Sweet, Sweet Soca Music of Trinidad and Tobago

By Jossane Kerrice Felix
Photographs courtesy of Maria Nunes
Jossane Felix photograph courtesy of Colin Castillo and Andy Greene

One of the many beautiful destinations serviced by Bahamasair seasonally, visit Bahamasair.com to book your travel to Trinidad and Tobago.

Masterfully designed and invented in the twin island Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, the indigenous sound of soca music is one of the fundamental ingredients which dominates the carnival scene no matter which country is hosting this epic event. It is by far the most popular genre of music played on the twin islands. Most of the artistes have a fan base which is visibly mesmerized by the soca rhythms.

Primarily conceptualized and invented by the late great Garfield Blackman, also known as Lord Ras Shorty I, this new sound was created in order to preserve the sound of calypso. Calypso is an art form used to tell stories and to draw attention to issues that may be plaguing a society, from crime and politics to stories of infidelity hidden in plain sight. Adept songwriters make excellent use of double entendre to create their calypsoes. There were fears that the calypso art form could die easily due to the pervading sounds of reggae, which was quickly becoming the genre of choice not only throughout the Caribbean but also internationally, and which has been used to create linkages to our Caribbean identity. Ras Shorty I attempted to quell this ideology through his attempts at songwriting, and so, the sweet, sweet sounds of soca could rightfully be linked to him as a native of the twin island Republic of Trinidad and Tobago.

The base of soca music includes classical Indian musical elements fused with traditional calypso rhythms, which was skillfully designed to impact the two largest ethnic groups in Trinidad and Tobago—both those of African and those of East Indian descent. Traditional Indian instruments included in this new style of refined calypso were the dholak, tabla and dhantal. This genre was originally called “solka”, a combination of the words soul and calypso. This was a bit misleading as some were led to believe that solka was a combination of American soul music and calypso, which was not true. There is even a bit of history with regard to the spelling of solka, which was spelt “soca” by a music journalist and this is what has transcended throughout the decades. Other sources believe that the latter part of the word originated from the first letter of the Hindi alphabet, “kah”, which signified the beginning of a new musical movement, spelling the word “sokah”. Lord Shorty passed away in the year 2000 and so this cannot be verified.

The first series of attempts to popularize soca on the international stage were made by artistes such as Arrow, known for his international hit “Hot Hot Hot” which was later released by Buster Poindexter. Other easily recognizable hits on the world stage include Kevin Lyttle’s “Turn Me On”; Soca Boys’ “Follow the Leader”; Rupee’s “Tempted to Touch”; and “Doggie”, penned by Anselm Douglas which was later covered by Baha Men as “Who Let the Dogs Out”.

The younger generation of soca artistes have been seeking to place soca on the international stage with “one voice and one mission”, which is to make soca global. Lord Shorty’s offspring, the Blackman Family, has stuck to his legacy. The various members, namely Nailah Blackman, Marge Blackman and other members, have been working feverishly at refining their music to an internationally palatable sound in order to achieve the “one mission” goal. This is a major feat to try to accomplish, but not an insurmountable challenge. Capturing market share by truly captivating the global audience is a feat in which soca artistes and those within the industry have to think, constantly rethink and evolve their ideas to be accepted internationally. Nailah has experienced some measure of success thus far as she has performed as far as Australia and Germany. In 2018, the entire country beamed with excitement as she was nominated for a BET Best New International Act Award.

Machel Montano, a visionary who made his way on the scene with “Too Young To Soca” many moons ago as a very young boy, has taken the world by storm. His name is synonymous with soca. He has performed on global stages as far as Japan, preaching the “gospel according to Machel” about soca to all who would listen. The pulsating rhythms of his popular high-powered soca songs really leave the audience enthralled and with no choice but to wine their waists (gyrate) to the sweet sound. Montano has experienced international acclaim for his hit song penned by Jelani “Pops” Shaw, called “Ministry of Road”. This song afforded Montano the opportunity to cop the Soul Train Award for Best International Performance in 2014. Any production hosted by Montano and his team, namely “Machel Mondays”, has been truly world-class and an unforgettable experience. He has been influential to young and upcoming artistes also, with Aaron Duncan following closely in his footsteps, paving a way for himself in the soca music space. The year 2020 was the last hosting of the Machel Mondays event, however, we look forward to all exciting projects that this giant in the industry has in store for his fans in the coming years.

Erphaan Alves, an artiste who has a true passion for the art form, has made it his mission to take soca to the global level. Currently, the genre struggles to be heard on mainstream international media. There have been very few bars and snippets of soca music in prime time shows, reality TV shows and other media which would really capture an international audience. The exposure is currently too limited compared to other genres and so Alves, along with his cohorts, has been striving to “push the soca global”. Take a listen to his 2020 soca tune “Soca Global”.

