Sabrina Francis Testing The Waters With ‘Mango Tree’ Concert Series In T&T

(TT GUARDIAN) – Hailing from the rural village of Madeys, St Patrick’s, in the north of Grenada, Sabrina Francis possesses a sound that she thinks is ready for a global audience. Soulful, sensuous, and silvery, she delivers a sound she dubs Afro-Caribbean pop. Equally as interesting as her unique fusion of sounds is the story of how the daughter of one of Grenada’s most popular calypsonians settled within this niche.

The Sunday Guardian interviewed her at the home studio of her producer, manager, and long-time collaborator, Dieter Burkhalter, located in the tranquil hills of Pomme Rose, Grenada, in April.

“Her (my mother) name was Lady Empress. They still play a lot of her songs, especially around Christmas time here, year after year without fail. She’s still on the radio,” Francis gushed.

So why not calypso after growing up in a household with a calypsonian mother? Or even more so in a country already known for its distinct sub-genre of soca called jab music.

“It’s hard to explain. The music that I write is just the music that comes naturally to me. And I think that even though my mother sang calypso when she was on stage and she wrote calypso because that’s what was playing on the radio, at home she made it a point to enrich us with different types of music. We listened to all kinds of music.

“That’s why my music sounds like it does and not like what would be playing on the radio in Grenada. It probably would have been easier if I decided to do soca or calypso, but it just didn’t come naturally to me. I enjoy it like every other Grenadian. I consume the music, and I enjoy it. It’s a huge part of my culture.”

During our interview, Francis and Burkhalter were in the process of planning to bring their Meet Me At The Mango Tree concert to T&T to gauge the interest of a broader audience in Europe, specifically the United Kingdom.

“I want to take it on tour in the UK, just to give ourselves a different space to perform in. And I plan to take it to Trinidad,” declared the 27-year-old songstress.

But why Trinidad, out of the numerous other islands in the Caribbean? Francis’ response was quick, assured, and somewhat flattering.

She said, “Somehow I feel like Trinidad has similar stories or a similar feel to Grenada. I don’t know if you feel it, but every time I go, it doesn’t feel much different from Grenada. The people seem to connect to the same things that we connect to here in Grenada.

“I’m not taking it for granted. I’m still going to test to see if Trinidadian people are even interested in my music. I have a feeling that they are (interested) because, I mean, Trinidad is basically Grenada. Don’t take that as an offence. Grenada is really nice. It’s a compliment, alright,” she added with a playful giggle.

 That test run happens on Saturday (May 25), at the Big Black Box, 33 Murray Street, Woodbrook, Port-of-Spain, at 8 pm. Once successful, Francis and Burkhalter plan to roll out a much more elaborate production, which they have been working on for several months.

It includes the shipping and erection of a mobile performance space at their desired destinations. The prototype, small enough to fit into the palm of Francis’ hand, illustrates a 200-seater 360-degree arena outfitted with lighting, acoustics, and even the real-life trunk of a mango tree, designed to bring her show to life.

 “We started this Meet Me At The Mango Tree series in February of this year. And we’ve been having two shows a month, and so far it’s been quite a success.

“So it’s about how a young lady uses music to help her overcome a lot of hardships. The most significant hardship was that her mom left to pursue a better life for her, but her being a child, she didn’t understand what was happening and grew up with a lot of resentment.”

 “We’re going to have this space that we created with about 200 seats capacity. And then I’m going to be performing around my mobile tree. And this is all supposed to be able to break down and build up when necessary.”

Admittedly, they are still some way off from bringing that vision into reality. However, Saturday’s scaled-down show will introduce a local audience to a star in the making who, at such a young age, has already made quite an impact on her country’s musical landscape.

Francis tells the story of her journey with unshakable confidence and passion. Her music transmits the same. And it is precisely why she believes she’s ready to command the attention of a wider audience.

She travelled extensively, thanks in no small part to her manager and producer, a hotel owner and operator of the popular marina in Grenada called Le Phare Bleu, originally from Switzerland.

Francis credits Dieter for his musical and business guidance, but for literally finding her after a chance encounter at his hotel in 2014.

 “When I was 18, I was invited to sing a couple of songs with a gospel band at said hotel. And the owner heard me, liked what I did, and spent the next year of his life looking for me,” she said.

“Because I’m from the country, it was very hard for him to find me. But after a year, he found me and then encouraged me to sing.”

The rest, as they say, is history.

The pair would spend the better part of a decade honing their collective songwriting skills and crafting Francis’ sound. And while they gradually introduced themselves to the Grenadian public, they did not hesitate to explore wider boundaries.

Together with a small team of management and performers, they visited, recorded, and performed in South Africa, Spain, Germany, the UK, and, of course, Switzerland.

Two albums were released: 2016’s Think in Color, which Francis describes as influenced by R&B, funk, and soul music, and 2019’s I Feel which had more of a rootsy, emphasis, influenced by a trip to South Africa to add some traditional African sounds.

It was this album and its new influences that moulded Francis’ music as it is known today, she said.

“I worked with some South African singers and percussionists from Mozambique and just added some really rootsy vibes. And from then on, I knew that my music had to somehow incorporate my traditional heritage. So it’s a blend between the pop that I listened to, the contemporary music that I listened to growing up, and then my African roots and my Caribbean roots.”

With her sound now well-defined, a trip to Austin, Texas, in 2019 for a music workshop was the catalyst for their entire operation, unlocking their understanding of the music industry from its business side.

Marketing, distribution, and the power of rapid advancements in technology—and how it could all work for Francis as an independent artist—became much clearer.

“We started really pushing and doing things with an intention and a strategy to try and really create or carve out a space for me. Because the type of music that I did, really wasn’t mainstream. It wasn’t anything that Grenadians were listening to or even interested in at the time.”

 The workshop at US-based online music distribution company CD Baby came at an opportune time, as a few short months later, the music industry in Grenada and abroad was shut down by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Francis and Burkhalter needed to be resourceful to satisfy their respective yearnings for a platform to continue to craft and express. It was through this desire that the concept and the venue for what is now known as Sabrina’s Treehouse were born. They built an online showcase for Sabrina’s music and that of various Grenadian artistes.

“Musicians just couldn’t earn (money). And so we thought that we would get permission from the Government to do a series of concerts called Keep Greens Music Alive. We streamed some concerts, and people donated to the cause. We raised over $10,000, and we wanted to keep it going.

“Even after the whole lockdown period, people started coming out; you still couldn’t gather in large groups, all you could do was 16 people at a time, and so we thought, okay, what could we do? How could we transition Keep Greens Music Alive to a show? And that’s how we birthed Sabrina’s Treehouse Concert in 2020.

“We put a tree in the middle of a chicken coop, added in all of the technical things that we needed, and created a space for music lovers. It’s for people who enjoy coming and sitting down and listening to music, and surprisingly, there were a lot of people like that in Grenada because from 2020 to now, we’ve been sold out at almost every single show. They’re sharing the word, and we’ve been trying to do something really great.”

 It is said that word-of-mouth is the most powerful marketing tool. Francis can attest because soon her fan base evolved from almost exclusively Grenadian to include expats and other visitors from near and far, including a loyal following of fans from T&T who travel to Grenada ever so often to enjoy the shows that are put on almost twice monthly at their intimate venue in the backyard of Burkhalter’s estate property.

So, from its beginnings in the foothills of Grenada’s Mt Agnes, Sabrina’s Tree House concert has stood the test of time, evolved into Meet Me At the Mango Tree, and is now ready to be introduced to Trinidad.