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‘If you can conceive you can achieve’

Percussionist Keith Caisey performs in his studio

Bermudian percussionist Keith Caisey, 59, has performed around the world, often alongside world famous artists like Gladys Knight, Arthur Connelly and The Rolling Stones, but unfortunately recognition in his own country has been a long time coming.In November, the Bermuda Arts Council remedied that by recognising his work with a lifetime achievement award.“I am happy to get this award,” said Mr Caisey who returned to Bermuda to live, ten years ago after living abroad for a long time. “I didn’t think anyone was actually following my musical career that closely.“You know how it is here you talk to people, they ask questions. Half the time they ask questions because they are a doubting Thomas.“That is why you have to have a lot of documentation to prove yourself. I am humbled by this. I never expected it from Bermuda, because I have lived overseas for so long.”Mr Caisey said for musicians, the Bermuda of today, is very different from the Bermuda that he grew up in, 60 years ago.He left school at an early age to perform with his father, Howard Caisey, also a percussionist who worked in the Jungle Room, alongside Harold Webb, Robert Smith, and others. The Jungle Room featured the Al Harris Trio, and was located right next to Casablanca Coffee shop across from Caisey’s Bar on Queen Street.He was so young when he started playing the congas on Bermuda’s music scene that he was too young to actually be admitted to venues like the Clayhouse Inn or The Forty Thieves Club.He remembered sitting with his father and brother, Anthony, sipping tall glasses of coke and watching performances by various musicians. When he grew a little older, he worked with such bands as Neptune’s Domain, the Tropicanos and the Bermuda Folklore Company, among others.In those days, many well-known musicians performed in Bermuda, and local musicians like Mr Caisey had the opportunity to perform alongside them.There were also popular “battle of the bands” competitions between rival bands.“And back then, it really was, battle of the bands,” said Mr Caisey. “The winner walked away as the best band.”He said that now, with Bermuda’s shrunken tourism industry, things are quite different.“I know one or two people who are making a career out of music, locally in the hotels, and they have been there since the cornerstones were put up.“I have to say performing one night a week does not make a musical career. Guys are out there supplementing with other jobs, putting down tile, and construction work to make ends meet.“By the time they finish that, music takes a back seat. I have been fortunate enough since I was a kid to say I am a performing artist until I came back to Bermuda a few years ago.”Mr Caisey felt that more had to be done to provide venues and career opportunities for local musicians.When he first returned to Bermuda, in 2000, he started a company called Rhythm Nation in Dockyard. It was one of the first of its kind in Bermuda.The business took children from the streets and taught them drum rhythms. Tourists often popped in from the cruise ships to learn drum work and samba dancing.Eventually, he had to close, because of the worsening tourism industry.“I have been here for ten years and knocked on all sorts of doors, and I was told I had to be certified,” said Mr Caisey.Rather than complain about it, Mr Caisey, decided to do something about it.Last year, he studied Bata, the highest form of drumming in Cuba and was awarded a Professorship in Ethnomusicology from Conjunta De Folklorica de Cuba in Havana, Cuba, by the Cuban Ministry of Culture.Although he did not have a formal education when he started out in the music business, he did not see it as a liability.In fact, he said it gave him an amazing sense of freedom. In 1969, he moved to New York City to play with Dr. Barbara Ann Teer’s National Black Theatre Institute of Action Arts.One of their gigs was the ground-breaking 1970 First Congress of African People at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia, where such people as Louis Farrakhan, a very young Jesse Jackson and Angela Davis spoke and performed.He remembered how on the day that Louis Farrakhan arrived, Morehouse College went into security mode. No one was allowed outside the college.“The hallways were swept clean regardless of colour,” said Mr Caisey. “Obviously, Louis Farrakhan was someone who was about to become very popular.”Mr Caisey spent more than a year touring with the National Black Theatre.Although he enjoyed the cultural offerings of New York at that time, the violence of the city frightened him and he moved on. He went on to live in England where he played at such prestigious venues as the Q Club and The London Palladium.He said he never got tired of travelling, and his best friends were his suitcase and passport.“The world started to open up and I started to see how diverse the genre was that I had chosen,” he said. “I left Bermuda at an early age thinking I knew a lot, then I realised I didn’t know anything and started to learn from the masters.”After touring France and Canada, he went to Australia. There, he was taken under the wing of several great players, and he performed on records such as ‘Underneath the Colours’ with Inxs, Mariah Carey, Australian rockband, Sherbet, and with singer Sammy Gaha.He was also a member of the Australian music band ‘Ayers Rock’ for a time.He spent the 1990s working in Queensland, Australia, performing and teaching workshops.He was elected writer full member of the Australian Performing Rights Association (APRA).One of his passions is crafting traditional instruments like the didgeridoo and the African kora.When he was in Australia, he became so proficient that he was awarded an ambassadorship by the aboriginal people of Australia.“Making the instruments definitely gives you a deeper connection to the music you make,” he said.After performing at the 2000 Sydney summer Olympics, his family convinced him to finally move back to Bermuda after several decades abroad.“As a young man I left Bermuda with a set of bongos under my arm, and returned ten years ago with an entire shipping container full of ethnic instruments,” he said. “This was after I gave a large portion of my collection to museums in Australia.”Mr Caisey’s advice to young musicians is by applying yourself and having passion, you can achieve anything.“A friend of mine said if you can conceive you can achieve,” he said.