Mon | Jul 16, 2018

We need a songwriting competition

Published:Saturday | February 21, 2015 | 12:00 AMMel Cooke
Eric Donaldson
Frederick 'Toots' Hibbert

There is an inherent common weakness to the two singing music competitions which have enjoyed media dominance in this country, one since the early 2000s and the other in 2013 when a Jamaican came out on top. They are 'Rising Stars' on the local front and 'The Voice', famously won by Tessanne Chin.

(Note that by specifying singing, I am excluding the very popular 'Kings and Queens of Dancehall' which, although it does include singing, has a very healthy dose of deejaying. And yes, saxophonist Verlando Small won 'Rising Stars' in 2013 and 2009 winner Brown Shuga balances deejaying and singing, but it is a contest that emphasises singing. And 'Kings and Queens' shortcoming is the emphasis in later stages on the clash - they might excite the crowd, but clash lyrics very rarely a great, lasting song make.)

'Rising Stars' and 'The Voice' do not prioritise original material. They are, to put it baldly, overblown karaoke competitions. Of course, the contestants are not the average warbler out on the town with friends, spluttering a laugh or two to go along with the lyrics coming up on screen. But the focus on reproducing already good and popular songs is the same, with similar results.

They produce winners who find the going extremely hard after the fanfare is over and it is time to move on to next year's crop of entrants.

Despite what many singers would like to believe of themselves, the combination of a good songwriter and good vocalist in one person is rare. Even rarer still is that combination in a person of the vocal calibre to go through the rounds and win 'Rising Stars' and 'The Voice', which tend to attract very good singers in a variety of styles.


Unrealistic expectation


To expect that the eventual winner will also be a great songwriter is pushing it. To have the all-in-one musician-writer-singer package is asking way too much.

However, many a good singer either fools him/herself that they can consistently write songs that do justice to their vocal talent, or will be satisfied with a song being less than it could, as long as they have written it and can claim the lion's share of ownership.

And the general result (although there are exceptions like Shuga) is mediocrity and an inability to gain traction with audiences outside the competition, or even retain the interest of fans from the screen who are more loyal to the show than a particular year's winner.

We cannot do anything about 'The Voice', but we certainly can - and should - address the deficiency of writing in our popular music with a songwriting competition. We have more than enough of those which emphasise reproduction and rearrangement of existing material ('All Together Sing' is in this category as well). We need to generate songs that go beyond cute wordplay - the deejays have inundated us with those over the past 10 or so years, since Kartel did it well and so many have tried to do the same or better, but without remarkable talent.

It would not be expected that the writers would deliver the songs themselves (although those who could might choose to do so) and there would be an acoustic angle, where the lyrics and song structure are foregrounded. Public opinion would figure, but not as much as the judges, because text-in campaigns and the colour of an entrant's outfit cannot be allowed to determine what a good song is.

As I continue dreaming, there would not be a winner-takes-all format, but the top 10 songs would be paired with good singers and producers for an album. Then next year. we do it all over again.

It is not a pipe dream. There was a time when the Festival Song contest, which gave us Toots and the Maytals, Eric Donaldson, Ras Karby and more, were like that to a large extent, though with more singer-songwriters than I am thinking about. So was the Tastee Talent Contest, which gave us Nadine Sutherland, Yellowman, Beenie Man, Cobra and so many more.

We are doing ourselves a disservice in setting up karaoke competitions and expecting that great songs that make great artistes will naturally follow.