What do you get when a skilled flautist decides he wants to enhance a performance with simultaneous vocal percussion? Flutebox, a portmanteau word blending the elements of flute and beatbox, and, though not unique or original to musician Providence Brown, a skill that made him a sought after performer in South East Asia where this Pleasantville, San Fernando native exploited his art for more than a decade from the mid 1990s.
Brown returned to Trinidad in 2012, and has since has married and opened a restaurant, but still performs. He spoke to the Trinidad and Tobago Guardian recently on his travels in Asia, and his experiences could be a guidebook for the modern Trinidadian music artiste looking to become a global player in our evolving music industry.
Lesson number one, it’s not who you know, but who knows you. After many years playing with Ras Shorty I & the Love Circle throughout the 1980s including on the seminal track “Watch Out My Children”, Brown got a call from Junia Regrello of Skiffle fame, that a contact—a music booking agent in Malaysia—was looking for a “Caribbean Band” to play in clubs there. Regrello, thinking that his flute playing buddy could fit the bill convinced him to give it a try, and after some travel document sourcing and a fifteen hour flight from London, Brown was plunked into the active hotel club music scene in bustling Kuala Lumpur in 1993.
First thrust into a reggae band Dread Iration, the then dreadlocked Brown fit the picture, and travelled with the band to neighbouring Singapore performing extended gigs at hotel clubs in that bustling commercial hub to ex-pats and locals alike. After a member of the band balked at a touring opportunity among universities in Wales, the decision to move to another band Chill Factor arose, and Brown was on the fast track to growing recognition.
With that band, he toured the South East Asian countries of Viet Nam, Thailand, Indonesia reaching as far as Taiwan, Hong Kong and ultimately Australia. Language was never a barrier in those countries as English was becoming the lingua franca of the region. The live music scene there was active and constant, but according to Brown, the economics didn’t seem to jibe perfectly with his needs. “I made money, but it never seemed to be enough to save,” says a reflective Brown. “The promoters always lavished us with fine hotel accommodations and food, but the money never took you very far.”
Another issue that played on his mind and is a constant fall back point in our conversation was the lack of support from Trinidad. “I was an ambassador, and there was no help from the country or embassy. (sic)” (In 2006, former PM Manning announced the intention of having a new mission in Kuala Lumpur. Trinidad and Tobago still has no diplomatic missions in the region, with the T&T Embassy only being established in China in 2013.)
Harsh reality made for another move. Brown moved to a third band, and one that would have an impact on his career beyond simple hotel club gigs. Common Culture was the band that allowed Brown to compose, record and produce music videos, a couple of which are on YouTube: “Vibes,” a funky new jack swing among them.
A multi-national outfit with musicians from Africa, the Caribbean and Malaysia, this band was a fertile proving ground for making music that had impact culminating with the band receiving an award in Bangkok for being the number one band in the club scene. From the context of the modern Trinidad and Tobago attempting, yet again, to retrofit the idea of a music industry with international appeal via state apparatus and mandates, the hard-earned experience of those foreign musicians, far from home, making it is a case study worthy of analysis and marked emulation.
Brown noted that there is intense competition among instrumentalist in the South East Asian hotel club circuit, which forced the idea of diversifying and innovating his repertoire. Along with the flute, he played the steelpan and percussion, but his greatest commercial hook was to come from seeing a video on the internet of rhythm flute pioneers RadioActive of the band Spearhead, and Tim Barsky beatboxing while simultaneously playing the pan-flute and concert flute respectively. He saw potential where there was a void.
After meeting a beatbox artist in Malaysia who wanted to learn the flute, they exchanged ideas and skill sets as Brown wanted to learn beatboxing as a precursor to fluteboxing. It took Brown months to learn it. “Timing and rhythm are the most important things to know about flutebox,” notes Brown. Tongue, lips teeth, that guttural grunt, exhalation, hissing, all mimic drum and percussion sounds. That rapid exhalation to create vocal rhythm has to balance with the subtle embouchure changes, whispers and soft blowing to create the sound of rhythmic flute. As if that was not enough to enchant, he would also combine short bursts of spoken word passages in between the flute music.
Brown was in a unique position in the region. Literally. As fortune would have it, the band Common Culture was at the point of demise as he grew into a skilled fluteboxer, segueing into a career as a solo act, sometimes performing with the hugely respected Malaysian master drummer Lewis Pragasam or Brazilian percussionist Valtinho Anastacio, performing jazz in a duet configuration, and often with a DJ in the number one club in Kuala Lumpur, the legendary No Black Tie. In demand on the circuit, he was able to get performance opportunities at the internationally famous F1 race events for BMW and Mercedes in the city from 2006-2009.
Malaysia, Brown’s home base at the time, seemed to be the ideal launching pad for a music career with no rear-view mirror looking back to the Caribbean. He was performing for Prime Ministers and on stages with international music stars like Jocelyn Brown, he had formed a production company that was working for him providing him with work in recordings and live performance. But the question that lingered was why would he give all that up and return to Trinidad where a state plan of action to re-activate the music industry (as well as fashion and film industries) by making it “commercially viable and attractive to the private sector, so the private sector would take over” remained moribund.
His simple answer was that “he wasn’t going anywhere despite making money.” His other explanation was revealing a larger picture not consumed locally. The un-enduring circumstance of religious government weighed heavily on any future for Brown in Malaysia. Islam is central to and dominant in Malay culture. Providence Brown was living a Naipaulian reality. He was among the believers! The government considered his music haram. Something had to give.
The return from exile was not bittersweet though. Married now, and dread locks long gone, he is enhancing his skills even further with piano studies alongside teaching and doing workshops. After 32 years in music, Providence Brown is plotting his new path that includes a new band D Network Company Band featuring Marlon Modeste on keys, Glen Dixon on guitar. He is finding his feet in the local industry, but with a wealth of practical experience in the world of music beyond the boundary, his worth is yet to be fully achieved.
- A version of this article appears in the Trinidad and Tobago Guardian newspapers published as, “Flautist on fluteboxing journey”
© 2015, Nigel A. Campbell. All Rights Reserved.