From the mid-1980s through the early 90s, Jamaican dub, and later dancehall, dominated the musical landscape in Trinidad and Tobago outside Carnival season. DJs like Dr Hyde, Downtown Outlaws, Chinese Laundry, Howie T, Papa Rocky, and Starchild, to name a few, gave life to this musical import with their popular mixtapes, and the nation’s maxi taxis — or minibuses — were the primary spaces where these tapes got played.
Outfitted with massive speakers and sophisticated sound systems, the maxi taxis, which make up the bulk of Trinidad and Tobago’s public transport, were like clubs on wheels, with booming bass, and sometimes jam-packed with more schoolchildren than their official twenty-five seats could possibly hold.
On the East-West Corridor, the long urban stretch from Port of Spain to the eastern borough of Arima, maxis with hip names like Hysteria, Survivor (1, 2, and 3), Spoil Child, Red Fury, and Simple But Effective banged out hits from Tiger, Buju Banton, Super Cat, Yellow Man, Shabba Ranks, Tenor Saw, and Barrington Levy — influencing young minds enraptured with the staccato beats and rudeboy lyrics.
Ian Alvarez was one of those students, riding the maxis, soaking in the music, unaware that this would be the foundation upon which he would launch a musical career. Known today as Bunji Garlin, the Arima native is winning worldwide popularity as a crossover soca artist, thanks to his 2013 hit “Differentology”, but long before that, he was a product of the dancehall environment that swept the country.
“St Augustine, El Dorado, Arima Comprehensive . . . schools on the East-West Corridor had talent when it came to dancehall,” he says. “We were influenced by the maxi taxi culture.” Himself a student of Arima Comprehensive Secondary, Bunji found his interest in chanting and freestyling developing in his last year at school, around the age of sixteen.
“Nobody at that time was thinking of a career,” he says. “First of all, we were doing a different style in Trinidad and Tobago. If you did soca, you had a chance to get out there. We were doing something alien to our culture — we were emulating a style that didn’t come from here and adapting well,” he explains, crediting the slower-paced Trinidadian extempo style, the “ultimate freestyle,” for that easy adaptation.
“No one had dreams that we could do this in our future. No one at that time was even thinking about getting more girls to like us, we were just thinking of opening our mouths, saying something and watching the crowd go wild,” Bunji continues. “That was the big thing. Every time you make a new line . . . it says a lot about how people see you and what you represent.”
Liming in Arima, and impressing the crowd gathered to hear these schoolboys drop lyrics on the spot, was nothing but fun for Bunji and his friends — until an empty KFC box changed their perception.
“I started taking note that music could be more than a crowd-mover when on a Friday evening by the market, myself, Jadee [now a gospel singer], Black Marlon, Tico Angelos, Guitar Dan, Squeezy Ranking, Emperor . . . we used to gather opposite Windsor Cinema, and we were chanting. It was a month-end, somebody was eating KFC, he wipe out the box clean and put it on the ground for people to throw money. By about eight in the night, the box had about $3,000,” Bunji recalls.
With a purse now up for grabs, the group decided to stage a competition on the spot, with the crowd response determining the eliminations of each round. The winner would take the TT$3,000 prize.
“The last two on that day was myself and Jadee. Both of us faced off, and he won that night. By him winning, it gave me a drive. I didn’t like the feeling — I knew the venom I had. There was no malice that he won, because we were good friends, but the feeling of you having it right there in your grasp and losing it . . . We had the competition for eleven weeks after that, and I won all. I realised by the third week I was able to pay myself out of this,” Bunji says.
As he is doing today, pushing the boundaries of soca and not limiting himself to a particular sound or season, Bunji chose to go against the grain, and drill deeper into dancehall, even though it wasn’t considered Trini culture. He became part of a collective called Schizophrenic, a forward-thinking, ambitious group who were determined to succeed at all costs.
“One of the first things we try to do for ourselves was putting on our own events,” Bunji says. “We had no record label, but we had this dream to defy Trinidad. There was this [idea] that talent from Trinidad and Tobago could only reach a certain level and go no further, and it was only soca that could get airplay and no one else. We had this thing that, since radio don’t want to play us, we would save money and press our own records. That was unheard of for lil’ independent groups in Trinidad.”
Darryl Braxton, a producer known at that time for producing dancehall and hip-hop, worked with Bunji and his friends. Recognising the potential of his young protégés, he advised them to take their dancehall style and apply it to soca, since he felt their chances of breaking into the Jamaican market were slim to none. “Around that time, [Braxton] told me he was finishing a project with a group called Silhouette,” says Bunji. “I don’t know the end result of the song he was doing with them, but he gave me the beat,” said Bunji.
