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Monday 27 May 2019
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The sanctity of the Savannah Grass

The Savannah holds great 
significance for Kees Dieffenthaller. Photo by Roger Jacob
The Savannah holds great significance for Kees Dieffenthaller. Photo by Roger Jacob

Since the passing of his father, Carnival has taken on a new meaning for Kees Dieffenthaller. “People may like it for different reasons, but Carnival has become a lot more of a spiritual situation for me." As he sat with Newsday earlier this week to talk about the making of his Road March contender, Savannah Grass (SG), and the impact his late father George “Bunny” "Pops" Dieffenthaller had on the song and his career, the soca artiste waxed temperamental.

"It is spiritual warfare in some ways too. You have to look at it in that way, but at the same time this energy you expend and this Carnival have become more purpose driven, of legacy and why am I here? Why am I doing this? And what is my purpose here? Why did I grow up how I grew up? And who taught me what? Why? Because after they go I have it. I am responsible for this so then what? So that’s where it has reached now for me in Carnival. That expression has become more of a purpose, especially when Pops passed.”

George "Bunny" Dieffenthaller died on January 1 and the younger Dieffenthaller said it feels strange not having him in the audience when performing. "I pray to him and all the people who've crossed over, before every performance. Before every single show I have my quiet moment, even if it is for five minutes or while the intro is going on and I envision them watching us from above a concert. We are holding a concert for them and their light in us, through us, so they are there with me all the time. It’s surreal at certain events when you know that Pops was there but it is a different purpose now.”

During his career, he said, there were certain songs on which he sought his father's advice, among them Live your life like you’re playing mas, Love of the music and Hello. "This track (SG) was something I really wanted him to be a part of because of the fact that he really is our number one supporter, and the significance of the Savannah, that was something that he always spoke about. I really wanted him on that journey." Dieffenthaller recalled, with a laugh, how during the progress of the track his dad would take it in quietly and then he would be like "yeah! I really like this one, I think this one have fire."

He said late in 2017 when they went to the studio with Jelani “Pops” Shaw, he (Shaw) played the then stage of the bed music of Savannah Grass. "Probably a slower bpm (beats per minute), certain things weren’t there but the essence of the music was there and I got the vibe of the song one time. Then in a matter of ten minutes we got a melody line and lyrics as well. So we thought to ourselves, 'this is a good idea'. But we put it away for a whole year because we were actually working on something else at the time. So we said 'we will come back to that'.”

When it resurfaced a year and a half later in 2018, Dieffenthaller was amazed. "I was like wow! This is exactly what I was looking for, and started work on the song." Around that same time, though, Dieffenthaller had surgery to remove his appendix but continued working on the track, getting the lyrics, vocals and the bpm correct. "Life happens and music happens simultaneously.”

As he recalled how everything paused when his dad got progressively sick, his mood became sombre. A week before Bunny passed away Dieffenthaller and video director Oliver Milne were in talks about the video. On the week of the funeral production basically stopped. "We'd already finished and mixed the song. Then I said you know what? I am going to push through and we’re going to do this. And do it for dad.”

Two days after Bunny's funeral, Dieffenthaller said, “We just kind of went with a wing and a prayer. The band members came out and Milne and his assistant director Shane Hosein, all of us just made it work. We put the emotions down and we said we are going to release the video and the song at the same time.”

Although Bunny had no direct input in SG, his guidance, Dieffenthaller said, was important. “I would play it to him and he’d say ‘what you feel?’ and I will question myself, am I going in the right direction? Is this what I want to do? The song by itself is one thing but the visual is really an art piece. Through many conversations, Pops input came in the scenes selected for the video. Like the clips of mas of yesteryear that were sourced from Geoffrey Maclean, TTT and Timmy Mora.”

He said they wanted the late Winston "Shadow" Bailey involved too because the song was still in production during Shadow's funeral, and seeing him lying in the casket with the savannah stage in the background struck something inside of him. "He put his blood and his soul, his sweat and his tears on that stage right there and here it is, us celebrating his life right here is so significant, and for whoever else has come here and placed themselves here for TT, the song is going to represent that!”

