Islands in the Caribbean have been fertile spaces for the evolution of global talent. Caribbean music has played a major role in the development of popular music worldwide, and the building blocks of those island music industries must be the singers and musicians who make all this music. Female singers of pedigree have been spotted in these islands and have used their skill to carve out careers in the world, with varying success. Tony Award winner Heather Headley from Trinidad, and Barbados-bred superstar Rihanna easily come to mind as artists who were incubated in the islands to grow and succeed in the rest of the world.
Peculiar to Trinidad and Tobago is the yearning to be something different. The idea of being a globally popular soca singer has a grip on many female singers there, but there is an equally persistent belief that singing genres outside of the circumscribed diaspora Carnival circuit would pay greater dividends in the long run. As an aside, Calypso Rose’s six-decade career in calypso with accolades still accruing, however, is noticeably not seen as a signpost for modern success for some, but there are others who see her career as inspiration.
Caribbean songbirds using jazz as a musical template for a kind of recognition that looks beyond the archipelago have a history dating back to the beginning of Windrush Generation in the UK — Myrna Hague from Jamaica and Mona Baptiste from Trinidad are examples — that continues with those more recent journeys of exile, in the 20th century throughout the Americas and beyond. Exile was a commercial necessity for many, tenacity of spirit in that environment was the de facto modus operandi.
The profiles of three singers from Trinidad — Charmaine Forde, Vaughnette Bigford and LeAndra — coming from three different career starting points make a case study of modern singers who still aim for the golden ring of making it in the larger world of recorded jazz vocalists now dominated by women. For example, in the Grammy Award category of Best Jazz Vocal Performance/ Jazz Vocal Album, 75% of the awards since 1977 have been won by women. The three singers’ stories chart an interesting pattern of the ups and downs in the music industry and describe what potential looks like from a Caribbean perspective.
Jazz guitar great Pat Metheny once said that, “a great quality about jazz is that it seems to encourage people to bring the things that are unique to their own background to the music.” Singing jazz — whether as a fall-back choice, because of life-changing events, or as an economically viable option in the islands — has defined these three women. Their personal stories have shaped how they sing jazz and now, audiences everywhere will perceive their success.
The classic: Charmaine Forde
Back in 2018, when Charmaine Forde returned to Trinidad after a storied career in the United States, fans of local popular music from the late 1970s to early 80s rejoiced. First winning wide acclaim on local radio, Forde was once the darling of the local impresario set seeking talent to make the leap outwards, when American record companies were doing business with artists from the islands. Hers is a story that needs to be told within the context of a legacy of singers from the Caribbean who have focused on the live music industry as a goal for success, as opposed to the highly profitable recording careers favoured by a more recent crop of pop singers.
Born in Port of Spain, Forde grew up in the neighbourhood of Gonzales, where the influence of family played an important role in defining her craft and her sound. Her elder sister, a fan of jazz vocalist Nancy Wilson, had her records on constant rotation in the Forde household. That inspiration melded with Forde’s natural talent to forge a vocal timbre that resonates even today with a mix of the phrasing of Wilson and the power and tone of Shirley Bassey.
Singing in church and school while growing up brought Forde to the attention of kaisojazz innovator and teacher Scofield Pilgrim, who put her in touch — and, critically, on stage — with local and regional jazz musicians, at home in Trinidad and then in St Lucia, Jamaica, Martinique, and Guadeloupe, at festivals and on the lucrative hotel performance circuit. One musician who was a lynchpin in her recording career debut was Trinidadian Michael Boothman, an early local jazz innovator and established recording artist on a US record label. He crafted an arrangement of the Bobby Caldwell hit “What You Won’t Do For Love” for Forde, inspired by Roy Ayers’s earlier soul-jazz recording, releasing it in 1980 to the nation and ultimately to the region, presenting her as a new voice that could swing with the best, with a powerful controlled dynamic range rarely heard locally.
When the opportunity came to leave Trinidad and travel outside the Caribbean in the 1980s, Forde was up to it: she was seeing “greener grass outside,” she recalls. “It was bigger and better.” First Toronto, then California, until she finally settled in the Miami and Palm Beach area in Florida, becoming a fixture on the high-end event circuit — cocktail parties for the country club set and major corporate clientele — as a featured jazz vocalist. She admits she was a “singer for hire,” but prefers the moniker “song stylist.” The connections she made on that circuit sustained a career where the intimacy of a piano-vocal duet has as much cachet as a concert hall performance or a recording studio gig. The corporate event industry in the US is where Forde shared the stage with some of the greatest contemporary artists, including Aretha Franklin, Natalie Cole, and her idol, Nancy Wilson. It was a full circle connecting Forde with her longtime idol.
Another full circle brought her back to her homeland after more than thirty-five years away. Forde’s return to Trinidad and Tobago’s live music scene has included a handful of sold-out concert performances branded as “We Kinda Jazz.” In 2020, Forde is looking towards expanding her brand to regional jazz festivals. “People say I am trying to make a comeback, but I am trying to live in my craft and to do the best,” she says. “Just continuing my craft from where I left off in this market.” And, aware that some younger listeners and even artists may not remember or know her, Forde is giving back by helping develop the minds of her younger peers to understand the world of music.
The mainstay: Vaughnette Bigford
When Charmaine Forde debuted as a recording artist in 1980, Point Fortin–born Vaughnette Bigford was just six years old. Hasten forward to the present, and her name is now on the lips of a wide cross-section of the Trinidad and Tobago public as one of the country’s premier jazz vocalists — as one writer posits, “the Creole chanteuse who has made the local songbook the new jazz standard in the Caribbean.” The songbooks of the wider world and the languages of Europe, Africa, and the Middle East are no barriers to performance for this singer and concert producer.