And out of that beat came Bunji’s debut soca, “Send Dem Riddim Crazy”.
Recently, on Facebook, Bunji posted a photo of a wall in his childhood house on which he once scribbled lyrics. His father never repainted the wall, Bunji told his fans, keeping it as a memento of his son’s rise from soca nobody to soca superstar.
That wall is not just a reminder to Bunji of how far he has come, but a testimony to his determination to follow his heart. Growing up in Wallerfield, near Arima, the last of eight children, Bunji lived alone with his father, who had been retrenched from his job, while his mother worked abroad in the United States — a common practice in many families. They were so poor, Bunji says, that they could not even afford copybooks, so he would write his lyrics on the wall with stones he found in the yard.
At age sixteen, Bunji got his first job, at Carib Glassworks, but he soon realised that was not the life for him. He told his father he was going to pursue music full time. “He get mad,” Bunji recalls. “No way you leaving a farm in Wallerfield and making it on music. As parents, we don’t believe in creative arts as a career, we always think it is a hobby. He was real angry, but he was a fighter too. He just as rebellious — so when he see it, he realise he photocopy himself,” Bunji says with a laugh.
Today his father is his biggest fan, he adds.
From the outset, Bunji was different. It wasn’t just the gimmickry of the green hair and green shoes he donned to perform “Send Dem Riddim Crazy” — his persona, his attitude, and his delivery were unlike anything in soca. He was rougher, edgier, and focused more on brutal, cutting lyrics reminiscent of the dancehall influence.
And he was an instant draw for the masses, which caused him to be stereotyped as a “ghetto artist.” “It hindered me as an individual, in terms of where I would be selected to perform,” Bunji says, “which is a shame, in a cosmopolitan society. I would be subjected to ‘we don’t want him to perform there, because we don’t want him to attract a certain kind of people.’ I thought I was doing music for everybody.”
It wasn’t really until 2013, when Bunji released “Differentology”, that he began to find acceptance in the “uptown” fetes. But by then his bookings were based on the album he released the year before, which had produced hit after hit — among them, “Tun Up”, “Irregular”, “So and So”, and “Born Ready”.
That album was a turning point in Bunji’s career, as he decided to throw caution to the winds and stop making music to please anyone. “I’m in a position now where I don’t care about people’s opinions anymore,” he said in a 2013 interview. “I don’t know when I became the Antichrist, like I was a threat to somebody — and I was allowing myself to fall into that whole circle of what is the perception of me, and trying to live different from that. But when I check it, I say, but I not doing anything wrong. So I said let me do me — do this the way I really feel to do it.”
Ironically, what was initially rejected at home is what proved to be the right formula for Bunji’s crossover success. “Differentology” has been embraced by the hip-hop community, known for its aggression and lyrical mastery. Bunji has now appeared numerous times on Hot 97, New York City’s legendary urban radio station, and performed at their concerts. He’s been featured in the magazines Rolling Stone — which called him “the first soca pop star” — and Fader. He’s performed twice on BET’s programme 106 & Park. He is also the recipient of the 2013 Soul Train Music Award for Best International Performer, beating fellow soca artist Machel Montano, also nominated in that category.
“When I do my international interviews,” Bunji says, “they basically say, we never feel this music before, but with the likes of you and the aggressive nature, we see this is for real, and not a joke.” He notes that soca’s party vibe is not always embraced outside the Caribbean. “Is not that happiness is a bad thing, ’cause we could show the world that we have the luxury and blessing of finding joy and celebrate — but just as in everything, there is a positive and negative, and the negative to our extreme joy is that we piss people off.”
Speaking about the change in his approach to his music, Bunji says he was influenced by observing the international success of reggaeton. “The US market is hard to penetrate, but the movement was so strong. The financial players in all the industries in the US, they see numbers, they see turnovers. When you see a people gather so big, they have no choice but to take note and join the movement. Now the Latin community stand firm, they have everything for themselves. This is something soca should have been doing way back when.”
A key ingredient in Bunji’s upward trajectory is his wife Fay-Ann Lyons, daughter of soca king Superblue, and a Road March and Soca Monarch winner in her own right. Describing their union as a blessing, Bunji says Lyons has impacted on his development as a writer. Today, in addition to his record deals with VP Records and RCA, Bunji is also signed to BMI as a songwriter. “The way [Fay-Ann] writes and how that develops — I started paying attention. She has some formulas she used that I wasn’t using,” Bunji says. “This is the daughter of Superblue. And she not relying on his strength, she has her own strength — and she don’t take no for an answer,” he adds.
