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The soca train

By Terry Joseph
September 10, 2004

Up here in New Jersey, USA, the name Kevin Lyttle fully represents soca music at every level -from the ghettos of Newark to Princeton University-with nary a mention of Trinidad and Tobago anywhere, except for chuckled comments on CNN's consistent mis-spelling of its name in charting the course of Hurricane Ivan.

Last Tuesday's New York Post lauded the debut performance of the NYPD Steel Orchestra at Brooklyn's Labour Day carnival parade, relying on Haitian-born music star Wyclef Jean for exclusive critique of the band's performance, sparing just a few paragraphs for an event that, by consensus of all newspapers in the tri-state area, attracted more than two million spectators.

Neither situation would have been allowed to continue were rock or reggae music involved, custodians of those art-forms forever vigilant and straining at the bit to spread information about their origins and history, whether it be through formal diplomatic intervention, lower-level lobbying, paid advertisements or each "homie'' merely shouting the merits at the top of his or her lungs.

But given the obvious preference of successive governments for dismissive treatment of affairs concerning Trinidad and Tobago's indigenous arts, such issues may never enjoy serious priority, as has clearly been the case with the future of the  International Soca Monarch competition.

This is doubly troubling and even appears conspiratorial, when one considers it was Government who officially bastardised soca in the first place by exclusively supporting proponents of traditional calypso; buying into the knee-jerk 1970s theory that the new hybrid would trivialise traditional calypso to the point of extinction.

Soca has meanwhile not only grabbed the spotlight locally and internationally but itself spawned several lucrative downstream products in chutney-soca, ragga-soca and parang soca and even exhumed a dead Carnival staple, Brassorama, turning it into the Brass Festival, now boasting patronage second to only the International Soca Monarch Final.

Indeed, on the international scene, it is soca-not traditional calypso-that is being talked about on network music television channels and mainstream radio. In the sum, the soca train has been the vehicle that most successfully took our music to new destinations.

Ironically, calypso judges continued to favour traditionalists at the expense of emerging variations, as first evidenced at Dimanche Gras 1974 when everyone but the panel approved Shadow's "Bassman'' and "I Come Out to Play'', only to see Sparrow win with "Miss Mary'' and "We Pass That Stage'', both among his most lame songs ever but each fitting the conventional template.

Granted, the 30-year interim has delivered a lot of truly trite soca music, some of it embarrassingly inane but the same period also witnessed a large number of spectacularly forgettable traditional calypsoes. Not for the same set of reasons, few among us can today sing any verse or chorus of this year's top three and while this is not a critique of the integrity of those works, it is an unassailable measure of popular tastes.

Reality is that soca has overtaken the role of calypso rooted in fundamental mid-20th century style. At that time, calypso, the preferred dance music of the day, was entirely appropriate to the period's carnival costuming. At that time, the flourish and sashay of Henry VIII and Mary Queen of Scots made for a perfect fit.

But we cannot today seriously believe that, on stage, contemporary winers, in bands of significantly altered size and internal configuration, would find the original tempo of vintage calypso in sync with their core purpose. It may be all as simple as recognising the most clichéd appreciation of evolution-times have changed.

Those who argue for retention of tradition are free to do so, although their support has amounted to little more than lip service if we are to judge by latter-day patronage at calypso tents and the dwindling clientele of masquerade bands that continue to favour authentic costuming over fantasy presentations.

If the State sees itself as facilitating production of our national festival and by the same opportunity overtly excludes soca from its primary considerations, it too will soon be presiding over an event of diminishing returns, as is already evidenced by continuing audience attrition at Dimanche Gras, Carnival's static centrepiece.

Since the Tourism and Industrial Development Company (Tidco), a State agency, began streaming live coverage of selected Carnival events on the Internet in 2001, the International Soca Monarch Final has consistently topped the global "hit'' parade, which should be some kind of message to those with the authority to include this event on the schedule of Government-funded festival activities.

In the circumstances, the State might wish to revisit its thinking about direct involvement with this event and not let the soca locomotive merely chug-along or become extinct merely on the premise it was created by private enterprise. Given the overwhelming popularity of the Soca Monarch competition, arguments about which night it should be staged or where are equally thin.

Clearly, as both a festival marketing tool and an engine for the merriment soca has served us better than any other single element of Carnival and should enjoy commensurate respect, unlike those other trains, however hardy, that have been left to ruin or reduced to pitiful relics.

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