Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Don leaves a great vibe for the beat of life

DON CHARLES is a Grenadian music icon – but many may not know it if they were not paying close attention.

But they would have heard it – without knowing it

Charles was the man in charge of engine of the island’s music, not the showy ‘upfronter’ looking to soak up the applause.

A generation has grown up under his music influences, manufactured under the label MOSS.

He has never convinced me what it really meant – but a long time ago it was decided is means Masters of Sweet Sounds.

So that was the story – and everyone stuck to it.

It made sense anyhow, because in reality it was true.

Don – and his brothers Ricky and Leon – and their friends from around St Mary’s Road in Grenville came together in 1974 to establish Moss.

And they were to give an independent nation, the birth of its new sound.

A few years later, Moss established Kalypso Kastle, which for about a decade and some, was Grenada’s foremost calypso tent. Indeed the heights they reached –n in terms of packaging, organization, marketing and execution – have not since been surpassed.

There was a historic generational shift in appreciation for local calypso music by 1978 – the marquee breakout year for the Super Tent, the forerunner to the Kastle, and the period when Don introduced the synthesizer – which was the best thing then – to his arrangements.

Some of Grenada’s best calypsonians are graduates of the Kastle:

  • the late Timpo and African Teller – who won major crowns in the earlier 80s;

  • Squeezie (in the days we used to spell it Squeezy) who established himself early on as a road march champion on the melody that Don made.

  • Mr Dee, the first prince of Grenadian calypso soul

  • Darius, the master of satire from The Party Done to Ras,

  • Black Wizard, in his second coming after the days of Young Baron

  • Singing MC, and Leon Antoine, and

  • the discovery of a young Randy Isaac, doing his breakout hit FREE SOUTH AFRICA.

The influences went beyond those who worked directly with the Kastle.

Just ask the likes of Ajamu and Smokey who speak highly of the influences Moss and the Kastle had on their formative years.

Ajamu has the highest respect and felt that the least he could have done was invite him as a player at his highly successful 25th anniversary concert last year.

It was the house that Don built that set up Grenada’s post music industry since Independence.

Those who complain it has not gone further maybe missed the point. Don was always a little head of the time.

Those foundations were laid in an album of top class called CAN IT BE that the band produced in 1978, which included what to me what is an all time, yet under-rated Grenadian classic Slaves Living In Luxury -- (where is the cover anybody) – and the equally impressive and more widely played You’re Gone, showcasing Agnes Forrester at her best.

The album, one of first high class Grenadian recording of our generation, introduced us as well, to the soulful singing of the Laldee brothers and a young Agnes Forrrester.

By then the baton had genuinely passed from Rhythm Riders – which up to independence was the band of Grenada,

Through the years, Moss International under Don’s guidance, churned out the big ones – Caribbean Party Music (made popular in the days of Radio Antilles), Too Hot, Party Animals, Dance The Night Away, Bacchanal Breeze, the ‘anthemic’ Join Hands and of course the most celebrated of them – that haunting road march from 1991 Jambalassie Rule.

The song was to have been called ‘Same Damn Thing’ – but then somebody said in one of those creative sessions – that would be hard for any announcer to say that on the radio.

Did not think we had a hit on our hands, until Singing MCs magic was captured on the camera at a 5 AM video shoot at the back of the studio.

We were rushing to completion – because carnival was about 10 days away – and it was already late.

When we were finished, we were discussing – is Grenada ready for this? Will they grasp it?

We nervously sent it on to radio and TV and hoped for the best.

The truth is, we suspected, people partied to the song because of its irresistible hooks and haunting melodies, pleasingly transformed in song by the charisma of a young Singing MC in his prime.

Perhaps it was after the carnival was over– that many noticed – this was a seriously sneering political commentary.

You say to stain we finger
But only one year later
The country catching heart failure

You vote, you doh vote same damn thing
The heart and the hand, same damn thing

Jambalassie was the song that was almost never made – that’s why it came out so late for the carnival of 1991.

The band was in studio months before working on al alternative album concept called THE BEAT OF LIFE, with no mind on doing music for the carnival of this year.

But then belatedly in one of the sessions, the issue was raised about the need to contribute to carnival – and that after so many years it would be an anomaly not to.
Somebody suggested – I think it was Singing MC – that we do something rooted in Grenadian culture; something that has a sought of ‘jab jab’ feel.

