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Trinidad's music pirates still at large

Trinidad's music pirates still at large

Posted by Shanelle Weir on December 16, 2014

Trinidad and Tobago's music industry is used to controversial lyrics in its annual crop of new soca (soul of calypso) and calypso songs for carnival.

But in the run-up to next year's event, due to be held in February, at least one pair of artists has discovered that you can go too far.

With the country's National Carnival Commission worrying that an Ebola virus outbreak might force it to postpone the festivities, soca singers Benjai and Screws decided to make light of the threat.

Their song, No Ebola, contains the chorus line, "No Ebola cyar [can't] stop no soca," and invites revellers to "jump up with your gas mask".

The tune sparked a social media backlash, with many commentators describing it as "insensitive" and "spectacularly ill-timed", after its initial appearance on YouTube.

If, despite all the disapproval, you want to buy the song on CD, you're going to find it difficult.

Physical music releases have become a rarity in the twin-island republic, with street-corner pirate vendors now the only way of getting hold of many popular songs in the silver-disc format.

Scarce releases

Trinidad's few remaining legitimate record shops are deeply frustrated at the lack of new product available.

"They're hardly putting anything out nowadays," sighs the shop assistant at Crosby's Music Centre in the capital, Port of Spain.

In past years, the store was the essential place to pick up the latest local sounds, for locals and visitors alike.

Now its shelves are dominated by greatest hits collections by veteran artists such as the Mighty Sparrow and David Rudder, who still frequently pack concert halls at home and abroad.

 Robert Plummer)
The Mighty Sparrow still sings to crowds around the world, pictured here in London in September 2014

If you want to hear something more recent, however, you'll have to step outside and track down one of the country's many music pirates.

In two of the island's biggest cities, Port of Spain and Arima, vendors can easily be found peddling illegal CDs from carts parked on street-corner pavements.

And the pirate music sellers have adapted to changing times more effectively than the shops have.

"You have a [USB] stick?" asks one vendor, before whipping out a Sony Vaio laptop loaded with a huge library of MP3 music files.

In addition to selling regular music CDs for 20 local dollars each (£2; $3.15), he also burns MP3s to CD while you wait, as well as transferring music to mobile phones and other devices.

Tougher laws

Of course, pirate CDs have been on sale in Trinidad and Tobago for many years.

When I previously reported on the subject in 2008, efforts were being made to toughen up the country's copyright law. My story was even quoted in more than one parliamentary debate there.

Ironically, the article itself was pirated and reprinted without permission by certain Trinidad newspapers.

The potential punishment for music piracy ought to give the illegal CD vendors pause for thought. Each count of copyright violation now carries a maximum fine of 250,000 local dollars (£25,100; $39,400) plus 10 years' imprisonment.

But although the penalties have been increased, the law is still being widely flouted.

We Music app (screen grab)
Trinidad's music scene now has its own dedicated app

The local music industry body, the Copyright Organisation of Trinidad and Tobago (COTT), is naturally concerned that music piracy is continuing to flourish.

COTT's chief executive, Josh Rudder, says: "It's taken a different turn now with digital piracy. It's one of the major issues that we face."

As he says, a pirate CD used to contain 12 to 15 tracks, "but now you're getting CDs with hundreds of MP3s and you still pay TT$20 a CD."

Trinidad and Tobago police regularly carry out anti-piracy raids in various parts of the country.

But in Mr Rudder's view, the local police should follow the model adopted by Jamaica, which has a special police unit dedicated to pursuing intellectual property crimes.

In the meantime, COTT has started its own campaign to "sensitise the public", making them aware that buying illegally produced CDs will deprive their favourite artists of income.

Streaming soca

Mr Rudder accepts that the war on pirate music is never going to be won: "It's a matter of containment, realistically."

He believes that in the long term, the country's music industry needs to adopt other business models, such as subscription services. Fortunately, that is already happening.

The legitimate CD may be dying out in Trinidad and Tobago, but at least there are authorised ways of obtaining soca music online.

Benjai and Screws' No Ebola is available on iTunes, Amazon and other legal music download services, including Trinidad's own, along with many other tunes recorded for the 2015 carnival.

And just as other parts of the world are moving away from downloads and embracing music streaming services, the entire Trinidad Tunes catalogue of 20,000 songs is now available to stream via a recently launched app, We Music.

The app only works on Android devices at the moment, but Apple and Windows versions are expected soon.

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