While the expansive and ever-growing luxury resorts that litter the coastline of Nassau portray an image of the Bahamas as a place far removed from the worries that plague lesser civilizations, such resorts are as accurate a depiction of the Bahamas as Disneyland is of southern California. This is probably most apparent to RadioFlag’s founding member Mychal Thompson, a native of the Bahamas but current resident of Southern California. He is also a former “Showtime’ Los Angeles Lakers Champion, current ESPN radio host and father of Klay Thompson, a second generation NBA star with the Golden State Warriors . As a native Bahamian and avid music lover, his connection to this Island and its people, have deep roots that keep him returning often and keeping tabs on the emerging sounds and scenes, with dreams of becoming prime minister of his homeland in due time.
So come to realize, to see the real Nassau is to venture away from the artifice of factory made island culture, to find yourself even more so, while getting lost in a tropical destination that earned its culture the hard way, after centuries of imperialist rule, slavery and oppression. It’s a vibrant culture; a fusion of European influence and Bahamian tradition, and its music is the fruitful harvest from a culture, elaborately laden with richly souled and ‘soundful’ seeds.
The music of the Bahamas, like that of Brazil, Haiti, and other post-colonial nations, is defiantly upbeat. Sweet melodies pounded out on goombay drums, mark every signature style to come out of the region. In the style known as rake n’ scrape, drummers use a carpenter’s saw to create a sound that is similar to paper being torn, by pounding and scraping it across the top of an object, usually an old knife raked across the saw’s teeth. A very close variation to this is known as ripsaw, a musical genre originated in the Turks and Caicos Islands, specifically in the Middle and North Caicos. Both these styles are thought to have originated when African slaves to the islands sought out to imitate the sounds of a Nigerian instrument known as the Shekere, made from of a dried wild gourd covered with a bead laden net. In the style and fashion of Junkanoo, goombay drums, cowbells, and whistles all create rhythms specifically meant to get you dancing and celebrating life as colorfully as possible.
The style is actually derived from the winter festival of the same name, in which people have for years celebrated the holiday with a carnival-esque parade. Elaborate, feathered costumes, choreographed dances, and heavy drum music fill the streets on Junkanoo, and have become such a statement of Bahamian culture, that a second summer Junkanoo was recently established to boost tourism.
Non-traditional music, such as rap, hip-hop, and reggae, are also popularly consumed in the Bahamas, but they are rarely produced by the region. That is, until Bahamian reggae band Willis and The Illest came on the scene. While the band’s music still features booming rhythm, The Illest opted for a more modern take on the Bahamian goombay drum, in the form of a drum set, which drummer Tracy masters. The stirring laments by vocalist Mandisa Kerr, swaying behind the gentle but powerful roars and lead vocals of Willis Knowles, carry with them a distinctly reggae vibe. However, the band allows themselves ample creative license and space, to keep things flexible and dynamic, stating their influences as “any good music…genre doesn’t matter….music is universal.” In that universal spirit they often infuse their songs with notes of rock, jazz, hip-hop, and rap, most recognizable in their hit singles, “Hey” and “Lion in the Jungle.”
Something also apparent in “Lion in the Jungle,” and the band’s Bahamian following, is that although their music isn’t a style indigenous to the islands, it’s more than just an expression of the musicians as individuals; it’s an expression of the culture they represent. The band reps the 242 area code, their music video depicts imagery of conch shells, a trademark of the islands, and they proclaim lyrics like, “I sing for the poor and those living in need.” It’s important to note that every aspect of the production of the video was made possible by the local Bahamian community pulling together to support the creative endeavor of an emerging music artist, and that is refreshing, considering there can be a lot of talk without any action to back things up. In this case, local businesses and professionals, rallied together to make it a reality. They have successfully planted a fan base firmly on their familiar turf; getting radio play on stations like Island FM and press in local news outlets like Tribune 242 and Bahamas local.
Their following, primarily Bahamian, but growing in international attention, sees them as emblematic of Bahamian reggae. Based on the band’s musical output, it appears they’ve accepted this honor, and are working steadily on an exciting upcoming cover song project, featuring a unreleased Bob Marley song called “Bass is Heavy”. The project is planned out to be released in 3 phases; which started with a live performance at John Watling’s this past October, followed by a music video and promotional tour. As they continue to gain notoriety, it looks like this band is on their way to represent not just the reggae of the region, but the genre as a whole. So “respect your ears”, get i.r.i.e , and stay tuned for more of those ill chill jams, by Willis and the Illest, representing the Bahamas.