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Caribbean Music Around the Clock

Like other Caribbean islanders living in North America, businessman Delroy Cowan found himself switching from station to station in a vain quest for Caribbean music and news. “Unless the Caribbean news was bad, the area was seldom mentioned in the news,” he says.

Now, Cowan is founder and president of Caribbean Satellite Network (CSN), which began broadcasting from studios in Miami, Florida, on December 1, 1992. It transmits around the clock, beaming to the entire region a steady stream of Caribbean music, hourly news, and sports segments that emphasise cricket and soccer matches. “We’ve succeeded in accomplishing what the governments of the Caribbean should have come together and done,” Cowan claims.

“The Caribbean region needs a television network to promote ourselves and our goods and services and to send our untampered message to the rest of the world. CSN offers the 30 million people who live in the Caribbean a voice for ourselves in the international arena. Part of CSN’s mission is to highlight Caribbean talents in all fields of life in the islands, as well as people from the islands who are doing well abroad. There are over 10 million Caribbean people in the United States and Canada, and we felt it was high time they had a television station that kept them informed about events at home.”

Delroy Cowan was born in Jamaica. He worked as a 9th-grade teacher in Kingston before embarking on a series of entrepreneurial endeavours: processing the bulk coconut cooking oil sold to grocery stores in Jamaica; hot patches for vehicle tires and tubes; Quick-pak laundry detergent; All Island Traders, an importer of bathroom fixtures and plumbing supplies; Coney Park, a seven-acre amusement and entertainment complex in Kingston; and extensive real-estate projects.

Cowan felt strongly that Caribbean music deserved a dedicated TV channel. Rooted in the rhythmic beat of African music, it has a popular worldwide following. So CSN plays calypso and soca from Trinidad; compas from Haiti; merengue from the Dominican Republic; dance hall, reggae, and ska from Jamaica; salsa from Cuba; and zouk from the French Antilles. Some of these forms are all but unknown outside their immediate area, and CSN aims to make them better known. “CSN plays music videos from all over the world as long as they fit our format,” says Cowan. “We have been getting videos from the islands and from major United States record distributors.”

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The network’s ambitious musical plans extend to other root forms, such as black American blues, gospel, and jazz; Cajun and zydeco from Louisiana; cumbia from Colombia; some African music; and samba from Brazil. Future programming will include Afro pop from Nigeria and Ghana, chimurenga from Zimbabwe, Congo music (also called soukous) from Zaire, juju music from Nigeria, makoosa from Cameroon, tarrab from Kenya and Tanzania, township music from South Africa, woloff music from Senegal, and valiha from Madagascar.

Richard Vahan, the film and television co-ordinator for Metro-Dade County and a devotee of roots music, believes that CSN has a great future. “Throughout our hemisphere, people know and appreciate Caribbean music,” he says. “I’m confident that the addition of CSN’s roots music to the South Florida television spectrum will attract more film and television producers to take advantage of Miami’s music-production re sources.

CSN beams its stereo signal to a Hughes Aerospace Galaxy 3 satellite 22 miles above the earth. By tuning in to Galaxy 3 Channel 14, over 4.5 million satellite-dish owners from southern Canada to northern South America can pick up CSN. It’s also accessible to ships in the western half of the Atlantic Ocean and in the eastern Pacific as far west as the Hawaiian Islands “Most Caribbean hotels have satellite dishes,” says Cowan “Visitors should inquire at their hotel how to tune in to CSN.

CSN uses leased transponder time on the satellite, explains David S. Kapp, the network’s director of operations, who formerly supervised on-the-air operations for all 13 MTV owned networks. “Our signal is different from a regular radio or television broadcasting station’s signal. It changes to microwaves for the trip up and back from the satellite.” TLC Production, a separate company located nearby, is building a permanent uplink facility for CSN. In the interim, CSN uses a mobile uplink truck.

The CSN studio is in an industrial park next to Miami’s public television station, WPBT (Channel 2). It has an energetic staff, state-of- the-art studios, and full production and post-production capabilities. “Miami was the perfect place,” says Cowan. “It’s close to the Caribbean so we can stay in touch with our audience and marketplace, and it’s a good source of professional personnel to run a top-flight station.” Cowan and his staff are delighted with the hundreds of telephone calls they have received at their offices in Jamaica, Miami, and Trinidad from new fans in the islands, the United States and Canada, and with the recent formation of the first CSN fan club in Lansing, Michigan.

“The first Caribbean cable companies to carry CSN programming in December of 1992 were Bermuda Cablevision and Trinidad  & Tobago Television,” says Dawn Hill, CSN’s executive vice president for worldwide distribution. Now a growing number of island and continental cable companies are responding to viewer requests. Some carry CSN on a separate cable channel around the clock; others provide selected programmes. Some traditional television stations also carry CSN programming during certain hours. “We figure in the first year we will get our foot in the door,” says Cowan. “In some areas, cable companies are limited in the number of channels they can offer. CSN is ready when the number of US cable channels undergoes a scheduled expansion in 1994.”

