Grooving to Soca
By COREY CONNELLY Sunday, February 2 2014
Bunji Garlin’s success in winning the Best International Performance title in the 2013 Soul Train Awards for his monster hit, Differentology, last December, is perhaps, the highest accolade — local or foreign —that has been paid to soca since its inception, more than four decades ago.
Soon after the announcement of Garlin’s win, soca artiste Kes Dieffenthaller, aware of the magnitude of the victory, hailed the award as the dawn of a new era.
“Let’s continue to inspire a generation to dream beyond the so-called limits and be great,” Dieffenthaller, lead singer of Kes The Band, posted via social media.
Another soca star, Machel Montano, who had also been nominated in the same category as Garlin in the Soul Train awards, posted similar sentiments.
“Massive congratulations to Bunji Garlin on copping the Soul Train award tonight! Well deserved!!! Big Respect to take soca to the world,” said Montano, one of the veterans in the arena.
Indeed, Garlin’s success has signalled a major breakthrough for both local and regional soca artistes at a time when the genre appears to be fast reaching its pinnacle.
Within the past two decades, soca has received wholehearted acceptance, particularly among a younger generation, who have gravitated towards it largely because of its pulsating sound and party appeal.
But when exactly did soca penetrate the nation’s consciousness? And how did it appear to have secured such a permanent place in the psyche of party-goers over the years?
South-based calypsonian Francis Adams, otherwise known as Tallish, credits late musician Ras Shorty I (Garfield Blackman) as being the pioneer of soca music, locally.
In fact, a Wikipedia search also names Ras Shorty I as “The Father of Soca.” Ras Shorty I died in July 2000 from multiple myeloma, a form of bone marrow cancer.
“Many people have taken credit for soca but Shorty was the man who started it,” Adams said in a telephone interview on Wednesday.
Adams, who currently sings with the Kaiso Showcase Tent in San Fernando, a lifelong friend and associate of Shorty and whose daughter calypsonian Lady Tallish (Francelia Adams-Jackson) is Shorty’s god-daughter, recalled that in the 1970’s, Shorty, then a well-travelled man, had begun experimenting with soca rhythms in Trinidad and Tobago following a visit to the United States. Adams could not remember the song’s title but recalled that it did not receive a favourable response from patrons during a show in Fyzabad.
“He took that bawl down with fanfare,” Adams said of Shorty’s disposition after observing the response of patrons. “But, I cried when he get that bawl down.”
Shorty later performed the same selection at the Sparrow’s Young Brigade on Wrightson Road, Port-of-Spain, to a similar response.
“He (Shorty) said the song was successful in the US, but here it was not a hit but a mistake,” Adams recalled.
The following Carnival season, Adams said Shorty composed a tune called “Endless Vibrations,” which also did not initially win the approval of fans and those in the calypso fraternity.
“The late Maestro (Cecil Hume) and Stalin (Leroy Caliste) did not like it. Even I did not even like it. People said he was spoiling calypso,” Adams said.
Shorty, who had loved the song, disregarded the views of his critics but still went to the US to enhance its music, Adams said.
“Shorty was a pig-headed man and when he wants something, nobody could change his mind,” he said.
Adams said when Shorty returned to Trindad and performed “Endless Vibrations” in the Young Brigade “the response he got was different.”
He recalled: “When he sang that song, he received about 15 encores that Carnival season and I remember him telling me backstage after the show that he had revolutionised the music in Trinidad and Tobago.”
By the time Shorty returned to his home in south Trinidad, the following morning, his wife had already heard the news that “he mash up Port-of-Spain,” Adams said.
But while patrons welcomed the song, calypsonians at that time scoffed at the new sound “Endless Vibrations offered.”
“Even Kitchener (Aldwyn Roberts) had accused Shorty of spoiling calypso,” Adams recalled.
Encouraged by the response of fete lovers, Shorty later blended calypso with local chutney using instruments such as the sitar, dholak, dhantal and tabla to create, “Indrani” and “Shanti Om”, both of which have are classics.
Adams said several performers who could not sing authentic calypso, gravitated to the new sound Shorty introduced and did well.
On the development of soca over the years, Adams said the young people were now taking the industry to new dimensions.
“I love Machel (Montano). I love Bunji (Garlin). We have to love what they are doing,” he said, alluding to the latter’s Soul Train Award..
But arranger Pelham Goddard, while heartened by Garlin’s success, says he is hoping for an even greater victory for soca: The Grammys.
“But to reach the Grammys the music has to have a certain quality,” he said.
