Trinidad and Tobago

Terry's beach banner

Soca signals

By Terry Joseph
November 11, 2005

Until now, conflicting signals typified soca, its creator Lord Shorty using a platform of calypso and chutney rhythms firstly to heckle homosexuality ("For Kim" - 1973), then next year for the uplifting lyrics of "Om Shanti", later deepening his spirituality in "Watch Out, My Children" (1977) and, in the tradition of the newly converted, chastising colleagues who used his beat to celebrate the female bottom ("Sugar Bum Bum" -1978).

In the long interim, soca has meandered through its own self-discovery process, touching on topics various, from religious to risqué, supernatural to sensuous, forming hybrids with parang and chutney and of late, embracing dancehall and hip-hop themes, including applying gangsta-style values in identifying heroes; that approach getting a definitive thumbs-down from mature conservative listeners apparently afflicted by memory-loss.

Soca, some among them persist, signalled the death of memorable calypso music, those detractors forever citing the genre's low-end or disposable submissions, deliberately avoiding mention of titles like "Productivity" by Tobago Crusoe, David Rudder's "Song For a Lonely Soul" or lyrics and music from Winsford "Joker" Devine's extensive catalogue, which includes the likes of "Progress", "In Time to Come", "Tell Me Why" and "Sailing" - to really name just a few.

Calypso, from which soca largely sprung, has meanwhile produced more than a few irresponsible and politically incorrect statements, its much-touted vintage index especially dismissive of women (Sparrow's "Keep the City Clean"), shooting down West Indian integration a la Warlord Blakie's "Send Them Back" and proffering irrational frontier solutions to the crime problem from as far back as 1959, as evidenced in Caruso's road-march of that year, "Run the Gunslingers".

To be sure, traditional calypso has also delivered its own bag of irreplaceable gems, including parallel and indeed positive portraits of Trinidad, even waxing satirical in response to lawlessness, as per Lord Superior's "Crime Does Pay" (1956) but since Kitchener's knee-jerk anti-soca crusade of the early 1970s, the genre has taken an unfair bashing and much of it from people who should know better and critically, those properly positioned to advance its cause; the Government heading the thoroughly uninformed group of those who still scoff at soca music.

Continued shoring up by the State of orthodox calypso is now well past the stage of preserving heritage or any other noble ideal Government might desperately invoke in defence of flinging more and more money into the element of Carnival music that, with each passing season, is being appreciated less and less. The State has now taken to giving substantial financial support to calypso tents, even as patronage declines to unprecedented numbers.

Ironically, soca, which drives the national festival, is treated with a level of contempt rescued only by late receipt of pittance, accompanied by disproportionate trumpeting of State involvement, while funding the continuing attempt to unabashedly impose the traditional style on today's generation which, with equal determination, has resisted it in favour of festival songs; another signal Government should heed.

Last Monday's signal by some of this country's top soca acts, in which reigning International Soca Monarch Bunji Garlin, twice-time and reigning national road march monarch, Shurwayne Winchester and headliners Maximus Dan, Ataklan and Kees Dieffenthaller, albeit moved by thoroughly unpleasant circumstances, attended the funeral of "Little Billy" Danglade, victim of a senseless killing is perhaps soca's strongest expression to date of collective and individual disgust at crime in general.

To say, in that same context, that Bunji Garlin is "changing his tune" and so soon after last Carnival's blockbuster "Blaze It", which denounced latter-day banditry with much the same intensity as Cro Cro's "Hang Them High", or to have disregarded last year's "Desperado" and even earlier in his career, the chilling commentary on "Rape" is to perpetuate the myth about new-wave soca singers committing social mischief or parading irresponsibility at every sequence.

On both sides of the calypso coin there always will be the good, bad and ugly. Soca has no monopoly on distasteful lyrics or monotonous music and even if it descended into an exclusively banal zone or jam and wine for its own sake, there is no likelihood that orthodox calypso will ever regain its former custody of Carnival fetes or on-the-road revelry.

And now that soca singers have sent their strongest signal yet, coming together to help fight crime, somebody in senior authority, holder of the State's purse-strings, even, should sit up and take notice of the next wave, rather than standing on an increasingly deserted beach waiting for the old ship to come in.

Trinicenter / Terry's Homepage