This week, Zoe Reeve spoke to one of the managers of Jamm Boyzz Band, a group from the small island of St. Eustatius, about Carnival over there, the rivalry between different bands, his opinion on modern soca and more...
Zoe: First of all I was wondering if you could tell me a bit about St. Eustatius in general, its soca scene etc., because I don’t think many of us in England know much about it?
Fernando: In general our island is small and relaxed, pretty hot.
The music scene here is a little bit mixed. Right now it’s the season for soca music because it’s Carnival season - every summer we have Carnival so it means there’s a lot of soca, a lot of parades, a lot of shows etc. During the rest of the year it’s a bit different… People listen to soca, I don’t know if you know kompa? It’s dance music that originated in Haiti, a bit like zouk. Also during the year they listen to a lot of dancehall and reggae.
Zoe: Ok, so are there dancehall artists from your island or do they mainly listen to Jamaican dancehall?
Fernando: Well, the only artist that you may know who’s from my island is Ziggy. We have some soca artists here, obviously not as big as the ones from Trinidad etc., but just locals doing their thing.
Zoe: So around Carnival time is there a Soca Monarch or any other kind of music competition?
Fernando: Yeah, we do have Soca Monarch. I haven’t seen the schedule as yet but it’s some time soon.
Zoe: Cool, so is Carnival a really big thing where you are? Do people travel from other countries to be there, and do all the local people take time off work etc.?
Fernando: Yep, they do. The visitors are mostly from the other Dutch islands. There are also a lot of younger folks, some British, some American etc., they have these sailing yachts every year that come. I think they’re sailing round the Caribbean… They stop over here for a few days here for the carnival. There are actually a lot of UK students here. I think they come to get some kind of credit at their school, like a study abroad thing.
During this time there are always bands from the rest of the Caribbean, like Destra from Trinidad etc., so there are a lot of parties. There’s never any trouble at our carnival and it goes on all night.
Zoe: And is the road march just one day, or how does it work? You have Jouvert right?
Fernando: The road march is the second show during the carnival. The song that wins the road march must be played on the road by each band. Each band must play that road march song in order to be judged for Band of the Year. When I say ‘band’ I mean musical group. We say ‘carnival troupes’ for the groups of dancers, not ‘mas bands’. For us, bands are guys who actually play music.
Zoe: Ok, got it. So live music is a big aspect of St. Eustatius Carnival then?
Fernando: Yes, it is. There’s always live music. No DJs and that stuff.
Zoe: As in there are no DJs on the road and each troupe has its own live band?
Fernando: Yep, a live band for each troupe.
Zoe: Wow, that’s crazy! I’ve only ever been behind a truck with a DJ. Is there a lot of steel pan too?
Fernando: Nah, steel pan died a long time ago.
Zoe: Really?! Ok… So if someone reading this wanted to go to St. Eustatius and be a part of a carnival troupe, how would they go about that? Is it expensive?
Fernando: It’s not expensive. Once you’re here you just have to get in contact with my mum. This year the carnival is July 23rd - August 3rd.
Zoe: Oh, so what does your mum do?
Fernando: She’s a carnival junkie. She’s deeply involved in costumes. Sometimes she does her own ones and sometimes she does it in conjunction with someone from probably Trinidad or somewhere else. This year she’s doing it with some folks from New York.
Zoe: Nice, what’s the name of the troupe?
Fernando: Carnival Survivors
Zoe: Is your carnival getting bigger and bigger all the time?
Fernando: I wouldn’t say so as yet. Honestly Carnival is messed up sometimes. The folks in charge of Carnival are the problem. They don’t spend their money in the right places.
Zoe: Where should they be spending their money?
Fernando: On the local artists. They bring in international artists so the money goes to them. It’s messed up.
We also have something called Eustatius American Festival in November which is also good. We’ll be performing there along with international artists. It lasts for a week and there’s also a regatta around the same time. It’s pretty nice.
