In 2018, as Trinidad and Tobago’s Carnival drew to a climax, a different genre of music swept every Carnival fete.
St Lucia’s Dennery Segment, though not a new phenomenon, achieved maximum exposure thanks to soca king Machel Montano’s song “Showtime”, on the Pim Pim Riddim. At 147 beats per minute, the song’s driving drum kicks, heavy bass, and flutes — which gave it a frenetic sound, similar to Jab Jab music — combined to send soca lovers into a frenzy, as Machel commanded them to “bend over, bend over, bend over, showtime!”
The song’s producer, Lashley “Motto” Winter, rode the wave of success, too, with his song “Party Lit” on the same riddim, a collaboration with New York–based soca artist Lyrikal. He also produced, last year, the Gwada Riddim, featuring Bunji Garlin and Fay Ann Lyons.
Motto, a St Lucian resident in New York, is today considered the leading producer of Dennery Segment. The musical genre, which began in the small fishing community of Dennery in St Lucia, has gone mainstream thanks to Motto’s strategy of matching big-name soca artists from outside his native island to Dennery Segment riddims.
It all began, Motto says, when he sang on the Revolt Riddim back in 2014. Motto’s song “Bend Dong” was a success in New York, so he did a remix with St Vincent’s Problem Child and Grenada’s Mr Legz, to appeal to a wider audience. He did the same with a single called “Force”, featuring Grenada’s Lava Man and Loose Cannon and St Vincent’s Hypa 4000. Motto followed up with an album based on the Force It Riddim with Problem Child, popular Trinidadian artists Shal Marshall and Patrice Roberts, and Barbadian Marzville, among others. Shal’s song “Dip” was massively popular during T&T’s 2017 Carnival, sparking a dance challenge across the diaspora.
But Machel’s endorsement last year was no doubt the cherry on top the cake, and Dennery Segment has been embraced by the St Lucia Tourism Authority (SLTA) as a marketing tool for the island’s cultural products. “The Dennery Segment musical sub-genre can move quicker and penetrate areas that traditional marketing campaigns can only dream about,” says Clinton Reynolds of the SLTA. “Our aim is to make the world aware of St Lucia’s rich cultural heritage and our authenticity, so the demand for experiential visits to our destination increases. We’re achieving that, in part, through the success and reach of the Dennery Segment music.”
Reynolds explains that the success of the genre will also reap benefits for the community after which the music is named, thanks to a Village Tourism Programme due to come on stream in 2019. Government endorsement of Dennery Segment through the SLTA — which has provided sponsorship support to artists for a tour of the US and promoted the music through their overseas offices — certainly marks a dramatic turning point for the sound, which not too long ago was shunned by mainstream producers, radio stations, and artists in St Lucia.
In its earliest incarnation, Dennery Segment was defined not only by its simple, stripped-down percussive beats, but also by its raw, sexually charged lyrics sung in Kweyol, St Lucia’s second language.
Jahim Etienne, a.k.a. Dub Master J of Studio 911, is widely credited as the man who gave birth to the genre. A resident of Dennery, Etienne says he was influenced by the music his grandfather and his peers sang, a type of traditional folk music called solo, which uses drums, shak-shaks, conch shells, and bamboo. “They made music with drums covered with goat and sheep skin,” Etienne recalls. “I used to be around them often, listening to their lyrical content. They would make a song in Kweyol on anyone who does anything nasty. Nobody really recorded that kind of music.”
Etienne, who is now a television host, says he started making music in 2000, and used traditional natural instruments to create his samples, as he wanted to make something uniquely St Lucian. But the Kweyol lyrics posed a problem for the Studio 911 artists. “When we put it into Kweyol, it sounded harsh, so corporate St Lucia would reject us. When we go out to perform, they would not put us on the line-up, they would brush us aside,” he recalls.
But the music became popular among a grassroots audience, even outside St Lucia. Back in 2005, Etienne sang a controversial song called “Kwiyé 911”, which was a massive hit in neighbouring Martinique. “That was the largest crowd I ever perform for, I shed tears of joy. The whole of Martinique was singing the song line for line,” he says.
At home in St Lucia, however, the music remained an underground phenomenon, attracting younger artists who incorporated soca, dancehall, and African music into their beats, as well as English and patois words.
Initially the music was known as Kweglais, Etienne says, a combination of Kweyol and English. Motto adds another perspective: between 2005 and 2008, he remembers, Angola’s kuduro music swept the island, and many used those beats to sing over. A radio DJ by the name of Nigel Nicholas is said to have dubbed the genre “Lucian Kuduro”, and until recently that term was used interchangeably with Dennery Segment.
Another stage of its evolution came with two of the top Dennery artists, Subance and Mighty, who are said to have crystallised the genre with a series of riddims, which hadn’t been done before. Sant Justin, former manager for the duo, says the artists weren’t respected at first, and were criticised for the raw content of their lyrics. “Like dancehall, they sang what was happening at the time,” he says. “They got a lot of fans, and the fans were growing more than the persons who didn’t want to hear it — and it just grew from there. It hit radio and they were persistent, releasing music every week, every month.”
Most important, the younger artists sang their songs in English, which helped make them palatable for a wider audience. In 2017, Subance and Mighty’s “Bad in Bum Bum” and Freezy’s “Split in the Middle” found traction in T&T, paving the way for a Dennery explosion from St Lucia’s home-grown artists.
And Dennery shows no sign of waning in T&T. For Carnival 2019, Motto came out of the gate early, dropping the song “Pick Yuh Position”, a collaboration with Skinny Fabulous, in late October last year. He plans to release two more Dennery Segment riddims for the Carnival season: Simon Says and Vice. “Bend Dong for the Hmm” by Lucian artists Khrome and Nassis, on the Mad Cow Riddim, is also expected to make a splash.
And to show how deep Dennery has taken root, more T&T artists are expected to incorporate the genre into their offerings. Preedy, known for sweet “groovy” songs, surprised his fans when he dropped his first release for the season, “Lost and Found”, on the Dennery Segment riddim of the same name. Machel is also expected to revisit the genre this year.
Watching the rise of Dennery Segment has made Jahim Etienne proud. Though he has now switched his attention to movie production, he continues to track the progress of the genre. “When I heard the song Machel released, I was happy,” he says, “because this is a man I have been following his whole life. Hearing Machel on the riddim with a St Lucia vibe — I could not imagine hearing that during my lifetime.”