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The life and legacy of respected composer of Caribbean music

A special feature on the life and legacy of accomplished musician and educator Desmond Waithe premiered on television during the Independence Day weekend.

Waithe, who passed away April last year, was a widely respected composer and arranger who tutored and mentored many.

Titled We Music: Celebrating the Legacy of Desmond Waithe, the feature was executive produced by the Marionettes Chorale, with whom Waithe shared a more than 40-year relationship as arranger, chorister, and cuatro-player.

The feature will be shown on Trinity TV on Saturday, September 9 at 8.30 p.m. It aired on TTT on Sunday, August 27 and Wednesday 30 at 8 p.m. and 1.05 p.m. respectively; and on the Marionettes YouTube channel on Independence Day, Thursday, August 31 at 6 p.m.

Waithe’s pioneering work in Calypso and Folk with ensembles such as Sacred Heart Girls’ RC, La Petite Musicale and Stentor Chorale among others, led to the emergence of the “Calypso chorale”, much like a genre in itself.

The late educator also made an indelible mark on the steelpan fraternity, having served as musical director and/or conductor of several steelbands like Exodus, Renegades and Starlift. He enjoyed international success with some of the steel orchestras at music festivals locally, as well as in France, Austria, and Germany.

It was Waithe’s celebrated steelband arrangement of the Mighty Sparrow’s ‘Slave’ that led to his longstanding relationship with the Marionettes. In 1980, the choir commissioned him to adapt his masterpiece for voice.

It was an association that would continue until the time of his passing — one filled with memorable local and international tours and performances of Waithe’s masterful choral arrangements of Caribbean music.

Considering his tremendous work, the Marionettes nominated Waithe who was subsequently awarded the Hummingbird Medal (silver) in 1993 for his outstanding contribution to music in Trinidad and Tobago. Similarly, his 2022 posthumous award of an honorary degree of letters from the University of Trinidad and Tobago was championed by the Chorale, through Dr Roger Henry, Marionettes’ Assistant Musical Director.

The process of coordinating, researching, and pulling all the right material together for the television feature fell into the capable hands of Marionettes’ Assistant Artistic Director, Caroline Taylor.

As the project’s producer, she was assisted by Maria Nunes (videographer), Tracy Farrag (co-producer) and Daniel Bishop and his team at Heaven Sent Productions, who edited and mastered the production.

Taylor had the unenviable responsibility for condensing more than 15 hours of rich interviews and music into two hours.

“We aimed to chart Desmond’s musical journey, showcase his range of choral arrangements and performances over some 40-odd years, and speak to his legacy — particularly his Calypso chorale legacy. It could easily have been a mini-series given how much material there was just on the choral part alone,” said Taylor.

“It was probably the most complex and challenging video production we’ve ever worked on, but in the end, one that evolved into a wonderfully rewarding experience,” she said.

Taylor and her team worked diligently during the pandemic restrictions in 2021 to access, digitise, and remaster the Chorale’s audiovisual archive, before launching fully into the production of We Music.

Work on the feature came to a halt after the team experienced considerable difficulty in attempting to record Waithe’s endearing arrangement of Richard Nappy Mayers’ ‘Old Time Days’.

“Because of the constraints at the time, we were forced to work virtually — an incredibly long and tedious process, as Desmond’s arrangements are quite intricate, and teaching those notes and rhythms via Zoom became an exercise in patience, perseverance and problem-solving,” Taylor explained.

However, everything changed when the team received word that Waithe’s illness had progressed. Not only did they want to include what was likely to be his final arrangement for the Chorale, but also capturing the musician on camera, conversing about his own monumental life and work was critical. With renewed vigour and shifted perspectives, the team went on to complete the job.

“Through all of the challenges, though, there were many magical moments. That day in September 2021 when we recorded the interviews at Central Bank Auditorium was profoundly special, as many of us had not seen one another in person since the start of the pandemic, and Desmond was there with us,” said Taylor.

“Another huge moment was finishing the virtual choir production of Old Time Days and sharing it with Desmond as it approached completion. It was incredibly meaningful, too, sending him a playlist with the interviews from the production featuring industry colleagues and choir members such as Gretta Taylor, John Arnold, Dr Leah Brown, Wendy Jeremie and Anthea Clarke, that he could see and hear in his final days,” said Taylor.

“Most of all, we wanted Desmond to know how much we loved, cherished, and admired him, and would forever honour him. We believe he knew that,” she said.

Taylor ended, “We hope people will be inspired by Desmond — the man and the artist — and appreciate the complexity and magic of his local, regional and diaspora arrangements, while understanding his wider national impact. We’ve done this to honour his legacy, as a man who dedicated his life to Calypso and Folk music — preserving them, interpreting them, and keeping them alive.”