Roël Calister was raised on a steady diet of percussion. Cardboard boxes, Nido powdered milk cans, buckets of plastic… no household object was spared. His father would saw sticks out of old brooms and he would spend hours pounding away in his backyard after school. He still remembers the Tumbas of the early 80s and 90s by heart. He received his first drum set at 12, but wasn’t allowed to play gigs until he turned 16. “My mother was strict, that’s why I’m so disciplined.” Nowadays Roël finds his heart divided between the Caribbean and Europe, having lived in the Netherlands since 1996. But rather than suffering from identity crisis, he has managed to fuse his two cultural affinities into an utterly unique new musical genre he calls “Tambutronic”. Google search and you’ll find over 5,000 references to Tambutronic, some even draw comparisons to global sensations M.I.A and Major Lazer… and if Roël has his way that number will grow exponentially over the next few years.
A natural storyteller as much as percussionist, when you speak to Roël you’ll notice that he uses the Papiamentu word “anto” (= and then) like a time signature throughout his speech. But despite being passionate about music, he decided to study Finance and Accounting when he first moved to the Netherlands. Older sister, Izaline, at that point a budding jazz vocalist, decided to take him under her musical wings. Touring with Izaline and some of Curaçao’s most talented musicians (Pernell Saturnino, Eric Calmes, Randal Corsen) inspired Roël to attend the Rotterdam Conservatory after receiving his diploma.
Roël found conservatory initially overwhelming: “commuting Haarlem to Rotterdam, balancing schoolwork, homework, gigs, teaching music classes… I was very busy”. He was “constantly playing catch up and struggling financially”, but eventually his hard work paid off: “I just kept my goal in sight: I wanted to be the first call when there was a percussion gig where they needed an all-around percussionist who can read, play jazz, salsa, world music. Both on drums and on percussion. I wanted to be that guy and I made sure that I became that guy.” A memorable stage presence in every sense of the world, Roël managed to differentiate himself through versatility and charisma. In 2005 he mustered up the courage to start his own drum school; nowadays he employs others to teach the majority of the classes (10 am – 10 pm, 7 days a week)
The evolution of ‘Kuenta i Tambu’ (KiT)
KiT was conceived as a cultural educational program in partnership with storyteller Wijnand Stomp. But Roël wanted to spread the word, reach more people through theater and music festivals.
“We live in the Netherlands, we don’t live in Curaçao.”
At first he found that KiT’s music wasn’t really reaching the audience. “Picture this: four guys standing up there, playing instruments you’ve never seen before (chapi, tambú), singing in a language you’ve never heard before (Papiamentu), they’re all having fun, but it’s just them.”
With the help of Curaçao-born (music producer) Clifford Goilo, he started experimenting with blending in kicks, samples and electronics… while keeping the traditional 6-8 and other tambú elements.
Is Tambutronic ‘selling out’?
“I’m not gonna lie… it won’t be easy for an audience to stand there for an hour and listen to (traditional) tambú music. Every song will sound the same. (We) understand it because we’re from Curaçao… but make no mistake, Curaçao isn’t just about Tambú… there’s Ritmo Kombiná, Salsa, R&B, House, etc. Curaçao music is a reflection of whatever is going on in the world. It’s a little bit of everything.”
And, this is important: Roël happens to enjoy dance and electronic music.
“It’s not just me, people hear the four-to-the-floor and they understand it better.”
Now that Roël has found his signature sound, he wants to spend the next several years touring the US, Europe, Asia. “The touring life, and particularly connecting with the audience, really, really makes me happy. But every now and then I have to go back to Curaçao, back to the roots, to my mother and father, where it’s not all about me, where it’s about the little nephews and nieces, to play with them, go to the beach with the family, have some 1:1 talks with the people I really care about… and digest all the new information.”