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Please Explain: Soca and Carnival in Trinidad and Tobago

The music genre known as soca is slowly making inroads into popular culture, all with recent collaborations of artistes who’ve been pushing the genre and internationally acclaimed music duo Diplo and Jillionaire of Major Lazer, who’ve taken interest in it. Already, you may have taken a liking to a song that’s becoming familiar here in the US- “Differentology” sung by a Trinidadian artiste Bunji Garlin. The Major Lazer remixed version of that soca track, which rocked the island during last year’s Carnival, has been taking the world by storm with Bunji even winning a Soul Train music award for Best International Performance with it. Since that time, there have been two other Major Lazer influenced soca tracks released—another by Bunji Garlin called, “It’s a Carnival,” and the second with Machel Montano called, “Sound Bang.” Both tracks have been enjoying airplay in Trinidad and Tobago and it’s likely that they’ll each receive love from audiences worldwide as they continue to be promoted.


Now, with Carnival 2014 in full swing in Trinidad and Tobago, soca season is upon us. As the festival in itself is a natural attraction to many foreigners across the globe, and with thousands heading down to the Caribbean metropolis of Port-of-Spain, we thought it’d be a good time to give some insight into the sound that’ll be heard in every nook and cranny on the island during the Carnival period.


Machel Montano performs during Carnival 2011, Credit: Getty Images


Some might say without soca, there’d be no Carnival and they might be on to something. Realistically though, Trinidad and Tobago’s carnival comprises a lot of elements, and soca music and the artistes who deliver the genre in slow and fast tempos, dubbed Groovy and Power respectively, are just one aspect of the fun. Soca music stems from the original carnival music of T&T, that being calypso music, which is of a much slower tempo and laced with lyrics that often tell a story or highlight issues related to the political landscape of the country. Calypso artistes (called calypsonians) like Sparrow, Calypso Rose, Kitchener, Denyse Plummer, Stalin and others have paved the way for the young artistes of today like Machel Montano, Destra Garcia, Bunji Garlin and up and comers, Erphaan Alves and K Rich. And while Calypso is still a major part of the carnival festival and a thread of Trinidad and Tobago’s culture, the younger genre, soca, is undeniably making a tremendous impact across the globe, especially with the advent of Trinidadian style carnivals in major cities across the world.


Over the years, one of T&T’s main soca players, coined the Taipan of Soca, Machel Montano, has introduced the genre to many international acts, through collaborations with the likes of Busta Rhymes, Shaggy, Pitbull, Doug E Fresh, Wyclef Jean and even Walker Hornung among others. Machel’s efforts make him a revered entertainer in the Caribbean and in Caribbean communities across the world. Other soca artistes have followed suit, doing what they can to take the genre that exudes a feeling of ecstasy and excitement, passion and sweetness, to music lovers across the globe.


The sound of soca music is unique and while some may say it offers elements of house and techno beats, the soca melody is undeniably indigenous to Trinidad and Tobago. Over the years the soca genre has somewhat evolved, in a bid by producers and artistes to make it more marketable to foreign listeners, and it has worked. But truth be told, soca’s innate sweetness remains a constant, and it is that constant that keeps locals in tuned to the music, despite its evolution.




In the lead up to the actual two days of carnival, Monday and Tuesday, when masqueraders dance in the streets of the capital city Port-of-Spain, there are numerous events that create the carnival vibe, introducing many newcomers to the traditions of the island and Caribbean culture. At these events, soca music and, to some degree, calypso music can be heard in all its glory.


Fetes or carnival parties make up a substantial part of the season. In the past decade or so, the feting dynamic has evolved from big public fetes to an abundance of all-inclusive fetes that provide patrons with drinks, food and live entertainment after paying a fee. The ambiance that’s provided comes at a much higher cost than the regular public fetes such as Fire Fete, Army Fete and WASA Fete, however some fetters prefer the all-inclusive parties, saying they offer a higher level of security and are sometimes less rough when it comes to the crowd movement. Some of the all-inclusive fetes that have captured the hearts of patrons over the years are Soca In Moka, QRC All Inclusive, Bishops All Inclusive, Yorke’s All Inclusive and Tribe Ignite.


