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The Soca Mafia

By Terry Joseph
February 04, 2005

As we gear up for tonight's International Soca Monarch decider, tomorrow's Panorama championship and Sunday's final of the National Calypso competition, discussion about the role of radio in promulgating indigenous music will predictably return to centre-stage.

At Dimanche Gras, audiences will be treated to 26 traditional calypsos, the majority of which most Trinis probably never heard before, whereas the 27 Soca Monarch songs will likely be well-known selections patrons can sing along and dance to, having heard them almost incessantly on radio.

Why defending Soca Monarch, Bunji Garlin's work enjoys high radio rotation while his traditional-calypso counterpart, Chalkdust, rarely gets a spin is a subject of continuing speculation and often uninformed debate, loudly guided by those who least understand how the medium works and more so, what inspires music selection.

Complainants argue that only songs approved by the ubiquitous "Soca Mafia" are repeatedly played while hundreds are "frozen" in what composer Anthony "Lexo" Alexis colourfully describes as radio's "refrigerator". Lexo's collaborator, Len "Boogsie" Sharpe, has publicly lamented having to hire a DJ at his panyard just so players can familiarise themselves with the work.

The fact that their joint composition, "Trini Gone Wild", has catapulted the Woodbrook-based group to top ranking, that view shared by judges and audience alike after Phase II Pan Groove performed at the semis, should tell Messrs Alexis and Sharpe that radio play is not the defining element, an already flawed theory further devalued by the next two places in the standings, both of which were earned with unpopular calypsos.

The common suspicion, one of those dime-a-dozen conspiracy theories, involves this unseen "Soca Mafia", which approves airing of some songs and blocking of others, presumably on a basis similar to that used by organised crime to advance ominous agendas, "The Family" meeting nightly, planning the demise of selected soca songs, spreading word through a nefarious network, conscripting DJs to the cause; failure to comply incurring severe pain or death.

Now, there is something to be said about coincidence, like when musicians hired to accompany all singers at the recent Battle of the Sexes show abandoned the stage just as KMC was ready to perform or, at Tuesday's qualifier of the King of Carnival/Junior Queen, when every other road march contender was played several times and KMC's "First Experience", though extremely popular, did not enjoy a single spin during the nearly four hours of DJ music played.

Indeed, it was difficult to avoid thinking some person or group had taken a conscious decision to avoid playing "First Experience", even if it meant airing Iwer's "Ease the Tension", Shurwayne Winchester's "Dead or Alive", Machel Montano's "We Not Giving Up" and a couple of Destra's aspirations with annoying frequency. The omission was not only noticed by quiet observers but triggered general audience murmur well before the show's half-way mark.

Radio is, however, a distinctly different consideration. Owing its existence to advertising revenue, the medium is guided by client demands. If a fete promoter believes the purchase of several blocs of air-time will enhance ticket sales, he proceeds to do exactly that and the next half-hour is being brought to you by the wonderful people at Blazing Soca or Licensing Fete.

Quite naturally, the promoter (often an entrepreneur with no other connection to the agency under whose aegis the fete is being staged) is interested in little else but returns on investment and wishes to convince the partying public that his slate of performers is the best available for that night's money. He therefore becomes executive producer of the radio show, dictating which songs should be played exclusively.

And since the same group of guest artistes appear on just about every playbill on the party circuit, it stands to reason their songs will be the only music heard during advertorial-type promotion of the particular event.

Clearly, the promoter cannot encourage competing soca singers to be heard during time bought for furtherance of his fete and so the same songs are played over and over during drive time.

The listening public therefore becomes familiar with these songs, primarily through repetition and when DJs ask callers for their choices, selection is inevitably limited to those enjoying highest rotation.

Based on requests arrived at by this process, the station's programming manager takes it to mean those songs enjoy widespread public approval and even when there is no bloc time constraint, instructs that they be regularly played.

Music providers at parties, wishing to be considered at the top of their game, then play the same songs, given their perceived popularity among radio's listenership.

For much the same combination of reasons, soca bands learn only those songs and set up their own little competition to determine who best plays them in live performance, adding exciters to achieve the edge; making the same catalogue of songs even more popular.

Since this chain of events won't be broken anytime soon, if traditionalists want to hear their preferred music on radio and with equal regularity, they must be similarly inventive and not rely on conspiracy theories or, for that matter, breaking kneecaps.

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