Musical arranger-calypsonian Hamlet wants calypso music marketable globally

Hamlet sings “Take a Stand” in the preliminary round of the judging of the Dynamite Calypso Tent in Brooklyn in June 2023 during Vincy Mas celebrations.
Photo by Nelson A. King

Ulric J. Hamlet, a Vincentian-born musical arranger, composer and calypsonian, who carries the calypso sobriquet Hamlet, says his future goal is to work alongside the Brooklyn-based Dynamite Calypso Tent and SVG AMP in making Vincentian music and, more so, calypso, a marketable industry — not just in the Caribbean but throughout the world.

“This, however, will require collaboration with the ministers of government in SVG (St. Vincent and the Grenadines) and the Vincentian population as a whole,” Hamlet, a member of the Dynamite Calypso Tent, the lone Vincentian calypso tent in North America, told Caribbean Life in an exclusive interview on Sunday.

“I am also working on creating a training program, whereby the calypso art form can be passed on to the newer generation to preserve its longevity,” added the New Rochelle, New York resident, who, over the years, has composed and produced calypsos for Vincentian artistes, such as “Licks with Pozie” by Man Stone; “Get On and Nothing to Show” by Man Sick; “We Drinking” by Lively; “Loosen Up” by National Youth Band, sung by Skarpyon; and his own “Protect Planet Earth.”

“Added to this, I intend to pass on all the skills I have acquired over the years to any youth who is willing or have the passion for the saxophone, bass, keyboard piano, arranging, mixing, mastering, editing, or even mathematics and science,” added Hamlet, a former music teacher at the Questelles Government School in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, who also teaches music on weekends, primarily to children in his New Rochelle neighborhood, and continues to compose, arrange, mix and play music.

“And, with all this, my greatest hope is that the newer generation in SVG will have access to all the possibilities that I have experienced over the years, and that the government and people of SVG will see music and its possibilities as a career, just like medicine, law, or acting,” continued Hamlet, who migrated to New York in 1998 to marry his wife, Susan Billinghurst-Hamlet, to whom they share the responsibilities of raising two sons, Ulric, Jr. and Jackson Hamlet. They are both in college pursuing medicine and aerospace engineering, respectively.

Hamlet said his journey as an artiste came “somewhat unexpectedly,” stating that he was raised in the South Leeward villages in St. Vincent and the Grenadines of Rillan Hill, by his mother Norma “Olive” Ashton, and Penniston, by my paternal grandmother, Martha Cyrus.

He said, of his six siblings, his older brothers, Nathan and Paul, have always experimented with music and its creative aspects.

“I remembered them carving out a music band from scratch, using buckets covered with plastic to design a drum set, of which they used discarded cymbals from the Starlift Pan Yard (perennial Panorama champions in St. Vincent and the Grenadines) for the crash and high hats,” Hamlet said.

“Their creative genius led them into shaping bass and rhythm guitars using scrap board, empty sardine cans and nylon,” he added. “Their creativity produced entrainment for the village on weekend, where most of their peers became fellow drummers, guitarists, singers, while having fun as teenagers. However, that did not spark my music interest.”

Hamlet said he also remembered, during his early childhood years, that one of his paternal aunts, Eugina, played the acoustic guitar “masterfully”, but that did not spark his musical interest.

He said he was “more entertained with his involvement” in cricket and football (soccer).

“So, throughout my primary school education, I avoided formal music as much as possible since, at the time, I did not enjoy neither singing, the recorder, and the way music was taught,” he said.

But, some years into his teenage life (1986), Hamlet said his brother, Paul, who had earlier migrated to Trinidad and Tobago, had returned home for vacation and showed up at Hamlet’s cricket game with an acoustic guitar.

“During my game, I happened to hear the most melodious sound coming from his direction,” Hamlet said. “It turned out to be the guitar he was playing. I immediately abandoned cricket and rushed over to him to quiz him on how he was able to create such an amazing sound.

“That was my induction into a future that I never knew would have taken me to where I am today,” he added.

Hamlet said Paul taught him the rudiments of playing the acoustic guitar, and that a friend, Earl, after hearing him play the instrument, presented him with his first music book.

In addition, Hamlet said a neighborhood “police musician,” Amos “Barko” O’Garro, taught him his first music class.

