Notion chats to Kalpee, the co-founder of Island Wave, about their showcase of Caribbean music at the SXSW festival, the power of platforming, and creative motivation.

The SXSW festival in Austin, Texas has proven to be a fast-growing hub of artistic activity, whether it’s film, television or the increasingly vibrant live music scene there. One of the big breakouts of that music scene at last year’s virtual festival was Island Wave, a platform for the most vibrant contemporary Caribbean music around, co-founded by artist Kalpee.

 

Last year’s edition was recorded virtually from Kingston in Jamaica, but Island Wave and Kalpee were able to bring their show right to Austin itself for the big comeback in-person SXSW last week. Capitalising on 2021’s success, Island Wave staked its place this year as SXSW’s home of Caribbean music, particularly pioneering the ‘New Calypso’ genre, a dynamic new musical movement from Kalpee’s native Trinidad and Tobago. A huge crop of artists backed up Kalpee, including Tessellated, Nailah Blackman and Jimmy October.

 

Kalpee has said, “I am so very appreciative of all the experiences I have been blessed with, in being able to travel internationally as part of my musical career. Through my travels I came to understand that what is lacking in the West Indies, is structure and resources into the creative arts for us to compete with the rest of the world. This is how “Island Wave” came to be, as I realised that by coming together to represent Caribbean music with my peers, we can showcase our heritage, musical genres and individuality. In recognising the importance of having a venue and stage which represents music from the West Indies, SXSW has given Caribbean Music an international platform to showcase on and we are beyond grateful for their support and continued support in committing to Island Wave 2022,23,24 and beyond.”

 

With Island Wave’s big 2022 show in the books, it’s time to look ahead to a bright future for the platform. We sat down with Kalpee to discuss the platform’s genre innovations, the importance of giving a platform to marginalised communities and the SXSW collaboration.

You champion a sound called New Calypso / Kalypso. For those unacquainted with the genre, how would you describe it?

New Calypso / Kalypso is any contemporary indigenous musical expression from Trinidad and Tobago that attempts to explore wider themes and emotions beyond leisure, joy and celebration. Such expressions would be closer to that of Calypso, hence the need for the rebirth of ‘New Calypso / Kalypso’ a more flexible categorisation to describe our contemporary music. “New Calypso” is a genre being pushed by Trinbagonian musicians as a way to identify their musical heritage, which they proudly carry forward.

You’ve been singing since the age of six. How did a passion become a career for you?

I think I’ve always been passionate about singing and music in general, I just didn’t know it at the time. Where I’m from, people don’t usually expect singers to become professionals, so I didn’t really believe in myself or that music would take me far. As I grew up though and tried different crafts, also, going to university to study law, then marine biology, it reminded me of what made me happy, which was music. It was also the one constants throughout my entire life. Thankfully my family supported me and kept pushing me to grow and now I’m here constantly being challenged but, 100% invested in music, cause it’s all I want to do, it’s my therapy and it’s important to me.

You’re also a producer. How did you get started with that and what doors has the skill unlocked?

I started production, mainly as a vocal producer, then as I learnt to play the guitar, I started adding bits in to help guide my songwriting process. Now I do pretty much everything and I work in Ableton, which I really love. It’s allowed me to express my ideas exactly how I hear them, which is so fulfilling and which gave me a chance to create my own sound.
How would you describe your song creation process?
Usually, It begins with a chord progression and then I start experimenting with different melodies over it. Then I arrange, what I believe to be the strongest melodies, into the verse, pre and chorus and start writing over them. Depending on the mood of the progression I’ll know what direction to write in.
You co-founded Island Wave, a platform dedicated to bringing music of the Caribbean to the forefront of the international music scene. What limitations do you feel Caribbean artists are currently faced with?

Opportunities to travel, funding and structure. It was only once I started travelling myself and began working on releasing music with guidance from my management team that I discovered new processes such as PR and marketing which help in the promotion of a campaign. These resources aren’t readily available to artist in the West Indies and especially not on an international scale. The opportunities are also not available due to the niche of our Sound – Caribbean. We are currently working with DSP platforms such as Audiomack who came on board as an Island Wave Stage sponsor to help change things, for example, adding Caribbean as a main music genre and sub genres like New Calypso so that Trinbagonian artists can feel represented sonically. We need Spotify, Apple, Amazon and all DAL’s to follow in support and diversify what Caribbean music is.

What do you think has to change in order to help bridge the gap between the international music scene and the Caribbean diaspora?
First and foremost if we can’t travel we can’t do anything. The difficulties we have incurred in applying for work permits and visas for our stage has sadly meant that this year we had to leave behind 3 of our Trinidad musicians and videographer and 2 of our Jamaican musicians at home when we were denied expedited services in order for them to attend SXSW. The costs are so high for these visas too.  I feel that in order for creatives to have half a shot of being able to export their work we need to work with local authorities at making this process easier and look at local government and associations to provide grants for such purposes. SXSW is such a huge platform to showcase at and yet, unlike countries like the UK who have organisations such as PRS helping then with international showcase funds, we do not.
“Island Wave” has a stage at SXSW this year. How did the collaboration come about?

I first performed at SXSW in 2019 unofficially, it was such an awesome experience especially for me coming from Trinidad and never having experience a music scene like it, so I was determined to apply to become an official artist the following year. I was so hyped when in 2020 SXSW officially invited me to perform but, unfortunately, due to the pandemic the show was cancelled. As the world went online, I was grateful when SXSW offered me a slot to perform as part of SXSW Online as part of the Russian House Stage, which was housing World Music. It was only then that we enquired whether there was a Caribbean stage I could join to keep in line with my genre and to our dismay and SXSW’s, there wasn’t one! It was then that myself and my management team FVP Global approached SXSW to discuss the possibility of collectively bringing together artists, such as my bredrin Tessellated, who had also been invited to perform to join the “Island Wave” stage and they absolutely jumped at it. Together we set about inviting other artists we knew and respected and virtually captured our first show in Kingston Jamaica. Listed as a “recommended watch”, we successfully launched as part of SXSW online on March 19th 2021 ranking in the top 5 showcases of the festival. The support we received and are still receiving from SXSW is so appreciated and I want to say blessings to Brian Hobbs SXSW Music Festival Programming Manager who has gone above and beyond in helping us achieve all we have today.

You’re playing the Island Wave stage yourself this month. What can people expect from your set?

Expect a lot of energy, it’s gonna be a nice vybe with a cool mix of music and I’ve been waiting to perform for the longest while so just ready to rock out

When you’re not making music, you’re a motivational speaker, going to schools to discuss mental health and balancing music creation with learning. What inspired you to start this and what success stories have you seen so far?

I think I can appreciate how challenging school days can be. Understanding now how much having a belief system helps, this is what makes me want to tell youths to do what they love because a lot of the time no one’s telling you to follow your passion, and sometimes all it takes is a little motivation to encourage someone to keep pushing through the challenges. I’d say the success stories I’ve seen are when people message me saying that I’ve encouraged them, to stick to what it is they love. That’s big success in my eyes.
What are your hopes and dreams for 2022?
I hope to see my music reach more people in different parts of the world so that I can start touring and representing Trinidad all over the map. I’m so ready to rock out, so just waiting for the opportunities to present themselves.

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