It is a true testament to passion and perseverance that the Anguilla Music Academy, along with its associated Recording Center pictured on this month’s cover, was even built. Anguilla is a small Caribbean island, only 35 square miles, with a population of 19,000, nearly half of them under the age of 18. It’s not a poor island, it’s not necessarily a rich island. But, as studio designer Wes Lachot says, it’s a place where “the people have music in their bones; there’s music in the air they breathe.”
Still, it’s one thing for a wealthy rock star or record label to build an island retreat studio and host sessions for artists at a premium rate, complete with lodgings. It’s quite another for the notion to spring from the sand up in the minds of a few people, who then knock on doors and convince others that they have a good idea, a vision for a musical hub, and then bring that very vision into being on a world-class scale. Over the course of eight years.
Darius James, a drummer from the Dominican Republic who came to Anguilla in 2009 on vacation and decided to stay permanently, was the man with the vision. He was a gigging musician who had spent two-and-a-half years on cruise ships before he ever entered a real studio, his first experience taking place in New Jersey, where he ogled the mixing console and soaked up all the possibilities a studio brought to the creation of music. He started thinking along a different career path.
After returning to the island and forming another band, he set up a Vision Board. One of the photographs was of a Grammy Award, another was of a world-class studio that he found through a Google search. At the time, he had an iMac, an interface, a keyboard controller and a pair of KRK monitors, tucked into a spare room at his new house, which he shared with his wife, a singer, and their newborn son. Vision and Energy and Spirit are important in his life, and the Vision Board gave him direction.
Then he started thinking beyond the studio. He started thinking about music and education and opportunity for the island’s youth. Then he started thinking beyond just Anguilla, to the Caribbean at large, and he found that there was both a lack of professional facilities and a lack of technical know-how. What if, he thought, we could break down the barriers to cultural exchange and provide a musical hub for the Caribbean at large, something to benefit all the islands?
From there, as you’ll read in the story, it became an eight-year journey of refining the vision, along the way gaining the support of Brian Sheth and Joe Watson of the Sheth Sangreal Foundation. Sheth, and later James McKinney and Scott Jacoby of Eusonia, helped to garner the support of the Grammy Museum Foundation and the Grammy Summer Camps program. The government of Anguilla stepped up in support. McKinney and Jacoby came aboard as technical advisors. And Wes Lachot, who happened to design the studio on James’ Vision Board and whom James had cold-called back in 2011, talking about the dream of a studio, was brought in as the studio designer. The stars aligned, the vision became reality. The studios officially opened in November 2019. And there’s more to come.
The culture of music ripples throughout the Caribbean, in many and varied forms. Anguilla is certainly a part of that, and perhaps even one step up on its neighbors because of a tradition in music education and a solid bedrock in performance.
“There’s one teacher, Miss Jacobs, who’s taught three or four generations of parents and children and grandparents, and she just retired last year,” McKinney explains. “She’s been integral to us getting students for a summer camp and everything else. Most of the kids have a very high level of music education and understanding. And every kid is a multi-instrumentalist who can sing!”
“Basically, everyone plays steel pan, which is what you might expect,” Jacoby adds. “And then people play piano, people play all of the orchestral instruments. That’s because of Miss Jacobs. At the summer camps, we had kids between the ages of, say, 11 and 20. We’d ask them, ‘Who’s got experience making beats, who has experience setting up a microphone?’ Close to zero. Then you ask, “Okay, who plays an instrument?’ And the whole place raises their hands, both hands!”
This is only the beginning, in one sense the first completed step in an ongoing vision quest. James talks of plans for adding computer coding and other programs. He is also interested in reaching out internationally, making it easier to obtain visas on a practical level while promoting cultural exchange on the artistic level.
It’s been a grand vision coming out of the mind of Darius James and fulfilled by a team of outside experts, inside artists and supporters, and lots and lots of children. Who would have thought eight years ago that 11,000 square feet of studio space on the island of Anguilla would end up being nominated for a 2021 NAMM TEC Award?
Then again, maybe it was on Darius James’ Vision Board all along.