Full transparency, it wasn’t until Labor Day Weekend 2017 that I attended my first-ever fete, an army-themed boat ride in New York City. Being of Jamaican descent and an avid fan of dancehall music, I confess that for most of my life I never listened to or liked soca or calypso—at least I thought.
“It’s too fast. It’s too happy. It’s too sweaty,” were just some of my preconceived notions. So, needless to say, I really did not know what to expect when I arrived at the wharf along Manhattan’s East River. I was even more baffled when one of the men in my group, along with countless other military-clad male partygoers, showed up with what looked to me like random old car parts and extra-long screwdrivers.
At the time, I did not understand that these seemingly arbitrary metal items were actually the instruments used in the rhythm section, the everlasting pulse of Trinidad’s music, or what genre-bending Trinidadian band Kes (also known as Kes The Band) coined “Liki Tiki,” also the name of their latest single for which VIBE exclusively premiered the visual earlier this month.
Joining forces with real-life cousins Haitian singer JPerry and producer Michaël Brun, lead vocalist Kees Dieffenthaller explained during a chat with VIBE that the mission of “Liki Tiki” and the band’s forthcoming album is to “bridge gaps between genres and worlds,” uniting the Caribbean islands and Black people as a whole using “music that feels good.”
In truth, soca is all the things I’d ignorantly assumed it was—it’s very quick-tempoed, it’s borderline euphoric, and it’ll leave you drenched in perspiration, but most likely to convert any naysayers, it’s fun as hell! Or as Kes sang on 2020’s “Pick A Side”:
We doh want no bad vibes in the mass.”
The 2011 King of International Soca Monarch opened up about the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on the band’s new album, how he personally coped with “carnival tabanca,” why he’s anxious to resume the rigorous carnival “cycle,” and the interesting meaning behind the term “Liki Tiki.”
VIBE: You define “Liki Tiki” as the phrase you use to describe your calypso-style rhythms and feel. What’s the origin of the phrase? Can you take credit for it?
Kes: I think we [Kes The Band] can! I think we kinda started that phrase. There’s no historical origin for it. So, Liki Tiki really and truly was just our phrase that we made up to describe our beats and rhythms, our feel, to those who don’t understand it and to those who do understand it.
Liki Tiki sort of mimics the rhythm section, and in that rhythm section they hit irons, they hit drums, it’s a lot of different instruments, but it just gives you that feel, that, “Liki Tiki, Liki Tiki, Liki Tiki” in repetition. It gives you that swing that we celebrate and enjoy. And if we wanna infuse it in something, we usually say, “Eh! That needs a little more Liki Tiki” [laughs] to bring it home.
Some people describe it as “Ting-a-Liki, Ting-a-Liki, Ting-a-Liki,” which are different words but the same feel. We just chose to say Liki Tiki and we were sayin’ it for a while. We were using it kinda loosely and in conversation and jokingly. It was easy to use to describe to someone our style, our sway, and our grove or how you make it feel a little more calypso and soca. To a producer, let’s just say, in the case of this track, we explained it like that to Michaël Brun.
How did you, JPerry, and Michaël Brun end up collaborating on this track? What sound or feeling did you want JPerry and Michael to contribute to “Liki Tiki”?
You know, sometimes you meet people and you know that you have to do music with them. I’d met both JPerry and Michaël Brun separately. I actually did not know that they were related [first cousins] and I did not know that they worked with each other.
I really loved Michael’s vibes, I loved his world scope, still, he’s very much Haitian and has an island perspective but a global perspective at the same time. And I felt that the album is that feel so I really wanted to get in the studio with him. We set up sessions without expectation. We just went in and did what came naturally to us.
The second session Michael said, “Hey, I’m gonna bring my cousin,” and I asked, “Who’s that?” and he said, “JPerry.” I said, “JPerry’s your cousin?! Yea, I know JPerry. Awesome!” And JPerry came and we had that session in Miami and the energies just really locked and everything flowed. Everything was just sort of off the top of our heads. It wasn’t planned. We really just appreciated our energies and decided to explore that appreciation and something amazing came out.
