A different road march

November 1, 2000

PROPHETS without honour in foreign countries should count themselves among the lucky, given the predicament of local counterparts in the music industry who, for all their efforts since Independence, still have to resort to a protest march to hear more of their work on radio.

Let me rush to state that this is not support for sub-standard compositions, nor am I recklessly stretching today’s sympathies to embrace every under-rehearsed Tom, Dick and Harrilal; simply because his poorly produced garbage is now available on CD.

Granted, when the local music fraternity takes to the streets of Port of Spain in protest this Friday, among the crowd may be recording artistes whose current level of creativity we hope to never hear on radio or, for that matter, any music system that affords public reach.

But as anyone who has enjoyed a tumbler of ice-cold, well-swizzled mauby will testify, it is far easier to take the bitter with the sweet than refuse the beverage altogether. And there is, to my mind, enough palatable local music already available in any genre to satisfy the artistes’ demand for the airing of a 50 per cent minimum of indigenous work on a daily basis.

The artistes have a responsibility to provide quality recordings, but they also have a point. A lot of culturally useless foreign fluff is played on the radio daily. We pay for it in US dollars annually, when the Copyright Organisation (Cott) ships out more than $3 million in royalties to the foreign artistes aired on local radio.

The sum represents 75 per cent of all money collected here. And if foreign collection agencies ever got stringent, you would soon realise that local music airplay does not even get up to anywhere near the residual 25 per cent arrangement under which we are currently masquerading. In fact, people in the know say it may be as little as ten per cent.

Radio argues, nonetheless, that its low local content is designed to facilitate advertising clients, who insist that their markets comprise people with a preference for foreign fare. They say increasing the level of local music in their daily rotation will reduce their ability to sell programmes to a public already convinced that the worst imported song is probably better than the best indigenous alternative. Perhaps what we should be discussing today is exactly who convinced the public of that in the first place.

But a story coming out of State-owned Trinidad and Tobago Television (TTT) recently (and corroborated by persons on both sides of the argument) presents yet another dynamic: A mere three days before the grand final of last month’s World Steelband Music Festival, a senior decision maker in the company’s marketing structure, was said to have reacted in astonishment at hearing that there were foreign steel orchestras here for the event.

It makes you wonder whether that gentleman and others occupying similar positions in the broadcast media ever take the time to familiarise themselves with the very products they are supposed to be selling, but keep describing as “not marketable”. It also makes me want to revisit the real reasons behind the failure of Radio Tempo and Superior Radio —stations that originally dedicated themselves to local music.

One possibility comes from the TTT marketing executive. Clearly, in the absence of product information, it must be infinitely more comfortable for advertising and marketing executives to avoid any possible embarrassment by disregarding the value of all local music, lest they be held up to ridicule for flawed comment on any aspect of so touchy a subject.

When the matter of increasing the percentage of local music first came up, radio operators said the artistes were using emotion to lobby for what amounts to an imposition of trade restrictions in an open-market democracy.

Canada and France are among the developed countries that boast of such democracies. Yet those governments felt the need to pass laws for the protection and promulgation of their music. Jamaica’s reggae and dancehall jams were given a similar boost since the 1970s and India’s film industry enjoyed equivalent protection for a long enough while to entrench the resulting soundtracks both at home and abroad.

Nor is this an argument exclusive to up-tempo music. Trinidadian Lydian Singer Edward Cumberbatch was judged Best Tenor in the World in the open class at South Africa’s Eisteddfod three years ago. No local radio station has yet asked him to record a recital, or even a single song. Perhaps if he dies, there might be a day of his work on air. But what a price!

We have ever-so-recently experienced pannists from North America, the wider Caribbean and several countries in Europe, who came here expressly to show us how much they appreciate our music. The fame of India’s Kanchan and Babla took a quantum leap with their recording of the calypso “Kuchi Gadbad Hai” and yet another soon-to-be-released American movie is featuring in its soundtrack, The Roaring Lion’s “Woman Uglier Than You”.

To paraphrase Andre Tanker, it must be that local music and musicians have to “go away and leave and come back home” to be appreciated. In the case of pan innovator Ellie Mannette, the gestation period for this process stretched up to 33 years.

Terry-J at I-Level