Trinidad & Tobago is one of the world’s true melting pots, an island nation whose citizens have pulled from their African, Asian, Latin, European and Amerindian heritage to innovate in the fields of music, art, food and having a good time. Of the many musical acts that call this twin-island republic home, none embody this mixture more than KES (aka KES THE BAND) the eclectic outfit behind some of modern Caribbean music’s most indelible anthems.
Celebrated for their instant soca classics (“Wotless,” “Savannah Grass”) and laid-back island pop jams (“Tuesday on the Rocks,” “Hello”), the band has brought Trinidad to the world, sharing stages with the likes of Will Smith, Major Lazer and John Legend and collaborating with artists from Wizkid to Snoop Dogg. For the group — charismatic singer Kees Dieffenthaller (also known as KES) and his brothers Jon (guitar) and Hans (drums), along with childhood friend, Riad Boochoon (bass) — blending pop, rock, reggae, calypso, dancehall and afrobeats together is one part of their greater calling: To spread good vibes.
While KES officially formed in 2005, the band’s story goes back to the ‘80s, when Hans and Jon caught their first glimpse of Van Halen on MTV, and decided to form a band called the Lads. “Hans is the mastermind who sparked the idea of his little brothers forming a band,” KES says. “He built his own drums with buckets, and made a hi-hat with PVC. Jon had a bass guitar he got at a second-hand shop, and he used a nail for pickups.”
Eventually, the boys’ father helped them purchase proper instruments and build a stage in their backyard, as younger brother Kees looked on. It was only after a hellbent quest to win a local talent competition that Kees, then a burgeoning R&B singer, joined the group. They won — with a cover of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” — and the core KES THE BAND lineup, intact to this day, was solidified.
For years, the group played a mixture of genres, mostly as a band for hire. Eventually, soca music – the main soundtrack of Trinidad Carnival, and Trinidad & Tobago’s most lucrative musical export — came calling, and they began writing and recording originals in hopes of catching a hit during Trinidad’s competitive Carnival season. “The feeling with us has always been that music is boundless,” KES says. “In Trinidad, soca was its own world, rock was a whole separate world, and nobody was intermingling. We were the only entity that had ties within the two.”
In 2005, the band played its first show as KES THE BAND, opening for Sugar Ray and Beenie Man at Port of Spain’s Club Zen. From jump, the group defied the conventions of soca. Their first single “Lion” was a reggae-inspired track with an acoustic guitar melody released during the summertime, outside of the traditional window for releasing soca music during the wintertime run to Carnival.
“Carnival is the ultimate vehicle in Trinidad,” KES says. “But this summer thing was so free and open, we tried to capture that and be one of the few artists doing something outside of the usual bread and butter of soca.”
The band released several albums in the late 2000s but remained an underground favorite until 2011, when conditions aligned for its first, season-defining Carnival smash in “Wotless.” Taking its name from a local phrase to describe “bad” (or worthless) behavior, the track celebrated the carefree spirit of Carnival, ushering in a new era of soca expression.
“‘Wotless’ really established us in the Caribbean diaspora,” KES recalls. “We started to tour the islands, and it started to creep its way into different places.”
In 2013, KES issued the vintage reggae-inspired “Tuesday on the Rocks.” A sleeper hit at the time, it quickly became a signature of the band’s live shows. In 2014, the band hosted its first Tuesday on the Rocks concert, which in future years would become one of the major annual events on the Trinidad Carnival calendar, and grow to include satellite editions in New York, Toronto, Jamaica and Guyana.
As soca has become a largely producer-driven genre, KES has carried the torch for live music, touring their full stage show year round and bringing an eclectic range of influences to the genre, from reggae and dancehall to rock and afrobeats. “When we play live, the music translates in such a boundless way — you don’t have to know what soca is, or where we're from,” KES says.
Recent years have proven to be the band’s most successful. “Hello,” a fusion of afrobeats and soca originally released for the 2018 Carnival season, continues to reach new audiences years after its release. With over 40 million plays on YouTube, it has the most digital streams of any soca track released in the last decade. At Trinidad Carnival 2020, “Stage Gone Bad,” KES’ collaboration with Iwer George, not only won the annual International Soca Monarch competition — the Super Bowl of Caribbean music — but the song also captured the coveted Road March title, given to the song played the most times during the Carnival parade.
With the grind of Carnival and touring on hold in 2020, the band regrouped to record its first new full-length project in over five years, the live album We Home (Ineffable Records). The first major soca release since the start of the Covid-19 outbreak, the album saw the group breathe revisit its rich catalog, with fresh renditions showcasing their prowess as a live band par excellence. To celebrate the album’s release, KES organized a We Home live concert special, bringing across the Caribbean on live TV and around the world in real time via YouTube and social media.
With Trinidad Carnival canceled last February, the group filled the void for live music by launching its IzWe event series with five nights of socially-distanced concerts. Open to just 300 patrons each night, the series concluded with another livestream/TV special on its fifth night. These shows were followed in Fall of 2021 by the IzWe tour across the USA, which saw the band perform for some of its biggest stateside crowds to date. In between, KES made their live TV debut with an appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, performing “Savannah Grass” via Zoom alongside Jon Batiste and the Stay Human Band. Other recent media appearances include an interview on The Breakfast Club and features in Conde Nast Traveler and
KES are set to release their next album in Summer 2022 on Ineffable Records.