Rupert Lay’s got the heart of a musician. He’s had a finger on the pulse of the industry ever since he was old enough to recognize music went way beyond flashy crooners and their snazzy notes. In May this year he performed at the Saint Lucia Summer Festival and again at the Burton Agnes Jazz & Blues Festival in the UK.
His Rupert Lay Quartet is a jazz ensemble best known for incorporating local folk music and modern day sounds. Rupert loves his art, as he says, because of the freedom it offers; for him music is a way of life. Added to that he’s always felt that Saint Lucia’s dual heritage, shared between the British and the French, has been something of a blessing, particularly relating to depth of culture and diversity. But with a melting pot of talent at its disposal, the musician believes the local creative industry continues to stop short of its full potential.
“When I look at what obtains here I see the problems stemming from way back,” he said during a sit down this week with the STAR. “From my point of view we are where we are now because we dropped the ball in the 80s. What normally helps with music and the industry in general is an identity; a musical identity. I refer back to that time when the Tru Tones [led by Boo Hinkson in the 60s, with a fine Saint Lucian following in the UK] had an album called ‘Power Struggle’. The music on that album, I believe, pointed the direction forward. It was a fusion of music that reflected what we were being influenced by.”
Around that same time names like Mervin Francois, Emerson Nurse, Mike Rivers, Clarence Joseph and others shone bright. The standard of musicianship was high and there was an almost palpable camaraderie propelling the industry forward. Rupert likened the atmosphere to what existed prior to the emergence of Bob Marley, Third World, Inner Circle and Burning Spear. The power struggle period!
“Back then there were other musicians and bands like Survival and Rebirth Seven,” Rupert added. “There was a lot of creativity alluding to identity. But then, all of a sudden, the industry imploded.”
He identified a number of contributory factors including that musicians were not then, neither now, unionized. There was no collective voice to speak on behalf of musicians.
“That is what I would call an enabling environment, specifically to do with policy,” Rupert said. Beyond that was the lack of proper performance venues, although bands like the Tru Tones, with their popularity, often went around the island performing their hits for fans.
Performance venues are even more scarce today, with little hope the situation will improve any time soon.
“The existing locations that are seemingly permanent were never designed for that sort of thing,” Rupert said. “They were afterthoughts. The message to young aspiring musicians—and this is where I believe we’re failing ourselves—is that what they do is undeserving of a home.”
With a national population nearing 180,000 Rupert believes, as did the Walcotts for most of their lives, that Saint Lucia’s performance artists deserve better.
“When I speak of a physically enabling environment I speak beyond musicians,” Rupert explained. “I also speak for comedians, for dancers, for actors . . . for all the various branches of the performing arts. This is something we need to look at seriously if we really want the creative industry to flourish.”
Of course an enabling environment would be nothing without a local critical mass. “A clear example is reflected in the Jamaica experience,” Rupert added. “The whole Jamaican product happened because of the critical mass that I speak of, and the enabling environment. There was a community, and there still is, but it was even stronger back when the musicians that were around knew each other personally. They created because they knew there were places they could play and be appreciated.”
Also on Rupert Lay’s list of necessities are professionally operated public recording facilitates capable of handling whatever genre an artist might desire. He spoke specifically of “an established state-of-the-art studio setting with experienced people who can nurture and develop the arts.”
In terms of developing our musical identity: “If you look at Jamaica, Reggae and Jamaica are almost synonymous; as are Trinidad and Calypso. In Saint Lucia, I think we missed an opportunity because of the fact that we have that French and English fusion, and when I spoke about that ‘Power Struggle’ album, it had a genre of music we used to call Cadanse— which is a mixture of French and English music. You still hear it in Martinique and Guadeloupe; they have developed their own spin on that genre, but we had ours, and we dropped the ball.”
Continuing to use the Jamaica music model as a point of reference, Rupert attributed that country’s musical prowess to the depth of its roots that had existed long before the emergence of Bob Marley and afforded a foundation for his own artistic development.
“Bob Marley was a product of that strong, enabling environment,” Rupert affirmed, adding that in order to create there first needed to be natural progression where the critical mass would always be there to support.
“But it has to be natural,” he said, “and the only way you get it naturally is when you bring it to the masses.”
He painted a picture of an artist growing right before the eyes of a supportive nation, compelled to refine his or her ideas simply because of the presence of accommodating venues and other avenues for building his or her craft. The final genre “may or may not be what they originally started with but then it becomes something. All of a sudden other people in the industry beyond your shores begin to listen. They’re hearing it only because now it has a life of its own, and an identity that is different from whatever else other countries are doing. It becomes a question of how that identity fits into the mainstream. But whether it does or not, it has that life.”
He paused before continuing: “Music is not, should not, and cannot be seasonal. Life is not seasonal, and music reflects life itself. It has to be everyday . . .”
[To be continued next issue]