Trop Rock Music: A View My Angle... it's a bit different!
Trop Rock is often said to be escapism. For those who that pertains to, are folks who live in non-tropical environments and hearing stories of people going to tropical environments for a visit is something they can relate to. It's something they appreciate. Kind of a breath of fresh air.
More often than not, these songs are written by artists who live in similar environments. Places where in the winter months, it can get quite cold. So in say a January day when the snow is blowing outside, someone will pop on a CD that takes them away from that and onto a tropical environment vicariously.
Suddenly, they close their eyes and find themselves on say an island they always wanted to live in, but have never been able to do. It's a great thing!
In 1978 I moved to South Miami and with the exception of several years in Boston, in between, I was in Miami/Dade for twenty five years. For myself, I didn't need to escape to the tropics, I was already there. I lived a tropical lifestyle. Outside of work, I was always doing stuff that memories are made of.
Early on I would take bike rides on the weekend. I had a great bike, a Fuji 12 speed. I'd head over to Old Cutler Rd, an extremely beautiful road that runs south from Coral Gables and heads south. I recall once there I was heading to Coconut Grove at a pretty good clip on the bike path that is part of Old Cutler Rd. when one of these guys in spandex racing gear passed me on his racing bike. He threw down the gauntlet and I picked it up without hesitation. We were about three miles out of Coconut Grove and I immediately picked up the pace and drafted him, no more than a foot and a half from his rear wheel.
The bike path is quite rustic on Old Cutler. It's not a straight path at all. Its laden with turns, ups and downs, the works. It was January or February and around 80 degrees Fahrenheit (26C) and the two of us were going at 95%, shifting gears with no let up, as we swept up and down, over and about on the bike path. When we reached the entrance to Main Highway, the final half mile to the 'Grove, on athe blind sweeping curve, I passed him. What a sight that must have been Some guy in cut off shorts and a t shirt passing Mr. Spandex professional. As we arrived in Coconut Grove, I stopped at a rickety little old bar, went inside and rewarded myself with a couple of ice cold Red Stripes. January/February, 80 degrees and riding my butt off like there was no tomorrow. Living a Tropical life.
On other times I was out with my friend Bob Mejia and his wife Kim, who had a Bertram 46.6 sport fishing boat. We were out almost every weekend on Biscayne Bay. It's amazing when you go off the continental shelf. The water goes from aqua blue/green to the darkest blue you can imagine! The foam breaking from the bow cutting through the water is the whitest white you've ever seen as well!
We would often party on the sand bar, south east of Key Biscayne, far inside the shelf, of course. Once we also partied at one of the houses in Stiltsville!
Stiltsville is a group of houses built on the water about a mile south of Key Biscayne, where Biscayne Bay meets the Atlantic ocean. At one point there were twenty seven, or so. Hurricanes took their toll and there are only seven left. What a treat that was!
I recall once earlier, on my friend Bill Newcomb's boat, we came across a couple of dolphin. We shut the engines down and stopped to take a look at them. As we looked into the deep blue water, dark blue as can be, it became clear that at various different levels this was a pod of around ten to twelve dolphins, all swimming at various depths, as far as thirty feet down. That's how clear the water was! Living a Tropical lifestyle.
Then there was the Coconut Grove Art Festival, the largest art festival in the Southeast. What a blast that is every year!
In 2008 I moved further south to the Conch Republic, A.K.A.The Florida Keys. As a matter of fact, I moved to the furthest south the road goes in the Conch Republic, to it's capital, Key West, 126 miles south of the “border”, Which is at The Last Chance Saloon, in Florida City, and I've been here ever since.
The point of all of this is to underline the fact that I'm in my thirty fourth year living in the tropics.
So when it comes to writing songs, I'm not escaping anything, I'm here and I have been for a long time. When I used to come to Key West, I always wanted to be part of the town, not so much someone visiting for a commando attack of Duval Street.
Likewise, when I was living in southern Miami/Dade County, I'd run down to Key Largo, or Islamorada (say: Isle amorada) often for the day on a weekend, as well as playing gigs at Gilberts, Pirate's Cove, Wahoo's at Whale Harbor, the former KOA, the former Kenny's in Key Largo, plus I sat in with friends many times at The Caribbean Club, Sharkey's, and a few others. It was only thirty five minutes away.
So unlike many other Trop Rock artists, I write from a local perspective. While others may write from a perspective of coming to, say Key West, for a weekend reprise from their regular life, I might write a song like this, about living on a tropical harbor.
“Yeah, Something About A Harbor”
I'm seeing it with Dani as well. Of course she wrote popular songs like Drunk on Mallery Square, and End Of The Road before she moved here. As I write this, she's been here over two and a half years. She's a local. On her upcoming release she has a song called Back Country Pontoon Party, which is a song influenced by our many local excursions to Marvin Key, which is around nine miles west of Sugarloaf Key, which itself is seventeen miles north of Key West. It's only accessible by boat and we often rent a pontoon boat at Back Country Boat Rentals, http://www.backcountryboatrentals.biz/
Before I had a Trop release, I made a demo of a song I wrote named “Raise My Glass To The Upper 48”. I wrote this shortly after arriving. My friend George Cornejo came down to visit and when he was leaving he said “You're down here in the Keys and we're all in the upper forty-eight”. The song took off from there. It's not common among songwriters, but I gave George 10% co-writing credit. My view of it was, if he never said that, the song never would have existed.
