It is 2016 and I am discovering a wealth of island funk through a compilation put out by a boutique German record label. That’s not a fact that is useful from a critical perspective, but on a personal level I can’t stop thinking about it. Had you told me when I was a child living in Puerto Rico that this is what the future would bring, I don’t think I would have understood. But here I am, digging into Black Pearl’s Message from the Islands compilation, uncovering sounds from Trinidad and Tobago’s ’70s funk heyday, marveling at the way digital distribution has essentially killed off regional sounds yet has also broadened them by allowing people across the globe to integrate works from every era and every location into their sound.
As far as Message from the Islands’ own regional sound goes, the focus is more on percussion than bass, making the funk aspect of the material more theoretical; these are all groove oriented songs, aimed at swaying hips and making you feel good, but where American funk often let the beat stay static in order for keyboard and bass to come front and center, this is a compilation of frenetic rhythms and swaying, breezy horn lines. There’s a heavy amount of soul influence in the tracks, particularly in message songs like Rolph Marcial and Esquires Now’s “Black People,” which pairs a Bobby Womack-esque vocal performance with a slack Dramatics musical vibe, except instead of staying at a consistent pace it ebbs and flows, giving it an appropriately tidal feel that Chicago and Detroit soul and funk never had.
Even in the more futurist electro-funk numbers, such as Jackie Johnson’s Tobago Back Beaters’ “Tobago Beat,” the pace is nearly breakneck, putting it in stark contrast to Funkadelic’s syrupy atomic funk. Those familiar with Strut’s excellent Funky Nassau compilation, which rounded up recordings mostly made by American and British artists in the Bahamas, will pick up on some of the island sounds that were integrated there but the Trinidad and Tobagan strain of island funk is more frenzied the comparatively chill and relaxed Bahamian and Jamaican varieties. Where the artists on the compilation have patched in American funk and soul sounds, they’ve done so with a twist. Take Last Supper’s “Black Ball,” which begins as a Stax-like organ number before dropping the organ down towards the bottom of the mix and letting fuzz guitar and a heavy bass move to the center while a proto-disco beat develops in the chorus. If “The Devil is Dope” had been a hard hitting party track instead of a distraught, cautionary drug ode, it might have sounded like this.
Many of the tracks Black Pearl assembled here are similarly jarring in their progressiveness, with the epic “Waste Not Want Not” by Ken Haywood serving as a particularly impressive example. Starting with the kind of beat that post-punk acts like Liquid Liquid and A Certain Ratio would later pillage to great effect, “Waste Not Want Not” then drops in eerie, nearly atonal horn licks that clear the air for Haywood’s commanding vocal, whirring synths occasionally popping up in the background of the mix. Though the song is absolutely funky and addictive, it has a macabre quality to it that makes it stand out as utterly unique, like Haywood is criticizing greedy friends and family from the afterlife. Frends’ pulls off a similarly haunting vibe on the appropriately named “Mystery Music,” where seemingly broken electronics collide with far off steel drums before soul horns enter the fray and give you something to hold onto.
Though some of the sounds gathered on Message from the Islands undoubtedly did make it into the New York and Toronto music scenes in the latter part of the ’70s, a la mambo and salsa in the ’60s, it’s interesting to think about how these sounds can get integrated today, now that music subcultures from different regions and times can be discovered and disseminated with remarkable ease. Black Pearl’s work hunting down and curating this work deserves acclaim, but it also deserves a follow-up, as the dozen tracks assembled here only leave you wanting to know what else these islands created in the same time, what they created after, what they’re creating now.
Message from the Islands ships May 1st but you can preorder it now via Bandcamp.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover
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