Cowan expects CSN will take two years to break even, and three more to achieve a significant level of profit. Meanwhile, the network has financial support from two banks in Kingston, Jamaica — Century National Bank and Workers Savings and Loan Bank.

Over 624 million people live in the area covered by CSN – a potential audience of awesome size. If one percent of the people in the network’s viewing area tune in, 6.2 million people are watching. And Cowan expects to extend CSN’s geographic reach. “We have not set any time frames,” he notes. “First we want to cover North America, and then develop a high visibility in Europe, followed by Japan, and finally Africa.”

CSN’s current music format appeals mostly to the audience between 18 and 40 years old. News shows and other forms of programming would attract an older audience. Over time, Cowan plans to develop vertical programming with a good mix of music, news, and other information; to offer comedy, game and talk shows with a Caribbean flavour; and ultimately to provide separate entertainment and information channels.

CSN’s music format uses four VJs (video jockeys, disk jockeys who play videos) to introduce clips and talk about the artists. Craig Corka is a veteran Miami DJ, American-born with a strong sense of humour. Sandra Thigpen is a talented Jamaica-born actress; a former Miami Dolphins cheerleader, she has appeared in several full-length movies, including Folks, Radio Inside and Rivers of Stone, and in more than a dozen commercials for national advertisers.

Karen Fayth, CSN’s youngest VJ, has Jamaican parents, and is a full-time undergraduate social-work student at Florida International University in Miami. She looks like a tiny china doll and has competed in dozens of local beauty contests; she became a CSN VJ after answering an advertisement in New Times, a Miami alternative newspaper. In her daily video blocks, Fayth likes to comment on dance hall fashions, women’s issues and where listeners can go to purchase new dance hall clothing and music. On screen, she wears fashions by local Caribbean designers.

Charles Alien Smith III, who conducts most of CSN’s celebrity interviews, is a marketing and advertising graduate of Florida International University who also hosts Electric Air, a broadcast magazine on Bahamian television, commuting between Nassau and CSN in Miami. Working for CSN has trimmed his travel time, but still leaves scant hours for one of his favorite pastimes — painting.

Rounding out CSN’s on-air staff are news director and main anchor Roy Henriques Brown, a prize-winning Jamaican television journalist trained in New York, and reporter Andrea Thompson. Brown joined with Delroy Cowan, Garth Rose of Tavelstock and Paul Friedlander of Marketing Dynamics to shape and launch CSN in September 1992. “The creation of CSN came at the right time professionally for me,” he says. “CSN is exactly where I want to be following my experience with Trails, a half-hour program which dealt with Jamaica’s culture, food, music, people, and scenery.”

CSN: What Does The Caribbean Think

Calypso singer Marcia Miranda was going about her regular job as a BWIA flight attendant on a recent flight from Miami when one of the passengers, a little old Japanese lady, excitedly wagged a finger at her. “She asked, ‘You a singer!’ and I told her, ‘Yes, I sing calypso’. And she got more excited and said,’ see you on cable.’ I joked with the other girls working on the flight and said, ‘You see, I told you all I was an international star’.”

But it’s no joke. Lately, Miranda and other performers from the Caribbean have become seriously international, thanks to what they call their biggest break in a long time, Caribbean Satellite Network (CSN), the Miami-based television station jamming 24 hours of Caribbean music.

CSN programmes can be picked up by eight million people today. They are delivered by local cable systems and beamed via satellite to North America, Latin America, the Caribbean and Hawaii. Seventy per cent of the network’s recordings come from Caribbean artists.

Which means that Caribbean artists are being offered their biggest potential audiences ever. Already, CSN brings together a who’s who of Caribbean music — Shabba Ranks, Bob Marley, Ziggy Marley, Jimmy Cliff, Maxi Priest, Sparrow, David Rudder, SuperBlue, Crazy, Becket, Arrow, Eddy Grant, Spice & Co., Kassav, Burning Spear, J. C. Lodge, Rose, Denyse Plummer, General Grant . . . The network pulses with the sound of reggae, dub, calypso, and steelband music.

But just as the Caribbean is not a postcard-perfect world of sun, sea and sand, CSN’s menu has not attracted universal acclaim. Each Caribbean island holds fiercely to its particular individual identity (a state of affairs only temporarily suspended when the regional cricket team is doing battle on the field). As a result, differences and jealousies are not unknown: there is a feeling among some performers that musicians from Cowan’s native Jamaica are getting the best deal.

