Saturday, 25 April 2015

EYES ON THE PRIZE: On-the-rise singer Ashani talks roots, ambition, and being Unbreakable

FINDING HIS VOICE: "I want to give my fans an experience," shares the 23-year-old entertainer.

As the five-piece backing band strikes up the first few notes of Ashani’s new single “Unbreakable”, the singer decides to do a bit of improv, sharing the inspiration behind the R&B-influenced reggae tune that bears the title of his freshly debuted EP. He owns the moment, and by the time he wraps the vocal performance with his pair of competent backup singers, the crowd is clamouring for more and an encore soon follows. 

To those who know Ashani best, this confident, take-charge singer-songwriter we see basking in the spotlight, on the occasion of his first EP launch at the Redbones Blues Café, is a far cry from the timid boy raised by his grandparents in Newport, Manchester and brought up in the church, while attending Cross Keys High. “He was very, very shy, even to talk to somebody he was afraid,” remembers his mom Anita Smith, who joined the hundred-strong, standing-room only audience at the launch on Thursday night. “He’s still a shy person, but not like when he was younger.” 

Born Renaldo Asheen Miller, Ashani credits his humble beginnings, his grandfolks in particular, for instilling in him an abiding appreciation for life’s simple pleasures and the age-old importance of choosing humility. For the record, Ashani believes there’s hardly anything more glorious than a weekend away in the country, especially rural Manchester, which will always be home, sweet home. “It’s very quiet there. I love the coolness of the country,” he tells TALLAWAH. “It’s the best place to really catch up on life and just relax and take it easy.” 

But Ashani is a city man now, and has been ever since he took up a scholarship courtesy of Red Stripe, to pursue four months of studies in vocals and music at the Edna Manley College’s School of Music. Fast-forward a couple of years and he’s linked up with The Solid Agency’s Sharon Burke, who currently manages him, and the team at Big 12 Records, who helped him craft and co-produce the songs that comprise the six-track EP. 

Unbreakable is a labour-of-love project he describes as a first sampling of the artistic journey he’s making. “I want to do songs that have crossover potential. Songs that will really get people’s attention,” says the 23-year-old, who fuses reggae, soul and R&B, and has recorded his own sprightly version of “One and Only Girl” by John Legend, of whom he’s a big fan. The track also appears on the EP. 

When asked to reflect on what he’s bringing to the music scene as his star begins to ascend, Ashani pauses to gather his thoughts. What he knows for sure is that the last thing he wants is to come off as a one-dimensional artiste. 

“I feel that my greatest challenge is doing the kind of music that more than one group of listeners will like and not just the people who know me and support me, but people everywhere who hear the music,” he admits. “I want to write and sing about different topics, not just about finding love and losing it. I want to give my fans an experience.” 

> ASHANI’S TOP FIVE: Getting to know the rising star 

Book he recommends: I enjoy reading books like The Secret that teach you about the laws of attraction.

Favourite reggae musicians: I like Tessanne Chin and Tarrus Riley. I want to emulate his career. 

His taste in movies: From I was a boy I’ve liked action movies, so I’m a fan of Transformers and Fast and Furious. 

Mentor of the Moment: Shaggy. I’m around him a lot and he’s been helping me. 

Definition of success: Being in that place where I’m at peace with myself; I can see where I’ve reached on my journey and what I need to do next. 

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Friday, 24 April 2015

SMART START: First Angels Jamaica launched to support growth-oriented entrepreneurs

HEAVEN SENT: First Angels Jamaica members, including Joseph A. Matalon and Sandra Glasgow (left), with DRT Communications' Danielle Terrelonge-Irons (centre), enjoying a light moment at the launch.

The challenges that Jamaican entrepreneurs regularly face in accessing growth capital - and the need to fill a critical gap in the ecosystem for venture capital in Jamaica - are the twin factors that led to the birth of First Angels Jamaica (FAJ), a new local-based angel investor network, which has the backing of partners like international financial giants the World Bank Group and the Inter-American Development Bank.

Though First Angels Jamaica was created back in July of 2014, it was officially launched inside the Jamaica Pegasus' Legacy Suite on Wednesday morning during an intimate ceremony that attracted a number of young entrepreneurs and established names from the local business community. In a nutshell, the FAJ network is geared towards helping growth-oriented entrepreneurs by providing them with access to start-up capital and mentorship.

