Published on: January 25, 2018
3canal, they are the kings of the j’ouvert and while they don’t mean to sound haughty, they are damn right. Oh you didn’t know? Well now you know. I don’t regret a lot in my life but if I do regret one thing, it would be the year that I played j’ouvert with a band that was not 3canal.
Not realizing that their first foray into j’ouvert ‘Blue’ would be history making it did boom, boom, boom up history. 3canal may have started as a low rumble on the Trinidad carnival scene but like any good base line they run throughout the song that is Trinidad carnival and may go unnoticed but the trained ear will know how vital they are to making the song whole. Becoming an arts collaborative over 20 years ago without any real intention of etching their place in the carnival scene as they have actually done, 3canal has managed to develop themselves and others into solid contributors to the national tapestry that makes Trinidad and Tobago culture so rich. Bringing the power of the word the riddim the truth and the love and the light they have grown to become a solid part of the Carnival calendar. Being a fan of the group and their work it was my absolute pleasure to sit and have a morning chat with Wendell Manwarren to really get right down to the heart of the matter where reality bites and illusions shatter.
Di: How did 3canal J’ouvert begin?
Wendell: Well, John Isaacs, Roger Roberts, Byron Joseph, myself… and a bunch of other people were at Little House (on Carlos Street). Little House was like the Callaloo Company’s bunk house and I was the den master. There were always people around. Steve Ouditt who lived on Alexandra Street would come over in the morning and it would be a lime. Christine Johnson would actually pay her money and sign up to play j’ouvert at the Arena and the rest of us would just traipse along and steal their free drinks and whatnot indirectly until eventually, it got to a stage where we became too obvious and too much of a presence and a menace and they were like ‘Get out we Band!’ So we got out their band and it just led to the next year being like… ‘well what we go do?’ That is when we started talking and decided to come out with a j’ouvert band.
Di: How did 3canal meet?
Wendell: Roger and myself went to St Mary’s College. We met John through playing mas with Peter Minshall and being involved in theatre. We met Stanton when we were working with Bagasse Company and he came in to town and ended up working with Bagasse Company, then he eventually moved on to Callaloo Company like we all did. So we’d been working together or knew each other in one form or capacity or another for years. The mas was the thing that really bonded everybody in such close quarters. We talking ’94 here. That was when the whole thing began.
Steve, Roger and myself formed the constituted 3canal. In those days it was considered a visual and performance arts collaborative. We didn’t lock it down as to what it could be because Steve was a visual graphic artist I was an actor and helping Peter Minshall with his performance, working with Liliput as a director. Roger was the production manager of Minshall and an actor from time to time so we thought that, you know, we would just give ourselves the liberty to do whatever and j’ouvert would be the first arena we would explore.
Di: Where did the music come in?
Wendell: Most ppl would know 3canal from ’97 when we came with the song. That’s when the whole public idea of 3canal came into being and the people involved were then myself, Roger, John, and Stanton who constituted 3canal the performing group. Steve had gone on to Goldsmiths at that time to further his studies so it was just a natural move on. It was really spurred on by Jean Michael Gilbert who used to play mas in the j’ouvert band. He would bring a little posse from Paris. The most it would have ever gotten to was about 150 people. Some how he decided that we should record a song. This was also at the urging of Lorraine O’Connor and Roses Hezikiah who heard us sing when were working on Derek Walcott’s Joker of Seville. At the time, they were both involved in it and they were partners with Jean Michael so they knew we could sing. The singing thing started developing organically at the time. Then, Jean Michael in ’96 kept inveigling us to record a song.
I had actually written something called ‘Blue Blue’ at the time. Initially the idea of writing a song and rehearsing a song as a group… the first kinda structured song we worked on was ‘Blue Blue’. We decided to take him up on the offer and we presented it to him and he liked it but it didn’t have the carnival vibe so he suggested well why don’t you sing about j’ouvert? I was like, ‘duh’ we have a j’ouvert band. Then it went from ‘Blue Blue’ to ‘Blue’.
