Arrow: Soca singer who came to worldwide fame with his hit 'Hot, Hot, Hot'

Phil Davison
Sunday 23 October 2011 03:52

Alphonsus Cassell, better-known as "Arrow" or "The Mighty Arrow", was considered the king of soca (soul-calypso) music, taking the traditional Caribbean calypso to a worldwide audience with the upbeat addition of soul, merengue, salsa, rock, zouk, reggae and hip-hop influences. His self-penned 1980s hit "Hot, Hot, Hot" became one of the most-played songs ever – from beaches and cruise ships to discos and wedding receptions – and has been recorded in more than a dozen languages, including Hindi.

When he released his original version in 1983, it reached only No 59 in the UK charts but was given a new lease of life later in that decade when covered by David Johansen, alias Buster Poindexter, former lead singer of the punk group the New York Dolls. Originally inspired by the great Trinidadian calypso singer Slinger Francisco – "The Mighty Sparrow" – Arrow took the traditional calypso form to a new level, influencing such later Caribbean bands as the Baha Men of the Bahamas ("Who Let the Dogs Out?") and Kevin Lyttle of St Vincent and the Grenadines ("Turn Me On").

His death on his native island of Montserrat from complications following treatment for brain cancer sent the entire Caribbean and the Montserratian diaspora in North America, London and elsewhere into mourning. It was not just his 40 years of music that made him Montserrat's most famous citizen, but the fact that he had stayed on the island after the Soufrière Hills volcano destroyed the picturesque capital Plymouth – his home town – and two-thirds of the island between 1995 and 1997. Like all residents of the capital, he lost everything, including his home and the town's famous clothing store Arrow's Man Shop.

While many islanders fled, mostly to England, he stayed on, defying the volcano with a new song "Ah Just Can't Run Away" in which, referring to the island's famed lack of crime, he sang: "As long as I can leave me door wide open ... as long as dere's breadfruit and mango down dere ... I'll be holding on. Only de Lord Almighty control our destiny, whatever is to be will be, I'll never forsake my country. Arrow ain't goin' nowhere." The song was an inspiration to Montserratians worldwide, many of whom came back to help rebuild the island.

He set up a new store at Nixon's, a few miles farther north on the one-third of the island now considered safe from the volcano's lethal pyroclastic flows and choking ash showers. He ran the store personally when not on tour as far afield as Canada, Europe, Japan or Africa. Over the years, he moved away from calypso's traditional social or political comment and fused its cadences with rhythms from Latin America, Africa or other Caribbean islands. "Calypso is political, tropical, slower," he told an interviewer. "Soca is dance. People want music to enjoy themselves with. This is the whole message of my music: 'Have a good time. Enjoy yourself'."

Alphonsus Celestine Edmund Cassell was born in 1949, in the shadow of the lush, green, apparently benign Soufrière Hills, the youngest of nine children of Joseph and Veronica Cassell. It was not until 1995, when the volcano started spouting ash that the locals realised the volcano was not dormant, but active and ready to erupt. Plymouth and other areas were evacuated but not before 19 people died in the worst pyroclastic flow.

Before he took the professional name Arrow, he was nicknamed Phonzie and it stuck, among family and friends, for the rest of his life. Like the majority of Montserratians, his family were descendants of slaves shipped from Africa by British colonialists and Irish Catholic refugees who had fled to the island in the 17th century, giving the country its nickname "The Emerald Isle of the Caribbean" (Britain still has control over the island as an overseas territory run by a British governor, and Montserratians have British citizenship).

Two of his brothers, Justin and Lorenzo, were calypsonians – one of the few short-cuts to a degree of fame or money in the Caribbean at the time. Arrow was himself crowned Calypso King of Montserrat's annual Christmas carnival four times in his teens and early 20s before deciding to turn professional, setting up his Arrow label in Plymouth. He would go on to record 22 studio albums, plus 11 live albums and compilations, often backed on instruments and vocals by his brother Justin "Hero" Cassell. It was Hero who sang one of Arrow's earliest songs, "Tiney Winey", which later became a classic throughout the Caribbean when recorded by Jamaica's Byron Lee and the Dragonaires.

Arrow first attracted attention outside Montserrat, 27 miles from Antigua in the Leeward Islands, in 1972 with his first single, "Dance With Me, Woman", and his debut album The Mighty Arrow on Target two years later. He came to the notice of the Beatles' producer George Martin (later Sir George), who had a holiday home on the island and set up his Air Studios there in 1979 to record The Police, Eric Clapton, Paul McCartney, Dire Straits and many others. He encouraged Arrow throughout his career and remained his close friend.

When Arrow recorded "Hot, Hot, Hot" – initially at Leston Paul's renowned studio in Trinidad, later perfected at the Right Track in Manhattan and the House of Music in New Jersey – he had no idea it would become a worldwide classic. But who can keep their feet still when they hear "Olé olé olé olé, feelin' hot, hot, hot .... Me mind on fire, me soul on fire, feelin' hot, hot, hot"? He sang the song at a star-studded concert organised by Sir George in aid of Montserrat volcano victims at London's Royal Albert Hall on 15 September 1997. In March 2007, he performed at the opening ceremony of the Cricket World Cup in Trelawny, Jamaica, along with Shaggy, Kevin Lyttle, Jimmy Cliff and Byron Lee, who died the following year.

Soon after he had been diagnosed with cerebral cancer in early 2009, Arrow sang in front of the new US President Barack Obama and other western hemisphere leaders at the gala opening of the fifth Summit of the Americas in the Hyatt Regency hotel, Port of Spain, Trinidad. He had recently been receiving treatment in both Miami and Antigua but returned to his home Montserrat two days before he died.

Montserrat's Chief Minister Reuben Meade called Arrow's death "a national loss of a cultural institution and a national icon who was generous, kind and the embodiment of an enduring and unmoving love for humanity. He will live on in the hearts of all Montserratians."

As the Independent's correspondent for Latin America and the Caribbean, I had the pleasure of getting to know Arrow well after the first volcanic eruptions of 1995. He was instrumental in a book I wrote about the volcano and I was always impressed by the way he could drive or walk around the island to "lime" (hang out and chat) with fellow islanders. To him, offstage, celebrity was to be avoided at all cost.

Arrow received an MBE for his services to music. He was unmarried but is survived by three sons, a daughter and two grandchildren.

Alphonsus "Arrow" Cassell, singer and songwriter: born Plymouth, Montserrat 16 November 1949; MBE; three sons, one daughter; died Lime Kiln Bay, Montserrat 15 September 2010.

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