Today is Carnival Monday in Trinidad. Tomorrow is Pancake Day in Britain. Those two basic facts speak volumes about the cultural differences between the two islands; one surrounded by the blue Caribbean Sea, the other by the grey North Sea. While we’re trying to get excited about how much lemon to squirt on our fried batter flops, Trinis are parading around their capital city dressed in next to nothing with some of the most distinctive sounds of the Caribbean ripping out of freshly waxed soundsystem trucks.
I thought 2014 was a vintage year for soca music – the national music of Trinidad and Tobago which incorporates calypso, soul, pop, afrobeat, alcohol, sex and good vibes - but Trinis who know better say 2015 is becoming the best year they’ve heard in ages. Over the weekend, the International Soca Monarch - basically the FA Cup of soca music - took place, and the top prize went to superstar Machel Montano. But it wasn't just about the winner, and the sheer range of sounds and lush production, combined with the exuberance of the songwriting, were evidential of a genre that is totally bursting with creativity right now.
For the last 2 weeks, we’ve been doing pieces about the culture of soca, from its colourful history to an eye witness account of carnival season. But now it’s time to close the curtains, turn up the central heating and grab yourself a pineapple juice, because these are this year’s biggest soca jams.
Machel Montano – “Like Ah Boss”
“Look, trouble now!” barks Machel Montano as the snare drum gets smashed to pieces, winding things up like a pirate radio MC. He is the undisputed prince of soca and this is why. The synth-splashed bars of “Like Ah Boss” sing and fizz like an orchestra of grasshoppers tuning up for a mad one; the backing singers sound like a Motown girl group; carnival whistles blow over the middle eight; and trombones, trumpets and saxophones scream out in triumphant schizophrenia. It’s a blistering, jazzy, ragtime stonker, produced by Deputy from Jay-Z’s Roc Nation stable (a New Yorker of Trini descent) and it sums up everything blissful about soca in three appetite-whetting minutes. In fact, it won the overall Soca Monarch title just 2 days ago, with this live performance, so if this song doesn't get you rowdy then you better check your pulse and go back to your tub of pancake mix.
Farmer Nappy feat. Alison Hinds – "In Trouble"
It’s worth nothing that among the hedonistic vibes of soca – and Trinidadian society generally – there’s a sardonic admission that it’s all a bit naughty. Is it a trace of Catholic guilt? Carnival culture is, after all, derived from the Christian tradition of a festival of excess before a period of fasting and self-reflection; Lent. So while Trinis obsess over big butts and love anecdotes of lust, adultery and dancing with the wrong guy/girl, they do it with a coy Carry On-style humour rather than the aggressive pride in eroticism one finds in Jamaican dancehall.
This Farmer Nappy track perfectly encapsulates that mock-confessional theme, dueting with the legendary London born soca queen Alison Hinds over the massive Patrol riddim.
Olatunji – "Ola"
Like the aforementioned Patrol, it’s common during carnival for one lucky producer’s riddim to go huge and become the foundation for loads of other tracks, as it is re-sculpted and written over by various different songwriters and producers. DJs then usually spin them back to back, so you can hear the same riddim evolving seamlessly with different fresh takes coming in over the top. This year, that was the Kan Kan riddim: an excitable West African inspired instrumental, and Olatunji’s interpretation of it was the first big hit of the 2015 Carnival season, winning the Groovy Soca Monarch title with this performance. Another artist, Benjai – latterly famous in Trinidad for basically getting his knob out onstage – also liked the beat and laid down a different composition over it which veers off into EDM before ending as a hands-up house track.
Destra – "Lucy"
Destra Garcia calls herself the Queen of Bacchanal, a word which in the old Roman sense meant an outrageously debauched party. In Trini dialect it can mean something similar – a hedonistic lime (party) where things get wassy (uninhibited; out of hand). And on “Lucy” - a chugging bass tune with a disco pace - she tells the tale of how she earned that title. Growing up as a “real good girl, always home, don’t go nowhere”, she changed as soon as she was introduced to carnival, becoming the kind of girl who “wines on top of a speaker box” and goes “wukkin” all over town. Trinis take great pride in precisely this kind of behaviour at carnival time - these aren’t shame-ridden confessions; they are straight up boasts.
Kes – "Million"
With his long dreads and boyish good looks, Kes Dieffenthaler is the poster boy of soca, but he’s also got a brash, give-no-fucks approach that’s made him an enduring character on the scene. Two of his many 2015 tracks demonstrate this versatility. “Million” is a jump-around track occupying the middle ground between power soca and groovy soca. “Bacchanal and a million gyal,” chants Kes, “jump up on the stage, jump up and just wave, jump and misbehave” - it’s not Wordsworth but wow it works. Major Lazer might strike you as just an international appropriation of soca culture, but they have also had a big effect regionally in the Caribbean, and “Million” shows how Kes and his crew have become way more ravey as a result.
Jo Jo – "Drum Roll"
Penned by her sister and mentor, Nadia Batson, “Drum Roll” is 22-year-old Jo Jo’s second release after last year’s debut "Shake Dat". Both tunes concern themselves with the same singular issue: moving your arse. It’s loud, proud, high-energy and basically an intensive glutes workout masquerading as music.
Kerwin Du Bois & Ravi B – "Overdoing It"
In 2014, Kerwin Du Bois – a prolific writer of soca songs for other artists – finally stepped out of the shadows and onto the road with several enormous hits including party stomper “Too Real” which won him the Soca Monarch crown. This year, Kerwin didn’t enter the competition to retain the title but he did pen this quirky little ditty with Ravi B, a big soca chutney star (chutney is the Indian contemporary music of Trinidad, combining Bhangra and Bollywood beats with Trini vibes.) “Overdoing It” bubbles under without ever really taking off, making it a tune for when the party is winding down – preferably at about 5am in a jacuzzi with a zoot in your hand and a head full of clouds.
Chucky – "Doh Take It On"
“Once you have alcohol and plenty gyal,” Chucky claims, you’ll feel your stresses ebbing away. It’s a time-honoured method of male bonding and unwinding in Trinidad and, hey, the Trini girls seem to concur so everyone’s happy, right? It’s a daft track with a cheeky calypso-beat sped up to satisfy the soca hordes on boat cruises, at beach parties and cooler fetes. “Doh Take It On” in Trini dialect means don’t worry, and you can hear the smile in Chucky’s voice as he sings, allowing the working week and your shitty office job to pale into insignificance for 48 hours. He sounds like the type of geezer who literally doesn’t give a shit about anything except rum and girls, and fair play to him. Someone has to.
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