I had the meeting with him, Signal to Noise who was my partner at the time and I just wanted his input because he was a man of popular music and radio station and all that and Graham Wilson who fortunately was an old school mate and producer who we were comfortable with. We had worked in Garaham’s studio before singing background for Rubidiri and a couple other people. So something already was happening in a way that was unplanned but was kind of setting us up to just seize the opportunity and we did and it worked out. The idea that initially the song was rejected but the interest in us making a song was still alive so the challenge was come back with a j’ouvert song and lets see what we have. So I went back to fellas at Little House and said well good news and bad news. Bad news is they like the ‘Blue Blue’ but they don’t think it is appropriate as a first song for the j’ouvert. They think that we should instead write a j’ouvert song.
The whole idea of painting the town blue came to me because the expression is ‘we go paint the town red’ so ‘paint the town blue’ came to me and then Stanton went to the Oxford English dictionary and from there came the famous line ‘Blue. A colour or pigment’ and then he added on ‘3canal making a statement’ and then literally, it just flowed from there.
Di: That was the turning point?
Wendell: That led to what many people would say was the biggest j’ouvert band in contemporary history that took the entire morning to get from the top of the Savannah from Boy Scouts to QRC and people just came from wherever. People just decided they were playing Blue. People came in their blue we didn’t have enough blue for all those people, so it was like the fish and the loaves. It was dangerous. It was horrible. It was incredible. It was unimaginable. Never to be repeated. Not by us, no way. It was scary. It was very, very dangerous. I saw people get stabbed right there. There were people who said they didn’t have to walk because they were just being carried along so you can imagine how dangerous that is. So our beginning was very momentous very incredible very magical, dark and dangerous but it changed our lives. So much so that 21 years later now, we have to pinch ourselves and say, wow what a journey.
Di: In the beginning was there a solid vision for what the group was to become?
Wendell: Certainly not for the music part of it. That was just… we try a ting and we had no expectation beyond that. So much so that people didn’t know how to book us because we had no means of being booked we went straight back working in the mas camp. We weren’t organized to perform. The first performance that we did was a disaster. It was four of us with mics and cables so we ended up in a big spaghetti knot by the time we were halfway through the song. It was only after that that we realized that we needed to organize this thing. We needed to organize ourselves.
By then Rituals the label came along and said they wanted to sign us. At the time the prospect of Rituals as a label was a good thing because they had signed Brother Resistance and Andre Tanka and all the old people who were Kisskidee that had some promise and it was a big deal at the time. We didn’t rush in to signing because at the time we realized that we didn’t know anything about these things.
We had to get advice so we got a lawyer and made certain adjustments to the contract and instead of signing a regular artists deal we signed an artist development deal. So the first five years that we were with Rituals we would explore who we were, build a repertoire, work with different producers, get to understand the recording process, get to understand your voice your sound.
We had just a natural sound when we came together. It was an interesting 5 years developing and understanding but the irony of it was that during that 5 year development process it afforded us to set up as our own little entity inside the Rituals yard. We didn’t sign on to this until we were in our 30’s so, because we were older we were a lot more mature and we were already experienced. We really wanted to understand what we were doing in this music business.
A lot of the younger artist started engaging us in the yard and some sort of mentoring started from early. It was a very rich and healthy scene. Everybody supported each other and that led to the whole yard vibes. We ended up working with everybody who passed through there. We were learning a lot.
Di: At what point would you say the 3canal brand developed?
Wendell: After that first experience we realized we had to put reins on it, but it reinforced our desire to do it. We knew we were on to something. People were responding to us.
It was a fresh energy. It was coming with a look and a sound and a vibe and all kind of different things and eventually a brand started to come in to the mix. We never really claimed that terminology of a brand but people were saying ‘y’all are a brand’ but we were just doing our thing. We are aware that we have a strong point of view and that strong point of view represents itself in a strong aesthetic.
Di: How did John’s death affect the group and moving forward?
