In the part of the world Rolly Gray comes from, if you want a career in music, you'd better be good--and tough. "Trinidad is the land of calypso," Gray says of his home country. "If you're not good enough, don't go there, because they don't take no nonsense. If you get up on stage, they call you down, man. Tough audience."
It's a tough audience over here as well. Calypso hasn't been big on these shores since '57 when Harry Belafonte bellowed about bananas on a boat and the folk group the Tarriers had a hit with a tamer, lamer version of the same song. The closest anyone has come since then is the Baha Men with "Who Let the Dogs Out." "That's a mixed bag of soca and hip hop," Gray explains. "A guy from Trinidad wrote that song. The song was popular in Trinidad, but never made the kind of impression like the Baha Men." Gray is out to change all that with his own style of music, a mix of original music composed of soca, reggae, folk and R&B.
Gray got his start in calypso, performing at carnival in Trinidad in the calypso tent. The tent is actually a building that holds an audience from around the world that have come to see the best of the best compete. Young upstarts like Gray were thrown in against legends like The Mighty Sparrow, Growling Tiger and Lord Kitchner, who had achieved global acclaim from their recordings and appearances outside the islands.
Gray performed in concert with and in contests against calypso legends until 1972, when he tried another musical genre, touring Europe with a Caribbean folk band called The Firesticks. Emigrating to the states, Gray ended up in Boston, where he started Rolly Gray and Sunfire, the band he has maintained ever since. Moving to Chapel Hill in '80, Gray has toured the East Coast while putting out seven records and establishing his own label, Leap Records.
Along the way, the calypso music Gray is rooted in has undergone some changes. One of the biggest is the incorporation of soul music into the genre. Gray credits Trinidadian Lord Shorty for coining the word "soca" to describe the union. "At the time, America was doing a lot of soul music, not funk, really," the singer/guitarist remembers. "They used to be listening to Al Green and these guys--soul music. So instead of sayin' s-o-u-l-c-a-l-y-p-s-o, they just used the short term, soca."
Gray says that music gets his audience's attention quickly. "Most jobs that I play, that's what people dance to more than anything else. Reggae maybe they just listen and move, but we start doing the soca, they get on the floor."
But before American soul music came into the picture, calypso was being influenced by another American export. "The old calypso was like jazz," Gray maintains. "They introduced the horns to calypso when America first had a base in Trinidad. The Army band used to play in the calypso tent, so they incorporated these horns into the calypso after World War II."
Gray sees another, older American form in the music as well. "Some of these old songs are exactly like bluegrass, because they used to use a fiddle and banjos and a ukulele and a guitar." Digging a little deeper, he finds still more American influences lurking in the music. "Calypso is so close to blues--they tell such a story. Like country music--they tell a story so basically. That what's calypso is."
But a bigger American influence is changing the face of the music drastically. Hip-hop soca is the music of choice for a lot of young people, a style Gray compares to Jamaican dancehall rap, neither of which Gray champions. The guitarist has no fondness for rappers, whether they're American, Jamaican or Trinidadian. "Yeah, that's right, because I had to work so hard for such a long time to learn to play an instrument. When I was growing up, in Trinidad, I stayed in a room for a long, long time playing my guitar before I ever came out of that room for somebody else to hear me. Nowadays not so. Nowadays guys that just started just talk to get attention."
It's not just the talk that bothers Gray. A main ingredient of dancehall is the prerecorded rhythm track that DJs rap over. "A guy could take a track right now and talk over it, they don't need no studios. No real musicians play no instruments--they already have all the music programmed--the beats. It's putting a lot of musicians out of work."
But Gray still finds plenty of work in and out of the studio. In addition to putting out a collection of his own work called Soca Gold, he's currently recording and producing a Boston girl group, Mended, who sound like Bob Marley's backup singers, The I-Threes, doing soul and R&B. The young women's parents are from Trinidad, but they were born in Boston. "All these girls know calypso," Gray informs, "because they travel to the West Indies all the time. They have that American influence, but their parents listened to that Calypso stuff. That music gonna be always fresh."
And as for the other stuff, Gray is resigned to the fact that hip hop and soca will be linked for some time yet. "At one time, I thought it was going away. But look--I thought American rock was going to go away at one time. After I heard Van Halen and those guys, I said 'rock, please go away.' But rap music is stronger than ever and young people want to listen to it. I'm not pleased about all of it, but it's all there." Just don't expect Rolly Gray to be rappin' about it.