Most large-scale international carnivals like Caribana and the Labor Day Parade have been canceled for the past two years because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Have you suffered from carnival tabanca? For those who don’t know what this means or don’t believe it’s real, please explain.
I think we all went through a tabanca. Tabanca is our way of saying heartache. It was definitely a lot of heartaches [laughs]. And heartache in many directions. However, my perspective is that as much as it was painful to break our routine it was good to break the routine as well. It gave me a moment to not just rest and relax but sit and realize what it is I want to feel and do artistically and put this energy towards this new album without having to chase tours around the world and prepare for carnival. We had an opportunity to put our energies toward different things and this album is possible because I had a break.
Because when we’re touring it’s really busy, it’s from city to city, carnival to carnival, and you spin right back into Trinidad’s carnival and the cycle starts over again. So, this album is really important. I’m very happy that I had this time to concentrate on it and prepare this body of work. So, I had my tabanca but I also appreciated the time off.
What are you most looking forward to with the return of carnivals?
What I’m looking forward to with this new “cycle,” I’m calling it, is that there’s an opportunity to try new things and routes and ways to spread our gospel of good music and good vibes. The world has changed as we’ve stepped into a new era.
I’m excited to get on the road and meet the fans again and feel it from a real real human level—the people and the music and where it is received and loved, you know? It’s tangible, it helps me, it inspires me, it gets you outta your head as well. So I’m looking forward to headin’ back on di road and I’m looking forward to the new spaces that we’re gonna be playing in and to see where the music goes. I think, in general, now there’s a better understanding and appreciation of music from where were from on a global scale, so I feel like it’s time for people to see it in action.
Speaking of a global musical perspective, while the two artists on “Liki Tiki” are Trini and Haitian, I’d argue the song’s sound is neither because it’s actually more inclusive than just soca and kompa. How do you describe it?
It’s a global sound. I think there’s a touch of everything in there. There’s also that Haitian Kreyòl, there’s that soca feel, you know, from the phrase Liki Tiki. There’s that reggaeton sort of swing, there’s also a bit of a dancehall vibe, as well, and, of course, some pop in the mix, so it just kinda reflects the music of now in that there are no borders anymore. Genres are blurred and I feel like we just wanna make music that feels good.
This song just felt good to us. It kinda touched all our influences in different ways and I love when we find these sort of middle-ground grooves, so “Liki Tiki” is a world sound. It’s an inclusive sound. It’s a sound that anyone can relate to around the world.
Even the video reflects this inclusivity by displaying various flags from different Caribbean islands. Why was it important for you to show unity and cultural exchange?
I think it’s very important for us to unite as Caribbean people. We need to combine our forces and energies together. Our numbers need to come together, as well, and not just the English-speaking Caribbean, English to French-speaking Caribbean, English to Spanish-speaking Caribbean—all these people need to come together. The African genres and the Caribbean genres need to come together, too.
Everyone who has the world moving and wining and having a good time, we need to combine our forces, our resources, and really continue to collaborate and promote that one movement because together there’s a lot of power, a lot of influence, and a lot of potential for change and constructive building for industries across the board.
Cross-pollination is just so interesting and it keeps the creativity alive, it just continues to inspire. My mission has always been to bridge gaps between genres and worlds ’cause I’m that kind of artist. I appreciate all genres. They’ve all influenced me so I like to share the joys with those who may not be aware of a kompa or a dancehall and a reggae and a calypso.
I feel that love it from a soul level so I’m very happy to be able to do it through my music, not just through the music and videos, but culturally, where people actually take a minute to sort of look over the fence or over the wall and be like, “Wow, you know, we have a lot in common, more in common than we know.” That’s a constant mission of ours, to sort of bridge the worlds together and let us combine as one and create true change together with a unified force. Together we stand and divided we fall, you know?
What can fans expect from the forthcoming album scheduled for release this summer?
Expect an amazing body of work! I’ve been working on it for the last two years. It’s really a very all-inclusive album and I think that anyone from anywhere can relate to it and feel it and understand it. My mission for this album is for everyone to continue to enjoy the music, continue to be open, to be inspired by new music, and, if you want a taste of everything, if you want a taste of it all, then this is the album for you. Yes! Blessed!
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Watch the video for “Liki Tiki” below.