It talks about living in Key West and mentions the things you'll see in day to day life here. Again, not the tourist viewpoint, but the local perspective and why I live here. It's played with a Brazilian Bossa Nova feel. Living a tropical lifestyle.
I thought it would be fun to make a collage video using still pictures I had taken, that would match the places and scenes that the lyrics mentioned in the demo. It turned out pretty good, all things considered. Keep in mind that the song was a demo, not something that was acceptable for radio.
At MOTM in 2009, the annual Trop Rock gathering in Key West, D.J. Jeff Allen, far and away the most influential radio personality in the genre at the time, actually searched me out. He introduced himself and told me he absolutely loved the video I made. He looked me straight in the eyes and said “When you make a CD, I WANT it!”.
Later, when my CD did come out, he was my biggest cheerleader! He often said to me “You bring so many new ideas into Trop Rock!”. He particularly loved the fact that I used a clarinet on my song “The Beach!!!!” and mentioned it often.
For me, this was a natural thing. Bear in mind that I had lived in Miami for twenty five years. My first wife Mercy, is Cuban and I was part of her family. Cuba consequently has a very large influence on me in so many ways. I wrote “The Beach!!!!:” in a Cuban style structure. The clarinet is one of several main instruments in Cuban music, so by adding a clarinet to the song was a natural for me. For Jeff, it was a major eye opener.
Jeff was all over my album for years. He always said to me “Your music is so different, I love it!” I recall my friend Artist Koz, who had the radio on all the time in his Green Worls Gallery here in Key West (http://www.greenworldgallery.com/), once mentioning to me “Beachfront Radio (Jeff's station) is playing the heck out of your CD man!”
Yes, my music is quite different than most. The reason for it is elementary when you look at it. The vast majority of Trop Rock songwriter's main influence, is Jimmy Buffett. I always enjoyed Jimmy Buffett as well! He's a great songwriter and I've always enjoyed his work. Later, I also went head over heels with his phenomenal books!
However, as far as being a musical influence goes, Jimmy Buffett was on my second tier. He wasn't my top drawer. Who were? Lets see, Bob Dylan, Gregg Allman and Dickey Betts of the Allman Brothers Band, Jerry Garcia Robert Hunter and Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Frank Zappa, Djavan, Santana, Robbie Robertson, Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, Jean Luc Ponty, James Taylor, Glen Miller, Neil Young, Michael Franks, David Crosby, Steven Stills, Asleep At The Wheel, Albert King, B.B. King, the list goes on and as you can see, it's very diverse. Progressive Rock, Jazz, Blues, Western Swing, Folk/Rock/Songwriters, Brazilian, Cuban, Big Band...
So I came into Trop Rock from a very different angle than virtually everyone else. It's no wonder my music sounds different that most. Jeff realized this right off the bat and that's what he appreciated most about my contribution to the genre.
I always loved the tropical sound! Growing up, my parents played Martin Denny records quite often. I always loved that sound! Martin Denny had spent quite a few years touring Latin America and when he relocated to Hawaii, he brought that influence to his music as well. I love that, especially the rhythms and percussion instruments!
We also had music from the Caribbean flowing through the house. Harry Belifante was one of their favorites. Calypso and Bahamian music were were often played.
On the radio I was hearing Antonio Carlos Jobim. I loved the different sound he had! The chords weren't the same as everyone else. It was as though they were from another dimension and offered so much different color! Instead of hearing chords like C, F and G in a song, which is just fine, here I was hearing much more colorful sounding chords that had a magic feel to it. F Maj7 G7 Gm7 F#7 Fmaj7 F Maj9 F Maj7. What was this? Well, it's some of the chords to Girl From Ipanema, specifically. It sounded incredible to my ears. What it was, was jazz in a Latin setting. Plus, here I was hearing songs that painted pictures of Rio, or Brazil as a whole. I clearly saw beautiful beaches with swaying palm trees, populated by people who loved the sun, water, and living life to the fullest.
This clip has Astrud Gilberto singing the Jobim song “Girl From Ipanema”. She was the original voice of the song with Jobim and Stan Getz. (The clip starts at 36 seconds) This version was recorded over twenty years after the song was a hit.
The Allman Brothers, The Grateful Dead, and Jazz were always big influences on me for several reasons. For one, I always liked improvisation. Music is a living organism when allowed to be. There's a big difference between playing on top of the music and playing within it. I recall leaving a concert once that I was very disappointed with. Some guy behind me says to his friend “Man! That was fantastic! It was just like the record!”. I turned around and said “That's what was wrong with it! It was completely canned. It was sterile. I just paid all this money and I could have stayed home and heard the exact same thing.”. This is one of the core reasons people follow tours of bands like the Dead or the Allmans. The Allmans might play Whippin' Post, or the 'Dead may have played Truckin' twenty times in a month, but every time it's different. Where are they going to take it tonight? Who knows? It's a living organism.
