Thursday, 19 February 2015

A COUCH AND A MIC: Candid reflections, mellow vibes delight at Havatio Music's Soul Sessions

CENTRE STAGE: Stephenie rendering one of her soulful tunes; (below) Stephenson and Bennett in the spotlight, with emcees Shawna-Kae Burns and Fabian Thomas.

Live music with a sophisticated twist is probably the best way to describe what was on offer at Soul Sessions, a nearly three-hour concert last Wednesday night at Redbones, where Havatio Music brought together songstress Stephanie, veteran producer and songwriter Mikey Bennett, and reggae-roots crooner of the moment Duane Stephenson for a hugely enjoyable, highly entertaining round of good music and mellow vibes.

The artists' musical stylings and candid reflections provided invaluable insight into the ever-changing reggae-dancehall landscape and how three of our finest talents manage to navigate the challenges, creative and otherwise, in an industry that prizes hype and buzz over genuine artistry and independent spirit.

As they tell it, staying true to themselves and the kind of music that appeals to them most deeply is paramount for Stephenson and Stephanie. "I've been through a lot of that," Stephenson said, referring to the gritty realities that overwhelmingly define his distinctive brand of straight-from-the-innercity musicality. "Music to me is my diary; my way of putting how I feel about a particular situation into words. What I sing is reality." To wit, Stephenson's debut single "Ghetto Pain" and several others like it have made successes of his trio of solo albums August Town, Black Gold and last year's Dangerously Roots.

That's the direction Stephanie is eyeing as she looks to ascend to the next level. "I grew up on a rich variety of music, so it took me a while to find my musical identity. But people kept encouraging me to stay true to my roots, which is reggae," confessed the singer, who has to date released a funky EP (Real Woman) and a Christmas record. She describes her sound as reggae-fusion, a soothing blend of lover's rock, reggae, R&B-soul and dancehall. "With reggae-fusion I have been able to target various different markets out there" and win collaborations with Sony Music Japan and industry pioneers/mentors like Bennett, who we were delighted to learn is the writer behind classic hits like JC Lodge's crossover smash "Telephone Love."
"It was one of the most important songs to come out of Jamaica at the time, and it really started my international career," Bennett revealed. "Music is a business, so the way we marketed the song made it one of the biggest selling records to come out of Jamaica." Lodge aside, Bennett's long and rewarding career has seen him collaborating with the best of the Jamaican talent pool (Dennis Brown, Judy Mowatt et al) and a slew of international marquee names, most recently Roberta Flack, with whom he linked up a few years ago in Barbados.

While Bennett also riffed on his very musically savvy extended family (son Nicky B, daughter Kimala), his approach to songwriting and penning classic reggae anthems, Stephanie addressed how life continues to imitate art in her personal experiences, and Stephenson spoke to making the leap, quite astonishingly from boy band (To-Isis) to solo stardom. In the end where all three artists found common ground was in that serious passion for what they do. In a nutshell, it's all about the music.

"To every art there is a science, and I think where there is weakness in the music industry right now is mainly in the performance," Bennett told the sizeable audience. "My mission over the next few years is to work with some of the younger entertainers to help them get it right because ultimately it's about securing the future of reggae music."

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