The night of Sunday October 28, 2012 will stand out forever in my mind. Under crystal clear skies, an almost full moon continuously glowed over Dominica’s Windsor Park Stadium as the third and final program for the 16th annual World Creole Music Festival (WCMF) got underway.
I arrived at the ‘park’ around 4:30 p.m. in anticipation of an early start to a long line-up of talented artistes, both local and international. Although I had not attended the festival for a couple of years, I felt prompted to do so now because the entire event paid tribute to one of Dominica’s foremost music icons, the late Jeff Jo. He had actually performed at the 15th WCMF the previous year and then suddenly died a few weeks later. Throughout his distinguished and lengthy music career of about 40 years, he constantly promoted Creole music styles such as ‘Cadanse‘( also spelled Cadance and Kadans) all over the world, thereby exposing international audiences to Dominica’s unique culture.
The tone was set very early that evening by some young talented singers, referred to as Dominica’s ‘Rising Stars’. They had all competed in local contests where they were voted crowd favourites. Some of these voices, such as Asher Thomas paid tribute to the late Jeff Jo by offering the appreciative audience renditions from the deceased musician’s repertoire, such as the ever popular ‘Soucouyant‘ (witch in Dominican folklore). The back-up band called Breve served up their own jazzed- up versions of Jeff Jo’s compositions. I was really intrigued by the lead singer/trumpeter and the saxophonist, who delivered a sweet warm blend of smooth tenor voice, mellow reedy tones and bright brassy sounds.
But the young singer who impressed me most didn’t actually touch the Creole genres on this night. She wowed the growing crowd with her delightful presentations of a couple of R+B tunes. Shamika Sorhaindo definitely knew how to hold the audience in the palm of her hand with lots of confidence despite a low-key stage presence. Her vocal quality is pleasing to the ear, whether she is singing in the upper or lower ends of her range. She is someone to follow and I wish her well! I also know that everyone who heard her must agree, as indicated by the strength of their applause.
As darkness fell and the grounds of the big stadium began to fill-up, I waited with great anticipation for the next act. My very favourite Dominican lady singers, Ophelia Marie and Michele Henderson (pronounced Mi-kel) were actually performing together as well as separately. Although these two renowned musicians are a generation apart, their mutual love of Creole music and international reputations continue to put Dominican music “on the map!”
Even though I do not speak Creole well enough to understand every word, these two Dominican chanteuses easily cross the language barrier with their expressive voices and commanding stage presence. The rhythms of the different genres of Creole music also have definite appeal and enable the sentiments of each song to be more easily understood. There is a certain passion which is found in the words and music which aids in interpreting the message contained in each piece. Creole music such as the ‘Cadanse‘ style did originate in the early 1970’s, when Dominica was struggling towards becoming an independent nation. The themes of many of the songs often portray a societal issue or a solidarity in terms of social conditions or tell a story about something that affects everyone. This unique form of music helps me to get a better ‘feel for’ and appreciation of the Dominican culture and its origins. I absolutely love it!
Michele started with a great mix of songs in English and Creole. She’s been on the circuit for over 15 years and knows how to reach a diverse audience. In my mind, her claim to fame, apart from a brilliant soprano voice, is her complete versatility and ability to sing in many different styles such as R+B, ‘cadanse‘,’ zouk, reggae, jazz and soul, to name a few. She is also an accomplished flautist, speaks/sings in English, French and Creole, and can constantly cover the stage with her energetic show(woman)ship! It is obvious that she sings with a passion that comes straight from her heart! I especially enjoyed hearing Dominique Vivan – a very patriotic song that incorporates some of Dominica’s national anthem; The Beat Goes On (her own composition) – an empowering rendition for women; and a song written by a Haitian called Roseau (Creole for a strong and resilient reed that grows along river banks) which Michele dedicated to Haiti and her people who continue to overcome many challenges.
After a smooth transition between the two chanteuses, Dominica’s ‘first lady of song’, Ophelia, then graced us with her presence on the stage. She is a veteran award-winning Creole singer with more than 30 years on the international circuit. Her intense cadanse renditions complemented her soulful and powerful contralto voice. Deliberate stage moves enraptured the spellbound audience, who sporadically cried out:”We love you, Ophelia!” Her enduring songs thrilled the crowd. Ophelia’s most famous composition, Aie Dominique – which refers to her passionate sentiments about Dominica in the 1970’s before Independence – really seemed to stir up memories for the devoted listeners. Two of my favourite chansons were: Dingolay a Creole version of a song by a Trinidadian calypsonian called ‘Shadow’ ; and the sexy and seductive Son Tambour La (written by Dominica’s Gordon Henderson of Exile One fame), sung with 2012 cadanse-lypso song competition champion Webster Marie Its Creole lyrics, including this partial translation: ” I hear the sound of the drum making waves in the country” really got the crowd moving their hips to the beat!
When Ophelia and Michele sang together to pay tribute to their departed colleague Jeff-Jo, I am sure there weren’t many dry eyes in the park. Their joint rendition of Chanson D’Amour (also written by cadanse-lypso icon Gordon Henderson) was particularly moving, as the two Creole divas blended their contrasting vocal qualities into lovely harmonies with heart-felt lyrics.
The night was no longer young when the Haitian group T Vice (who are based in Miami) turned up the heat and got the crowd jumping to the beat. Their very bouncy Creole style, called kompa was also mixed with a little reggae, merengue and flamenco. Additional electronic synthesizing of the sounds created an infectious and energetic rhythm that kept everyone warm as a cool wind began to blow down the Roseau Valley and into the stadium.
Then the tempo really mellowed as reggae rhythms filled the air with the appearance of Damian Marley, three-time Grammy award winner and son the late Bob Marley. While I do appreciate the genre, I remained focused on Creole music and related matters backstage. I was also deeply engrossed in conversation with Giselle Laurent, publisher of Domnitjen. This magazine specializes in a variety of subjects that are unique to Dominica, including the music!
It was clear that we were the odd women out, as the playing field of the stadium was now packed to capacity and the bleachers facing the stage were filled with enthusiastic and devoted fans. In the press conference following his powerful performance, it was evident that apart from Damien Marley’s tremendous musical gift, he is intent on sharing the Rastafarian philosophy of universal peace and love with the world. Much respect!
It was just a little after 2 a.m. when the Original Grammacks International performed a tribute set in honour of their late leader, Jeff Jo. My energy was really flagging at this point, as I had been at the show for about eight hours. I recognized that I was fading fast and would not be able to catch the last two acts. Just before I left the backstage area to hear a song or two from them, I had a brief conversation with ‘Chubby” Mark, lead singer of Dominica’s Chubby and the Midnight Groovers. Although I realized that I would not be able to stay for his band’s vintage cadanse ‘gig’ a couple of hours later, I did manage to have a brief conversation with him. Right then, I thanked him for his wonderful and enduring music, as the group has been in existence since the early 1970’s. Chubby smiled at me, took my hand, and looked into my eyes as he said, “Peace and love, my sister.” Talk about ending my night on a high note!
As I walked out of the stadium, my camera failed and I was unfortunately not able to get one last photo of Grammacks. However, I was serenaded by their classic cadanse renditions. Jeff Jo must have smiled down from heaven on the sweet sounds of every musician who performed on Sunday night at Dominica’s 16th annual World Creole Music Festival. Oh , what a show!
* With thanks to Michele Henderson and McCarthy Marie for Creole song translations.
** With appreciation to the Dominica Festivals Committee for providing me with a media pass.