Zoe: So talking about your band, I did a bit of research and apparently you guys have been around since 1996? That’s a pretty long time. Has it been the same members the whole way through?
Fernando: Correcto. There are only two original members left now. That’s myself and the drummer.
Zoe: Oh ok, so do you think you guys have come a long way since 1996?
Fernando: Definitely. First we used to go and rent music gear (speakers and stuff) for Carnival time, but for the last three years we’ve been running pretty much on our own. What we did is we started holding BBQ events every weekend. That wasn’t bringing in funds quickly enough so I loaned some money to the band and every time we have a BBQ I get my money paid back to me little by little. It was the only way forward because it’s a waste of time and money to keep renting everything.
Zoe: That’s cool. So how often does the band perform? Is it kind of a full time thing or just once every few weeks?
Fernando: We perform pretty often. We performed on Friday night and last night, we’re performing this coming weekend, the following week for 3 days in a row, and a few days the week after that too…
Zoe: Quite often then. What kind of events do you normally perform at? Is it at bars, private functions, outdoor shows or…?
Fernando: A little bit of everything. There’s a place called Carnival Village where all the shows happen. Sometimes they’re at bars or clubs and sometimes there are shows on the beach, and some of the shows are fundraisers for the carnival.
Zoe: When you say ‘fundraisers for the carnival’, do you mean raising funds so that your band can participate in the carnival, or do you mean raising funds for the carnival in general?
Fernando: Yeah, for the carnival in general… the promoters of the carnival, the president, the guys who organise it.
Zoe: Oh ok, so do a lot of people do fundraisers for the carnival?
Fernando: It depends. The carnival hires the crowds’ favourites to do the fundraisers, so not that many people get to do it. Our band hasn’t been playing consistently for a number of years because I used to live in Holland and some of the other guys were living in Aruba. Eventually it was time to come home and we started playing a bit more and now this is the first time in about 3 or 4 years that we’ve actually played before Carnival. Normally we’d only play during Carnival.
Zoe: Ah cool, so do you have any plans for the future of the band?
Fernando: We have to start working on our album. We have too many songs so we need to put them together onto an album.
Zoe: Would you just sell it around St. Eustatius?
Fernando: We’d sell it anywhere, it doesn’t have to be one specific place.
Zoe: Have you guys performed anywhere else before?
Fernando: Yeah, we performed in St. Marteen, Saba and the Netherlands. I think that’s it. It was difficult to perform when the whole band wasn’t together, but hopefully going forward it should be much better.
Zoe: Is there a lot of competition between you and other similar bands from your island?
Fernando: There’s definitely a lot of competition. There’s another band called Rebels HD. They do travel more than us but they have more time on their hands because those guys don’t have other jobs. They come from families with enough money to give them the opportunity to make music all day. They’re pretty good. They performed at a festival in Belgium before. It’s different for us because we have full time jobs. I’m a senior IT technician. We practice twice a week but if we’re busy with gigs we sometimes have to miss some practices.
Zoe: Oh wow, so do you think it’s possible for you guys to win something in the carnival competitions this year?
Fernando: It’s always possible, but it’s basically us or them (Rebels HD). It’s always a problem. On that night it’s really rough…
Zoe: ‘Rough’ as in it’s really competitive?
Fernando: Really competitive. Really really really competitive!
Zoe: Do all the fans pick a side of you or the other guys?
Fernando: No, they’re not the ones who judge us so they don’t have to take sides. There’s a panel of judges and they’re the ones who decide.
Zoe: Ok, and if you won the Soca Monarch, would it change anything? What would happen?
Fernando: Well, for us, it would mean we’d get some money and some respect. It’s mostly about respect. We’d probably get to travel too. The competition is pretty tight, especially during the past few years.
Zoe: Because of Rebels HD?
