Something About This Music: A Concise History of Soca

The history of soca music, much like the history of the Caribbean, is one of cultural fusions, of innovations, of celebrations and of a ticklish negotiation of foreign influences and nationalist concerns. Though the term is used as an overarching categorization of West Indian party music, it actually encompasses a multiplicity of genres coming out of the respective islands- each with its own distinctive sound. Nonetheless, a look at the history of soca as a movement would have to turn its focus to Trinidad and Tobago, the home of the word itself.

From its genesis during the time of plantation slavery, calypso music made its way as one of the foremost products of Creole (blended) culture. As calypsonians channeled the voice of the people, their art form became as a central part of life for the black underclass. By the early 1970s, however, many felt that calypso was reaching a state of senescence, and some even predicted its death. Behind the scenes, there were music minds exploring new approaches to the local sound, and Ras Shorty I (formerly known as Lord Shorty) was the one to give it a name. His mission was to refashion kaiso specifically by combining African and Indian sounds. By extension, Shorty hoped to bring unity between these ethnic groups in a racially balkanized post-Independence society. The product was what Shorty called ‘sokah’, the soul of calypso- with ‘kah’ also being the first letter of the Hindi alphabet. Through this new genre, he would combat the influence of foreign music like the reggae that had begun to overshadow calypso. In particular, sokah hoped to appeal to the younger generation of Trinbagonians, who were heavily invested in foreign music and felt a lack of connection to the music of the soil. 

Indrani from Ras Shorty I

In 1973, he recorded ‘Indrani’, which might be considered the very first sokah song. Ras Shorty I’s use of East Indian dholak was met with contention, as both ethnicities saw this experiment almost as an affront to the purity of their genres. He later opted to leave out the instruments themselves, but retain their rhythms to mimic them on the instruments conventionally used in calypso. 

While it was still in its early years, the word ‘soca’ went from being a typo in a newspaper article to becoming the standard spelling. All the while, other musicians tried their hand at this new sound- with Maestro’s ‘Savage’ and Lord Kitchener’s ‘Sugar Bum Bum’ being among the first to be recognized as having the sokah sound. 

Lord Kitchener’s Sugar Bum Bum

Just as there were different ‘brands’ of calypsos, so did soca follow on its heels with a different type of song for every reason and every season. Lyricists like The Mighty Sparrow were known for their suggestive calypsos dotted with extended metaphors and double entendres that cushioned the sexual themes. Likewise, there were soca songs like ‘Nani Wine’ by Crazy, which came in with the dancing beat and the somewhat ambiguous sensual undertones.  At the same time, soca had managed to articulate aspects of the human condition, commenting on social and political matters in ways similar to what calypso did, but with a quicker tempo. Black Stalin made this happen with tracks like ‘Bun Dem’, a politically charged soca song that called for the damning of historical villains from Columbus to Mussolini and the KKK. Even the ‘jump and wave’ songs had thematic concerns embedded in them, as did Blue Boy (aka Super Blue) in ‘Rebecca’, which spoke about the crack cocaine craze of the 1980s. 

Soca artistes responded to the state of the music market, taking into consideration that money was to be made from events more than anything else. As it grew along the trajectory of being party music, artistes mostly prioritized dancing instructions and invitations to make merry- as in Calypso Rose’s ‘Come Leh We Jam’. This focus on revelry rather than commentary might be thought of as a reflection of the younger generation’s interests- in the same way that symbolic carnival costumes were phased out for the preferences to ‘free up’ with bare skin and bikinis. In some regard, the main message became simply to enjoy life as you’d enjoy the music.

Come Leh We Jam by Calypso Rose

At each stage of its development, soca has drawn influence from other genres and cultures. All the while, Trinbagonians have upheld that there is such a thing as a ‘pure’ soca sound. This drove soca purists to protest the emergence of Ragga Soca in the 1990s, which subsumed the sounds of Jamaican dancehall that was making waves throughout the younger generation. The Ragga Soca Monarch ran for all of three years, but the genre persists in the music of Bunji Garlin and others. This was one of the hyphenated socas that survived despite the initial outrage; namely chutney-soca, soca-parang/parang-soca and gospel-soca. The party music coming out of the other Caribbean islands are mostly upbeat evolutions of their traditional genres, but have also adopted the soca surname in Dennery Soca from St Lucia, Bouyon Soca from Dominica and Bashment Soca from Barbados, Vincy Soca from St. Vincent and The Grenadines and the list goes on. Though the concept of Jamaican soca is relatively new and quite rare, the other islands have adopted the reggae/dancehall convention of the ‘riddim’, whereby several artistes will release different songs using the same track. The fight for airplay on the radio and in fetes is now between single releases as well as the chosen favourites from the same riddim. 