But what exactly is an "angel network"? By definition, it is a formal group of high net-worth individuals who make direct investment of personal funds into early-stage businesses. "[They] play a critical role in helping start-up or early-stage ventures achieve above-average growth," explains FAJ Chairman Joseph A. Matalon. "They not only provide patient capital but play the role of coach, mentor and board member, introducing entrepreneurs to potential customers, helping them solve potential problems, and gain credibility in the marketplace."

Fast out the blocks, First Angels has already recruited 13 investor members and two associate members. The network has so far held three pitch events and viewed presentations from seven entrepreneurs, from which the team, including Sandar Glasgow (Managing Director of BizTactics Limited) have picked their first candidate, a Jamaican start-up, for investment. They have selected DRT Communications Limited, a company that specializes in developing comprehensive communication strategies for regional and international clients. The investment process will be concluded later this month.

The way Glasgow sees it, the Jamaican economy, one characterized by low growth and high debt, is in need of new innovative sectors driven by private-sector-led entrepreneurial activities. "We really do believe," Glasgow says, "that small-business growth and development in Jamaica is critical to the overall growth of our economy."

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Thursday, 23 April 2015

IN COLD BLOOD: Child 44 plays up the intrigue, riveting suspense

HEAT AND DUST: Gary Oldman (as Nesterov) and Tom Hardy (as Leo) in a tense moment. 

A strongly acted and wrenching crime drama, based on the novel of the same name by Tom Rob Smith, Child 44 weaves a tangled web centred on a series of connected child murders that grips Moscow in the wake of World War II. As directed by Daniel Espinosa, it carries us into a world of KGB agents, expedient executions for treason, and fractured family lives.

Leo Demidov (Tom Hardy), a hero for the Soviets and a highly respected man of the law finds himself knee-deep in the investigation stemming from the brutal slayings of the kidnapped young boys, all between the ages of nine and 14, their nude bodies discovered by the train tracks and in the woods severely mutilated. With the help of a schoolteacher he's been seeing named Raisa (immaculately played by Noomi Rapace), Leo hatches a plan to stop the killer before he strikes again. The plot thickens when Raisa comes under investigation for espionage, an offence punishable by death. But Leo refuses to denounce her, and his choice sets into motion a chain reaction that puts both their lives in jeopardy.

Child 44, with its ominous score and tell-tale cinematography, combines the captivating storytelling of a noir thriller with the heart-pounding intrigue of murder mystery. It's a lengthy film but it's expertly paced so there's hardly any sagging, and the performances are compelling to say the least. 

Hardy (Warrior) and Rapace (the original Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), nursing thick Russian accents, are impressive in their roles - with fine supporting work coming from Vincent Cassel (Black Swan) as a corrupt high-ranking weasel of a major and Gary Oldman (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) as General Nesterov, a brooding veteran who takes Leo under his wing when he is dispatched from the capital.

Though Smith's storytelling is a skilful merging of fiction and fact, the movie conjures up a dark chapter in Russian history, chiefly its war-torn past, combined with the ugly business of child killings. As a whole, Child 44 is as unsettling as its dark subject matter suggests and as gripping as the most brutally candid noir narratives. Tyrone's Verdict: B+

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Wednesday, 22 April 2015

ALBUM OF THE WEEK: Empire soundtrack brings a lush mix of sounds and star power

ALL IN THE FAMILY: The chart-topping album features music from the popular show's debut season.

With the exception of movie musicals like Chicago and Dreamgirls and such classic films as the Whitney Houston-led The Bodyguard and The Preacher's Wife, we've seldom come across a worthwhile cinematic event that gets the soundtrack it deserves. But today you sense a whiff of fresh air thanks to Empire, the brash and deliriously entertaining television drama that's been setting viewership records (in the tradition of Scandal) and attempting its own revolutionary impact on the music biz with its take on studio-to-radio success. 

What's more, Empire (and its hypnotic weekly score) holds up a mirror to the contemporary Black-in-America experience, capturing the highs and lows of running a family business and, for the record, just how much rap music has evolved with the times. Yes, the soundtrack boasts a hefty hip-hop quotient, but it manages to reflect other mainstream sounds du jour — a channel-surfing of genres, including R&B and pop, soul and funk. 