Eddy Grant, singer and owner of Ice Records in Barbados, appreciates the much-needed break that CSN is offering Caribbean artistes, but argues: “It’s just a question of where it will be slanted — whether it will continue to be slanted so much on the Jamaican side, or whether it will be opened up more to reflect the diversity of music we have across the region.”

Jamaican dominance on CSN hasn’t arisen out of policy, though, but out of demand. Given the path already beaten by Bob Marley and other early reggae stars, and considering the close kinship between Jamaica’s dub/dance hall music and today’s popular rap music, the international following for Jamaican music should surprise no-one. CSN’s requests for its top ten list show the demand for Jamaican artists clearly outnumbering performers from other islands.

Calypsonians from Trinidad and Tobago — the true home of steelband and calypso, lest anybody tries to tell you otherwise – take a considerable chunk of CSN’s air time also. When it comes to the smaller islands, it’s only the big-name performers like Arrow of Montserrat and Kassav of Guadeloupe (both with high international profiles) that get seen. Small timers are still waiting for their big break.

While there’s no shortage of talent and many more musicians should be featured on CSN, one problem is a lack of quality music videos coming out of the islands. In St Lucia, for example, only three calypsonians recorded this year because of the high costs involved. CSN needs high-quality material for international appeal, and has had to turn down videos from even well-known performers. CSN’s Eastern Caribbean representative Frank Dillon says of Trinidadian calypsonians: “Before CSN there was never any great need to produce quality videos. A lot of calypsonians would go to the television station and have the cameras roll while they stand in a room and lip-synch.”

The poor quality of videos was (and in some cases still is) inevitable since recording in the region is more or less the musical equivalent of the literary world’s vanity press. With very few exceptions (Shabba Ranks being a notable one) artists do not have recording contracts with big-name American companies and the luxury of a video production budget included in the deal. Most artists have to dig into their own pockets to produce records and accompanying videos.

Everywhere you go, it’s the same cry — money worries. Artists say that they cannot afford to make better videos on their own. Sponsorship often leads to the unsavoury need for the singer to promote the sponsor’s product prominently in the video. So those unable to attract sponsorship still end up lip- synching in a drab room …

That was the norm until recently, when video production houses which usually dealt with the advertising industry started branching out into the music video business. They use computer graphics, digital effects, lighting techniques and high quality film, and — best of all — they absorb production costs. The results: videos that are livelier, more innovative and more professional. Apart from the more stylish look, some recording artists hoping to get on CSN are going for saucier videos, some of which have found snug positions on the CSN play list and are often repeated.

But the question remains, what can be done for Caribbean artists from smaller islands who are unable to produce their own videos? How can CSN live up to the “Caribbean” of its name, and not be a promoter of little more than Jamaican dub and Trinidadian calypso? The solution, Dillon says, is for CSN to go into the video production business itself. “We want everybody to be treated fairly. Artists should have a chance to get this kind of exposure. We will bend over backwards to help them.”

CSN hopes to tape singers and musicians in live concerts, a measure that will open up the untapped reservoir of St Lucia’s vibrant jazz scene, Trinidad’s Venezuelan-inspired parang and East-Indian- influenced chutney, as well as the folk and gospel music of the region.

At present, CSN does not pay artists for the material it broadcasts. This has led some performers to show little interest in the network, says Dillon. “Their attitude is that we should approach them.”

Eddy Grant rejects that idea. “Even the big-name performers here are all little-known artists when you compare what they sell with the number of records MTV artists sell,” Grant says. “When you look at it, really, all our artists must be considered little-known.”

One big-name calypsonian with a video on CSN (not wanting to rock the boat, he says the only hint to his identity should be that his stage name begins with a vowel and ends with a consonant) does not agree either. “You hear about people like the Supremes being exploited — they made a pittance while the recording company made millions — and you say it was just back then when people were not as aware. It’s terrible that we should be taken advantage of like this, in this day and age and by our own Caribbean people too, our own blood brothers and sisters.”

But flight attendant and calypsonian Marcia Miranda, now basking in the international limelight, thinks the exposure is payment enough. “CSN explained that as they are a new company starting up, they wouldn’t be able to pay us for using our music,” she says. “I personally have no problem with that. I feel that if we have to get the music out there we have to compromise in some way. To be reasonable, in this business you can’t expect to be paid if you are not well known. Sometimes you have to give in order to get.”

And artists can have a great deal to get when their videos are shown on CSN, Dillon suggests. Voicing what must be every little-known artist’s secret fantasy, he says there is always the chance of being seen by more than just little old Japanese ladies. “A record producer may turn on the television and come across somebody performing on CSN and he might say, ‘That’s unique; that music is exotic. That is the kind of act I’m looking for.’ That kind of thing happens. That is how people get discovered.”

– Rosalie Leposky and Celia Sankar

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