Music

Breaking down the politics of generating a soca hit

Trinidad has long been the great decider of which singles take off, so how do countries on the periphery stake their claim?

PHOTO CREDIT: @THETOMOGRAM
December 3, 2019

In the words of Bajan soca artist Lil Rick, “Crop Over’s the best ting in di world.” The three month festival that wrapped up in August is a celebration of Barbados’ ancestral history honouring the end of a successful sugar cane harvesting season. Since its inception, the festival has had its peaks and declines—in a few instances it had disbanded and was later revived—but in 1974 it was fully restored and has been operating since. From June to August, the country is host to a variety of culturally and historically-informative events, but one of the most anticipated is its finale: the Grand Kadooment parade — yes, the same one that Rihanna visits and usually plays mas in her brother’s band, Aura (a band is comprised of a group of sections that are segmented based on costume design, later worn by people who participate in the parade, otherwise known as masqueraders). 

Crop Over’s Grand Kadooment parade is part of an ecosystem of carnivals in the Caribbean— like Trinidad’s Carnival and Grenada’s Spice Mas—and the diaspora, like Miami’s Broward Carnival, London’s Notting Hill parade and Toronto’s affectionately titled Caribana (or Toronto Caribbean Carnival). Though some of their origins differ and modes of celebration have changed overtime, they’re all rooted in celebrating Caribbean music, culture, history and revelry. However, a major element that defines each carnival from the next is the music that scores it. 

Soca is the definitive sound of carnivals and Barbados’ Crop Over festival (though some would argue that dancehall is slowly becoming a mainstay, which is definitely the case for carnival in Jamaica) but each is typically soundtracked by a different strain. Most countries have their own iteration of the genre: St. Lucia’s fast and French-infused dennery segment, Grenada’s energizing jab jab, Dominica’s lush bouyon soca, and of course, Barbados’ bashment soca, are amongst some of the many that exist, but the strain that, arguably, has the more dominant sound is the ever popular soca from Trinidad (typically segmented between the upbeat power soca and more lax groovy soca, but inclusive of soca chutney and soca parang). 

Music production in the Caribbean works slightly different than elsewhere, as the music is often made in preparation for upcoming carnivals in their respective countries and consideration for  monarchs. The best way to understand monarchs are to think about them sharing similar characteristics with well-known singing competitions like American Idol or The Voice. Months prior to carnival day, artists will release a slew of singles on many different riddims (riddims, Caribbean parlance for “rhythms”, are basically a synonym for a beat that multiple artists record atop of. Take for example last year’s “Upendo Riddim.” Though there is one sound, many artists’ own individual songs are made with the riddim as its foundation). These singles become candidates for each country’s soca monarchs. 

Like other music-related competitions, artists compete through a series of preliminary competitions before the soca monarch finals. Once a winner is chosen, they are guaranteed a few things: bragging rights, for one; visibility, which helps launch or continue their music careers; and a handsome cash prize. The winning single, and often nominees in the category, are heard pretty frequently on the roads of carnivals all over the world. Similarly, the “Road March” title, a prestigious award won by the number of times a record is set to be played during road marches in Trinidad, is often contentious but largely dictates what sound has dominated and will likely dominate other carnivals (this year, Machel Montano, Bunji Garlin and St. Vincent artist Skinny Fabulous’ “Famalay” won the title but many have advanced that the true winner was Kes the Band’s “Savannah Grass”).

With Trinidad having, arguably, the most hypervisible carnival, and with its carnival and soca monarchs being held at the top of the year right before Lent, many of its soca artists release their songs for the following year, months in advance. Confusing right? Let’s break it down: Carnival in Trinidad & Tobago wrapped up this February, but as early as May of this year, records have been and will continue to be released until December of this year, for carnival in 2020. A select handful will be considered for monarchs. Infamous YouTube channel JuliansPromoTV is where many, if not all, of the aforementioned singles and their corresponding music videos are premiered and live. The team brilliantly categorizes each set of music releases, like they have done for 2019 Barbados Crop Over and are currently doing for 2020 Trinidad Carnival.

