Making Dimanche Gras sing

Originally published in the Trinidad Guardian on March 24, 2014.
Carl ‘Beaver’Henderson at his St James recording studio. Photograph by Mark Lyndersay.

Nobody can doubt the credentials of Carl ‘Beaver’Henderson as a musician and producer. After his long runs in bands, beginning with The Last Supper when he was in his teens alongside Robin Imamshah and most spectacularly in Fireflight, he has been a constant presence in the music industry.

Henderson has been running his own studio as a producer since 1991, releasing work under his label, Heat of the Tropics.
His biggest recent hit was Ganga Farmer, with local reggae artist Marlon Asher in 2009, which triggered a ten city tour of Europe with Asher, Jah Melody and Maximus Dan three years ago that took the performers across the continent for two weeks.

His next tour will begin in the first week in June, when he takes 50 artistes from T&T, representing a sampling of the cultural profile of the country on another European tour, set to begin in the Berlin Festival of Cultures.
Henderson recognised a natural link between European dance music and soca almost a decade ago and has been stealthily seeding elements of the music into the local productions he’s worked on and encouraging other artistes to take note of the similarities.

By 2015 he hopes to have a new product on the local market that he’s calling electronic calypso.
“Not soca,” he insists, “that’s a brand that’s not particularly well known outside of T&T. People still know about calypso outside.”
But the veteran musician and producer still has a soft spot for the seminal music, so when TUCO’s Brother Resistance called a month before Dimanche Gras, Henderson had no real choice but to respond to a call from a former schoolmate and long term friend.

“I accepted because calypsonians have been pushed into a corner,” Henderson explained.
“I wanted to put them in a position of respect. I answered the call as a fellow soldier.”
There were no illusions about the scale of the challenge.

“I knew of the reports of the last couple of years, and I knew that I had a target on my back. Everyone had a reason why not. There were all kinds of negatives, but I kept telling everyone that failure is not an option.”
“My first decision was to produce with a television audience in mind.”

So Henderson turned the Savannah stage into a television stage set, placing the band, Errol Ince and the Music Makers at centre stage and having the calypsonians emerge from backstage. The large screens were the same ones used at the Soca Monarch competition.
To complete the illusion, he blacked out everything that wasn’t stage or audience, designating the extended wings on either side of the stage a “no-fly” zone and charging security with ensuring that nobody, not even the President of the Republic, was allowed to walk there.

The newly appointed producer also had to work with a team he was largely unfamiliar with. Brother Resistance had called on The Players Workshop, led by Gregory McGuire, Mervyn DeGoeas and Giselle Langton, to work on the theatrical aspects of the production.
“So there’s a month to go and I’m working with people I’ve never worked with in my life.”
Henderson committed a week and a half of his production schedule to building chemistry with the group, allowing him to keep his focus on the technical and presentation aspects of the show.

“I planned it on paper, but there was never a full rehearsal,” he said.
“We never got access to the stage until Saturday night. The sound check, dance rehearsal and set construction where happening simultaneously on Sunday.”
I arrived in the Savannah at 11pm on Saturday night and never left until 3am on Monday morning. I had no sleep; I went right through.

“I can tell you that was a lot easier when I was in my twenties.”
The first time Dimanche Gras producer emphasised speed and efficiency for the production. Each calypsonian had nine minutes to deliver each of their two songs, which ensured that the production would run to at least four hours.
Henderson’s mandate was to deliver a show that started at seven pm and ended at midnight.

“I think what everyone responded to was the flow of the show and our determination that there would be no lapses.”
“The anthem was to play at 7pm, but there were problems with security armbands, and we started at 7:03. Good enough for some, not good enough for me.”

Technically, Henderson introduced a dedicated bus to capture and enlisted Robin Foster and Samuel Jack to mix live audio during the show for broadcast. There’s now a full 64 track recording of the show to go along with the HD video produced by CarnivalTV for streaming.

The final statistics from the event not only satisfied viewers, but also justified Henderson’s decision to produce for television. The HD feed pulled 75,000 viewers on Carnival TV alone. The average viewing time was four hours on that platform.
“Ideally,” Henderson said, “a show like that should be two and a half hours long, maximum. I’d advise anyone not to let the show run that long.”

Ultimately, the Dimanche Gras 2014 producer notes that the success of the show was largely owed to the sense of common purpose and commitment to excellence by the team.
“At my last tech meeting an hour before we began the show I asked everyone what could go wrong,” Henderson said.
“Everyone explained what might happen and what was in place to manage it. After I listened to that, that’s when I finally relaxed.”
“The respect that I got from TUCO and the calypsonians was phenomenal, the NCC was extremely supportive from Chairman Allison Demas on down. Everyone cooperated, and it all came together because of teamwork.”

“I think my biggest success was in motivating people.”
Henderson recalls that the executives of support companies were putting down work to make the project happen, Cheval Maraj of All Events and Lighting Company and Ricky Raghunanan who built the stage structure were right there, alongside their workers making the project happen.

“It’s not rocket science,” he said. “Just do it right. You have to know where your market is. There are so many more things I could do If I had the time and the budget. I’d produce a show that nobody would forget for a long time.”
“This is a game where there are more coaches in the stands than on the field. I decided it was time to get my hands dirty.”

“For Carnival I’ve been a performer, I’ve been on the stage, I’ve been in the audience. That’s the experience and perspective that I bring to the table.”
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