Notes from a small island
A weblog by Jonathan Ali

Thursday, March 06, 2003  

Andre Tanker, who passed away last Friday evening, will be laid to rest today. Over the past few days the newspapers have been flowing with tributes for the late, great musician. To quote from just one, Kim Johnson's in today's Guardian:

I don't want to interview anyone about Andre Tanker, or hear anyone else's recollections of what he did or was like.

Rather, focus my own scattered thoughts as a moment of respect and gratitude. See if they form a pattern greater than isolated flashes.

Start with "Basement Party", which celebrates the subversive togetherness of West Indians in New York.

The Trinidadianness is not just the party's peas and rice, the music, the jamming, but in the climax, when the police arrive, are invited in for a bite and the music takes them over.

It's a Trini response, derived partly from our conviviality, but also because of a deep belief that our rhythms will possess any aggressor.

I interviewed Andre in 1993, and after that felt he was a friend. Any encounter with him was like that: a human encounter. Nothing was "just business" or "a professional relationship."

Still, countless people were closer to Andre than I. Let them recall his warmth, his absolute lack of pretension or airs or ulterior motive.

Consider instead, the music which was another manifestation of his character.

Here's a conundrum.

Despite his talent and following, few Andre Tanker recordings are commercially available. Nowhere can you get his music for Derek Walcott's Ti Jean, or for Mustapha Mathura's Playboy of the West Indies. I read that his three ongoing projects were stalled for lack of money.

That was not simply the unappreciation of a crass society. His album Children of the Big Bang was eagerly snapped up.

But Andre was the most un-materialist, un-pushy person you could meet. He fitted uneasily in an era when everyone is advised to "sell yourself".

He had his tremendous personal and artistic charisma. And his intelligence. But he never tried to sell any of it.

When I interviewed Andre, he'd just returned from the US, where he'd written music for a new version of Playboy of the West Indies, and for Shakespeare's Measure for Measure.

We were at his apartment and I asked to hear the music. He went inside, fumbled around quite some time, and returned with an old cassette and his daughter's small, battered cassette player. Sound had to be coaxed from it with a screwdriver.

Before the Mathura commission, Tanker worked on Ti Jean for the Fiesta del Teatro at San Miniato, Italy.

There he was surprised. For instance, one of the Devil's lieutenants was a ballerina. The cricket, because its sound, is percussive, was the most famous flamenco dancer, Bizet's Carmen.

"It was a culture shock. They did nice things with the music, though. What they lost in syncopation and rhythmic subtleties they made up in melody," he said with obvious pleasure. His explanation showed uncommon thoughtfulness:

"Without any colonies the Italians were able to approach the play with an innocence, unencumbered by pretentions of authenticity. They just pulled what made sense to them. The work was good enough to allow that."

When he came to Mathura's play Andre did the same thing. Mathura revisited JM Synge's Playboy of the Western World, set in Mayo, Ireland, and relocated the action to Mayaro, whose magic in the 1950s Andre evoked in an overture.

I cannot convey here the beauty of his melody, which has the simplicity of the best folk song. I still remember it after one hearing. But consider the lyric:

When seasons change in time, rain fall on Tobago

Big lightning slice the sky, throw blood on the


When thunder roll each time, the beat is calypso

Big hurricane pass by and smile at Mayaro.

Sun shine bright when light first shine in Mayaro

First time day turn night was here in Mayaro

Sea waters dance all day across from Tobago

Creator laugh when sun shine down on Mayaro.

Musically, he was comfortable in every T&T genre. He'd studied and absorbed all our rhythms. Thus he wrote what is surely the sweetest Indo-creole melody, "Jumbie Walk" from the movie Bim. And though he was neither a calypsonian or a pan arranger his "Pull the Bull" in Bim was an old-fashioned calypso groove that won Panazz first prize in Pan Ramajay.

Director of the Nottingham Playhouse Michael Rudman heard Tanker's Playboy of the West Indies music in New York's Lincoln Center, and asked him to score Measure for Measure for the New York Shakespeare Festival.

In two weeks he completed six tunes, followed by four more during production.

Members of the cast asked Andre, how did you do that?

His explanation was both unforced yet insightful: calypso, more than any other folk music, catered for verbose lyrics.

And as Marley made 17th-century English sound natural, so too did Tanker, until Shakespeare's braggadaccio became calypso war, and a gaol soliloquy could in the Frederick Street hotel:

I am as well acquainted here as I was in our house of profession: one would think it were Mistress Overdone's own house, for here be many of her old customers...

Were Bard to hear his words spoken to this strange, exciting Trini music he would surely have smiled at his brother and mused:

Haste still pays haste,

And leisure answers leisure;

Like doth quit like, and

Measure still for Measure.

I came of age years after Andre Tanker had produced some of his greatest music, and am not completely familiar with much of the work that Johnson writes about. I am however familiar with Children of the Big Bang, which is a fantastic album, my first real initiation into the world of Andre Tanker's cross-pollinated sound, and with much of his work since, particularly his collaborations with the band Jointpop. In fact, I last saw Andre Tanker perform at a Jointpop concert some months ago, when he joined them on harmonica for a great set-closing jam.

Truly an original voice in Trinidad music, Andre Tanker will be missed. Today I join with those who celebrate his life and say, thanks for the music, and the memories.


posted by Jonathan | 9:34 AM 0 comments


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