“He has blessed us with many videos that has been both experiments for himself to lead to greater things. Like ‘Mix it Up’.
That was thousands and thousands of jumps that we did and that boy edit together and make a video. He truly is gifted,” he said.
Manwarren said: “There’s just three of us but we have people we have been working with consistently that have helped develop the name, the brand, the vibe, the sound, the look, and Walt Lovelace has definitely been one of those guys we have to give credit.” They also spoke about the Big Black Box, which Roberts said is a place to experiment and interact with people and build a movement. Manwarren said they work with a team of young animators called North Eleven which builds specific content for the 3canal show. Kewley described it as a teaching space.
“We work with a foundation called the Tallman Foundation, and they working with young people who they identify as they want to be creatives, and they given that opportunity.
This space...is a real major focus because is a space to grow, to experiment, to teach, to perform and to be,” he added.
Kewley said that the business of arts and entertainment is an untapped sector and he questioned the outlet for marketing shows and identifying young talent.
The 3canal show for this year is called Blue Forever, and Kewley was the mastermind behind the “dutty angels”, around which the show revolves.
“When we started we didn’t think it would last two days, much less 20 years. So blue forever, 3canal forever and ever and ever,” he said.
The group is also working on a new album, and Manwarren explained that every Carnival they record a number of songs specific to the Carnival. This year’s songs are “Dutty Angels”, “Make ah Drain”, “Look Meh” “Do Something” and “Start Over”, which will be released as an Extended Play called 320.
“Post-Carnival we will get back in the studio and continue work on the album called Forever.
Because the 20th anniversary doesn’t end with Carnival, it continues,” he said. The new album is scheduled to be released before the end of 2017.
They all expressed thanks to the supporters, friends and family for embracing, encouraging and supporting them, including their dedicated, hard working team.
“We started without an idea that this thing would take off, much less endure. So I want to encourage any young creative out there to know there is a fine line between going for your dream and squashing your dreams. And if you really want to go for it, go for it with all that you got and you never know, it might work out,” Manwarren concluded.