“To have somebody like that around is a positive influence. She could go to a meeting with record labels and lawyers, and she could go toe to toe with them, she could hold her own and she knows how to get what she wants. She is her own powerhouse. Having her around is an asset to me, and I won’t have it any other way,” Bunji says of his wife, who is now working on her own debut album for VP Records.
Having Fay-Ann in his corner, he said, gives him the energy to continue fighting the fight he has been engaged in since day one. “I spend so much years fighting. I had to fight for every single thing. It wore me out over time. To have someone in your corner saying, ‘I fighting with you’ gives me energy to fight again.”
Everything I know about Ian Alvarez, I learned from Bunji Garlin
Mark Lyndersay first met Bunji Garlin in 1996, at a photo shoot, and for the better part of two decades he’s watched and considered the evolution of the artist’s sound and style. He offers a personal take on the music Bunji’s made on his road to fame
In the year 2000, when all the conversations were about the millennium bug, and technology remained more than a little frightening and indecipherable, Bunji Garlin, born Ian Alvarez from Wallerfield, made me think again of the very first crossover calypso song, Lord Shorty’s “Soca Vibrations”.
Specifically, the very first word of that song’s lyric, change, left hanging for a beat by Shorty, as if to give the listener a chance to really consider everything that was to come.
What followed for the calypsonian was a decade-long struggle between the well-defined forms of traditional calypso and soca, an upstart merging of the R&B and funk that commanded the airwaves between Carnival seasons in Trinidad and Tobago.
At age twenty-two, Alvarez took up the mantle left behind by Shorty, and began to push the process of assimilating popular music in all directions, crossing over everywhere. Bunji Garlin — a name he adopted to marry the flexibility of the cable with the firepower of the weapon (possibly a street corruption of Galil, the Israeli arms manufacturer) — then performed under the temporary mantle of “ragga soca,” a provisional hybrid of reggae, rap, and soca.
But Bunji embraced far more than the early definitions of the form. His collaborations from the start were prolific and pervasive. His distinctive voice, which has evolved from a thick faux-Jamaican drawl into something uniquely Trinidadian and clearly evocative of the West Indies, appears on dozens of compilations. He collaborates down, across, and upwards, performing with protest calypsonian Singing Sandra on “Coofy Lie Lie”, lending gravitas to Shammi’s lightweight chutney contender “Soca Bhangra”, and more decisively with Hunter on “Bring It”. His other duets include numbers with artists like Busy Signal, Rupee, Edwin Yearwood, Skinny Fabulous, 3 Suns, Neshan Prabhoo, Diplo, Shurwayne Winchester — and, most recently, Kid Ink and Chris Brown on “Main Chick”.
The first time I met Bunji was on a sunny afternoon in 1996, to photograph him and performing partner Ninja Kat for New Vibes, a compilation of new music in the emerging scene produced by Rituals Music. The largely forgettable song “Look Behind” is typical of much of his early work. The rapid-fire chanting collides with shambling music that simply isn’t up to his ambitions.
I’d first heard Bunji working at audio engineer Robin Foster’s Maraval studio, where he was putting down tracks for a collaboration with Ital-D. Foster remembers being impressed even then by the imagery of his words, and describes those skills as exceptional.
In 2000, the young artist dropped a stunning five songs, rocking the Carnival season. There was the brooding admonishing of “Bad Man”, which laments a woman’s poor choices in partners. “Breakaway”, “Gimme the Brass”, and “Send Dem Riddim Crazy” all targeted the season’s parties, where he would be in constant demand to perform. Then there was the one song I kept on repeat for days, the one that signalled most clearly how bold a musician Alvarez really was. “Woman” was a casual collaboration with singer and guitarist Walker, who had performed with Machel Montano previously. Over a loping beat, Bunji trades lines with the American singer, who warns, “Don’t turn your back on that woman,” while Bunji peppers the song with street-savvy relationship warnings.
Like most overnight successes, the explosion of the artist known as Bunji Garlin on international music charts in the summer of 2013 with “Differentology” was the result of a remarkably prolific career that took root in that seminal collection of songs during Carnival 2000. Over the next fourteen years, Bunji would release more than a hundred songs that remain poorly collected and diffused across a box load of compilation albums.
