Amsterdam Weekly 27-01-’05 • Peter Bartlema

A Caribbean queen on the world stage

Curaçao-born singer Izaline Calister forsook careers in medicine and business to bring Antillean music to the world.

‘I never felt it necessary to put a label on my music,’ says Curaçao-born singer Izaline Calister. ‘Since the public demands it, I call it Antillean jazz. But I just make the music I like and think is beautiful.’

Dutch audiences –especially those from Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao, once known as the islas inutiles (‘useless islands’)– have already become enraptured by Calister’s music and charismatic stage presence. And now that she’s made an album for renowned German ‘worldmusic’ label Network Medien, her fame is spreading on an international level.

Back home, music had played a big part in Calister’s life. She’d been a member of the well-known children’s choir Perlitas. She listened endlessly to boleros and rancheras on Venezuelan radio stations. Studying music, though, was not an option, she explains.

‘At home people tend to look at music as something you just do on the side; you’re meant to study a serious subject, and I agreed,’ Calister says. ‘Besides, my father wanted to have a doctor in the family, and I was the best qualified to study for that. But I decided it was not for me. I found it too scary.’

After finishing secondary school in the capital Willemstad, she left her native island to study business administration in Groningen, where her sister had already enrolled. When she finished her studies, she could often be found on the local club circuit in Groningen, playing music with different bands.

‘I really enjoyed it, but didn’t think of having a professional career. But everybody around me started encouraging me to apply for a place at the conservatory in Groningen.’ She passed the examination, enrolled, and discovered jazz.

‘At the conservatory I began to realize how important and wonderful it was to be occupied with music full time,’ she says. ‘I couldn’t imagine any other way of earning a living but making music.’

After Calister built a local reputation in bands that performed salsa, pop, Brazilian, Turkish and African music, keyboardist Jasper van ’t Hof asked her to join his world-fusion band Pili Pili. ‘I learned a lot from him, because playing with a band like that asks a lot from you, technically as well as physically,’ Calister says. ‘Jasper is a big name in Germany, so the shows attracted lots of people, and everything was arranged very well, but it was also hard work.’

The drummer, Marlon Mein, had his own project, the worldbeat collective Dissidenten, and wanted her to sing. She performed in the band for four years, playing big festivals like Britain’s Glastonbury. ‘At a certain point I felt it was time to do my own thing, but I always intended to combine it all,’ she says.

Her debut album, Soño di un muhé (‘One woman’s dream’), was released in the spring of 2000 on her own label, and Calister decided to concentrate on her own project with fellow Antilleans Randal Corsen on piano and Eric Calmes on bass.

Both musicians contributed to the compositions and arrangements, which fused Antillean and Afro-Cuban styles with jazz improvisation, while Calister took care of the lyrics in her native tongue, the Creole language Papiamento. The big hit, however, was ‘Fiesta di piskado’ (‘Feast of the fishermen’), their version of an old tumba by famous Curaçao composer Rudy Plaate. It got heavy airplay by radio stations all over the island and reached number one within weeks of its release.

‘I decided to do a presentation. I was thinking of a small, cosy get-together for a couple of hundred people,’ she says. ‘But it turned out around 1,000 people came– we had to turn hundreds away.’

When Calister and her band launched the album later that year at the Bimhuis in Amsterdam, the reaction was equally ecstatic. The NRC Handelsblad called the concert ‘historic’. Her career was ascendant: she was crowned Tumba Queen at the 2001 Curaçao Carnival, played prestigious venues like the Concertgebouw here, and has become a fixture at the North Sea Jazz Festival. All the time, Network Medien’s Christian Scholze was courting her for a contract, to no avail.

‘I was busy preparing my second album and wanted it to be a very jazzy affair,’ says Calister. ‘Talks between us didn’t lead anywhere, because I didn’t want to change my ideas about the record.’

Mariposa (‘Butterfly’), her second self-financed album, came out in November 2002. Partly recorded at Hershell Rosario’s H&R Studios on Curaçao, it had an even stronger Antillean feel than its predecessor, thanks to a more prominent use of traditional instruments like the kachu (cow horn), chapi (garden hoe head) and wiri (metal scraper).

Calister also enlisted the services of Grupo Trinchera, a local group dedicated to preserving the cultural heritage of the Netherlands Antilles –including European musical styles like the waltz, the danza and the mazurka as well as the African-rooted muzik di zumbi (music of the ghosts), seú (music for harvesting festivities) and blues-like tambú.

She recorded her third solo album, Krioyo (patois for ‘Creole’), in Amsterdam with most of the same musicians who played on her first two CDs (including her younger brother Roël on drums and famed Antillean percussionist Pernel Saturnino). It came out last spring on Network (they finally struck a deal in 2003), and the label gave Calister and her band complete freedom. It’s been released in more than 30 countries and is doing well, she says.

‘I could have started a career playing salsa, or jumped on the Buena Vista Social Club bandwagon,’ Calister says. ‘But instead, I’d like to build upon the beauty of Antillean music. Writing beautiful songs and singing them well, preferably for an audience that’s patient enough to listen to the ballads instead of jumping on the dance floor straight away’.