Considering Trinidad’s early start date, and given the fact that many artists from Barbados are still riding the high from Crop Over, in addition to the fact that small island carnivals have wrapped up their carnivals and there are still countries within the Caribbean who have yet to have their carnival, how do they navigate the Trinidad’s dominating soca release calendar? For many artists, it means another calendar year of having their songs on the road or in the fêtes (parties) in carnival’s expansive global network. 

“The way that carnivals are being set up year round, it provides opportunities for artists,” says Paul Parris, manager of popular artist from Barbados, Jus D. “If you break big in one market, you have a whole year of touring that you could do. The real hits, that’s what ends up in Miami Carnival, and then those hits go to Trinidad, and then the Trinidadian artists start releasing their current music mixed in with whatever was hot the year before from Miami. And then the cycle starts again.”  

 

How does this work? Let’s take Grenadian artists Lil Natty and Thunda for example. In 2017, the duo released “Top Stiker,” a high-powered, energy-fueled anthem that got revellers ready to take on fêtes and roads. Though the song won second place in the Grenada Soca Monarch in August of that year, it became one of the most requested songs during Trinidad Carnival in 2018. The single even received a remix courtesy of soca powerhouse Machel Montano and later that year they performed alongside Jamaica-based band Xaymaca during the country’s carnival road march.

It’s important to note the role of major urban cities outside of the Caribbean, like Miami and Toronto, and how they can act as a site for sharing the multiple strains of soca, too. Toronto’s carnival, Caribana, is held during August and by this time, all the music from Trinidad, St. Lucia, Grenada and Barbados, have been released and their corresponding carnivals have already passed (with the exception of Barbados as the Grand Kadooment parade is held during the same weekend as Caribana). With a large Caribbean community that exists in the city, the sounds heard on the road and in the fêtes are often much more diverse, drawing on the strains of soca from across the entire Caribbean region. 

For example, the annual Jab Jab J’ouvert (j’ouvert is a Caribbean-originating party filled with oil, paint and powder, that starts in the evening and ends around dawn) invites Grenadian and small island artists to perform for a throng of soca loving fans. Their bill this year included, amongst others, St. Lucian artist Motto and Grenadian artist Lavaman. Even after the monarchs and carnivals have passed, overseas events like Jab Jab or Toronto’s annual Barbados on the Water, in addition to events within the Caribbean like Barbados’ Gimmie Soca, provide ample opportunities for artists who engage in the lesser-known strains of soca to have an opportunity to showcase and share their music alongside each other and with their fans. 

And it doesn’t stop at these kinds of events, either. Because much of the music in the Caribbean is enjoyed insularly and throughout the diaspora, there are few formal spaces that honour the music sensibilities found within the region (soca, like dancehall, definitely deserves its own Grammy category by now). However, the annual International Soca Awards, with aims to “recognize and reward excellence and achievement in the soca music art form,” has long created a means for soca artists of all strains to be celebrated. Honouring widely known branches of soca and even including bonus categories like the Kompa Artist/Band of the Year affords an avenue for the genre to be celebrated holistically.

 

But there seems to be a shift taking place. The past few years have seen an atmosphere of collaborative songs and fusions of different strains. Popular New York-based DJ Jel shares his observations from last year with how he sees this dynamic functioning. “Motto and Machel linked up on the ‘Pim Pim Riddim’ with songs like ‘Showtime’ and [his single with Lyrikal] ‘Party Lit’. It’s a power soca single that was Lucian-inspired, produced in St. Lucia by Motto. It’s a dennery-styled soca that’s fast but was released for Trinidad Carnival.” With the increase of cross-soca collaborations and even more soca artists from smaller islands garnering wins during soca monarchs—Grenada’s Mr. Killa placed first in the International Soca Monarch’s Power Soca category and St. Lucia’s Teddyson John placed second in the Groovy Soca category— the future of what’s considered mainstream or commercial soca, is looking as diverse, vibrant and colourful as the region that produces it. Says Jel, “The other islands being unique to themselves, they bring a certain sound that wasn’t existent in the so-called commercial soca that Trinidad normally has.”

As we approach the end of the year, many Bajan and small island soca artists are readying themselves to perform their 2019 singles for the new year and hopefully some new features and collaborations will come through records soca lovers already know and love. Through seeing how they maneuver around the carnival, it provides some insight into how the smaller strains of soca work in tandem with the more recognized sounds from Trinidad to create an expansive genre of music.

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