There are currently four officially available Bunji Garlin albums, and the recent EP Carnival Tabanca. The indifferently recorded Revelation collects several seminal songs, including the party-focused “Send Dem Riddim Crazy”, the blistering anti-rapist song “Licks”, and the proudly declarative “In the Ghetto”, a mission statement for his generation’s influences and perspective. On that album you’ll also find the gospel-driven “God Is Not Far”, and an ambivalent return engagement with Walker on Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On”.
Global, released in 2007, more determinedly sought international attention, featuring collaborations with TOK, Rita Jones, Chris Black, and Freddie MacGregor, but it jumps around erratically, juxtaposing straight-ahead soca with crossover reggae performances.
iSpaniard, released in 2012, reflects the work of a far more mature and focused artist. This is the album that confidently collects works more clearly designed for the evolving Carnival festival: the bouncy “Tun Up”; the driving “Cosmic Shift”; the groovy soca anthem “Runaway”, recorded with Kerwyn Du Bois; and “Gift of Soca”, with a frisson of guitar strumming that presages “Differentology”.
It’s here that he stakes his claim on the soca landscape and his responsibility in developing it. “Is like a sword in me hand given down by God and I know how to use it,” he sings on “Gift of Soca”. “Them say soca music will never see the Grammy awards, I don’t really care about that, we was here before the Grammy awards. I don’t need no foreign entity, to validate my identity.”
Accolades from foreign entities came in a sudden rush in 2013 for the stolid Alvarez anyway. The US TV series Grey’s Anatomy prominently featured the breakthrough hit “Differentology” on a widely seen episode, and he won the Soul Train Award for Best International Performance. That led to the mid-year release of a supporting album, also titled Differentology, featuring nine strong songs in support of his groundbreaking collaboration with local rock star Nigel Rojas, whose Spanish guitar intro lit the slow burn of the eponymous hit.
A remake of Maestro’s “Savage”, the delicate lament “Carnival Tabanca”, and the darkly fascinating “Red Light District” bouyed that album to well-deserved success — though the last four songs were pure filler, and two remixes on an album is always a suspect move.
Biographies of Bunji Garlin tend to skip forward from his early successes in Carnival competitions in Trinidad and Tobago — where he won the Young King title, the Ragga Soca Monarch competition twice, and triumphed four times in the International Soca Monarch competition — to the Differentology era. But over those fourteen years, there have been three distinct phases in the development of Ian Alvarez.
The first finds the young performer calmly exploding on the local soca scene, handsome, deep-voiced, gentlemanly, and dreadlocked. The courtly performer was lauded as “the girl-them darling.”
Then there is the Fay-Ann Lyons era, which quickly evolved from two popular artists dating into a robust personal collaboration — then to conflicts first with Lyons’s band and then Alvarez’s management. The couple, who married in 2006 and have a child together, weathered all the fuss, and anyone who has seen them perform together knows why.
On a stage, they trade courtesies, Bunji a supportive and admiring presence when his wife, a considerable soca and Road March star in her own right, performs. Lyons, in turn, is his staunch and flinty defender. In Trinidad and Tobago, there’s a homily that warns two people can’t climb a ladder together. As the pair have worked together, they have offered a remarkable model for cooperation and mutual support that’s rare in the local industry.
Finally, there is the era of the Godfather’s Asylum Band, which has fundamentally redefined Bunji’s approach by giving him a laboratory where he can experiment with music with like-minded souls. The group’s studio space in the west Port of Spain neighbourhood of St James is like an extended family meeting spot, and it’s here that wild ideas — like the delicately symphonic piano bed that lends a bitterly wistful atmosphere to “Carnival Tabanca” — get worked out.
If there’s anything that remains to be done by Bunji, it’s to think about his work in the context of an album, and not the collection of singles he’s been producing all his life. In many ways, he is an artist of this century and very much of this time — and, musically, this is the era of the four-minute single.
His songs respond to sudden shifts in mood and style mercurially, often presaging tastes before they are fully formed. He’s ridden uncounted rhythms crafted by others, collaborated with dozens of artists, but has enjoyed his greatest successes when he tackles subjects that are closest to his heart and works with people whose craft he can encircle and embrace.
The breathless urgency of the vocal on “Differentology” was driven by Nigel Rojas’s inspired playing; the keening vocal of “Carnival Tabanca” was a clear response to the keyboard work of Sherrif Mumbles, his music band captain.
As remarkable as the century has been for Bunji Garlin, it all feels like a prelude to the work he’s creating now.