As the descendant of calypso’s slower melodies, soca has been traditionally known for its fast pace. From 2005, however, the International Soca Monarch competition has made the distinction between Power Soca-with more beats per minute- and Groovy Soca, with the more moderate tempo. In recent years, the production of power soca has dwindled- with much of the quicker songs actually coming out of Barbados, St. Lucia, St Vincent and Grenada in particular. Nevertheless, it remains a staple for the climax of mas- that is, the crossing of the stage in Port of Spain. Year after year, power soca takes the prize for the Carnival Road March- that is, the most played song at the judging points along the parade route. This came to the fore, particularly in 2019 when Kees Dieffenthaller’s ‘Savannah Grass’ failed to claim the title, despite being a crowd favourite for the season. Many felt that it was simply too groovy for the stage. The exception to this rule sits in the hybrid category of Power-Groovy, which takes a pace that is slightly slower than the usual power song, but slightly faster than the usual groovy. Ultimate Rejects’ copped the road march win by a landslide in 2017 with their power-groovy song, ‘Full Extreme‘.

The soca pioneers’ initial agenda included the objective to reach more international markets than calypso had. Indeed, the sounds have made waves in a globalized world, with Bunji Garlin’s ‘Differentology’ even winning a landmark Soul Train Award for Best International Performance in 2013. The fact remains, however, that soca abroad tends to stay predominantly within the diasporic circles- with most (if not all) major cities across the globe having their vibrant own soca subcultures. The ambitious artistes feel that more can be done. Some chalk it up to the sound, proposing that the complex rhythms are less palatable to the non-Caribbean ear. Perhaps as a response to this, or just a natural outcome of music experiments, the genre distinction has become further complicated with sounds like Afro-Soca and Island Pop. Even Machel Montano’s 2016 road march winner, ‘Waiting On The Stage’, is essentially an EDM song. Granddaughter of the Ras Shorty I, Nailah Blackman, is one artiste at the forefront of the movement, with a pop soca sound like no other, alongside Olatunji with a signature Afrobeat blend. With these developments, the same debates from soca’s early days have resurfaced, with some people arguing against the willingness to lean toward foreign influences- as they did with Ragga Soca.

Outside of these concerns of sound, some have found soca’s tragic flaw to be in its seasonality. The genre has inevitably been associated with carnival- to the point where some believe that it ought not to exist outside of the season. Each year there are comments (with varying levels of seriousness) about radio stations returning to ‘normal music’ on Ash Wednesday. Indeed, it has proven that soca releases are few and far between throughout the year. Erphaan Alves has tackled this head-on, with his ‘Soca Global’ mission through which he urges Trinbago’s artistes to release music, no matter the month and no matter the genre. At this point, the fight is still young, and there’s a long journey ahead in reversing the cultural ideas about local music. The future looks bright nonetheless, in the hands of young people who affirm that soca is bigger than carnival, and even bigger than the West Indian diaspora.

Machel Montano’s Waiting on the Stage

Another matter that has re-appeared in the contemporary discourse is the concern about foreign genres gaining favour over soca, even during the carnival season. In 2020, Trinbagonian dancehall was branded Trinibad Music, as the ‘zessing’ movement picked up a tailwind with artistes like Trinidad Ghost, K Lion and Rebel Sixx at the helm. The nebulous word ‘zess’ itself might even be tied to The Mighty Shadow’s 1978 soca/calypso album, ‘De Zess Man’, though the contemporary movement is based on ‘gunman tunes’ that are completely unlike this.

From 2019, the controversial songs had become so popular among partygoers, that many felt inclined to hear them in carnival fetes. DJs even resisted the tradition of exiling non-soca songs for the carnival months, and soca traditionalists were quite upset. Meanwhile, Trinidad Killa pulled the ultimate crossover move of releasing a zess-themed soca that proved wildly popular throughout the season. The most ironic plot twist came when the planners of the International Soca Monarch planned a segment where all of the Trinibad artistes would perform onstage together for the first time. Again, outrage ensued, though the competition has seen dwindling support from artistes and patrons alike, as a result of many complex carnival politics in recent years. Dancehall has even managed to make its way into what might have been considered the only sacred space for soca music. Altogether, the conversation has come full circle, as these events are reminiscent of the late-20th century grouses about the widespread Jamaican dancehall, and Trinbagonians’ affinity for American music prior to that.

Though soca has taken on a reputation for being the feel-good  music centered on the frivolous experiences of youth; partying, sexual/sensual expression and alcohol, it has proven its versatility over the years. The artiste by the name of Voice has taken the genre by storm, branding himself as the perfect balance between consciousness and merriment. The moments of upliftment are there in the music of people like Blaxx, as are the moments of gay abandon.

For traditionalists, soca might represent the loss of calypso tradition, in the same ways as the globalized and commodified carnival is often regarded. Nonetheless, it endures with more brio than ever. Soca encapsulates life in all its romances and heartbreaks, its sacredness and profanities, its celebrations and scourges, its confrontations and communions. At the end of it all, as Kerwin and Machel sing, there’s ‘something about this music’ that possesses hearts and activates the waistlines of people around the world, personifying the vibrancy of what it means to be Caribbean.

Further reading:

  • Judging “By the Beat”: Calypso versus Soca– journal article by by Shannon Dudley
  • Negotiation of Trinidadian Identity in Ragga Soca Music– journal article by Glenda Alicia E. Leung
  • “Raise Yuh Hand, Jump up and Get on Bad!”: New Developments in Soca Music in Trinidad– journal article Lorraine Leu
  • On Redefining The Nation Through Party Music and The Politics of Labelling Popular Musics in English Caribbean– articles by Jocelyne Guilbault

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