The Caribbean has always produced great performers whose music is adored worldwide. Jamaican music is the best known and mostly widely played but Trinidad has by far the longest history of recorded music.
10 Calypso Rose
Calypso Rose is a legendary calypso singer who is still going strong at 77. She wrote the song Fire in Me Wire in 1966, the first calypso ever running two years in a row at the Trinidad Carnival. She was so good, she performed with Bob Marley and the Wailers at the Grand Ballroom in New York City in 1967. In 1978 the Trinidad Road March competition’s title was changed to Calypso Monarch in her honour.
Rose has been living in New York since 1983 but has never deviated too far from her Trinidadian calypso roots.
A compilation, Calypso Sound system featuring Calypso Rose, Queen of Calypso for 40 years! was released by label Because Music in 2016. Rose released her album, Far from Home, in June 2016 and won the 2017 World Music Album of the Year prize at French music award ceremony Les Victoires de la Musique. In 2017 the album was awarded platinum sale status in France, a first for any artist from Trinidad and Tobago. Her classics include Soca Jam, I Thank Thee and Her Majesty.
9 Dennis Bovell
Bovell is a legendary figure in reggae circles and the arts generally. A guitarist and music producer, he was born in 1953, in Saint Peter, Barbados, and moved to England with his family aged 12 where he became immersed in the vibrant reggae scene in London. He was a member of several British-based reggae bands, including Matumbi, and released dub and reggae discs under his own name as well as the pseudonym Blackbeard. Matumbi’s After Tonight and Man In Me are lover’s rock classics, as is Bovell’s song Silly Games, sung by Janet Kay, which is widely played in dances today and helped Kay’s career enormously. Bovell has produced albums by a wide variety of artists including I-Roy, The Thompson Twins, The Pop Group and The Slits. He has collaborated with dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson for much of his working life.
8 Buju Banton
Buju Banton burst on the Jamaican dancehall scene in the early Nineties. I saw the skinny teenager at the 1992 Sunsplash in Montego Bay and he tore it up. His hits that summer included Bogle, Love Me Browning and Love Black Woman in quick succession. His success then also included the homophobic Boom Bye Bye which earned the youngster international notoriety with gay rights groups and led to Buju’s touring opportunities to be curtailed. After that he turned Rasta and his output was more mature with conscious songs that championed the cause for the poverty-stricken, disadvantaged and oppressed. Til Shiloh and Inna Heights are regarded as two of the finest reggae albums ever. The wonderful Til Shiloh (1995) was an influential album, using a studio band instead of synthesized music, and marking a slight shift away from dancehall towards roots reggae. Buju turned rasta and his new album reflected his new beliefs. Til Shiloh is one of the greatest dancehall albums of all time and successfully blended conscious lyrics with a hard-hitting dancehall vibe. It included a single Murderer which condemned the violence in Jamaican dancehall music, inspired by the murders of dancehall musicians Panhead and Dirtsman. The song inspired several clubs to stop playing songs with excessively violent subject matter. This conscious album had a large impact on dancehall music and showed the hunger the dancehall massive had for conscious lyrics. Dancehall music did not move away from slack and violent lyrics, but the album did pave the way for a greater spirituality within the music. My favourites of Buju’s huge body of work include Destiny, Til I’m Laid to Rest, Hush Baby Hush, Untold Stories and African Pride.
Buju has spent most of the past decade incarcerated in a U.S. jail for his involvement in a cocaine deal but should be released by the end of next year to continue his career.
7 Lee “Scratch” Perry
Lee “Scratch” Perry is one of the most influential people in the development of reggae and dub music in Jamaica. He began his career in the late 1950s working with Clement Coxsone Dodd’s sound system. He eventually performed a variety of important tasks at Studio One as well as recording about 30 songs, but the pair eventually stopped working together due to personality and financial conflicts.
Perry has produced the work of many top Jamaican artists, including Bob Marley and the Wailers, Gregory Isaacs, The Heptones, and Max Romeo as well at the British punk band The Clash. He also worked with great ‘toasters’ such as U-Roy, Prince Jazzbo, I-Roy and Big Youth.
6 Lord Kitchener
Lord Kitchener was an internationally renowned Trinidadian calypsonian who died in 2000 aged 77. London Is the Place for Me, which he sang live on a report for Pathé News, endeared him to the Brits in 1948. Within two years he was a regular performer on BBC radio, and was much in demand for live performances. He found further success in the U.K. in the 1950s, building a large following in the expatriate communities of the Caribbean islands, and having hits with Kitch, Food from the West Indies, Tie Tongue Mopsy, and Alec Bedser Calypso, while remaining popular in T&T. He immortalised the defining moment for many of the migrants in writing Cricket, Lovely Cricket to celebrate West Indies’ victory over England, in the 2nd Test at Lord’s in June 1950. Kitchener returned to Trinidad in 1962. He and the Mighty Sparrow dominated the calypso competitions for the next two decades. Kitchener won the road march competition ten times between 1965 and 1976, more times than any other calypsonian. For 30 years, he ran his own calypso tent, Calypso Revue, within which he nurtured the talent of many calypsonians.