With over four decades in the field of arranging and producing music, Goddard has worked with some of the leading names in the soca and calypso arena.
In SuperBlue’s (Austin Lyons) heyday as an entertainer, Goddard had taken him to more than six “Road March victories,” including Soca Baptist”, “Rebecca”, “Ethel”, “Bacchanal Time”, Get Something and Wave and Ah Feeling To Wine On Something.
Veteran calypsonians Slinger Francisco (Sparrow), McCartha Lewis (Calypso Rose), David Rudder and former soca artiste Chris “Tambu” Herbert are among a slew of local entertainers who have also benefitted from Goddard’s expertise.
According to Goddard, who also regarded Shorty as the innovator of soca, attention was paid to nuances in sound in the early days of the artform.
However, he lamented that soca, to a large extent, was now watered down with a one-track focus on wine and jam, with little musical input.
“The appeal when it first started to now is different. Right now, Bunji is probably different from the rest of them. I never hear Bunji singing a ‘wine on a bumper’ song. I don’t know how long this will go on,” he said.
The prolific arranger also complained about the vulgarity in the music videos that accompany soca songs.
“These little children that they have wining in videos, are they getting paid?” he asked. “It is very ridiculous. When soca started it was never like that.”
Goddard referred to Merchant’s, “Dr”, and Rose’s “Going Down San Fernando” as two vintage selections that were devoid of “wine and jam.”
“It is as though the lyrics are stagnant and the vocabulary in composing, cheap,” he said of the crop of soca tunes with recent years.
Goddard also complained about the quality of the music in soca today.
“When it started, you had baseline, keyboard, synthesiser, but now you only have rhythm, a little keyboard and voice.
“That is what we getting for soca,” he said, adding that the decline in the music was also reflective of the general decay in the society with respect to crime and other issues.
Goddard attributed the development to the continued influence of international music, particularly hip-hop.“Look, the music stores don’t even sell brass instruments. You cannot even get a trumpet,” he claimed. “If this continues, we will be in some serious trouble.”
Two-time Road March winner, Ronnie Mc Intosh, has been involved in music and culture for as long as he could remember.
His father, Art De Coteau was a musical arranger and from the age of seven, Mc Intosh began fraternising with big names in the calypso arena.
“I remember Maestro, Kitchener, Duke (Kelvin Pope), coming to our home and I used to be in the middle of them as a kid,” he said on Friday.
Mc Intosh, who admits that he had no formal training in music, debuted on the soca scene with the tune, “Happy”, in 1988. He quickly developed a knack for entertaining and went on to serve in the frontline of Shandileer and Blue Ventures, two top bands during the 1980s and 1990s.
Mc Intosh, whose popular contributions include, “Ent” and “How It Go Look”, said he had pursued a soca career because of his love for entertaining. He observed, however, that the music had changed since he first came on the scene.
“It has lost a small percentage of the foundation but I don’t want to comment too much on that. Anyway, they say change is inevitable,” he said.
After a hiatus of several years, Mc Intosh returns to soca this year and has already made it to the semi-finals of the International Soca Monarch competition, which will be held at the Arima Velodrome on February 9.
He said his guest performance at last year’s Soca Mcompetition rekindled his love for the stage.
“I had done Soca Monarch in tribute to the classics and I saw a number of new faces singing some of my older songs. I just felt comfortable on the stage all over again,” Mc Intosh said of the experience.
Expected to sing, “We Bringing It,’ he said he had not set out to re-enter the arena but was encouraged by several people to participate.
“It was like clockwork and I intend to bring my trademark vibe and energy to the scene. That has always been my purpose,” he said.
Founder of the International Soca Monarch and Groovy Soca Monarch competitions, Winston Munro, can relate to the “vibe and energy” of which Mc Intosh speaks. For more than two decades, he has showcased the talent of the region’s soca artistes through the forum of the Soca and Groovy monarch competitions.
“The music is appealing, innovative. You can go to a party and release those stress levels,” he said.
Munro, chairman of the Caribbean Prestige Foundation for the Performing Arts, recalled that soca used to be rejected outright in Dimanche Ghras shows when it had come into its own as an artform in TT.
“Remember when SuperBlue and others use to be in the finals of the Monarch competition, they used to come last all the time,” he recalled.
“And, I used to say, ‘listen to this lovely music that making people feel so happy in the Savannah. That was when I decided to give a forum to soca in 1993.”
He said there were some 400 entries in this year’s Soca Monarch competition.