My editor at the T&T Guardian newspaper has recently pushed me towards profiling unheralded musicians in this country deserving of wider accolade, and that investigative direction has shone a light on not only the varied and vast talent pool on the islands, but the range of milieus within which our artists perform and eke out a living here. Juliet Robin, a singer, composer, arranger, producer and teacher who is proficient on a number of instruments, was unique in being the only female musician in iconic band Roy Cape Kaiso All Stars, and continues to tread a thin line between fame and infamy, sustenance and frustration in the local music industry.
Robin has been performing for over thirty years, a fact belied by her youthful look, and has an upcoming show at the new Kaiso Blues Café in Newtown on Saturday 18 July with her band, and will launch her post-Carnival release “Strange Things” on the August Riddim produced by Neil Alexander and Curtis Bling. She wrote the lyrics and melody. That song, a reggae groover, is a political commentary asking for divine intervention in the country where “them politicians seem to be unstable and their behaviour seems to be disgraceful,” acts which Robin sees as “strange.” In light of her renewed significance, T&T Guardian spoke to Robin to get an clearer perspective on her career and role in the industry.
The daughter of a former Director of Culture, Robin was classically trained in string, woodwind and keyboard instruments and specializes in the violin, clarinet and piano. She recently added the bass to her arsenal of sound. As noted before, she started her career as a performer three decades ago in the mid 1980s playing in all the popular bands of the day and subsequently working the restaurant circuit as a solo singer keyboardist. “I worked with Roy Cape, Mano Marcellin, Andre Tanker, Shandileer, Charlie’s Roots both as a keyboardist and a background vocalist.”
Notably, the Roy Cape gig was a pioneering one for her and indeed the industry. Roy Cape speaking to Jocelyne Guilbault said, “In all these years, I only had one female musician in the band from 1989 to 1992: Juliet Robin, a keyboard player.” Cape also remarked on the nature of the music business here: “music was always regarded in Trinidad as a man’s game. The music business is rough and tumble. So you did not have many females.” She remarked that her attempts at joining bands earlier were rebuffed with the excuse that there were no “facilities for changing” available! This debut on the “soca stage” would take her abroad up the islands, into North America and across to Europe at the various Carnival s and festivals there.
After leaving the Kaiso All Stars, she worked the band circuit and also cut the Leston Paul track “Weakness for Sweetness” as a cover on the compilation for the global market, Caribbean Carnival Soca Party 4, in 1996. By this time, having tired of the band routine, Robin ventured on the restaurant circuit playing at Hilton brunches and New Years Eve parties, Kapok Hotel and Bel Air Hotel restaurants, and former popular eating places Solimar, The Parrot, and Babas on the Bay among others. I asked her if this was a lucrative sector, her reply was that at the time, there was work for the working musician, but times changed. Restaurants have cut their performance budgets and opted for piped recorded music. Certainly, the business of entertainment was evolving in Trinidad, with the changing demographic making demands for music that was not for eating but for dancing.
By the turn of the century, Robin was playing in the all female jazz band, The Jazz Tripple. A fortuitous encounter with Dutch jazz trumpeter Jarmo Hoogendijk, who was here for one of the early jazz festivals led to an invitation to visit the Netherlands to check out the music scene there. Luck for some, may not be fortune for others. Robin surveyed the rich entertainment scene there but opted to return to Trinidad because of what she describes as the “drug scene” there. The simple reality is that in the bars, clubs and performance spaces there, cigarette smoking was rampant at the time. (A ban on the smoking of tobacco was introduced in 2008—cannabis is still popular in coffee houses—but widely flouted, temporarily lifted due to economic hardship by bar owners in 2010, and now the Dutch parliament agreed on a total ban in the hospitality sector.) Robin, who is a vegetarian, non-smoker and teetotaller preferred a healthier lifestyle and a smoke-free environment for performance. Her principled stance also resulted in her parting of ways with the reggae band led by Prophet Benjamin, where she was playing keyboards. “I am very particular about the way I eat and live,” she re-iterates.
By the mid to late 2000s, she was performing as a one-woman band at weddings, parties and corporate functions utilising technology to provide previously recorded background vocals and accompaniment, as well as providing keyboard support for several artists including David Rudder, Destra Garcia, and Machel Montano and many popular Jamaican artists. A gig that she proudly relates is one on a cruise ship in 2007 where along with the stage band, The Barnacles, she provided support to singer Terry Brock, vocalist with the American rock band Kansas in the mid 1980s, on the song “Dust In The Wind.” “Brock praised me like I was the star of that show. I remember that I provided the solo on the piano that was normally played on violin, and he was surprised we had it down perfect.”
Juliet Robin recently did a performance at Fiesta Plaza Movietowne that showcased her wide ranging talents as a singer, keyboardist and composer. She performed a pan song for Carnival 2015, “Take It Higher.” And now she is working on her debut album focussing on Latin jazz arrangements of originals and covers, working in a number of studios and taking her time to get it right. The current single was another “right place, right time” situation where producer Neil Alexander was being hired as a video producer for one of her new songs. He heard her smokey voice, was enthralled and asked her to sing on his riddim instead The resulting track, “Strange Things” is getting limited airplay on local radio including Indigenous, a programme she co-hosts featuring local music not in the mainstream.
That lack of airplay for original music outside of Carnival genres, and the vagaries of the entertainment industry here have created some frustration in Juliet Robin that elicits that drone of the disappointed artists, “People are playing games here. I have more interest from the people I have kept in contact with overseas when I travelled.” That constant grind of the local artist seeking local accolade coupled with the sometimes deficiencies in personal music business management either makes for dulling prospects or a kind of audacity a music survivor can and will use to surmount the apathy. The next step on her continuing journey takes place this weekend when audiences will have another chance to engage with this pioneering female musician on the local scene. Determination is necessary here, talent ultimately is acknowledged.
- A version of this article appears in the Trinidad and Tobago Guardian newspapers published as, “Juliet Robin…the undaunted music pioneer”
© 2015, Nigel A. Campbell. All Rights Reserved.