Kitchener recorded his most commercially successful song, and one of the earliest soca hits, Sugar Bum Bum, in 1978. Sugar Bum Bum is still popular in dances today. The opening bars are guaranteed to create a stir in any party. Gimme De Ting is another fantastic Kitchener tune that gets the feet stomping. He is honoured with a statue in Port of Spain.
5 Peter Tosh
Tosh was a founding member of The Wailers, and went on to have a successful solo career after their album Burnin’. Tosh was born in Petersfield (Westmoreland, Jamaica) by parents too young to take care of him. He grew up raised by his aunt. Nicknamed “Stepping Razor”, he began to sing and learn guitar at an early age, inspired by American radio stations. Tosh’s solo career included a series of major hits. The year after his departure from the Wailers he released Legalize It, a record heavily promoting Rastafarian issues, most notably the use of marijuana. More important than this however was his political impact, especially in pro-black issues. Whilst his former band mate Bob Marley became world renowned for his uplifting but universally relevant spiritualism, Tosh was always more interested in catering to the more militant pan-Africanists of the world. His second album, Equal Rights, released in 1977, is a prime example of his politics, including songs like African, Downpressor Man and I Am that I Am. To establish a larger fan base, Tosh signed with The Rolling Stones record label for three albums. Bush Doctor featured a duet with Mick Jagger on You Gotta Walk (And Don’t Look Back), and Keith Richards on Bush Doctor. Wanted Dread and Alive, and Mystic Man followed before he moved to EMI for Mama Africa. Though robbery was officially stated as the reason for Tosh’s death, many believe that there were ulterior motives to the killing, citing that nothing was taken from the house. No Nuclear War recorded before his death won Tosh a Grammy Award. Tosh was shot dead by gunmen in 1987, aged 42. Although robbery was the official reason, nothing was stolen from him and the real reason is still unknown.
4 Jimmy Cliff
Jimmy Cliff is the only living musician to hold the Order of Merit, the highest honour that can be granted by the Jamaican government for achievements in the arts and sciences. Cliff is best known among mainstream audiences for songs such as Wonderful World, Beautiful People, Many Rivers to Cross, You Can Get It If You Really Want and The Harder They Come, and his covers of Cat Stevens’s Wild World and Johnny Nash’s I Can See Clearly Now. He starred in the film The Harder They Come, which helped popularise reggae across the world, and Club Paradise. Cliff was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2010. At 69 he still tours extensively. In 2011 he dueted on British TV with Jools Holland and sang Many Rivers to Cross with such passion and emotion it was as if he had just written it. Amazing.
3 Dennis Brown
In 1976 I was blessed to see a teenage Dennis Brown perform as the opening act for none other than Bob Marley at the Rainbow Theatre in Finsbury’s Park, north London. That experience is seared in my memory. I actually enjoyed Brown as much as Bob and it is no wonder Marley said that his crooning compatriot was his favourite singer. Bob was the king and Brown proudly carried the mantle of Crown Prince of Reggae. Dennis Emmanuel Brown was a child star. His first hit was No Man is an Island which is still a classic. Money in My Pocket is his best known song, which charted in the U.K. in 1978 but there are numerous Brown singles and albums which established him as Jamaica’s second most popular reggae performer. Man Next Door, Coming Home Tonight, Equal Rights, Funny Feeling, Sitting and Watching, Here I Come and Wolf & Leopards are just a few of the hundreds of gems he is loved for. Brown sadly died from cocaine addiction in 1999, aged 42.
2 Mighty Sparrow
With his ultra-sweet vocals and lyrics that speak of romance and topical politics, Mighty Sparrow rose to the heights of Trinidadian calypso. Best known for his hits Jean and Dinah in 1956 and Carnival Boycott in 1957, Sparrow is an 11-time winner of the calypso monarchy and an eight-time winner of Trinidad and Tobago’s Carnival Road March competition. Born to a poor working-class family in Gran Roi, a small fishing village in Grenada, Sparrow moved to Trinidad at the age of one. At the age of 14, he formed a steel band to perform at the Carnival, sparking his interest in calypso. Teaching himself to play guitar, Sparrow began to write his own songs. Winning the Carnival competition with Jean and Dinah, he received a grand prize of $40. In protest, he wrote a scorching indictment of the Trinidadian music industry, Carnival Boycott. Despite his refusal to compete in the Carnival contests for the next three years, Sparrow became one of the Caribbean’s most successful artists. He is still performing to rapturous crowds at 82.
1 Bob Marley
A day never goes by without me thinking of Bob Marley. The impact he had on the world music scene is immense. He became a global figure way before he passed oh so too early, aged 36, in 1981 from cancer. Among the numerous accolades bestowed on Bob, were the United Nations Peace Medal, awarded in 1978 “on behalf of 500 million Africans” and the selection of his 1977 Exodus album by Time
magazine in 1999 as the greatest album of the 20th century. The New York Times chose a Marley concert video to be placed in a time capsule and buried in a vault under their office at the end of the last millennium, not to be unearthed until the close of this millennium, to best represent the culture of our times. His music still generates millions of dollars every year for his family.
Honourable mentions: Gregory Isaacs, David Rudder, Destra Garcia, John Holt, Barrington Levy and Alison Hinds.