Wendell: John died in a very dramatic fashion in the middle of carnival 2000. So much so that the night we were supposed to launch our j’ouvert band, it turned into a wake. It was one of those things where we had to decide in that moment… ‘what do we do?’ We knew what John would have said to do. John was not going to say stop, quit, no. When it became clear that John was not well we tried to get him to stop and he would not stop. We knew that that was his spirit. We also knew when it came to carnival, I’m a mas man I came from a family of carnival I’m not the most avid mas player I am more conceptual. I don’t have to be in it and do it but John if he heard Invaders knocking or Phase II coming up the road no matter how sleepy he was from working overnight, would get out his bed, go out in the road, chip with them to town, come back home and go right back to sleep. We knew what his spirit was so, the idea of not going on did enter our minds briefly but did not become a concrete thought. We just went on with the carnival. It was a big carnival for us that year.
After carnival we took his ashes up to Grand Rivere and it was the first time we came together to really decide how we were moving on and out of that came the song ‘together’. John died a long time ago but John’s spirit, John’s presence, John’s fire is still there. When we record, we hear John.
Di: So what is the vision now?
Wendell: The 20th anniversary forced us to look back to look forward. Change is the constant. A lot has changed in those 20 years. A lot has changed about us. A lot changed in terms of the dynamic of the group and what we do. A lot has changed in the material sense since we have this space here, the Big Black Box, which has always been a dream. We have had several dreams along the way. We realized we had a j’ouvert band and then we had a song and then, we continued to make songs we made videos and then we made shows. That was a big thing.
We make shows. A show that has become a part of the carnival calendar and then this space that allows us to keep working and not just us but also to facilitate a scene.
Within the change we are going on in the spirit with which we started, on a mission, spread the word, the power of the word, knowledge of self. All these sort of old school Rapso adages but added on to that is a bigger social agenda.
Mentoring has become a huge part of who we are now and what we do. People come to us for advice guidance, all kinda ting. I would say right now we are in a repurposing, reinventing mode but not in a contrived way. We have to find what the truth of this time is. So we’ve been working on an album for the last 3 years. Right now we want to strip away a lot of the glitz and gloss and come back to an essence. The album is taking its time. We have settled on 12 songs for the album and we are thinking of adding a couple songs that were not created for the album but have a resonance. We gone from a jamming jamming thing and right now being 21 years in the game its more mellow. There is much more of an emphasis on the root of the thing… a sort of kaiso inflection a more lavway and a groove and a vibe and depth and soul.
Somewhere in the middle of it I had a vision of Andre Tanka coming to me and saying power music that’s what you are making… power music.
We as a society have lost track of what social commentary is. Calypso had bounce and spirit and humour and seriousness. We are in mortal danger of losing our entire sense of self. The irony of it is that our cultural legacy is so potent. Trinidad and Tobago has culture rich rich like the sea. Everything mix up and mash up and smash up in spite of politics and everything else, and that is what fucking up the whole thing. We are not following the truth of our vibration we trying to make it into something else.
Di: Why 3Canal?
Wendell: Steve Ouditt wanted a badman name. Steve wanted a name that would resonate and would just cut and clear. From the time he said it we accepted it. That was a gift.
One of the big challenges so many artists face is a name, a name that resonates and sticks in people’s minds from the beginning. We got two things. We got a song ‘Blue’ that sticks in your brain… the word, the name, the sound, and 3canal… to the point where I will walk down the road today and people will call me ‘Blue’ or ‘3Canal’ or ‘drain’ or any variation thereof because that is what we do as Trinidadians. People will come with all kinds of word plays and it all comes back to the resonance and the potency of that original name.
Di: Why a show and not a concert?
Wendell: A show is much more comprehensive and it encompasses all the elements that we are made of. We come from theatre we come from mas we come from j’ouvert on the streets we come from all these different disciplines and it was a chance to innovate a new show. The idea was a bit arrogant. We launched our second jouvert ‘Black with a Vengence’ with a show in Theatre Workshop. It was raw. It was highly irreverent. It was dark and had a dangerous energy. It took many years for our first legit show in Little Carib. Rituals was over and we didn’t know what was next for us so we said let us do the 3Canal Show… we could do a show. Nobody was doing anything at Little Carib at the time. We had the place for a month to rehearse and then we started the run and we went 21 nights. We had no idea what the response would be. People loved it and it sold out 21 nights.
Di: What is the process?
