Trinidadian Jazz pioneer Raf Robertson dies

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Jazz pioneer Rafael “Raf” Robertson, passed away suddenly last Thursday night. He was well-loved and highly regarded as one of this country’s finest and most progressive musicians. As part of the Trinidad Guardian Business of Music series earlier this year, Shereen Ali interviewed Robertson about achieving success in the music industry. The Guardian republish it today in honour of the great musician.

“If life is a journey, then part of success is knowing when to stay in your lane,” says jazz pianist Rafael “Raf” Robertson.

He’s referring to focusing on your strengths. For musicians, that means focusing on making good quality music. And when it comes to the business end of things, don’t assume you can do it all yourself, he advises—seek sound business advice from those who know.

A respected TT pianist, composer and recording artist who’s created beautiful calypso-jazz music, Robertson has recorded four albums: Just Teasin’ (1989), Branches (1994—a tribute to Lord Kitchener), Universal Rhythm (2000) and Majesty (2011). His career began in the ’60s when, still a youth at St Benedict’s College, he’d play music with local dance combos. He then studied music in the UK and the US, before returning to make a music career in the Caribbean.

He toured Europe, North Africa and the Caribbean for ten years in the 1980s with pop star Eddy Grant, and subsequently performed either as a leader or an accompanying musician in regional and international concerts and festivals.

He has played with well-known artistes such as the Louisiana-born saxophonist Branford Marsalis, jazz-fusion saxophonist Grover Washington Jnr from New York and Boston-born jazz drummer Roy Haynes. Robertson has also arranged and judged pan music, and today continues to compose and play music, while also teaching music at the Tunapuna-based Birdsong Academy.

Robertson has a wealth of experience in both the artistic and the nuts-and-bolts realities of making a music career actually work—not an easy task in T&T.

He’s collaborated with other musicians and bands, negotiated music deals for himself with foreign groups, and although it hasn’t all been easy, he remains committed to music as both a career and a personal passion.

Inspired by the ’70s

“As far as my career is concerned, I have been very fortunate…I got the experience of being on the cusp of the 1970s music revolution in London, and hearing songs of that time, like Sayamanda (by Andre Tanker),” said Robertson, in an interview at Trevor’s Edge restaurant/bar in St Augustine.

Robertson said he was influenced by “all the social things influencing the music of the ’70s. And I got the chance to play with many people, at different levels, which taught me how things are done in the industry. I learned a lot from the people I worked with. I played with Eddie Grant for ten years on tour. That was a school in itself.”

His enquiring, observant approach transformed early music gigs into a form of self-directed apprenticeship—his own on-the-job training.

He learned the value of being organised, and presenting a professional show: “So: how do you set up yourself—show-wise, business-wise, promotion-wise, how do you assemble your whole machinery to get that working?”

Be professional

He was making a point about the need for professionalism in our local TT music sector. An artist who plans to sell a CD, for instance, needs to package it well. If that same artist wants to perform live, he needs to plan and package his show well, too: “I have seen how a band like Earth, Wind and Fire package their shows. It is professionally done, at several levels. That is how popular music works.”

Whereas too often in TT, an artist may not bother to plan a production for best impact, but just cavalierly perform on a stage and then leave. Robertson commented: “People here astound me because they’re always busy—but busy is not necessarily productive, you know.”

He commented: “In this world of certification, some feel they can Google experience. You have to earn it. You have to be on the ball. You have to know and be prepared for the things that can happen in the business.”

Know your music rights

Knowledge about how the industry really works is vital, and is part of having a professional approach to any music career, said Robertson: “You have to learn how to make deals for yourself, and know what you are entitled to. Because at the end of the day, it is your work, and you are looking for the best opportunities to make (a living) from that work.”

He gave a hypothetical example:

“Suppose a man in the music business is travelling on the road in Orlando, and he hears some music he likes, and finds out it’s from a TT artist and wants to license that music, to make some money. When he contacts you, you, the artist, must be equipped and prepared to talk to him, and to negotiate with him. Further, you should have someone who can represent your business interests, and advise you.”

Get a business adviser

He’s quite firm on that point: get someone you know, who truly knows the music business, to advise you. If you don’t know someone, you may have to pay for the advice; but that is a valuable service.

“You can’t go with the attitude: ‘Well, I’m going to charge you $X, and if you can’t pay that, I’m not dealing with you.’ The business does not work like that. A businessman might say: ‘Let’s make a deal. I’ll give you some up-front money, and I’ll give you a percentage on that….” and you have to be able to discuss it, long before you reach any contract stage. Then if a contract is proposed: do you have somebody to read that contract? Somebody who is in the business, and knows the ins and outs of it. Because a lot of the business is not written in any books.”

Robertson said artists who try to do it all may make mistakes, like unwittingly signing away in perpetuity rights to some of their music, or making bad deals; errors like that happen, but need not, with better business advice, he says.

He suggested aspiring music workers educate themselves, reading biographies of successful artists: “Firstly, they show you what you might have to go through. Secondly, the biographies can be an inspiration, because sometimes, you may want to give up, but when you see what these people went through, you are better prepared. Thirdly, they can be educational, in terms of inside stories of how the music business works.”

No music industry in T&T yet

Robertson attended the recent MusicTT public consultations and said: “I think it is long overdue that we truly have a real music industry.” He said this doesn’t exist here yet.

He felt some young people in the TT music sector today have an unrealistic, even lazy attitude to funding and training; too many expect state handouts. He pointed to humble conditions of many Cuban musicians, who still produce great works: “Look at what they are able to produce with nothing. We have so many wonderful opportunities, and because of our immaturity, we squander them.

“Here we have a country known for producing all kinds of wonderful artistic works, be it pan music, calypso, soca, whatever. And the evidence is showing we have never been able to capitalise on that in any meaningful way. It seems to me that we are always starting over.”

A force for change

But he is convinced that music can be a force for change: “I like to look at the power of music.” He referred to Venezuela’s internationally-celebrated El Sistema programme, set up almost 40 years ago by José Antonio Abreu, a musician and economist, as a social programme to bring Venezuela’s disadvantaged youth off the streets and into musical ensembles to enrich their lives. Since 1975, when it began with 11 musicians in a garage in Caracas, it has placed more than two million children into orchestras, and has inspired similar programmes in many other countries.

“What is it that happens to us that we do not understand (the value of something like that)?” asks Robertson.

He was pointing to the transformative quality of music education—music as not just a business, but as a cultural enterprise and a development tool. If we think about music in a more holistic way, we may have more success at it, he suggested.

He also noted that, in deciding on setting up music education systems, if we confuse the money-making aspects of music education with the educational aspects, it can corrupt the process.

“Music education bears fruit in the fullness of time. But some see it as an opportunity to ‘eat ah food’, to make money. So what happens to us is that our prevailing culture (of individualism, profit, ego) is killing our art. That’s it. That’s what we keep doing over and over and over and over.”

His parting advice to young, talented musicians was simple: “No matter what happens, you have to stay positive, and keep doing what you do. People who persevere, end up succeeding.”

2 thoughts on “Trinidadian Jazz pioneer Raf Robertson dies

  1. Raf’s late ex-wife, Janice Millington, who taught me music at school in Barbados, gave me a copy of Raf’s “Branches” many years ago. I have enjoyed few albums as much.

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