In 2018, Olatunji Yearwood was recognized on the world stage as he participated in the world-renowned talent competition “X-Factor” in the United Kingdom, when the panel of celebrity judges were blown away by his performances of his original compositions, most notably “Bodyline”. Bunji Garlin, another high-powered soca artiste, won the Best International Performance Soul Train Award in 2013 with his soca tune “Differentology”, which features ace guitarist Nigel Rojas. This tune was used as the theme song for ABC Network’s primetime show “Grey’s Anatomy” and in the NBC arena in the recent past. During the 2019 Canadian Federal election, the song was in heavy rotation on the campaign trail by the leader of the New Democratic Party, Jagmeet Singh.

It is the case by far, no doubt, that the genre in demand during Carnival is soca music. There is an entire competition called the International Soca Monarch Competition which is dedicated to this genre during Trinidad and Tobago’s carnival. Soca artistes in both the power soca (up-tempo) and groovy soca (slower tempo) categories perform live to massive crowds which are eager to see their favourite artistes perform their tune of the season live and in the flesh. Be sure to attend this event once you are on the island during the competition.

Kes the Band has created “I Come For This Wuk” and “People”, which strike chords within all who take a good listen to the band’s work. The lead singer, Kes, has always been one to have the ladies falling all over themselves at his live performances. “Savannah Grass”, a piece co-written by Kes as well as Jelani “Pops” Shaw, is a power soca piece which transports the listener into a euphoric state. Many audience members have stated that they have been really grabbed by the piece as it puts them in a trance-like state.

Farmer Nappy is known for his wonderful groovy soca hits which leave the ladies crooning in front of the stage during his performance. Hits such as “Hookin Meh” tell stories of contemporary social issues and the dynamics within relationships as the lyrics along with the music video examine and reveal just how both men and women in society may deal with similar types of issues.

Two-time International Soca Monarch, Voice, an artiste who creates truly positive messages for the masses through song, showcases his versatility by mastering his power soca tunes to be able to also compete with the same song in the groovy soca monarch competition by slowing down the number of beats per minute in the song, producing a groovy vibe. Be sure to check out Voice’s “Year for Love”, performed in 2018 in both the groovy and power categories at the International Soca Monarch Competition via YouTube.

Soca when played on the steelpan is a wonderful marriage. Soca not only sounds great on steelpan, but also because the songs are popular and have been playing at fetes, the audience can quickly identify them and sing along when they are played on the instrument. The audience eagerly awaits the extended versions of the songs as the song’s length for judging at the National Panorama competition is eight minutes. Bands such as Massy All Stars, Desperadoes and bp Renegades thrill the audience with their arrangements of soca tunes. Steelbands choosing a soca tune for the National Panoarama competition has become a trend in recent history, which has been auguring well for the bands, revitalizing the steelband fraternity and its support from the average citizen. “Year for Love” was selected by the bp Renegades Steel Orchestra for the National Panorama Conventional Steel Orchestra category in 2018. The orchestra copped the National Panorama Title that year for their rendition of a Duvone Stewart passionate and spirit-filled arrangement after an unforgettable and world-class performance by the entire steel orchestra.

Desperadoes performed “Different Me “in 2016 with heavily jazzy undertones within their arrangement of this sweet soca tune. This Clive Zanda arrangement led the band to cop the National Panorama title that year. Massy All Stars had a wonderful and doubly sweet rendition of Nadia Batson’s “So Long”, and Caribbean Airlines Skiffle’s rendition of the same tune battled it out at the National Panorama Competition.

Power soca dominates the airwaves during the carnival season with artistes like Machel Montano, Kes the Band, Blax and the All Stars, Patrice Roberts, Nadia Batson, Destra Garcia and Fay Ann Lyons-Alvarez, her sister Terri Lyons and more vying for the Road March Title (power soca rules the road on carnival Monday and Tuesday). Power soca ensures that masqueraders have the energy and stamina they need to display their beautiful costumes while enjoying the “lime”, which is the company of their friends and family with whom they may be playing mas in the same carnival band. The Road March is determined by the number of times the artiste’s song is played at every judging point along the carnival parade route in the cities and boroughs. The song with the most airplay wins.

In recent history, artistes and songwriters have been composing soca tunes to a “riddim”. This occurs when the producers and engineers create beats in the studio and artistes and songwriters compose lyrics to the same riddim. On the radio and internet streaming circuits, one can hear various versions of sweet soca tunes on the same riddim. These songs really drive the carnival fete goers and keep the parties at a high momentum, especially during the live band set changes. I challenge you to listen to the various song iterations on the Skinner Park Riddim, which has been popular this year.

Most soca songs tend to be instructional. The lyrics instruct the audience to “jump and wave”, “misbehave”, “wave a rag or wave a flag” and so the benefits of working out reveal the results of such hard work. Participants’ fitness levels and ability to keep up is critical to their level of enjoyment. Upon your visit to Trinidad and Tobago, especially during the carnival season, be sure to be fully appraised of the entire repertoire of soca offerings available from our soca artistes so that you can sing along and enjoy yourself, whether at fetes or while keeping up with your fitness routine. This will make your visit even sweeter!

No Comments Yet.

Leave a comment