Ibo Cooper talks scoring reggae for orchestra

Audiences are still raving over the recent production Rise To The Occasion featuring reggae artiste Sizzla Kalonji which was staged as part of the Reggae Month celebrations.

It was not just the competence of the artiste, who delivered one of his signature strong performances, but many are still speaking of the 35-piece orchestra which supported Sizzla, something not seen in popular Jamaican music on a regular basis.

Renowned Jamaican musician and educator Ibo Cooper was the conductor of the orchestra for Rise To The Occasion and he told the Jamaica Observer that a lot of the surprise around an orchestra supporting a reggae act comes from class and racial biases.

“The truth is composing music has not class or racial bias. In our culture we often often say classical musicians compose music while or reggae and dancehall artiste 'mek a chune'. We are all human beings and the creative process is the same whether it is Beethoven or Marley. I have seen in so many instances where our prejudices don't allow many to see the melodic language of our adventurous dancehall artistes, and what what is seen as being off key, really isn't given the context of the genre. What is needed is for us to drop these cultural prejudices and listen to the music for what it is,” he shared.

Cooper noted Sizzla's performance was by no means the first time a reggae artiste was being backed by an orchestra. Pointing to the Jamaica Reggae Industry Association (JaRIA), which has been utilising an orchestra for its annual honour awards. This he said was an initiative of music insider Junior Lincoln who wanted to expand on what people expected from reggae and dancehall music. In addition, reggae veterans such as John Holt, Luciano and Freddie McGregor have performed with the Royal Philharmonic orchestra in the United Kingdom. Cooper himself also conducted an orchestra for the popular New York reggae event Groovin' In The Park a few years ago for a rocksteady tribute featuring Ken Boothe, Leroy Sibbles and Freddie McGregor.

For Sizzla's recent performance, the music of the artiste were scored by noted Jamaican musician and arranger Jon Williams, while the reggae band section was lead by celebrated saxophonist Dean Fraser.

“This was not the largest orchestra assembled locally for an event such as this. As I said it was nothing new but we welcomed the opportunity to work with Sizzla. He was excellent and disciplined, and after the performance all the musicians received a passionate not of thank you from him which we truly appreciated.”

“The most challenging part of this whole event was the time factor in which we had to create the score. Jon had to be pumping them out pretty quickly as we had about a three-week preparation time. But I have to say everyone cooperated and despite hectic schedules as a number of these musicians work, teach or attend school so we had to create something in a short time. I have nothing but commendations to everyone who contributed...it was not the full 100 [per cent] but it still gets an A,” Cooper continued.

The former keyboard player of the veteran reggae band Third World, Cooper noted that in scoring the work of any reggae artiste for orchestra there are usually nervous moments. “The artiste is usually accustomed to the rhythm in a certain way. You don't want to create colour that is distracting or disturbing for the artiste. There are usually comments about a watering down of the music with European standards. None of these was an issue with Sizzla because you never impose on the rhythm, but rather support. What we are creating is a true Jamaican ethos. We are taking the best of all our local heritage and combine [them] to create something truly special. I have no doubt that having witnessed this, a number of other reggae and dancehall artistes will be drawing on the services of an orchestra in the future,” said Cooper.

Ibo Cooper
Seated (from left) conductor Ibo Cooper, Sizzla, Culture and Entertainment Minister Olivia “Babsy”Grange, and arranger Jon Williams share a moment with the members of the orchestra.
BY RICHARD JOHNSON Observer senior reporter johnsonr@jamaicaobserver.com

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