Fernando: Yep. They won for the last few years so those are the guys to beat. Before that, my band won three years in a row and then Rebels came and won two. I think this year they’re going to try to repeat but who knows. Actually we haven’t started working on a song yet so we’ll see.
Zoe: Interesting! So what have been your most successful songs before?
Fernando: A song called ‘Energy’ was good, ‘Rags’ as well.
Zoe: Ok I’ll have to listen to them. Do you guys have any music videos?
Fernando: We’ve just got one. They’re too expensive to make. We have some other clips on YouTube from our performances though.
Zoe: Ah ok. So do you have any real loyal fans who come and watch you every weekend?
Fernando: Definitely. Sometimes the fans are a problem! They put you in a lot of situations… We, as a band, never enter into arguments about who’s the best, because we’re mostly cool with the guys from the other bands. The fans don’t care who’s cool with who so they go around talking about which band is the best. During Carnival we hardly speak with the other bands because the tension is so high but after Carnival it’s all good. It’s strange… it’s almost personal.
Zoe: I guess you’ve all known each other a long time because it’s such a small island, even if they’re in a different band?
Fernando: Exactly. Everyone knows everyone here. We leave our doors open. I never lock my car. That’s a good aspect of it. We don’t have any serious crime. Last week there was a technician working with me who came from Curacao and I kept laughing because every time he left his car, he took his bag out with him. I was like “why are you taking your bag?!”. We know all the cops as well. They actually try to rotate the cops between three islands (St. Eustatius, Saba and Bonaire) to get people to see different faces. It’s not like the UK!
Zoe: So you’ve been to England before?
Fernando: Yeah, it wasn’t a good experience. I came on Easyjet to London but it was a few years ago and I can’t remember the name of where I was staying. We went to a club and the music was good because they played soca and dancehall, so that was nice, but the food in England wasn’t so nice, and girls in England are different!
Zoe: Does everyone eat typical Caribbean food on your island?
Fernando: To be honest, everything we eat here is basically American. We do have local dishes but if you go to a restaurant, it’s probably going to be American, and there are Chinese restaurants too. If we’re cooking at home it’s normally peas and rice, plantain, some baked chicken or fish… we BBQ a lot. The groceries are American as well, so everything is American unless you go to a Spanish place or Chinese place or something like that.
Zoe: So wait, there are Spanish people and Chinese people living on your island?
Fernando: Yep, Spanish and Chinese people as well as a lot of European people… Dutch, French, English… I guess they’re looking for some sun. Most of them come here diving and then they hook up with locals and that’s it! The next thing you know they’re married. You can spend 6 months here per year with a normal visa so some people do that…. 6 months here and 6 months where they’re from, which works fine for them.
Zoe: I didn’t really know it was an expat destination… interesting! So back to the topic of soca, do you have any opinions on the way that soca has developed in the recent years?
Fernando: I think soca is changing a lot. It’s becoming more electronic. I personally listen to a lot of Avicii, Tiesto etc. which is electronic, so I understand why they’re moving in that direction, but I don’t think it’s a good thing for the real soca.
Zoe: Yeah, it’s kind of like selling out…
Fernando: Exactly, selling out, but hey. Machel is actually leading the push into the EDM stuff. It’s strange to see him on stage, or any other soca music, and it’s not actually 100% live music. He has everything recorded. I find that’s a bit disrespectful for soca and for music in general. I just think music should be live. It’s the best experience for the crowd that way.
Zoe: Do you guys write your own songs?
Fernando: Yep, we do. I haven’t actually written a song myself in about a year. When I was living in Holland I thought I had no time, but now I’m back home I’ve realised I actually have no time at all.
Zoe: Well thank you for taking the time out to talk to Carnevale Network. It’s definitely been interesting… good luck with everything!
To keep up to date with Jamm Boyzz Band, like them on Facebook - https://www.facebook.com/pages/Jamm-Boyzz-Band/105404556157751
To read more about Zoe Reeve and her adventures, go to her blog - http://travelwithzoe.org/