It was then the creative genius of Don went to work in creating what turned out to be the Grenadian soundtrack.

Jambalassie Rule established the authentic Grenadian sound that has been so well exploited years later by the likes of Tallpree, who used it to make Old Woman Alone, a regional hit, and by General Pepe who won road march in 2004 with Never Say Never, a direct and deliberately intended sampling of the original road march of 13 years earlier.

The chants of modern day Lava Man and Don Carlos - are rooted in that authentic Grenadian sound Don manufactured, as much as there are influences by the urban vibe from Jamaica and the USA.

Jambalassie Rule, was the first Grenadian song to have been nominated for a Caribbean Music Award back in 1992.

It was the first Grenadian soca that played extensively on the regional carnival circuit – long before Flying Cloud's Raise Your Hand, or Tallpree’s Old Woman and Super P’s Peeping could have made their mark.

Moss International made its mark oversees, doing the Caribana circuit from 1990 to 1995, opening the festival on one occasion, as well as the New York Labour Day scene from 1991-1994. Those were days before it became fashionable for Grenadian carnival acts to appear at those festivals.

The group was also Grenada’s representative at the CARIFESTA Festival in Trinidad in 1992, and served as the opening act of a young Lucky Dube at a concert in Boston.

Moss was not only the first Grenadian act to have produced music videos, but among the first in the Caribbean – just when that aspect of the music industry was being promoted internationally through the establishment and explosion the American network MTV.

Those were the days in the 1980s of the three quarter machines (long before beta, mini DV and digital) – expensive and bulky. Don found it necessary to invest in it – and inspite devoid of all the effects we yearned for, still had fun using the system.

Only last month he spoke about transferring all those analog tapes into some digital format.

Like the Jambalassie video – now I think we need to rush to completion.

There was a project called THE BEAT OF LIFE – an unreleased album that has been nearly 20 years in the making.

It is another one that maybe needs to be rushed to completion.

For all the tings he accomplished – as a musician, a businessman, a travel industry specialist, and a father – Don’s his biggest gift was his temperament.

He was one cool dude under pressure. He was never flustered when things went wrong. He was never complaining when a session that was supposed to end at midnight went until 5 AM.

He never had any recriminations when one of the bold experiments went wrong.

Never fretting he would calmly say: “Let’s try something else”

Don had wonderful sense of humor and he could have found the funny side even in the most difficult circumstances.

It was that same sense he had, even when he was facing the battle of his life, threatened by this invasive cancer – when he told me – “I am making the best of it; but I have had my good days and my bad days.”

When we got the news on the weekend – it was decidedly one of the bad days – for all of us.

In a generation of making good music, it was as if finally one bad note was played.

But thankfully there are so many good memories in this beat of life.


  1. And Thank You Hamlet for a very well written tribute to Don's work.
    My formulative years in the appreciation of calypso, particularly Grenadian calypso, is very heavily influenced by that irresistible sound Don created.
    A Genius has gone on!

  2. An excellent tribute to Don Charles. Don was a great musician and an even greater human being. The last time I saw Don was at the Anglican Church in St. George's at the 2004 wedding ceremony of Harold Pysadee. A very bearded man was sitting not too far from me when he called, "Toro.'' I turned, looked and recognized it was Don. I said, "Man, I didn't realize it was you, Don. I thought it was some kind of Taliban sitting there.'' Rest in Peace, Don.

    Toro Depradine

  3. Could not have said it any better Hamlet. I too have had the honour of working along with Don in my early years as a Calypsonian. He will surely live on in the memories of many many persons, particularly those of us who interacted intimately with him in the field of Music. May his sould rest in peace.

  4. nice job gave an intimate feel to a heady time in Grenada's cultural revival...a pity that tragedy always is the key which opens the door to our archives...

    RIP Don...always so cool...

  5. Thanks Hamlet for a truly inspired tribute. I am someone who loved this man very much and I will truly miss him. He was a wonderful friend and the love of my life. Au revoir mon ami. Rest in peace.

  6. Nice reflection on his life.

    I remember working with him in the studio doing my early recordings. He was just cool and level headed. A master musician. RIP Don.

    Teacher Eddie