Revelers at Lime Fete Carnival 2011, Photo Credit: Getty Images/Sean Drakes/CON


This isn’t to say that the public fetes should be sidelined. In fact, one of the biggest fetes for Carnival each year is Army Fete, held at the Queen’s Park Savannah and boasting crowds in excess of five thousand annually. The public fetes usually start at 9 pm and end at 4 am and it is at these fetes that most of the season’s artistes can be found, all on one stage. The energy experienced at the public fetes is second to none. Many would agree that this is where the traditional carnival vibe can be experienced. Fetters or party goers attending these events don proper feting gear—sneakers, shorts, t-shirts or similar garments—making it easy for them to jump up, wave flags and gyrate their bodies to the music till dawn. At these fetes, the artistes too, seem to free themselves of all inhibition, often relaying their true feelings to their audience who heartily cheer them on, offering that much needed crowd response that the entertainers look for.


At public fetes it’s never strange to see an artiste climb atop erected scaffolding or, in the case of Fay-Ann Lyons-Alvarez, surf the crowd atop the cover of a cooler or a piece of ply board that has been brought to her by her adoring fans. Lyons-Alvarez, known for doing this during her performances, is also known as the silver surfer.


All-inclusive events on the other hand usually offer patrons an opportunity to mingle and show off their sense of style. Ladies often show up to these fetes wearing high-heel shoes and the most fashionable looks, their faces enhanced with makeup and their outfits accessorized with beautiful jewelry. And, since the all-inclusive feting has a tendency to begin before nightfall, fetters are able to pose for photos taken by what could be considered the local paparazzi—photographers who work for the many websites covering Caribbean entertainment. The all-inclusive means lots of eating and drinking, with a smorgasbord of dishes offered to attendees. From Chinese cuisine to creole and Middle Eastern dishes and Indian delicacies, patrons usually have their fill of food throughout the night, topping it off with refill after refill of their preferred beverage.


Musically, soca is enjoyed, sometimes coupled with rhythms provided by organized beat makers known as rhythm sections. All in all, the carnival energy is experienced at both fete types, but choosing which to attend is based on personal preference and financial status.



Carnival brings out the limer in everyone. Wondering what a lime is or who qualifies as a limer? Well, in Trinbagonian lingo, to lime basically means to hang out, so a limer is someone who simply hangs out. During carnival time, there’s a lime everywhere and some of the most notable places where a good lime can be enjoyed are at popular bars on Ariapita Avenue in Woodbrook and in St. James—somewhat of a hub for impromptu performances by impersonators of one kind or another.


From the moment a visitor arrives at the Piarco International Airport, the lime starts—especially if he’s greeted by a Trini. The lime can start at the airport’s outdoor bar and end up at Maracas Bay on that same day. The lime is an essential part of the Trinbagonian experience—carnival or not. There really isn’t too much to a successful lime. What’s key is good food, cold beers or alcoholic beverages of choice and cheerful company. And since a lime can be had anywhere from a friend’s backyard to the beach, to the street corner along Ariapita Avenue or the village bar in a rural location on the island, what’s essential is the freedom to express oneself while enjoying whatever is presented in the moment. It’s all about living in the moment.



When it comes to the music, whether calypso, the original music of carnival, soca, which was born out of Calypso, or the steelpan music that provides much entertainment at pan yards where bands practice their songs for the Panorama competition months in advance, the carnival music competitions are a staple to the festival. Annually, patrons look forward to the Dimanche Gras Calypso Monarch competition, which adjudicates the best calypsos of the season, the Panorama competition, which categorizes steel bands across the length and breadth of Trinidad and Tobago into small, medium and large bands and sees them vie against each other in their respective categories for Steelband champ of the year or the International Soca Monarch competition held on the Friday before Carnival Monday and Tuesday which brings the soca artistes all on one massive stage to compete for the Power and Groovy Soca Monarch titles.


Destra Garcia performs at Carnival 2011/Photo Credit: Getty Images/Sean Drakes/CON


The International Soca Monarch, now in its 22nd year is touted as the biggest soca showcase that can be found in any part of the world. Thousands flock to the National Stadium in Trinidad annually, to view and experience the showdown and the crowd experience can only be described as one of a kind. On Carnival Friday, referred to locally as Fantastic Friday, social status is thrown out the door and although there are now VIP and VVIP sections in this event, many from across the country and, of course, visitors from abroad, choose to take in the show from the general admission area where fans of the artistes, assemble to support to the fullest. Much like soccer, fans come out representing for the artistes whose music they enjoyed most all season long. Some wear t-shirts relaying the artistes names and the songs they will sing while others make big flags and arrive in crews, ready to let their voices be heard when the artiste they’re rooting for, takes the stage.


