SOOTHE: Unique neo-soul event ‘resurges’ and excites after three-year hiatus

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By Orville Williams

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By all accounts, the couple hundred patrons that descended on the Sugar Ridge Resort three Saturdays ago for the first staging of ‘Soothe’ in about three years were given a wonderful reminder that Antigua and Barbuda is far more than calypso and soca, as far as talent in the performing arts is concerned.

The annual event, usually a staple on the local social calendar, was last held back in 2019 as the Covid-19 pandemic put a damper on large, in-person gatherings for the next couple of years.

With the virus now largely under control and the entertainment sector reopened, the unique live performance event was poised to return – and return it did.

As is tradition, this year’s edition of Soothe, dubbed the “The Resurgence,” was powered by a slew of talented poets, musicians, singers and spoken word artists – most of them young, up-and-comers – who delivered performances worthy of any big stage.

The logistics were also obviously well thought-out, from the ‘rustic-chic’ décor and the warm, pulsating lighting to perhaps the most innovative – the placement of several stages across the entire promenade, which allowed for an up-close-and-personal experience between many of the performers and the audience.

Observer attended the March 11 event and these are the highlights…

THE TALENT

Antigua and Barbuda is known for churning out talented artistes and performers – think elders like Burning Flames, King Short Shirt, King Swallow and younger acts like Claudette ‘CP’ Peters, Ricardo Drue and Tian Winter.

For many though, there is a problem with the lack of genre diversity within the local talent pool. As some, including Soothe co-organiser Gemma Hazelwood would put it, not everybody wants to jump up, some people just want to slow down and feel the music.

Step forward the Serenade Jazz Band.

The group of four women – lead singer Marcia Duncan, drummer Chey-Anne Moses, contrabass cellist (and vocalist) Danielle Benjamin and keyboardist (and vocalist) Jocelyn Beldman-Stevens – made history that night as the country’s first-ever all-woman-jazz-band.

Their cover of Back to Black, the Amy Winehouse classic, stood out among the performances for the night, with Duncan’s strong vocals accentuated expertly by the musicians’ expertise. And the crowd obviously enjoyed their set, such was the applause that followed.

“We are always our toughest critics, so I was not 100 percent pleased…but overall, when I came down, I felt pleased with everything, especially the response of the audience.

The feedback really helped and it gave me that confidence to say, okay, I’m doing something good”, the lead singer told us after the band’s performance.

Another crowd favourite (and honestly, we could say that about nearly all the performers) was singer Christian Ivy, whose soulful set had a rather captivating effect on the women in the audience.

His cover of Daniel Caesar’s ‘Japanese Denim’ sent the younger bunch into a frenzy, before his performance of D’Angelo’s ‘How Does It Feel’ called out to the more mature section of the crowd and sent dozens of cameras into video recording mode.

He was also rather pleased with the reception from the audience, telling Observer, “I’m always going to be hard on myself. I felt like there are things that I could have ironed out, but the reaction is really what I wanted”.

“Everything is for the crowd and the reaction that I got from the crowd is one that I would have dreamt for and I’d take a million times over, so I’m proud of that”, he added.

Ivy was not the only one to tickle the fancy of the women present. He was joined in that regard by spoken word artist, Kadeem Joseph, whose rendition of his original piece ‘Sideman Chronicles’ resonated with that section, evidenced by the constant “mmm’s, oooh’s” and shrieks whenever he got to an expressly raunchy line in the piece. That, he explained, was his primary objective despite not performing for several years.

“I was very nervous about my performance. I haven’t been on a stage – at least a stage as big as this – since 2019, so it was great as a spoken word artist to get a platform like this again and to showcase what is a rather controversial piece.

 “It was well-received and I’m [especially] happy that the target audience, which was the women in the crowd, received it well”, Joseph said.

His namesake, Malaica “Laikan” Joseph, was particularly impressive, considering it was only her second time performing at Soothe and her biggest stage to date.

Her sound could best be described – at least by this writer – as if Erykah Badu, Sade and Jill Scott had a baby, and she performed songs from her EP, “The Lore”, which she revealed was made in about six weeks last summer and released soon after.

“I felt pretty good about it. I had fun, I was a little nervous at first of course, but I had a lot of fun…I think I interacted with the crowd well, [and] I really tried my best to overcome the nervousness”, the young singer told Observer about her performance.

Those performances – while certainly some of the best – were just the tip of the iceberg on a night that saw at least 16 performers take to the various stages set up around the venue.

