After two decades in the art form, the backing vocalist is calling it quits
She has arguably more calypso “crowns” than even Red Plastic Bag, and has countless “hits” under her belt. But come next Crop Over season, Alison Gittens will be like any other regular Joe.
After more than two decades as a backing vocalist, she has disembarked the stage and placed her outfits in the closet. She will now be viewing and enjoying the happenings of the festival from the audience. In an interview with Bajan Vibes in the Olympus VIP lounge at Sheraton Centre, Gittens said that for the first time in some 20 years she wouldn’t be lending her vocals in any capacity during the festival.
This decision she stressed wasn’t an easy one for her. In fact, it was possibly one of the hardest that she has ever had to make in her life.
That’s because from the time she knew herself she loved listening to the harmonies of songs, and singing along with them. And, surprisingly, unlike many other entertainers, she never had the desire to be out front. Rather, her passion was to be a background vocalist.
So, to give it up now was hard, but it was a decision she carefully thought over, and had come to the conclusion that now was the time.
“I think that I have done everything I can do as a background vocalist,” Gittens said.
“I’ve been doing it for 20 odd years and it is a decision that I have been wrestling with for a little while. I have reached the point of saturation where like anything else, you reach a point where you feel like you have to do something different and that is where I am. I need to chart a different path.
“Yes, I enjoyed doing it. I have no regrets. It has been an awesome journey. I’ve met many people –– international stars. And I have developed personally; but . . . as you get older and mature, you tend to get more focused and you reach the point where you have to make a decision whether you will continue something or whether you will focus on another area.
“And I know within myself I have reached that point where I no longer have the desire to continue. Put me on a stage, yes, you will see me transform. [But] getting to that stage has become more difficult through the years. I don’t know that the love is there any more . . . ,” she said.
Growing up in the rural parish of St Philip, many days a young Gittens would have her ears glued to the radio, just to hear the likes of Abba, the Louvin Brothers, the Chuck Wagon Gang and choirs at services of songs, listening to their harmonizing and breaking down the harmonies saying: “Some day that will be me”.
So one day back in 1993, when word spread that the famous Untouchables Calypso Tent was holding auditions for background vocalists at the St Catherine’s Cricket club in St Catherine’s, St Philip, the young folk singer jumped at the opportunity. But though she had much passion and desire, it didn’t transfer into a great performance.
Instead, chuckling Gittens recalled that she was super nervous auditioning before the then tent manager Mac Fingall and backing vocalists including Lilian Lorde, Janice Mullin and the late Lemuel Waithe.
She was so nervous, as a matter of fact, that she didn’t impress the group and did not even make the cut. But luckily for her the girl chosen ahead of her could not perform; so she auditioned again and was this time accepted.
But performing on such a big stage wasn’t exactly how she dreamt it would. Though she had been onstage before, as a contestant in the Richard Stoute Teen Talent Contest, she was not prepared for some of the spinners that Mac Fingall bowled at her.
“I tell you no lie. I was really nervous. It was a real learning experience. I had been on stage before . . . but this was totally different. You know, you have all these songs to learn; and it was the first time I was exposed to this, but then onstage sometimes Mac would get in the spirit and do things that you never even thought you would be doing.
“Luckily, he would improvise using a lot of church songs, and I knew many of them. So it wasn’t just ‘ohh la las’; it was a whole entertainment package. It was being in a totally different place,” she reminisced with a distant smile etched on the face.
Gittens said she had to learn quickly, and with an average of 25 shows a season, she was able to. From there her career blossomed to opportunities beyond the tent –– to the point where she travelled overseas for song contests and shows. These included her trip to Trinidad for the much talked about Bajan Invasion; and she began to do voice recordings for top calypso artistes, including the international hit Ragga
Ragga by RPB
She remained in the Untouchables Calypso Tent until it closed. She subsequently moved on to Bacchanal Time; then De Big Show, performing at one simultaneously in both while pushing her Masters degree in project management and evaluation.
The background vocalist, to Gittens, is not only the provider of good harmonies, but is also a support system for the entertainer on and off the stage. She said sometimes a singer might know what they want to sing, but this may not always add to the performance. So the background vocalist with a really good ear was that person who made the suggestions that would improve or enhance the performance. This was one of the aspects she will miss most.
“The background vocalist is important to any performance. Especially now with the songs being really fast, a lot of the singers are out of breath pretty fast. Before when I first started out we had limited lines to sing now in some songs background vocalists sing the whole song or a substantial part of the song.
“I’ve worked with some people over the years who have had an appreciation for my role and they would come an ask me what I think about so and so. So I’ve always had that level of respect shown to me as a background vocalists.
“I will miss it; but because I have no regrets I am sure in my mind that this is it . . . .
“Now I want to give more of my time to my professional side. Given I have just received a promotion, I am looking to go further and higher; and it would take more of my time and energy. So that’s it,” she added.
Gittens has also developed a love for gardening. So in addition to pursuing more certification in her field and placing more focus on developing her professional side, she intends to spend her offstage time in her garden. The only time, she said, she would consider a return to the stage would perhaps be at a reunion of Untouchables, or for charity.