The competition gets underway with the Groovy Soca Monarch segment and sees approximately 10 artistes compete and this is followed by the Power Soca Monarch, which is usually pretty elaborate with artistes hitting the stage with props that can rage from dancers to, as in the case of Machel Montano in 2013, flying apparatuses. The Soca Monarch is the most anticipated event in Carnival and described as an international competition it is broadcast around the world by organizers on the night. A number of international celebrities have been invited to the event over the years. In 2014, actors, Anthony Anderson, Boris Kodjoe, Nicole Ari Parker and Tahiry Jose will be a part of the event.



The highlight of Carnival is the parade of the masquerade bands through the streets, however before that, in the wee hours of Carnival Monday morning, J’ouvert takes center stage. Powder, mud, oil, chocolate and paint are all elements of the early morning masquerade as some choose to play “dirty mas.” On J’ouvert morning, many parade in costume, often impersonating politicians or other persons of interest and creating parodies of their images. Bearing signs with proper description, these persons are mimicked and there’s even a competition for that.


Revellers at the J'ouvert festival Carnival 2013, Photo Credit: Getty Images/Sean Drakes/CON


Many, however, stay away from the J’ouvert competition, opting instead to enjoy the freedom of the early morning movement through the streets in a band of their choice. Popular bands like Red Ants, Bubble Bath and Chocolate City have capitalized on this and offer all-inclusive enjoyment for thousands. Meanwhile, there are some soca songs that are created specifically for the J’ouvert experience. This year, soca artiste Shurwayne Winchester joined forces with well known J’ouvert makers, 3Canal on a song called “Tang Tang,” which is a J’ouvert anthem in every sense of the word. J’ouvert is truly a part of T&T’s carnival experience that one must partake in, to truly understand. It is a part of the festival that takes masqueraders from darkness into dawn and sunlight, as it usually comes to an end by 10am, when the parade of the bands on Carnival Monday begins.


By 12 noon on Carnival Monday, the streets of capital city, Port-of-Spain are alive with the sound of soca music blaring from speakers mounted on 40 foot trucks. Behind these trucks, masqueraders move to the beat of the popular songs of the season, sipping on cold alcoholic beverages and wining (dancing in a gyrating motion) to the beats they hear, with their friends and even strangers they will meet for the very first time. The expressions seen on the faces of masqueraders explain just what Carnival means to the true carnival lover—the passion it evokes and the sense of freedom to live that emanates. Bands like Tribe, Island People, Legacy, Fantasy, Harts, Ronnie and Carro and countless others entertain thousands on the two days of Carnival, most of them being provided with free food and drinks since bands now provide the all-inclusive experience for their masqueraders.


MTV Iggy spoke with soca heavyweight, Bunji Garlin recently and he said the spirit of carnival is a free and reveling spirit. “It is carefree and joyous—an entity that isn’t bound by the shackles of race and class,” he said, continuing, “She (carnival) welcomes all and favors none as her energy moves from one person to another without discrimination.”



Soca again comes into focus on these two days. The song envisioned by DJs and the masqueraders they play for on the road as the best song to dance to on those two days, will essentially vie for the Road March title. This song is usually a powerful one, laced with words that encourage the masquerader to move, jump, wave their hands and flags and certainly gyrate their bodies. Dressed mostly in bikinis decorated to perfection with feathers, beads, sequins and other ornaments of beauty, men and women of carnival enjoy this time of year where their inhibitions are thrown out the door and every creed and race is able to smile, laugh and party together as one.


Bunji told us that his very first carnival experience was in the year 1999, the year he broke onto the soca scene in T&T. He said it was an incredible feeling to absorb all that he was seeing around him in one moment, explaining that while he lived some distance from the capital city where all the excitement of carnival celebrations would take place, prior to his first experience, he had been a neighbor of the festivities. “The first taste was like finding the missing piece to my puzzle,” he ended.


Artistes like Bunji Garlin, his wife, Fay-Ann Lyons, Machel Montano, Blaxx, Denise Belfon, Destra Garcia and others, and the soca music they sing are indeed an integral part of the Carnival experience. Trinidad and Tobago’s carnival, described as the mecca of all carnivals, is an experience that mimics no other. It is only on this island, the home of soca, calypso and steelpan that freedom can be felt in a way that many can hardly ever describe.



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