The others included Annie The Voice, Arlen Seaton, Claudette “CP” Peters, Fayola Jardine, Jahfari Hazelwood (the teenage son of Soothe conceptualizer, Gemma), Jenny Medina (who brilliantly dovetailed between English and Spanish), Jive Poetic, Joshu (another who recently released an EP, called ‘Ocean Daze’), Khan Cordice, Kelly Richardson, Kleon McPherson, Silvereen Bryant and Vanisa Gittens.

THE AUDIENCE

They are who the performers show up and show out for. If you ask any of them, every note, every bead of sweat and every grimace is meant to express their emotions and without a doubt, convey those emotions to as many people in the audience as possible.

The majority of the Soothe performances certainly had that effect – as one audience member said, “I’ve never seen a crowd this attentive and engaged with the artistes, at least not here in Antigua”, adding that, “This kind of focus and engagement is usually reserved for more internationally-known artistes as far as I have experienced, but these young guys showed that talent doesn’t need a passport for people to see it and fall in love with it.”

Among the hundreds of attendees, who were all decked out in their Saturday night best, was Culture and Creative Industries Minister, Daryll Matthew.

He expressed delight with what he saw and affirmed the critical role that events like Soothe play in preserving and revolutionizing Antigua and Barbuda’s culture.

“[The performances] were absolutely fantastic. I love the fact that we have events like this that can give our local artistes, and even those persons who are from abroad, an opportunity to perform here in front of a local audience that – not only [is able] to see the talent that we have here in Antigua and Barbuda – but get some exposure about what the rest of the world has to offer.

“So, I think it’s a fantastic event and I’m happy it happened”, Matthew said.

Heather Doram was another notable audience member, who many would argue is as important to Antiguans and Barbudans as Nina Simone is to African-Americans, or as John Lennon is to Britons.

“Soothe is my favourite event. I look forward to it [each year], so I really was missing it for the past couple of years when we had Covid. I think I heard somebody else say – and I totally agree – that [this staging] was probably one of the best Soothe events that I’ve ever been to.

“It’s so amazing, the variety and the quality of the entertainers that we have in Antigua, and this is the only event that exposes them.

“I really wish everybody would come out and see the kind of talent that we have in Antigua and Barbuda – Soothe is like one of the only events that we can come and really, really see them perform”, she told Observer.

The outpouring of kudos for the continued existence and impact of Soothe went on throughout the night and even after the event ended.

Several social media posts commended the respective performers for a job well done and others revealed the disappointment of some who saw snippets of the festivities but were not fortunate enough to have been present.

Another attendee, Tavia Hunte, spoke about the impact that the performances will have had on those present, and insisted that it will take a while for Soothe to ‘get out of their systems’.

“I don’t think I have the words to describe what Soothe means to so many of us here in Antigua and Barbuda. It’s one of those events that you go to and – I’m not even joking – six, seven months after it, you can remember the performances word for word – the passion, the pain and all those emotions the performers display”, she explained.

“We all know that as far as live events go, fetes are usually the most popular here, which is unfortunate for those who don’t have the platforms to showcase their talents.

“Hopefully, some promoters will take a page out of Soothe’s book and see that these kinds of events also draw crowds”, another patron, Jenice Burton, expounded.

 If the word of so many of the attendees is anything to go by, this staging of Soothe will live long in the memory and will certainly have whet their collective appetites for the next event.

THE IMPACT

Now, a layman’s definition of entertainment can be likened to the barter system – where someone gives something in return for something else of equal value – considering, for example, that patrons pay for a ticket to an event and usually receive entertainment of equal value.

Similarly, an entertainer performs for their audience and expects to receive recognition, usually in the form of applause, in return.

In the case of Soothe, however, the entertainers [or performers as I’m sure they would prefer to be titled] received so much more.

As young performers, many at the genesis of their promising careers, the event provided them with a platform arguably like no other to showcase their talent and build a much-needed fanbase.

“I am just one of many Antiguan artists who have the talent, but we just don’t have enough avenues and enough resources being pushed behind of us, to extend that talent beyond the shores of Antigua and perhaps beyond these small groups that we tend to form.

“I appreciate the fact that we get a stage [like Soothe] to propel our talents forward and to [showcase] young artistes who are coming up [and] are not necessarily into the traditional art forms that we celebrate in Antigua and Barbuda.

“For [us] to get a stage like this, it’s impactful, it’s important and it shows that beyond what we tend to celebrate, Antiguan and Barbudan artists have potential”, Kadeem Joseph eloquently explained.