Jussie Smollett gets the disc off to solid start with "Good Enough," a melodic mid-tempo groove full of passionate vocals. By contrast, Courtney Love brings a strain of melancholy to the breakup ditty "Walk Out On Me," while the supreme confidence and slick rhyming skills of Yazz anchors tracks like the hip-hop-spiked "No Apologies" and "Keep It Movin'". 

But any mention of the album's cream-of-the-crop tracks must include "Conqueror," Estelle's sublime and beautifully penned ballad about empowerment and self-affirmation. (You'll want to replay this one a few times.) Then there's Jennifer Hudson's tuneful gem "Remember the Music," which will remind you why J-Hud is one of the best pop-R&B vocalists worthy of Whitney's crown. 

When the album debuted atop Billboard's 200 Album Chart earlier this month, it was confirmation of the record's wide-ranging appeal — and how deeply the show (conceived by Lee Daniels) has impacted the cultural Zeitgeist. It's the soundtrack Empire's loyal fans deserve. Tyrone's Verdict: A-

DOWNLOAD: "Conqueror," a empowering, soulful anthem from Estelle

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BOOK OF THE MOMENT: Poet Shelly-Ann Harris delivers a satisfying debut with The Goodies on Her Tray

WELL VERSED: Harris' breezy debut explores the roles and concerns of Jamaican women.

Jamaican women have always led dynamic and complicated lives, subject to their fair share of struggle, heartache and, fortunately for some, contentment. Emerging poetess Shelly-Ann Harris does a fine job of capturing some of their stories in The Goodies on Her Tray (Breadknife Productions), her breezy debut collection of 30 poems that are as lyrically potent as they are sensitively crafted.

In her writing, Harris, a 2008 Redbones Poet of the Year and JCDC Literary Arts awardee, shares hard-learned lessons and poignant observations about the Afro-Caribbean experience and local traditions as she explores how our women set about “developing a thriving career, accepting ourselves completely and ultimately living a fulfilling and happy life” – simultaneously drawing particular attention to “both the spirit-filled and vexing undercurrents of Jamaican culture and history.”

The results, in large part, are noteworthy testament to trials and triumphs, with Harris’ soulfulness, wit and capacity for Scripture-quoting and spirituality echoing throughout the book.

From the beauty of childbirth (“Conception”) to the satisfaction of hard and honest labour (“Cleaning day Lady”) to the complications often attendant to intimate relationships (“Cold Return”), Harris smartly employs vividly descriptive language to reel us in, as she gives voice to an assortment of circumstances. Passion and grace notes dance together in pieces like “Butterfly Waitress”, “Rose Petals for Bruises”, “I Rest My Dreams” and “Abundant Life”, in which the poetess offers such memorable lines as, “Knowing that suffering is beautiful is the doorway to abundance.”

In his endorsement of The Goodies on Her Tray, Professor Edward Baugh lauds Harris for her effective use of sharp imagery and refreshing insight. “These poems will attract and hold the reader’s attention. Their feelings and ideas are grounded in specific situations realized with some imaginative verve and striking images,” Baugh reports. “There is a pleasing range of subject matter, personal and social, and the concern for craft is to be commended.”

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Friday, 17 April 2015

ON THE SCENE: Highlights from Child Month launch + KC’s 90th anniversary launch + Barack Obama at Jamaica House + Household Workers Awards launch + Usain Bolt out and about in Rio

SIMPLY BRILLIANT: President Barack Obama’s recent stopover in Jamaica would not have been complete without that special moment between the US Commander-in-Chief and Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller being captured on film for all to see. It came during the President’s courtesy call on Jamaica House (for a round of bilateral talks), where PM Simpson-Miller brightened the occasion in an eye-popping yellow ensemble. Call it the bright side of international relations! (Photo: OPM)

A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN: How time flies! This year the North Street-based Kingston College is observing its 90th anniversary, with plans afoot for a raft of celebratory-themed activities. A launch to get the ball roling was held at the school recently. In addition to Principal Dave Myrie and board chairman Michael Vaccianna, the launch drew appearances by Keith Whyte of the Calabar Old Boys Association, Dr. Patrick Dallas of the KC Old Boys Association, Major Basil Jarrett of the Jamaica College Old Boys’ Association and Lyndon Latoure of the St. George’s College Old Boys’ Association. (Photo: Kingston College)

