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Merry Tess-mas

Tony MORRISON

Wednesday, December 25, 2013    

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When Tessanne Chin chose to cover a song by the ska-influenced No Doubt to bring a strong dose of Jamaican flavour to The Voice, it was almost poetic. Because although she is only 28, her deep musical pedigree goes all the way back to the 1960s, the heyday of Jamaican ska — reggae's grandfather — which she has in her blood.

Her father, Richard, was then the drummer for The Carnations, an otherwise all-female ska band he started with his sister, Ingrid. Tessanne's mother, then Christine Levy, did trumpet and vocals. The Carnations, a lounge act that played the country's top clubs and hotels, were in turn managed by Richard's father and uncle, Kes and Keyoung Chin. Kes Chin also had his own Latin-flavoured ska band, Kes Chin & the Souvenirs. The Carnations were later to add a couple more men and change its name to The Avengers.

In the 1990s, Richard was band leader and bassist for the band E=MC-squared, and Christine was the Karen Carpenter-esque female lead who also did cabaret as the better looking half of the duo Chris and Kris, along with Chris Bentley, who later fronted for Skool and then Inner Circle. Her father's band, in addition to various other family members playing instruments or doing background vocals, also included keyboard maestro Harold Davis and drummer Andrew "Preggs" Thompson, who was later to tour with Sean Paul. The band was arguably the most versatile and energetic show band in the country at the time, with lead singers who could sing anything, and musicians who could play anything.

Her voice is truly a special gift, But having been born into such a rich musical cauldron her phenomenal foray into music was seemingly pre-ordained. Like Damian "Junior Gong" Marley, who notes that. as a toddler, he used to "play Family Man bass, knock all di drum," Tessanne, too, "deh roun' dis yah music since shi small an shi young".

Tessanne appeared on my radar first when she fronted for the Mile High band as a teenager, after first taking to the stage as a member of Cathi Levy's Little People and Teen players. She then raised an eyebrow when she went off to tour with Jimmy Cliff. The Jimmy Cliff experience, her self-described "university", was a rather big hint to the music world. Cliff is nothing short of a king in global music, and when he hand-picks musicians to tour with, he picks the likes of Wayne Armond and Desi Jones, and he's no less particular about singers, so being selected by him was akin to being anointed by music royalty.

The first time I took a really good, long, critical look at a Tessanne solo performance, it was back in December 2006, when she was one of a small group of young artistes who opened for Air Supply at their first concert in Kingston. I saw huge potential and star quality in Tarrus Riley and Cherine Anderson that night, but it was Tessanne who left the biggest impression. The intrigue of her looks and her interesting twist on fusing rock and reggae aside, it was obvious to me then that her voice was big, bad, broad, outrageously acrobatic and outright spectacular.

I tried immediately to mentally place her among all the many other singers that I followed. My conclusion then, in 2006, was that she was the 'baddest' thing I'd heard since I heard Alicia Keys do Fallin in 2001. Now, in 2013, the only other new singer I've heard since who impresses me as much is Adele.

My favourite version of Tessanne is her belting out a big rock ballad over an interlaced fusion of wailing rock guitars and frenetic touches of high-tempo dancehall, all stabilised by an infectious one-drop reggae beat, a la her current signature piece, Hideaway. But the girl can sing anything. And so long before The Voice, it's also been a sheer pleasure to hear her not just pleasingly dabble in, but masterfully dazzle with everything else she touches, from "straight" reggae, to country, to pop classical.

Her incredible voice has more gears than an 18-wheeler, her astounding range moves all the way from the throaty growl of a lioness on the rise to the rarefied air of eagles in stratospheric flight, and her impeccable technical sharpness and flawless control puts the hands of the most gifted brain surgeon to shame. That steely control, and the ability to sometimes meticulously execute technical perfection and uninhibited emotion at the same time, is reminiscent of no less than the perfectionism of Streisand. Whitney may still rule the roost in terms of sheer, unbridled power, but Tessanne is about as close as mere mortals get, and packs more punch than a Mike Tyson 2nd round knockout. Conversely, when she goes tender, her captivating, honey-sweet cooing is softer than the caress of a butterfly kiss.

As simply an avid lover of any good music and all kinds of music, I'd be a Tessanne fan no matter who she was and where she was from, but the pleasure is certainly quadrupled because she is Jamaican. She may lean towards rock, but as flabbergasted African leaders said to her mentor Jimmy Cliff when he first toured that continent, her sound is ours, and her drumbeat -- drum and bass, in this case, plus that unrepentant accent -- is all ours, and we could hardly be prouder.

There has been no official announcement, but she's already our latest ambassador-at-large. The way she charms and instinctively stays on message in interviews is a PR handler's dream, and she's brought an early Christmas to the Jamaica Tourist Board. It costs some US$264,575 to place a 30-second commercial on The Voice, so do the staggering math involved in all those dazzling, disarming minutes of Tessanne for an entire 11-week season, the external interviews, and now that she's won, add the promotional whirlwind that has kicked into place. We could not begin to pay for that positive exposure.

NBC is quite happy with her as well, as she boosted the network's ratings by bringing a brand new demographic to the show, in the form of not only Jamaican and other Caribbean nationals, but Chinese and other Asian-American nationals as well. The "Tessanne Season" of The Voice is set to be the best ever, and the semi-finals on December 10 marked the first time, since 2002, that NBC occupied the number one spot among networks on a Monday night without the benefit of Olympics coverage.

She represents us so well by being so girl-next-door natural, so unpretentiously honest; at once articulately comfortable with the Queen's English, but still unabashedly Jamaican with no need for a 'twang'.

Humble she may be, but she's still fiercely serious about her craft if not overtly competitive, and she still speaks of swagger when she mentions the reggae roots of her music. She did indeed dominate the competition with the kind of swagger that our star sprinters would be proud of.

Bridge Over Troubled Water took eight hours to hit number one, brushing aside a song by rival coach Christina Aguilera in the process. I Have Nothing took less than six. At the close of voting after the last day, she had all of six songs in the iTunes top 100 chart, including two in the top 10, and two more in the top 20. She had 12 songs in total in the top 200. No other contestant on The Voice topped iTunes this season, and Tessanne had back-to-back chart-toppers in the final two weeks. No other artiste in iTunes history has ever made such a brutal assault on the chart.

The Voice, to her, is surely the start of her well-deserved road to international stardom, and she's graciously thanked us all the time for our support. That's fair enough, especially since so many of us have rallied behind her so fervently, but it is really we who should thank her. In addition to her being a walking, talking, brilliant and beautiful JTB advert, to us, who experienced the thrill of watching the ride, she's brought inspiration and joy this season.

Beyond giving us yet another reason to be proud of being Jamaican, and an extra pep in our step, the timely message of Tessanne's triumph goes deeper, and is a reminder and call-to arms of many things. It is an example of being confident and comfortable enough to be yourself, to persevere when trying to follow your dreams, to be brave enough to take on the unknown in search of those dreams, and to dream big in the first place. The support she received is an example of how much we can achieve when we rally united behind a single cause, and hopefully makes us wonder what if we did that more often.

At this time of year when reflection and resolutions are in order, her victory is an inspiration of no mean order, and a reminder to the disillusioned that, in this cynical world, good things can still happen to good people, that talent and hard work can still be rewarded, and that dreams can indeed come true.

montana9@hotmail.com

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