His sentiments were echoed by virtually all the young performers who definitely made the best of the platform with performances that belied their respective ages and experience.

“I think [Soothe] adds to your portfolio…it’s a good way to have a professional show under your belt, with [proper] lighting and a live band full of really great musicians. It’s a really good way to hear your songs come to life in that capacity.

“I enjoy the platform, I enjoy the fact that they give young artistes a chance to show their product. This is my second time [performing here] and I appreciate that”, said Malaica “Laikan” Joseph.

And it was not only the youngsters who voiced their appreciation for Soothe and its impact on the culture, as veterans like Claudette “CP” Peters and Khan Cordice also spoke about what an event like it means for the development of talent and highlighting some of Antigua and Barbuda’s hidden gems.

“Soothe is an awesome event…I’m happy to be a part of an event such as this because it’s needed, the support is needed. I’m a soca artiste, but at the end of the day, once you support culture, you support everything that is culture.

“We have to make sure that we try our best to nurture, to improve, to mentor. If you only listened to most of these artistes, ‘oh my goodness’, talent for days. [So], I’m happy to be here, and I will definitely be here again”, Peters said.

Cordice – who also serves as Antigua and Barbuda’s Director of Culture – commended the event’s organizers for a job well done and challenged the talented performers to grab opportunities like Soothe with both hands.

“Certainly, it was an amazing event, it’s good to see people back out after Covid. In terms of what this does, platforms like these expose people that never would have been seen before, or for those who would have been seen before, you definitely see them in a different light.

“It forces the creatives here – the spoken word artists, the musicians, the singers, the pannists – to kind of push the bar in a different direction, so we can take our music to much more than just carnival and partying, to really year-round music for any type of event. This platform does things like that.”

“I didn’t even know something like this existed in Antigua”, Marcia Duncan exclaimed, while Christian Ivy spoke about the importance of diversity and open-mindedness in amplifying local talent.

“[Soothe is] so prestigious. I mean, I was supposed to be on the last one, but then the pandemic came and it totally shifted plans. But I always looked forward to it because you know there’s always going to be an audience and a diverse audience [at that].

“That’s what I think Soothe is about, bringing together different types of art and bringing together lovers of different types of art; everybody gets to experience it in that singular space of time. So, this event is phenomenal and I’d love to do it every time”, he shared.

THE ORIGINS

Soothe, as mentioned earlier, was conceptualized by creative genius, Gemma Hazelwood, and co-created by Hazelwood’s longtime friend and fellow creative mastermind, Taslim Gordon.

It’s been held every year since 2014, except for three years – 2020, 2021 and 2022 – due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

“It was a very selfish pursuit”, Hazelwood admitted.

“I am someone who enjoys this type of artform, but it didn’t happen enough in Antigua. When I travel, this is what I look for. I don’t care to go to a nightclub, I don’t care to go to a dance, this is what I love. So, because it wasn’t existing here, I decided to create [Soothe] because I wanted to consume it.

“Truth be told, it existed in my head for two years before I actually did it…2014 was the first [staging], but it was in my head since 2012. I did the first one in 2014 and it was well-received, people really appreciated it. They thought I was doing it for them, but I was [really] doing it for me”, he further explained.

Hazelwood told Observer – confidently, it must be said – that he felt no fear when thinking of putting together an event that was truly novel for Antigua and Barbuda. This, despite the relative reluctance of residents here to accept and support new things.

One of the factors behind that confidence, he said, was his knowledge of a budding neo-soul-loving community on the island.

“This is not our native or popular genre. In Antigua and most of the [other] Caribbean islands, it’s dancehall, it’s reggae, it’s soca, it’s calypso, [but] we have a whole sub-section of people who are really drawn to this type of artform.

“The only issue is, there are not a lot of platforms created for them. So, what Soothe has done is create that type of platform for those artists, to really highlight their craft…we look forward to doing this for that reason.”

The event took a big financial hit during the pandemic, starting with the unexpected and forced cancellation of the 2020 edition.

“When we went on lockdown the first time, it was the night before Soothe. It was the Friday night [before] that the call came that [no events] should [take place].

“The guys were leaving with the stage to come and set up, but everything just stopped”, Hazelwood revealed.

However, he said, they accepted the losses and immediately thought about the next step, which came in the form of “Sessions by Soothe” – a scaled-down, digitally-broadcast version of the event.