Wendell: There are certain kinds of stock shows that you have there. I have a few that we have not done as yet. So I have this sort of default thing that has a structure that we can play with. Working with Minshall over all those years that certainly impacted on us understanding bigness of a carnival production and a presentation and all those kind of things. Carnival is a big process. We understood that and a lot of the Minshall process is discovering things like the theme how that evolves into the look, into the feel, into the materials that you use. It is a lot of research and development.
Over the years I learned few things, timeliness, topicality, relevance, resonance, time and space. We always ask ourselves at a certain point every year… ‘what time it is?’ and ‘what’s going on?’ and out of that the statement emerges and somebody might have a kernel of an idea. From there somehow a key will fit the lock and I start copious writing, reading, pulling things conceptualizing a sort master document then I start editing and then start sharing it for feedback. That really starts to come into play around October or November. One of the things that we learned is don’t angst about it too much. You know when it comes.
Di: Tell us about this space. The Big Black Box.
Wendell: We acquired it because we were based on Ariapita Avenue we were literally housed in a little room under Roses Hezikiah’s restaurant Veni Mange, and we had outgrown it and when it came time for carnival Dave Williams was running this place, then known as Bohemia, so about 3 years before starting to lease it we had started renting it to prepare for our carnival show and every time we rented it we felt more comfortable in the space. And when we approached the year of Grimey after carnival Cyrus Sylvester said to us that he observed how we used the space and he knew our history and he thought that we were the best custodians of the space to keep it as a viable performance space. So he suggested that we hold on to it and so we sublet it from him. So we thought yes, because it afforded us to move out of the cramped quarters and also to begin to full fill that dream of our own space even though technically we don’t own it. The space has actually taken over in terms of a priority for the last three, four years. We put a lot of work in to it that people don’t realize because they just think a lot of things were already there but we realized it was more work and investment that we initially thought. Then we started with a show that August… More Love More Life. Then the group we work with started to see we are not only cranking up for carnival. There was a sense of continuity so, every Tuesday and Thursday we have regular training sessions and that has been maintained up to today. Every Tuesday and Thursday the core group will come together and we would explore different ideas and just explore. This would either turn in to a show or event or just exploration and development. We are discussing as a larger group how we can structure more training and how we can structure it in such a way that it is paid for whether by the participants or some kind of support. As we get older I think we see this space as a practice ground will be more the focus. I always say there is a certain amount of pressure needed for people to know what they are capable of doing.
Di: Have you ever thought of a school to help build the practical part of artists’ development?
Wendell: We have been talking. If we want to really build something that is viable we need to create. That is what we are doing in this yard. The concept of a yard is not a new thing. It is a Trinidad thing. Mas came from a yard. Pan came from a yard. Calypso came out a yard. So if we don’t understand by now what the yard is… we will never get it. So every community needs a yard.
What we want is an academy of practice. If we could have maybe 3 significant events during the year so people can plug in to have a real sense of work and training and developing. Another part of the problem is that from the time it becomes too bureaucratic or corporate you lose that sort of artistic independence.
3Canal started from communing and talking shit and talking serious ting and us saying well lets do something about it. We were able to engage the j’ouvert and out of that engaging of the j’ouvert we were able to expand that into a whole other form and then out of that… a multiplicity of forms so we have a space where can put all those things into practice now. We have a body of people that we work with on the regular and the idea is to just have them around working. Just honing their skills. Practicing, practicing, practicing.
Anybody involved with the arts knows it is a meritocracy. People have to know you.
Minshall always said… ‘The mas happens with the permission of the people.’
We have culture. We have legacy. We are not starting from nothing. We need to figure out how do we mine this? How do we exploit it in the true sense of the word not as in abuse? How do we ensure that this is the only true renewable resource that we have? The imagination, the flair, the swagger. If we are losing that by constantly drinking the American kool-aid and we keep focusing on everything outside of ourselves to the detriment of ourselves it would be our own fault. How are we using the media who is feeding our children these other stories? How do we use it to tell our own story? We have so many stories. Everybody has a story.
Thank you for taking the time to talk to us Wendell. ~ Happy Carnival Trinidad!
3 CANAL songs quoted & used in animation: