Soca at 50 years old

An edited version of this article appears in the January/February issue of Caribbean Beat magazine as “Soca Gold“.

Courtesy Caribbean Beat magazine

In 1973, fifty years ago, there was an evolution of the calypso, and a redefinition of the sound and the business of Carnival music. Fifty years on, Carnival in the Caribbean and in the diaspora has a main soundtrack: soca music. How this music came to define the Caribbean Carnival experience for many, in Trinidad and Tobago and elsewhere, is an exercise of sifting through myth and apocryphal stories, deciphering competitive agendas and egos, and defining a unique space within a global music industry beyond what Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott, describes as the region’s encouragement of “the delights of mindlessness, of brilliant vacuity.”

New World music — calypso, jazz, rock ‘n’ roll, reggae, hip hop, and dancehall — arises from a community of musicians, singers, and interestingly, the media that reports and encourages its development and growth. However, it is sometimes easy to attach one man’s name to the creation and development of new music genres in the Americas — James Brown for funk, DJ Kool Herc for hip hop, Brazil’s bossa nova got two names, Antonio Carlos Jobim and João Gilberto! For soca, a credible case can be made for innovative calypsonian Lord Shorty’s name to be attached to this genre’s genesis, and the song that started it all, his 1973 tune “Indrani”.

The ironically named Lord Shorty — born Garfield Blackman, he was over six feet tall — would later use the name Ras Shorty I, after a spiritual conversion in 1980, until his death in 2000. He ultimately gave the sound and rhythm a name, albeit sokah — a journalist’s misspelling shortened it to soca. He gave the genre’s origin story a persistent, oft-repeated narrative:

Lord Shorty with Robin Ramjattansingh (dholak) and Bisram Moonilal (mandolin). Courtesy UWI Library

The purpose of soca in the 70s…was to bring the East Indian and the Africans in Trinidad together. So, there was a combination of the two main rhythmic structures in Trinidad to create a sound that would be totally Trinidadian… It is not soul as American soul [music], but the soul of Trinidad, the soul of calypso… It all started with “Indrani”.

Interview with GBTV with Ras Shorty I

These sole originator stories abound with hyperbole: Little Richard, “so, I say I’m the architect [of rock & roll],” Jelly Roll Morton, “I, myself, happened to be creator [of jazz.]” Lord Shorty was no different: “I am the inventor, and nobody else.” Origin stories, however, can be challenged. The names of artists, and the various studio musicians at the important KH Studios in Port of Spain creating that new music in the early 1970s are in the mix for future generations to ascribe fame or infamy: calypsonians Maestro, Shadow, and King Wellington, music arrangers Ed Watson, Pelham Goddard, Art De Coteau and Robin Imamshah.

That first song that starts a genre is usually identified, in hindsight, by music experts who describe characteristics and instrumentation: propulsive bass over constant percussive groove with the high-hat mirroring the kick drum, and snare drum syncopating alternately in a tresillo rhythm. A musical evolution in real time in a socially re-awakened Trinidad as 1970 island turbulence begat cultural pride and inward inspiration for creativity. Effectively born from a need to update calypso, and hopefully cross over to a wider audience outside the earnest Caribbean diaspora in North America, soca music was beginning to sonically define the Carnival experience from the 1970s to the present.

Soca would become an all-encompassing catchphrase to define music that drove Carnival revellers to frenzied joy. The vibe and energy it provides is addictive and attractive. Despite the initial doubts of longevity and popularity beyond a passing fad, calypso icons soon jumped on board the soca train: Calypso Rose “Give More Tempo” (1977), Lord Kitchener “Sugar Bum Bum” (1978), Mighty Sparrow “Soca Disco” (1981). Brooklyn, New York became a hub for soca’s global spread in the 1980s, with Caribbean entrepreneurs — Rawlston ‘Charlie’ Charles, Granville Straker, Michael Gould (B’s Records) — doing major business.

Other islands picked up on the evolutionary sound of soca, which was no longer moored to Shorty’s idea of fusion of African and Indian rhythms. Antigua’s King Short Shirt with “Tourist Leggo” (1976) forced a xenophobic response to what could be considered a Road March, the most played song on the road; “Not a Trini, no road march,” mirroring Art Blakey’s famous axiom, “No America, no jazz!” The Caribbean came forth anyhow. Montserrat’s Arrow has possibly the most widely known soca tune, “Hot, Hot, Hot” (1982). Barbados launched a musical invasion on Trinidad Carnival in the mid to late 1990s that changed how the swing of the music evolved; it became groovy. Grenada-born William Munro in 1993 introduced the Soca Monarch competition, dubbed the Superbowl of soca music, cementing superstar status to a new breed of soca artist: the iconic Superblue, the durable Iwer George, the lyrically skilful Bunji Garlin and his wife the trend-setting Fay-Ann Lyons, and the next generation star, Voice.

Soca’s biggest superstar Machel Montano, in his 40-year career, made collaborations with major artists in other genres a key to his global recognition, pushing the possibility of soca beyond the boundary. As the music modernised in the 1980s with synthesizers replacing musicians and DJs replacing live bands, international pop began to influence compositions with soca mimicking whatever was hot — hip hop/R&B, dancehall/reggae, EDM, and lately Afrobeats — or boldly interpolating pop melodies from Enya, A-ha, Cyndi Lauper, The Police and U2 into soca beats in its quest to break out of the cocoon of Carnival festival music, and become the new popular music from hot latitudes, much like reggae and dancehall, bossa nova and reggaeton have done. Even Guyanese music icon Eddy Grant tried to make ringbang, his trademarked facsimile of the soca sound, a hit in the U.S. with limited success.

The remix route became the business model for success beyond the diaspora. Vincentian Kevin Lyttle made serious headway into the Billboard Hot 100 peaking at #4 with “Turn Me On” (2003), and Barbadian Rupee had his song “Tempted to Touch” (2002) included in a hit movie moving that song into the Billboard Top 40. A 1987 cover of Arrow’s “Hot, Hot Hot” by Buster Poindexter and Baha Men’s 2000 cover of Anslem Douglas’s “Doggie (Who Let the Dogs Out)” brought U.S. chart success, and a Grammy, respectively. These singular achievements mask the continuing broader struggle for soca to break out into the wider public consciousness beyond Carnival, or in these cases, music for summer. On modern streaming services, soca is wilfully labelled ‘reggae” to get top-tier algorithmic recognition not accorded to soca. The analytics show that reggae/dancehall’s and reggaeton’s popularity, relative to soca, is ten and one hundred times greater, respectively.

Calypso is a lyricist’s and performer’s art, soca has become a producer’s art. The rise of the riddim in the 2010s — one musical bed, many songs — mimicking dancehall’s and early calypso’s economy of production, has generated popular uptake, but limited unique proliferation. The fête aesthetic rules modern Carnivals. The music is about movement and getting a physical response. Lyrics expressing carnal desires overshadow many soca songs about love, female empowerment, Caribbean society. Has soca encouraged Walcott’s “brilliant vacuity?” Not necessarily, as it has also become the driving force to an evolving and diversified Caribbean music industry.

Fifty years beyond “Indrani” in 1973, soca is now Caribbean music; artists, songwriters and producers from all the islands reign. St. Lucian Dennery segment, Grenadian jab music, Dominican bouyon, Barbadian bashment soca, and more island music genres, all commercially exist in the soca space despite their various origins that have nothing to do with Lord Shorty’s thesis of Afro-Indian unity and his impetus towards upending calypso’s stasis.

Lord Shorty once said, “sokah is the power of movement.” He did not lie. The Soul of Calypso has practically and aesthetically become the Soundtrack of Carnival, and the constant chameleon-like development of soca means it will be more than that in the future. And we will still be jamming to the beat.

© 2022, Nigel A. Campbell All Rights Reserved.

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