CLEAN SWEEP: The brainchild of Jean Lowrie-Chin, the Grace Kennedy-sponsored Jamaica Household Workers Awards, back for its second iteration, drew a sizeble turnout for its launch at Grace’s downtown Kingston HQ last week. Above, Grace CEO Don Wehby is seen addressing the gathering. The main prize going is named in honour of the late domestic doyenne Heather Little-White. Entries for this year’s awards are to be submitted to Grace by no later than May 15. (Photo: Grace Kennedy)

CHILDREN WILL LISTEN: One of the most anticipated periods on the local calendar for the young set, thanks largely to its focus on issues pertaining to the nation’s most vulnerable citizens, Child Month got its 2015 launch (organized by the National Child Month Committee) on Wednesday morning at GraceKennedy;s head office. Youth and Culture Minister Lisa Hanna )third left) was on hand for the event, fielding questions from attendees and sharing plans for the weeks ahead.  (Photo: Grace Kennedy)

ALL TOGETHER: The World’s Fastest Man poses with a grouo of teenagers as he makes an appearance at Rio de Janeiro's most traditional favela, Mangueira, in Brazil. Bolt is in town for this weekend’s Mano a Mano meet at Rio's Jockey Club on Sunday. In a press conference Friday, Bolt reaffirmed his goal of running sub-19 seconds to break his 200M world record this season – and his intention to go for one more season after the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio. (Photo: International Business Times)

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BUILT FOR SPEED: Solid friendships, dazzling stunts anchor action-packed Furious 7

VROOM WITH A VIEW: Walker (as Brian) and Diesel (as Dom) in a scene from the box-office-topping film, now playing.

They say past behaviour is the most reliable indicator of future behaviour and as far as the Fast and Furious franchise goes, not much has changed. And that’s terrific news for moviegoers who like their popcorn with nonstop action and healthy servings of drama and humour. 

As Chapter 7 in the high octane, high grossing franchise unfolds one comes to realize that while age has mellowed Dom and the crew, at heart they remain the thrill-seeking daredevils we’ve followed since the first instalment blazed into cinemas back in 2003 – and who seem to exemplify the very idea of living on the edge. 

And yet there’s a sad postscript to this saga, given the tragic and untimely death of Paul Walker (who plays Brian), who perished in a vehicular crash along with a close friend in Los Angeles last year in one of the unfortunate accounts of life imitating art we’ve ever heard of. Even so, Paul’s memory and legacy live on in Furious 7, best described as an adrenaline rush of a movie laden with breathless action sequences, fisticuffs and death-defying stunts aplenty, the picturesque backdrops of Tokyo, Abu Dhabi and LA and the precipitous mountainsides of Azerbaijan, where the film crescendos to its stunning climax.

Fast-paced doesn’t even begin to describe what graces the screen, and that’s nothing to complain about. To get a proper grasp of what the movie is about is to acknowledge that the guys have to attend to unfinished business, which comes in the sinewy shape of hardened assassin Deckard Shaw (The Transporter’s Jason Statham), who is intent on exacting revenge on those who had a hand in the London ‘incident’ that left his brother seriously paralyzed.

That includes Dom (Vin Diesel) and the posse who reteam to deal with this latest adversary. But that’s easier said than done, as Shaw’s the ruthless type who amasses a body count without even blinking an eyelash. (Witness the movie’s opening scene.) What eventually plays out is a battle between “shadows and ghosts,” as described by Kurt Russell’s character, the leader of the armed forces who recruits Dom’s crew for the fight against this common enemy. If Furious 7 represents the final instalment in the series, what a way to go.

The humour and light banter among the brothers fly with the same warp speed as the action itself, and old faces like Chris ‘Ludacris’ Bridges (tech whiz Tej), Tyrese Gibson (motormouth Rhone), Michelle Rodriquez (Letty), Jordana Brewster (new mom Mia) and Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson (as Officer Hobbes) are joined by Djimon Hounsou, who plays a nefarious operative who has partnered with Shaw. Then there’s that mystery girl with the curls and the accent who could make or break the mission.

Though the Fast and Furious movies have always been about the flashy whips built for speed and the unbelievable action sequences that defy the laws of physics, at the core you’ll find arcs of friendship, loyalty and family fiercely protecting its own. In the end, Furious 7 reacquaints us with a group of friends who prize their unbreakable bonds above all else and remain true to that come what may. Tyrone’s Verdict: B+

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