Stripped: A Teddyson John Experience – a review

An edited version of this review first appeared in the Trinidad and Tobago Newsday on Tuesday February 14, 2023 as, “Teddyson John’s Stripped elevated soca performances”

The concept of a soca cabaret is not new in Trinidad and Tobago, but St Lucian artist Teddyson John and his many guests delivered an evening of soca performance that elevated the idea of an intimate concert of Caribbean Carnival music to a level that approaches a large metropolitan theatre extravaganza and posits the soca artist primarily as a singer, and relegates their normal image of mover of hands, feet and waists to a secondary position. Stripped: A Teddyson John Experience delivered and made new fans along the way.

The Lord Kitchener Auditorium at the National Academy for the Performing Arts, Port of Spain on Wednesday, 8th February over a span of three hours became a venue for the possibilities of how the music of Carnival and its performance could be transformed by a re-harmonization of the familiar songs and a tempering of the tempos, and the resulting whole could find pathways beyond the familiar Trinidad Carnival song cycle of pre-Christmas launch and sink or swim by February beginnings. And there was no accelerating apathy as the music remained a surprise.

Stripped was an evolution of his Caribbean Moscato performance project and album from late 2020 that heralded a new way of selling his soca music in the tourism islands. To bring this vision alive in Trinidad, John was ably assisted by the brilliant Abeo Jackson as creative director, and supported by the Saint Lucia Tourism Authority — whose chairman Thaddeus Antoine was present in the Auditorium along with other reps from the island’s tourism industry. To sell his island’s creativity and himself, John went above his countryman, Derek Walcott’s famous protest of the Caribbean’s penchant for the encouragement of “the delights of mindless, of brilliant vacuity.”

John imbued a new sophistication and subtlety to almost a dozen of his hits going back to his breakthrough in the T&T market from 2016, “Allez” to his current offerings for this year, “Party Nice”, “Lavi Dous” and “Everything Good.” John elevated the festival song with the gravitas of soulful lyrics that linger, a voice that serenades, and a sound that raises spirits. His 2019 tune “Crème de la Crème” became a jazzy swinging ‘60s makeover à la Quincy Jones from that era. “Melody” and “Vent (Palé, Palé, Palé)” were infused with the soothing R&B instrumental tones and arrangements, with the nylon string acoustic guitar of Zack Popo taking a front seat, bathing these songs with an aura of island elegance.

John’s guests added a layer of of camaraderie to the event that was special. His previous collaborators, Voice, Lyikal, Farmer Nappy and Kes were all present to share retuned versions of their hits that made the audience a willing choir repeating familiar refrains. Each had a 3-song performance that reinforced the earlier observation that the concert puts the singer and his voice at the forefront in this setting. Farmer Nappy facetiously bantered with John that, “You wicked boy, you making us soca singers sing.” He should talk. Clearly, the soca genre does not pay a premium on dulcet voices, however Kes along with College Boy Jesse and V’ghn from Grenada saved an audience from the challenge of others to take the temperature down on soca jams and create vocal gems. A previously advertised Destra was a no-show, but Nailah Blackman, on a roll now with her massive hit “Come Home”, proved that her career is one to be taken seriously. She commanded the stage with a mature presence and her unique timbre that made for ovation.

A blended band of St. Lucian musicians with local singers, star percussionist Sheena ‘Ajibola’ Richardson, and the All Stars horn line created music that worked in this setting. John’s songs showed that the Carnival does not have to be the subject matter for potential hit reinvention anywhere. The songs’ melodic and rhythmic music beds that played with zouk, jazz, and pop influences make the music more than accompaniment for revelry. The Kwéyòl meets English songs, “Allez”, “Palé, Palé, Palé”, “Lavi Dous”, “Kité Sa” expanded the audience’s understanding of Caribbean music, and the commonality of joy in a region divided by language, but connected by DNA and riddims.

The use of video “confessionals” interspersed between songs allowed the audience to learn about John beyond the song: he grew up in the church, worked on cruise ships singing R&B and pop converting to the “soca thing” in 2007, he was told as a big man with a lisp he wouldn’t amount to much, and more revelations that made the personal public and the intimate interesting. That honesty was a necessary enhancement to build a fan base in this new soca business where “fandom” is important for a career sustenance.

The show broke the mould of the soca concert, more so for a non-national in the heat of Carnival here. Innovative and exciting lighting design in an upscale auditorium, contemporary jazzy arrangements of soca, high fashion clothing by designer Ecliff Elie made the idea of a stripped acoustic showcase of songs a template for local performers with a catalogue of dozens of songs to emulate outside the siloed season, and particularly that night, outside the younger demographic that dominates the Carnival fete circuit. An emotional Teddyson John after the concert in a short Q & A said, “the welcome manifested is something, because this is a place that I always loved and I always wanted to do something here [Lord Kitchener Auditorium], because there is just a vibe about here. And being able to come from my home in St. Lucia to plant a seed…Trinidad has really accepted me.” Job well done. A welcoming Trinidad and Tobago awaits the return hinted at for next year.

© 2023, Nigel A. Campbell. All Rights Reserved.

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