ROCK / 'Ring Bang': the way forward: Eddie Grant, reggae singer turned entrepreneur and soca's Mr Big, is a hard man to track down. Philip Sweeney got tired of chasing after his Mercedes and invited him to tea in Bristol

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The Independent Online
Patience is a prerequisite of the Caribbean-showbiz correspondent. Five years ago I spent a week's worth of phone calls trying to meet Eddie Grant, to no avail. This was in Barbados, where I'd just discovered the calypsos of the Mighty Gabby, in particular 'Chicken 'n' Ram', produced by Eddie Grant in his Blue Wave Studio, with Grant playing virtually all the instruments.

I was keen to find the source of this music, which seemed superior to the lyrically bland dance clones of Trinidadian soca at that time. Since then, tantalising new items have emerged from Blue Wave Studio via Grant's record company Ice, including innovative tracks by Gabby and a young Barbadian group, Square One, plus an LP by the 90-year-old 1930s calypso master, Rafael de Leon: 'Roaring Lion'. Above all, this year has seen the first four volumes of an enormously promising series named Caribbean Classics. There are also reports of a campaign by Grant to break the soca record market, of which he controls a major slice, out of its carnival ghetto and into North American mainstream.

And here is soca's Mr Big pulling up at my front door in a Mercedes, registration A 50CA, no less, wearing a woollen tam, and looking chipper for a man who's come straight from Barbados to a TV interview in Liverpool. Pausing to stroke Muriel, the cat ('I've got 120 of these in Barbados'), and accept some weak tea, Grant expatiates on eastern Caribbean music, and his place in it, which he feels deserves greater recognition. 'I've never really spoken about my involvement with soca, but the Roaring Lion said if I didn't, and if I live to be 90, I'd regret it because everyone else would have been talking about something I knew more about.'

Grant's involvement with Trinidadian music began 20 years before soca existed. As a child in Guyana, where his father played trumpet in a dance band, the calypsos of Lord Kitchener and the Mighty Sparrow were radio favourites. In the late 1960s, when Grant's band The Equals reached top 10 in London, his career overlapped the ska and calypso scenes.

'Two of my songs were taken up by Prince Buster and I had to take him to court over authorship . . . I won.' At the time, Grant used the phrase kaisoul (from kaiso, an alternative term for calypso), to describe his blend of Trinidadian music with rock and soul, which came to be called soca. 'That's a matter of record. It was reported in Melody Maker in the early Sixties.' He sees his 1970 hit 'Black Skin Blue-Eyed Boys' as one of the first kaisoul / soca productions. 'And that was eight years before Kitchener's 'Sugar Bum Bum' which some people say was the first soca record . . .' Subsequent Eddie Grant compositions have cropped up all over the Caribbean.

Leaving the Equals in 1970, Grant pursued his entrepreneurial activities as vigorously as his solo career, mainly in the Caribbean, as the big London record companies weren't interested. Ice Records was set up in Guyana, and a London office opened in 1977. By 1982, with Grant's second chart success ('Electric Avenue') peaking, he set up his studio in the colonial residence at Bayley's Plantation, in Barbados, and injected a tougher bass line, synthesizers, and a crispness into the sound of calypso.

Grant's productions make Barbadian artists among the most interesting in the formulaic soca genre. Grant has introduced a Jamaican ragga-style chant on some songs, perhaps to attract a youthful audience; soca having an older, more middle-class public than ragga, the street-kids' choice. Jamaica has an edge with youth, but the ragamuffin style, Grant alleges, is based on the Trinidadian 'saga- boys', or 'bad johns' of the 1950s with their exaggerated, swaggering dance. Grant leaps up to demonstrate, alarming Muriel.

If soca needs a kick up the backside, then the answer is Grant's new ingredient, 'ring bang', which he introduces as a rhythm, and eventually promotes to a 'philosophy'. Elusive to grasp, ring bang involves emphasizing rhythm with electronic components such as the 'wuku drum . . . a cross between the Yoruba talking drum, the bottle, and the tabla' and has as its mission world conquest in two years. Ring bang's opening salvo, the Trinidadian Stalin's new album Rebellion, comes out early next year.

Grant is well equipped for a soca coup. He has the studios, the ideas, the experience, and the contacts - he's just signed an important US distribution deal with a top reggae company - and he has the artists. About 20 are signed to Ice, from veterans such as Roaring Lion, Kitchener and Sparrow, to carnival aces such as Superblue and Crazy. Grant's new album, Soca Baptism, features 15 classic calypsos, arranged by Grant, with top band leaders Pelham Goddard and Leston Paul; and guest instrumentalists include saxophonist Roy Cape and the guitar virtuoso Fitzroy Coleman, 'the black Segovia'.

Just as fascinating as Eddie Grant's future is his domination of the past. Old calypso recordings from the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies are rare. In 18 years, Grant has amassed much the largest collection in the world of calypso song rights, catalogues and master recordings, from the 1930s onwards. 'I started collecting for myself, when I realised the music just wasn't being kept - master tapes were thrown away, literally, in swamps, in people's fowl pens . . .' Now he has 'years' of music, being logged, cleaned, re-recorded in Barbados; and a museum's worth of old recording equipment. He also acquired the Roaring Lion's huge archive. Are any important elements missing?

'Nah, I have them all - the Smithsonian has one or two things I'd like, but basically, if it's important, I have it.' With that, Eddie Grant steps into his A 50CA and heads for the M5 to bring ring bang to Merseyside.

(Photograph omitted)

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