With her trademark shaved head and a cutting-edge fashion sense that says I am Caribbean glamour, Bigford confidently channels the aesthetic sprits of Miriam Makeba and Nina Simone, yet retains the expressive phrasing of her hero, jazz singer Carmen McRae, to make the familiar new for an audience trained in the language of jazz.
As a child, she was not even considered a singer. “I was known more as an actress,” she admits. Though she also reminds people that, in her much younger days, she once placed third to future soca superstar Machel Montano in a calypso competition. As an adult, working in the oil industry, Bigford got into the music business later than many of her peers, despite knowing she possessed a smoky contralto voice. “I started with [jazz pianist] Carlton Zanda and the Coal Pot Band in 2004 at age thirty,” she recalls. Launching a professional singing career at that relatively late age, she believes, worked for her in terms of maturity and her ability to better understand the business of music.
Together with her husband-manager, Bigford mapped out a ten-year plan to be among the top three jazz artists from Trinidad by popular commercial demand. That plan included setting a new standard for local jazz vocal concerts. Her event series Shades of Vaughnette translated into media adulation, and invitations to perform in Tobago and Barbados at the major festivals. A one-year sabbatical in 2010 to attend the famed Berklee College of Music in Boston, and the performance opportunities arising from being there, inspired a better understanding of her future role. “I have to be an evolving person and product,” she says. “I have to be different — constant re-invention. I am now past the stage of being called a jazz singer. I am an entertainer.”
She knew where she belonged, too: staying in the US in 2010 as an unknown singer was not an option for a highly paid oil industry worker from Trinidad. Things changed drastically, however, in 2018, when the oil company she worked at was shut down. Her new reality was to sink or swim. Bigford’s ten-year plan bore fruit, allowing for a smooth transition to a full-time career as an in-demand entertainer on the local jazz circuit. The path to that pole position included a series of recordings, first as part of the TriniJazz Project in 2014, then her first solo release, Born to Shine, in 2017, which together revisited the neglected canon of lyrically meaningful island songs.
Now, with her recordings and branded concerts securing a solid base of local and regional fans, and the freedom of not being tethered to a nine-to-five job, Bigford has turned her eyes towards Europe and an entrée into an international career: “Europe understands who we are in the Caribbean, and Africa for that matter,” she says. And, as with Charmaine Forde, the idea of mentorship is a prime consideration now, beyond the concert stage or the recording studio. “People can be taught, but it’s what is caught. I want to start with younger people and impart knowledge of my craft.” Her ideas for future growth are also influenced by the fact that, with a young son, she recognises the responsibility of creative people in the Caribbean to hasten towards the goal of collective sustainability. “We’re all in this thing together,” she says, “and as Carl and Carol, sang ‘We Gotta Live!’”
The newcomer: LeAndra
If Charmaine Forde and Vaughnette Bigford have mature careers in jazz singing and recording in Trinidad and Tobago, LeAndra represents the potential future in search of new opportunities in a connected world. With a voice tinged with the timbre of a young Billie Holiday, sans vibrato, with hints of British soul-jazz singer Sade, she sonically projects a tropical vibe reminiscent of João Gilberto and Antônio Carlos Jobim’s languid Brazilian bossa nova. She’s the darling among new T&T audiences hearing jazz voices for the first time. Her innocent enthusiasm is the charming counterpoint to her cool reserve.
Born Leandra Head to a Trinidadian mother and a US marine based in the island, she was a precocious child with a voice that turned heads. LeAndra was winning television talent contests and garnering the attention of major festival promoters and music industry people before she was even a teenager. But that girl was human, not a machine. She felt stressed and developed stage fright, she recalls, and quit singing in front of audiences throughout her whole time in secondary school. “Until secondary school was over, I was always singing, but not performing,” she remembers. “My mother helped me by not pressuring me to perform while I was still young.” In that household, in those formative years, a world of musical influences opened up, from Barbra Streisand to Sade, from soca and calypso to the world of Broadway and Disney musicals.
In 2013, she entered the University of Trinidad and Tobago to study for an undergraduate degree in fine arts, specialising in voice. “I was pretty much training for four years to be an opera singer,” she says. “I’ve done a lot of different styles and have many influences — from Amy Winehouse and Adele to Etta James and Nina Simone — so it’s hard for me to say that I am one type of vocalist.” A move away from opera was a practical decision in Trinidad, and a career with her now trained voice began with a few shows on the local festival circuit before LeAndra headlined her first concert in 2018.
The accolades began, and people took notice. Reviewing her Tobago Jazz Experience performance in 2019, one local newspaper noted how her “powerful and soulful voice with her clear, pure, and soothing vocals caught the attention of the audience, even those enjoying other performances at the two stages . . . Head was not only outstanding, but was clearly a crowd favourite and received a standing ovation.”
Ingénue is an easy label to apply to young artists, but unfair to attach to LeAndra, as she’s already faced the trials and tribulations of professional singing engagements in the US (at Ashford and Simpson’s Sugar Bar in New York) and in Hungary (in a production of Porgy and Bess), as she slowly recognises where her best options lie as a performer from Trinidad. Her awareness — even as a young woman not yet thirty — that the world is large and sometimes scary is notable, as she plots a professional pathway ahead, from recording an album in 2020 to developing skills in the music business to navigate from Trinidad to the world.
- An edited version of this article appears in the March/April 2020 issue of Caribbean Beat entitled “All That Jazz”
© 2020 Nigel A. Campbell. All Rights Reserved.