Beat Diaspora: Beats, Buses, Bricks

an omnivorous take on music of the beat-based variety and the urban spaces that nurture it

Friday, July 14, 2006

Tying up loose ends: St. Martin FM

Almost two weeks into my stay in Rio & have plenty to say, but before I do, I want to make some brief comments on where I was before coming down to Brasil: St-Martin/Sint Maarten. It's more or less your typical Caribbean holiday destination, with an economy dependent on (and currently thriving on) tourism, as it's far too small to have much in the way of industry or natural resources. As such, it's also too small to have many of the same social problems that plague the likes of Haiti, Cuba, and Jamaica. It may be apocryphal, but I've always been under the impression that the island has 100% employment (at the very least, while some residents are poor, there is nothing I've ever seen in the way of grinding poverty or homelessness).

It's one somewhat interesting claim to fame, however, is that it's the smallest island in the world to be partitioned between two nations. In this case, the Dutch and the French.

The distinction isn't massively important -- the border doesn't consist of much more than a sign (see above), a la crossing a state line, and on an island of this size you're likely to cross it several times a day. However, such proximity does sharply contrast the cultural differences between the two.

The French side is actual French soil, as the commune de St-Martin is part of the departement d'outre mer of Guadeloupe. They use the euro, they're EU citizens, they vote in French elections. In short, the exact same political rights and privileges as someone living in Paris. Consequently, the ever-cushy French welfare state takes care of St-Martin pretty well, such that it's not over-developed, maintains some architectural consistency, and is generally a little slice of Gallic paradise in the Caribbean (the food can't be beat). Again, too small to produce the firebrands of francophone thought along the lines of Aime Cesaire, Frantz Fanon, or Maryse Conde. [which certainly make Martinique and Guadeloupe far more interesting places in a world-historical sense, but this is family vacation and besides, I didn't have much of a say.]

If the French use the long arm of the government to keep things, well, French, then the Dutch, as expected, do the exact opposite: they let capitalism run wild. Part of the Netherlands Antilles (hope you can read Dutch), Sint-Maarten still uses the Antillean guilder of all bizarre currencies, although the entire island never turns down the Yankee dollar. More autonomous than the French commune, the NA's eyes are clearly flush with dollar signs and in the last several years development has been occurring at a breakneck pace (although at least one voice is suggesting some restraint). Between the cruise ship hordes descending upon Philipsburg's duty-free stores to rape and pillage with their Visas to the glitz of casinos, the Dutch side has always had a certain middlebrow air.

Maybe it's the boom of the last couple years or maybe I've just wised up to it after visiting for so many years, but the Dutch side of the island is becoming an ersatz Vegas. Its status as a shopping and gambling mecca is joined by a further injection of Americana courtesy of the excessive strip mall that now characterizes the first couple miles in either direction of the airport, populated by the likes of Ric's Place and Soprano's Piano Bar (I'm sure a few HBO execs wouldn't be pleased by that wholesale logo appropriation).

American hegemony, cultural and otherwise, in the Caribbean has been SOP since at least the Monroe Doctrine, but it's still a marvel (and not necessarily a good one) to watch a place slowly turned into an American middlebrow theme park. [as urban critic Dave Hickey argues, Vegas is the vast, green middle of the American self.]

Moreover, as I can't help but notice, this dialectic also plays out musically. Rental cars are the best way to get around, and while I'll confess that I did bring an iPod/tape adapter on occasion, I've had years to get acquainted with the radio band down there. The Dutch side's strongest signal, Laser 101, follows its nose up north to come up with a top 10 that's probably cribbed straight from last month's charts on Hot 97 with a token rock track thrown in (this year it's the Chili Peppers).

French radio, however, offers an interesting pastiche. Between St-Martin's chief broadcaster, Radio Calypso, and neighboring St-Barthelemy's Radio St-Barth, the listener shuttles between the region's chief cultural hegemons. Sure, the U.S. looms large and there's always a pop hit or two that's played several times a day (in this case Shakira & Wyclef's "Hips Don't Lie", whose Caribbean tint I'm sure doesn't hurt its reception; I realize a Colombian and a Haitian do not an American make, but in production and marketing they sure do). They jostle alongside the latest from France -- usually a mix of ballads and house tracks (Bob Sinclair's "World Hold On" was unstoppable) -- and then choice Anglo-American house from the last couple of years. [with the French holding the house banner so high, you'd think "acieeeeeeeeed" was first yelled with a French accent] Last year's house-remix-of-classic-rock format is still popular, and I heard plenty of 2005 faves Max Graham vs. Yes - "Owner of a Lonely Heart" and Deep Dish ft. Stevie Nicks - "Dreams" (the latter made for a perfect 6 am closer to a dawn drive home and according to my brother, Stevie re-recordedcorded the lyrics in the studio where the original Fleetwood Mac song was cut). Finally, Jamaica can't be left out: Vybz Kartel's "Rich Rich Rich" was definitely the dancehall song I head the most over the airwaves.

Reggaeton, as the current musique du plume of the Caribbean, was largely absent from the FM dial, although that's not a total mystery given the lack of Spanish-speaking islands in the immediate vicinity. There were some car soundsystems pumping CDs (as evidenced by the occasional skipping track) on a Sunday at Mullet Bay, although eventually some jerk had to overpower it with what I think was soca (sorry, but I'll take snares over brass any day).

As a final note, I'm focusing so much on the radio because if there's a local music scene in St. Martin, I utterly failed to come across it (and in truth didn't look very hard in the first place). My brother and his wife, on the other hand, who made friends with an incredibly friendly security guard at the island's mega-club (a little present of some hard to find NBA gear goes along way; Gilbert Arenas, bringing people together), got invited to the Bad Boy Party on the day that I left. Apparently held in the heart of Philipsburg, it was a local soundsystem featuring dancehall and reggaeton MCs. He reports that it was top-notch with pumping 15-ft speakers and a one-story stack of mids and subs. Friendly enough that they earned a "Shout out to my white boy and his blond girl chillin' in the place." It's refreshing to hear that even in the depths of Philipsburg, there's still enough local creativity to resist the complete Vegasification of "the Friendly Island."

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At 7/17/2006 2:53 PM, Blogger wayne&wax said...

a fascinating musical portrait of st.martin! more like these, please.

At 8/10/2006 4:48 PM, Blogger oldtownboys said...

Your are Excellent. And so is your site! Keep up the good work. Bookmarked.

At 8/13/2006 6:13 PM, Blogger newloghere said...

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