Boogsie breathing fresh air
The smoke has finally cleared...
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Len "Boogsie" Sharpe (left) and Earl Brooks perform during Wednesday's funeral service for Merchant, himself a former drug addict, at the Cathedral of Immaculate Conception, Independence Square, Port of Spain. They were just two of several artistes who paid tribute to the late calypsonian during the service. Photo: Roberto Codallo
May 07, 1999
By Terry Joseph
ACE pannist Len "Boogsie" Sharpe, whose adventures with cocaine have been the topic of international headlines over the past nine years, has vowed never again to touch the stuff and now plans to reconstruct his life through total dedication to music.
Speaking exclusively to the Express on Sunday last, Boogsie told the story of how cocaine had all but wrecked his career, reducing him to a common hustler who played cheap gigs in dives, doing just enough to get money for the drug.
The details of that story are not significantly different from those told by any other drug abuser except that, in Boogsie's case, it was a burden shared by friends and fans. Headlines that spoke of spousal abuse, jail and other indignities made them cringe and then pray for an end to his addiction.
By his own testimony, their prayers have been answered.
"Believe me," he said, "I have had enough of drugs. I am trying to get my life back together again. I now have two grandsons (the second was born just last month), so I also have to set a good example and the best way to do it is to show them and everybody else that all my time is taken up with being productive."
Already, tangible evidence of a new Boogsie is surfacing. On Sunday, he gave us a private premiere of a new 13-track compact disc, appropriately titled Fresh Air.
"To be honest," he said, "It is really like a breath of fresh air, it is all I think about since the smoke cleared up. No joke. That is exactly how I feel now. I feel as though I escaped from a cave. I couldn't call the album anything else."
And, he looks the part too, having made significant progress in the battle with a waistline that had gone completely out of control, and speaking now of a whole new career path.
When we may have thought that, outside of the annual Panorama competition, Boogsie would not be seen with any other band but Phase II Pan Groove, he is now actively pursuing the concept of holding entire concerts with other top-drawer bands, one of which has already warmed to the idea.
Ironically, all of the original work on Fresh Air was composed during a period of probation imposed by a Los Angeles judge, after he was held in a drug bust at an apartment in The City of Angels in October 1997.
"That is when it first came home to me how much trouble I was causing everybody else and how the talent that The Lord gave me was wasting away," he said.
"I cannot just wait for Carnival time to put out new music," Boogsie said. "And the new album is not like the one I did in 1996. This is a clean production-in the technology and in the head. I knew that when I came back with something it had to be a special effort and, with the help of a number of Caribbean musicians working in Los Angeles, we now have Fresh Air."
The album caters for mature audiences, using rhythms that are both danceable and good for just listening.
"The work was for people our age, who don't only want to hear high-speed soca when they go to a dancing event," Boogsie said. "Young people have their music in abundance, but the more mature people understand that their time for jam and wine and putting hands in the air done pass already. I feel I have given them what they want and it is a way of saying thanks to all who stood with me through all the horrors, and particularly the musicians who were supportive."
Indeed, musicians continue to be the main plank of support for Boogsie. Two of the instruments he uses on Fresh Air were given to him as gifts by noted pan tuners Leroy Thomas and Michael Kernahan, and the production of the album has been done as a gift to him by participating musicians.
Arrangements were done by Junior Crawford, a native of Belize who, Boogsie says, captures soca better than many Trinidadians. Charlie Pinder and Einstein Brown also play pan tracks on Fresh Air. Brown doubles as executive producer.
But the engineering of the album is where a significant part of its value is to be discovered. The absence of harmonic distortion in the reproduction, even where lower (hence larger) notes are featured in the melodic line, and the subtle use of percussion and, in one case ("First Born"), the use of the tabla as the bass instrument, give Fresh Air some pleasing aesthetic advantages over similar attempts at reproducing pan.
The album also provides the vehicle for the world premiere of the 38 Special, a pan that increases the range of normal tenors by as many as nine notes. The new instrument allows the tenor-pan soloist to hit notes as low as E on the guitar pan, while facilitating melodies that also require the top end of the treble scale.
Fresh Air will be released to music stores on May 19, but a taste of some of the work will be heard live the same day by patrons at a concert called "The Three Tenors, Men of Steel", Under the Trees at the Hotel Normandie, where Boogsie appears with Ken "Professor" Philmore and Andy Narell.