“I remembered the introductory sentence of that music class, a long definition of music taken from the ‘Rudiments and Theory of Music’ by the Royal School of Music,” he said. “’Barko’ was flooded with a series of music questions from me. He detected an urgency in me, one that said I wanted to soak up all the information as soon as possible.

“With that detection, Mr. O’Gorro dictated, ‘Here is the book, as of tomorrow, you teach the class,’”,Hamlet added. “With that, I became a music teacher, only approaching Mr. O’Garro on occasions in which I sorted answers to concepts that were too abstract, like harmony.

“I led the class until Mr. O’Garro signed us up for the Royal School of Music Grade 1 Music Theory exam,” he continued. “I was the only one from the bunch that was successful; hence, my friend slowly eased away from music theory.”

During his graduating year from high school, Hamlet said a group of his classmates formed a band and wanted a guitarist.

So, he said, he joined the band but was shocked to find out that he was expected to play something that he did not know, a minor chord.

“I even could not hear the minor sound in my head,” Hamlet said. “So, I failed to show up at the second practice for the group. Instead, I began ordering music books, consulting with ‘Barko,’ studying and taking Royal School of Music exams.

“This I did until I graduated high school and became a teacher; and, by that time, I was also playing the trumpet that was often borrowed from another music police officer, Earnest, as I did not own a guitar,” he added.

Hamlet said he began to enhance his musical skills during his teaching career. He said a member of the teaching staff, Amos Wright, who was an advanced guitarist, would give him guitar tips during lunch break.

Additionally, Hamlet said the Ministry of Education, through Jeoff Vennor, started music workshops for teachers every summer, “and my understanding of music/theory grew.”

“It was my time as a teacher that also marked the creation of the National Youth Band of SVG, which was pioneered by Mr. Jeoff Vennor,” he said. “The model was to take at least one music student from each of the secondary schools and form an orchestra.

“It was through this medium that I gained most of the help to make me the creator I am today,” added Hamlet, stating that Vennor introduced him to arranging and live performance, “and the opportunity to play various instruments.

“I am also now in an environment, where there are more accessible music resources, and I have capitalized on that,” he continued. “Therefore, I have learned the different aspects of the music business. I am involved in the recording process; software usage, of which both of my sons, Ulric and Jackson, have acquainted themselves with.”

During the past year, Hamlet said he became a member of the Dynamite Calypso Tent and has produced a single, “Protect Planet Earth,” which is available on Spotify and Apple Music.

Since joining the Dynamite Calypso Tent, Hamlet said he has attended a music conference in Huntsville, Ala “for the main purpose of figuring out ways and means to create legislation in SVG that would govern how musicians, especially calypsonians, can become part of the earning cycle – just as the hotel and restaurant earners from our creative genius.”

Some of Hamlet’s accomplishments to date include: Prime Minister Award for the most outstanding contribution to culture – 1997; arranging and performing for the entire South Leeward Calypso Tent; arranging Man Stone Soca Monarch song; co-composing and arranging the Questelles Government School Song; leading the National Youth Band of SVG; playing Jazz Bass for a set with Arturo Tappin; and “having a family, wife, Susan, and sons, Ulric and Jackson, who appreciate and support what I do.”

Hamlet said he was “very grateful to the Rillan Hill community for all the opportunities they provided in leading the various music classes, after school programs, organizing the Buccament Bay Soccer League, and forming the soccer team, Secret Stars.”

“Over the years, a number of people tried to discourage me about music and academic,” he disclosed. “However, I will always remember my mother’s words: ‘Ignore all the negative criticism and work towards your goal and, one day, you will be the one your critics will call upon.’

“Hence, over the years, I have learnt that, in every negative situation, there is some positives to be taken out,” Hamlet added. “So, I focus on the positives in life.”

In reflecting on his journey, Hamlet stressed that he is “very motivated to work with the Ministry of Education, SVG AMP, Dynamites, and any other Vincentian in creating the awareness and exposure of the various faucets of the music industry, from creation to distribution/marketing, and how it can benefit each artist and the country as a whole.

“However, it will require a collaborative effort by each artist, the government, private businesses, local media and the Vincentian population, both at home and abroad,” he warned. “I actually feel that my journey has now begun.”