Kees Dieffenthaller is happy that the intention of Savannah Grass is resonating with people. Photo by Roger Jacob

Dieffenthaller said he’s glad the intention of the song has since resonated with people. He said a lot of people spoke of the yesteryear clip with (Belmont-based band) Rabs Imortelle in particular and its relationship with his dad. Also, with greats like Peter Minshall, he is truly appreciative of the rich culture of TT and is happy to be highlighting those things in the video. The “Bunny dance” done by Bunny himself towards the end of the video has been done at every performance of SG by Kes the Band, so much so that other bands and party goers are also doing it.

When it was first done at the Gateway to the World fete, Dieffenthaller got very emotional on stage. “There are many times in this Carnival I’ve cried. In the Gateway fete, it was the first time I was performing with the band for the season. I saw his (Bunny’s) face and I cried. I cried in pan (semis) too. Somebody came up to me in pan and showed me a picture of him I’ve never seen before and in that you feel as if he is alive. Well he is alive in us. But not too long afterwards I heard the song SG (at pan semis) for the first time in the savannah and I just went over the edge. I was trying not to cry all the time but the feelings were great. It was still joyous. It was more like this is the true expression of celebration of the life of my father and culture and all the things that were wrapped in and lived by, it’s all there.”

When asked how he feels about SG being a strong contender for the Road March, he said, “Look. Let me talk about this Road March thing and I will be real with this. I believe that Road March has been altered over the years and in some instances it has been warped. I think from time in memorial, I wouldn’t call names, but artistes would actually pay deejays a bag of money just before the stage ....play my song and you get paid... and that mentality has grown into so much more that the road march has lost its meaning. I think what has happened is that we’ve developed a stage march, and a road march, two different things. And sometimes the road march and the stage march is the same thing.

"...I don’t believe that we should have watered it down... I want TT to know this, because we have to evolve, we have enough technology right now to take a click of every time a song plays on the road in general."

Dieffenthaller said people love SG, but they love other songs too. “People also love Famalay, that is a next song that is important to people. To me both songs are very important. Famalay is a song that is promoting not just your family but your Caribbean family, which is a very important thing right now. And Savannah Grass is troops promoting the importance of culture and paying homage to that. I cool with that but don’t fool the people... So my thing is let the song be the people’s song. Let the road march be the most popular song on the road everywhere, whether is on stage or off stage, just the song played most by the deejays."

Kees Dieffenthaller says if Savannah Grass wins the Road March title, it will be an honour for his late father, George 'Bunny' Dieffenthaller. Photo by Roger Jacob

He said if SG does win the Road March title, it will be an honour for his father because he believed that Kes The Band is a band that always puts its best foot forward in everything. “I am not somebody who holds on to rewards, we don’t ever get that really, but at the same time if it was to happen I would be happy for us because I know Pops would have wanted to see that. But it is not even just about winning. My thing is, I hope that it opens the conversation for something new for a new concept of how we organise ourselves on the road. Some conversation must spark from that."

When writing SG, Dieffenthaller said he and Shaw had envisioned the savannah, the feel of it and knew when it was correct. “The process was really nice. It was natural. You as an artiste have to be ready to receive inspiration, trust in God, trust in yourself and trust how to navigate. All I know is that I will be crossing the stage to Savannah Grass and that will also be a moment for me by itself. The Dief is alive. He is here and he’s been talking to us as well."

Oh na na na

Mmmm ay ay

If you know yeah

Then you know yeah ay

We are all on the ground yeah

We holding it down yeah

We open we story yeah

It's savannah J’Ouvert morning

J’Ouvert morning, everybody coming in ay

They ready to ready to go yeah

We go make them jump

We go make them turn up

We go make them wine

We go make them free up

Is the place of bacchanal

In this sweetful botanical this Carnival

I want you to find your way everybody on stage

Oh lad oh

If you coming down from the mountains oh gad oh

When the Riddim beating in town

See we jumping on

You could see in all when the dust raise

Oh lad oh

When the people tell yuh they cannot wait

Oh gad oh

When the spirit jumping in town we coming around

De savannah grass

We up with the sun yeah

We take over town yeah

We making the most yeah

Two days is not enough noooooo

Is love we feeling

Look everybody revelling

They ready they ready for more

We go make them jump

We go make them turn up

We go make them wine

We go make them free up

Is the place of bacchanal

In this sweetful botanical this Carnival

If you know yeah (Make them jump)

Then you know (Make they turn up)

Make them wine

Make them free up

We all on the ground yeah

We holding it down yeah

We open the store yeah

Savannah J’Ouvert morning

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