Additionally, within these bands and this style of improvisation, musicians don't play on top of the band. Everybody listens to what is happening around them with their fellow musicians, and the music is a weave of everyone playing off one another. Yes, they're playing on the high wire without a net. Do they fall off? On occasion, yes. However, this is art and art is never perfect. True art is always on a razor's edge and always runs a risk. How many times did Picaso take a canvas off the easel and throw it away? How many times did Hemingway tear out a paper from the typewriter, crumble it up and throw it in the trash next to his desk? The more appropriate question here was more like: How many times did Ernest throw out his trash can in one day? Sage points indeed for any true artist.
Frank Zappa taught me that there are no limitations in music. The sky is the limit and don't let any barriers hold you back. If you feel like doing something, just do it.
The first thing I listen to in a song is the music. There has often been times that I've never known what the lyrics were to a song were. I only heard the voice as the melody line. From my vantage point, the very first thing a great song must be is great music. That's the foundation. It's a lot like building a house. With a weak foundation, the house will collapse. With a strong foundation you have something you can bank on, to build and color the song. The music will set the stage and the lyrics then will navigate the song to where it's going. It's a team effort.
Back to the songwriting aspect, with Buffett not being one of my top tier influences, I've come into Trop Rock with a totally different approach. DJ Jeff loved it and I'm very grateful to him for it! Regretfully, we lost Jeff to cancer a couple of years ago. We were good personal friends as well. I miss him.
Lastly, I'm Trop Rock, not so much Trop Pop. Pop does exists in my catalog, but it's not as prominent. I wrote my first pop song with “The Beach!!!!”, plus I've written others that haven't been recorded like “Island Ladies” and “Jump Into de Fiya!”. However for every twenty songs I write, two or three might be pop orientated. Rock, Southern Rock, Jazz, Country, Latin, Blues, Bahamian, even blues.. it falls under the Trop Rock umbrella. I must also say that I write in other genres and don't limit myself. For instance, I've written some music and sent it to a Nashville lyricist who's working with it currently.
While on the subject of Nashville, I've been published there since 2000 with McClure and Trowbridge Publishing. Because of that, I've also been in the Key West Songwriter's Festival (KWSF) since 2010, which is largely a BMI Nashville event held in Key West, with major support and colossal organization here in Key West via Charlie Bauer and Danielle Holiday. It is my highest honor in music to be a part of it, bar none. Thank you Charlie Bauer, Dani Holiday, and BMI!
Not having Buffett as a top drawer influence has it's draw backs as well, and some are major. There are members of the Trop Rock press that just aren't interested at all. It's an old school approach. I know one Trop Rock performer who hit big when they made their debut. A friend said to them “You know a lot of people in the genre think you're moving way too fast and haven't done your due diligence”. Huh? What kind of attitude is that? That's a similar outlook. There are those who are very guarded and won't push anything until it gets a certain degree of popularity. DJ Jeff wasn't like that at all. He was someone who if he liked something, he'd jump out of the plane without checking his parachute. He had that type of confidence. Perhaps that's why we were friends. Without taking risks one is destined for mediocrity.
However, the genre is changing and it's changing very quickly. Two of the Trop Rock stations, Radio A1A and The Shore have listener ratings held weekly. The people who the listeners are voting and calling in for are not the ones that play at The Casa Marina for MOTM, for the most part. Those artists amount to only around 10% of the weekly tallies. I'll be curious to see how the Trop Rock Music Association (TRMA) deals with the remaining 90% that fans, who don't have to pay and join an organization, are voting on? Additionally, there are a lot more fans voting and calling in on the stations, than those paying for the privilege of voting in the TRMA.
Anyway, if you got this far you see what I'm bringing to the Trop Rock table. Is it conventional? Hell no. Conventional? That's just not me, no matter if it's Trop Rock, Blues, Jazz... or anything.
A local approach, with influences from all over the place, Rock, Jazz, Country, Brazilian, Cuban, Caribbean, with the emphasis on music being a living organism, with the freedom option for any song to go anywhere at any time.
Meanwhile, I have my book to promote, the new book to write, the two podcasts I'm involved with, The Chillaxing Party (https://www.facebook.com/groups/TheChilaxingParty/) JOIN!! Playing in The Shanty Hounds, writing music... I can't keep up with myself!
An important note: Music is like a language. When languages don't evolve and progress, they die. Look at the Latin language as an example. English is constantly evolving, as a contrast. Music is no different, albeit on a much more accelerated level. As I said earlier:
Without taking risks, one is destined for mediocrity.
Myself, I'm taking risks from a residential tropical perspective.
All the Best From Key West!