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Monday 13th August 2018

By Joanne C. Hillhouse.

I’m not going to dive too deeply into the debate about foreign vs. loooooocal music on Antigua’s roads this past Carnival. Or any of the other debates. Things change. Each new generation has to put its stamp on things while those of us firmly in the grown up category shake our fists at the clouds while griping about how much we miss Dynamics and Revellers because that was mas (!); how t-shirt mas is nothing more than J’ouvert in the afternoon; how the Queen show needs to be brought back in to the Carnival instead of being a pre-Carnival event; how Children’s Carnival scheduling needs to make sense and mid-week doesn’t make sense for parents, business, onlookers, nor the children themselves; how mas belongs in the city because outside of the city it’s too spread out and doesn’t feel the same; how the alcohol overindulgence has gotten out of hand; how Carnival was once upon a time as much about artistic expression and creativity as it was a party but the scale seems to have tipped almost exclusively towards the party… We do a lot of griping (these are gripes I’ve either heard or said). Some is just that, griping; everyone’s going to have a different opinion and that too is part of the bacchanal. Some of it, though, is legit. Parsing between the two is a job for the Carnival post-mortem which I assume will be taking place shortly. Kudos to all who put in the hard work of pulling off the event that just marked its 61st anniversary as a summer festival (shout out to the Christmas masquerade that pre-dated it).

What I want to talk about though amidst the foreign vs. local music debate is Burning Flames, the band that debuted Stylie Tight in the mid-1980s and within the crush of the crowd and the pull of the music, unleashed something new, making crowds feel like they could dance forever. The Flames have licked in different directions since the late 90s split – Burning Flames with Oungku at the helm, Burning Flames with Onyan at the helm, Oungku’s Red Hot Flames and now Red Hot Nation; it’s all Flames to us (though admittedly none of it as special as the original awesome foursome). And there was a time when the road march belonged to them (they’ve taken it home in some form or other 21 times, 22 if you count Flames offspring Ezzy Rattigan). Well, after a bit of a drought (Onyan’s Flames last winning in 2012 with Kick een She Back Doh and Oungku’s Flames last winning in 2009 with Trademark), Flames (via Red Hot Nation) won road march this year, even if some felt like they were hearing the 2018 tune, Gallop, for the first time when it was announced as the winner (per one friend’s social media post which got enough likes to suggest this person was not alone).

It’s not exactly Flames top 10 material but as someone said in that thread, a decision had to be made, and in a year where the local music didn’t particularly find favour with the DJs, why not Flames.

Flames leader, Sir Oungku, once declared himself The Magician in a tune, I command You, that is Flames top 10 material, and their win can be taken as a reminder that he still has the magic.

An interesting feature of the road for me in 2018 was that while it’s true that there wasn’t a lot of local music on the road during the parade (I wasn’t in town for J’ouvert so I can’t say for that), the Flames nostalgia was high. All season, samples and references were heard in soca songs like Lee Pee Ching’s Mas Man – “we love to play mas” – and he wasn’t the only one; and Halcyon came in third with a rendition of Ah Rudeness Mek Me, another one for the Flames top 10, at this year’s Panorama – this show being one of the highlights of Carnival, by the way, though there were sound issues due to the re-location of the bands. This is a testament to the enduring appeal of their music, to the fact that Antigua has produced catchy Carnival tunes and classics, to the indisputable impact they’ve had on re-mapping the soca rhythm (in fact, it wasn’t even called soca music though it fits nicely in that genre, it was called jam band music as it was something more rambunctious and youthful than soca when it hit). Flames were pioneers in this genre – the ones to model – and not just among Antiguan bands; their music travelled (e.g. Workey Workey being remade by Byron Lee and the Dragonaires back in the day). At one time they were our Beatles – cocky and musically innovative, with a pied piper like effect on the crowd (especially the girls), colourful and more intoxicating than rum (see 80s and 90s era Jam Pond, the free concert they gave every Carnival, and Lions, the paid concert that was a staple of the season for many years, for reference); they even came with the drama – the break ups to make up; but they put their stamp on Carnival (note I didn’t just say Antigua’s Carnival). None of that is hyperbole; ask any real one.

And lest the music and lyrics be written off, as it has been, as nursery rhymish, one of my favourite interviews to date has been with Sir Oungku himself in his studio just talking about how he creates (there is a signature, a topicality, a groundedness, and that je ne sais quoi that gets the crowd moving whether singing about the most devastating hurricane or the once in a life time eclipse) – someday I’ll dig up that tape and transcribe the whole thing.

But in 2018, for whatever reason local music continued to slip into the background of its own party – at least on the road, despite the popularity of the Party Monarch, which took over Sunday night (sidebar: Calypso, which traditionally held down the Sunday night, put in a good showing on its new night as if to say, a la Short Shirt, Ah coming for me crown). Crowd response during the show points to the songs’ and performers’ appeal but somehow this isn’t translating to the road. At least not this year. And let’s be real it’s not exactly about currency, as many of the off-island songs played by the DJs whether hip hop, dancehall, or soca were not all that recent either. The old school Flames songs playing throughout the parade fit right in, providing some sweet nostalgia jump up and, with its latest track, the band managed to gallop to a 22nd (23rd?) road march victory.

Not sure if the title quite means road dominance anymore given the DJs’ proclivities for music from other places, but that’s longevity.

This sponsored post originally appeared on Jhohadli; contact Jhohadli/Joanne C. Hillhouse. This installment is sponsored by teen/YA novel Musical Youth. If you wish to sponsor a future post in support of coverage of Antiguan and Barbudan arts and culture, contact jhohadli@gmail.com. All Rights Reserved.

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