Whenever the Caribbean or “the West Indies” are mentioned, the first thoughts that come to the mind are: Jamaica, the beach, Pirates of the Caribbean, and so forth. But what if I told you that there is more to it than what meets the eye (or ear!) when it comes to The Caribbean? Indeed, there are even more music genres out there than just reggae and dancehall alone!
[ Soca Kingdom - Machel Montano x Superblue, 2018 ]
The Caribbean is one of the most culturally and racially diverse regions in the world. Besides being home to many different languages and dialects, the Caribbean is also where you can find some of the most diverse cuisine, and a surprisingly rich history. However, in this article I will mainly be discussing music, in particular: soca music. Just like reggae, dancehall, and other lesser-known Caribbean genres, soca is one of the many genres born out of the widely diverse Caribbean culture.
Soca music is a genre created through fusion of many musical elements. Its influences range from West-African and East-Indian rhythms to calypso and zouk. Soca is a genre that originated in the ‘70s in Trinidad & Tobago, and was created by Garfield Blackman (a.k.a. “Lord Shorty”, later “Ras Shorty I”). He is also known as the "Father of Soca", a once famous artist in the Caribbean before he passed in the year 2000. His goal when this genre was created was to revive the calypso genre among the youth, as it was losing popularity and found itself on the verge of dying out. Soca (originally spelled sokah), stands for the “soul of calypso” and got its modern-day terminology during an interview with “Lord Shorty” in 1976. However, in an interview in 1979 with Carnival Magazine the “Father of Soca” clarified that soca was not the original way the genre’s name was spelled.
[ Differentology (Ready Fi Di Road) - Bunji Garlin, 2013 ]
When discussing soca it is crucial to know certain terminology so that you are able to keep up with the conversation. Instead of saying “song”, a lot of Caribbean natives use the words “tune”. A “fete” is a word we use to describe a party, usually with Soca and other tropical genres being played, so if you hear someone say: “I goin to di fete”, it means “I’m going to the party”. When Caribbean people dance, we “wine”, “bruk it down” or “jump & wave”. These are words to describe some of the various movements that people make when listening to one of the many tropical genres.
Soca, like most genres, is a genre that has gained quite a number of sub-genres known to the soca community. To illustrate, there is “power soca”, “groovy soca” and “ragga soca”. Of course, there are more sub-genres out there, but these are some of the most popular ones in the Caribbean (although it differs depending on the island). Ragga soca is a sub-genre that consist of a blend of Jamaican music elements (from genres such as dancehall and reggae) with calypso and soca elements. One common theme of this sub-genre is something that is referred to in the Caribbean as “chanting”, which is used in this context as a word that describes how Jamaican artist artistically deliver their lyrics (also known as “DJ-ing”).
[ Get Something and Wave - Super Blue, 1991 ]
Power soca is a sub-genre that is very fast-paced, energetic and usually contains instructional lyrics, basically telling you how to dance the song. A common theme among power soca songs is crowd emotions. The crowd’s reaction to these kinds of songs are the key to a hit performance. When performing these kinds of songs, it is to be noted that soca artist are very often seen motivating their audience to do all kinds of exciting dance moves or motions. Groovy soca in comparison to power soca is a very laid-back sub-genre, it’s the type of music that you can dance with or without a partner either slowly or sensually, depending on the theme and contents of the song.
When we talk about soca, one must not forget to discuss some of the biggest names in the genre. Bunji Garlin is the man who has been dubbed as “The King of Ragga Soca” by the Soca community. The reason for this is his unorthodox approach to the Soca genre. By incorporating Jamaican music elements into his song, including his catchy lyrics and rough vocals, he has been able to develop hits like Differentiology and Famalay. Superblue is a legendary calypsonian and soca artist in the eyes of most of the soca community. He’s from Trinidad & Tobago and also one of the pioneers of the power soca sub-genre since 1991 with his hit Get Something & Wave.
[ Too Young to Soca - Machel Montano live at Dimanche Gras 1986 ]
Machel Montano is an artist who has been on the music scene for a while now. This a man who from a young age rose to fame, first in his country (and the Caribbean) and then later on in the rest of the world with his music. He is currently one of the most famous soca artist in the world. He is known for his energetic performances and diversity of his music. He is not only one of the pioneers of modern day Soca music, but he is also currently one of the most internationally recognized active soca artist out there. He has a wide catalogue of songs, for instance Epic, Vibes Cyah Done and Too Young To Soca are just a few in his wide category of well-known songs.
Last but not least, the one thing these artists all have in common is that they have all participated in and won at least once in an International Soca Monarch competition, or won the title of Road March (a road march is a song that is played the most frequent during the carnival period). We won’t go into all the different types of International Soca competitions today, because there are many variations of this competitions all over the Caribbean (as it often varies per island), but it should however be noted that these happen to be some of the biggest competitions and events in the Caribbean and the competition is often fierce. The artists perform in front of large crowds and are judged by a panel of judges. It should also be mentioned that one of the biggest International Soca Monarch competitions are held yearly in Trinidad & Tobago.
[ Run Wid It - Mr. Killa | International Soca Monarch Finals 2019 Winner Trinidad & Tobago Carnival ]
As someone who has a Jamaican parent and grew up on the Caribbean Island of Aruba with family in most of the region, it was not difficult to get into the genre and groove to Soca music and other genres from an early age. The fact that my parents had a very diverse taste in music also helped with that. Soca music in general is often associated with Carnival season and Carnival is a big part of Caribbean culture, even though it is only for a certain period in the year. However, soca music is played throughout the year in many of the islands. Even though we have come to the end of this blog I hope I was able to give you a good insight of several aspects of the genre and maybe even motivated you a little bit to go and give it a try!