That was largely successful, Hazelwood said, and was evidence of their ability to pivot while developing yet another platform for the artistes, while maintaining the integrity of the performances.

All those hurdles, he added, led them to this year’s staging of Soothe, and proved that talent sometimes is like a diamond – rough at first, but able to be polished and to shine bright with focus and determination.

THE FUTURE

“There have been moments where I’ve felt like, ‘I’m not going to do this anymore’, but it’s never been because of Covid, it has never been because of the artistes or anything [like that]. It has just been because this venture costs a lot to put together and it’s such a struggle to get support from businesses, from ‘Corporate Antigua’.

“I feel like people in the arts, people [involved] in culture, they have said ‘I find [Soothe] is such a relevant thing, it’s such an important thing that you guys are doing, but the support is just not there’. Sometimes, that becomes disheartening”, Hazelwood lamented.

That feeling has been festering among creatives and culture ‘workers’ in Antigua and Barbuda, like in many other countries around the region, and is not only seen among those in what can be called ‘the new culture’, but also those in more traditional artforms like [carnival] costume creation, pan, calypso and even bread-making.

The disappointment, many say, is that those who have the resources to support the arts and support the preservation and evolution of culture are not willing or interested to do so, as they feel they will not get proper returns on their investment.

But, they argue, unless the investment is made, there is no telling what the returns will look like. The consensus among some cultural insiders who gathered after the doors closed at Soothe was that taking risks quite like the event’s organizers could end up being worth it.

“There is quite a bit of work being done, but there’s always going to be room for more work, and platforms like this – as I mentioned earlier – are very, very important.

“They certainly help to manifest talent and that’s why we need to continue to encourage people to support. [Both the] private and public sector need to continue to support”, Khan Cordice asserted.

Culture aficionado, Heather Doram, shared similar views and called on those with the wherewithal to help not to remain hands-off.

“I know there are people with money [and connections] in Antigua and I really think that there needs to be some major injection of funds into developing the arts.

“[For example], why don’t we have a really great performing arts center as yet? Somewhere with the [proper] stage and lighting and things like that. The [lack of] facilities, to me, is one of the first things that we need to address, because yes you have all the talent in the world, but where are you going to perform?

“I’m appealing to persons out there who have some extra money to invest, let’s invest it in the arts, let’s invest it in our young people, and I really think this would be an awesome thing for Antigua’s development”, she said.

Daryll Matthew spoke too on the need for support, calling on both the public and private sectors to work together to address the issue.

“Let’s face it, Antigua is a small economy, so when you speak about the private sector it’s really a small private sector. Every event, every activity that’s taking place, they go to the same [entities] for sponsorship.

“You don’t have the number of large companies and businesses that may have the sort of disposable income that they can sponsor every single event to the scale that they need to be sponsored. So, just the fact that we have a very small economy, relatively speaking, there’s going to be a constraint.

“There is a role for government to play to support the creative sector, to support the creative industries [and] we do support in many ways – we give concessions, there are some times when we offer support for artistes and [performers] coming in.

“The artistes need a platform upon which they can showcase their skills, but government can’t do it alone and the private sector can’t do it alone. It’s just too small an economy for that expectation to be realized”, Matthew explained.

Soothe has undoubtedly been swimming against the tide, but that has not dampened the ambition of the principals, who maintain strong aspirations of growing the brand.

According to Hazelwood, their hope is to eventually take Soothe to other islands and countries, while creating life-changing opportunities for the artistes who appear on the event.

He disclosed that at least two of the night’s performers revealed to him that they received bookings and other types of career-strengthening interest following their performances, to his delight.

He has one apprehension in the call for support though, that Soothe does not become a ‘commercialised event’.

“What I would love is for someone, or a company, or a business, to jump on board, share this vision and come along on the journey because one of the things that I’m very cautious of is if you have a lot of sponsors, it becomes very commercial.

“The ‘artsy’ feel is important to maintain…so, we want to [partner] with someone who would be able to give us the financial support and give us the leeway to let our vision flourish”, he explained.

As far as the performers are concerned, they too are hoping for much-needed support as they navigate a fairly polarized creative space with hopes of becoming the best they can be.

As Kadeem Joseph put it, “I’m hoping that beyond tonight, beyond events like this, locals will see the need to and the importance of supporting local artistes.

“That means going through their YouTube videos; liking, sharing. It means sharing it with your friends overseas, it means buying their content and not asking them to perform for free.

“Things like that are important for us local artistes, to have that sort of support so that we can push our artistry beyond our shores and represent well.”

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