The Beat vol. 21, no. 6 2002Brian Dring

The Alphabetical Islands

For the longest time I've wanted to find more music from the Dutch Caribbean. The islands of Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao have long been a place of cultural and musical cross-fertilization, with elements of African, European and South American music present in various proportions. The ABC Island Primer (Network) offers a glimpse into the broad spectrum of styles that have evolved on these tiny islands.

A bunch of musical associations come to mind on first listen; for example, I hear shades of Afro-Venezuelan guitar style on the paranda style of ‘Un Siglo Vobo’. (This Christmas musical tradition also exists in Trinidad as parang.) There are shades of South African vocal chorus on the Afro-Portuguese ‘Gangan’ by Serenada, and the cut ‘Bendishon Disfrasa’ sounds incredibly like the vintage Cuban son montuno made popular by the Buena Vista Social Club crew, although it's sung in the Papiamento language at times so close phonetically to Spanish. Other tunes like ‘Mi Sa Ta Ken Mi Ta’ are based on varying Latin tempos, but the truly distinguishing characteristic of ABC music is the tumba, a kind of salsa played in a waltz-like 6/8 tempo which permeates the early cuts on the disc.

There are other creolized forms like the African-sounding muzik di zumbi of ‘Biba Felis’ performed on balaphon and other percussion, the tambu, anotherAfrican-derived form with touches of accordion, and the slow tantan meri, a mournful slave narrative sung a cappella. Perhaps most impressive of this collection of songs is Izaline Calister's ‘Fiesta di Piskado’ (Feast of the Fishermen), a joyous celebration that starts with the throbbing benta (an African mouth harp that sounds like a berimbau) and mixes Brazilian elements with some very sophisticated jazz keyboards played over a basic tumba rhythm. This mix of cosmopolitan and traditional sets this cut apart from the more acoustic mood of the rest of the compilation, and Izaline is pictured on the back cover of the disc perhaps as a symbol of a new direction in Dutch Caribbean music.

After hearing the cut I was intrigued to hear more, and was not disappointed when I got a copy of this singer's debut solo cd Sono di Un Muhé (One Woman's Dream) (Exil Musik, 2000). Starting off singing in a well-known children's choir in Curaçao, she studied theory and guitar and later went to the Netherlands to continue studies at the conservatory. Later she toured Europe with a jazzgroup and performed with the world-beat phenomenon Dissidenten on their 1998 Live in Europe release. The jazz influence remains alive on this disc with the heavy chops of some of the sidemen who sound like they could break out at any moment with jazz fusion, yet manage to tone it down enough to not overpower the traditional tumba percussion. The resulting marriage of sophisticated jazz arrangements and uniquely Curaçaon rhythms ably provides Izaline's vocals with both space and support as they careen through an array of jazz ballads and Caribbean dance tempos. For example, the opening cut "Sono di Tur Muhé" (Every Woman's Dream) deftly combines some breathtaking jazz guitar, rootsy percussion reminiscent of Martiniquan chouval bwa, and Izaline's soaring vocals.

At times, like on the dreamy ballad ‘Mi Ke Sa’, her vocal timbre reminds me of the clear tone of Kassav’s Jocelyn Beroard; at other times there is a Brazilian quality to her accents which may only be coincidental. The mostly self-penned Iyrics are of a universal nature, transcending culture and making the message more accessible. This is a highly ambitious album, worthy to be counted among the best releases coming out of the Caribbean this year.

The following is an excerpt from a short interview with the artist about her new album:

Question -
After listening to Soño di Un Muhé in depth, I realize that it is not as Brazilian as I'd first thought, but more influenced by the tumba.

Izaline Calister - People have been very quick to categorize my music as Brazilian and though I accept that, sometimes even consider it a compliment, that is not what my music has been about.

Question -
Are there any singers from the Caribbean or eIsewhere who were an inspiration to you earlier on?

Izaline Calister - Unfortunately I have not been exposed to that many Caribbean singers. It's a shame because I know there must be a lot of great ones out there, but the musical society of Curaçao has been dominated by salsa and merengue for so many years. That is what I want to try to do a little bit with my music. To let people in my country and others know that there is so much more happening in our region than just salsa, reggae, merengue and samba.
So my influences were mostly jazz singers like Dianne Reeves, Cassandra Wilson and Ella Fitzgerald. I also listened a lot to Brazilian singer Elis Regina. Kassav' has been a big part of my growing up. I love their music and although I never really focused on Jocelyn [Beroard], I probably took some of her singing in. I see myself mostly as a mixture of all the music I have been hearing all my life. I listened to Latin American boleros, salsa, merengue, zouk, jazz, classical music and a lot of traditional Curaçao music.
That's why now I don't feel boundaries in things I want to do. When I write a song or hear one I would like to sing, I never think about if it fits my style or anything. I just believe that if I like it, it will shape itself into something fitting my musical style. Music is a truly universal thing, I strongly believe.
I write my music on the piano, since I don't really play any guitar anymore. And I do a lot of it just in my head also. I am driving to gigs a lot and when I am alone in my car sometimes a melody just starts lingering in my mind. Then I turn off the radio and start singing and playing with it. My best work has been done in the car or waiting for a bus somewhere…