Destra Garcia: queen of queens | Closeup

T&T’s self-proclaimed Queen of Bacchanal is a Carnival mainstay. But, two decades into her career, Destra Garcia remains underestimated by local fans and critics, argues Nigel A. Campbell

  • Destra Gracia. Photography by Frame Photography, courtesy Bamboo Entertainment
  • Destra Gracia. Photography by Frame Photography, courtesy Bamboo Entertainment
  • Destra Gracia. Photography by Frame Photography, courtesy Bamboo Entertainment

Last October, the US National Public Radio website published an essay declaring Trinidadian soca star Destra Garcia the “liberator of revelry.” That essay was part of a series “dedicated to recasting the popular music canon in more inclusive — and accurate — ways” in order to “challenge the usual definitions of influence.”

Destra is “broadening the sound of soca,” argued writer Keryce Chelsi Henry — an external viewpoint that illustrates something taken for granted in Trinidad and Tobago: Destra Garcia is the bellwether among women soca artists in the music industry. The reach of her influence, I’d argue, has made this soca star a music icon outside her native country, even dwarfing her local reputation. And that influence is no longer centred on Trinidad Carnival. Destra is now international and perennial.

To suggest subjective classifications like “best” or “biggest,” it’s useful to have the imprimatur of some objective measurements. In this modern age of music, when data is king and “likes” and “follows” matter more than universally diminishing record sales, Destra — with her entire catalogue on all the major digital music platforms — has the numbers that matter. They make a solid case for her ascension beyond her self-declared role as “Queen of Bacchanal” to the more apt title “Queen of Soca.”

Looking at the numbers on popular social media platforms like Instagram and Facebook, Destra is indeed the queen, with metrics beyond other women soca stars like Alison Hinds and Fay-Ann Lyons, rising talent Nailah Blackman, or even calypso legend Calypso Rose. Only soca superstar Machel Montano betters her on Instagram, while Destra is the clear leader on Facebook among all performing soca artists worldwide, with over 323,000 followers, as of December 2018. That includes a strong fan base in the Caribbean diaspora worldwide.

Even so, soca’s popularity, and the stars who make this music regional if not global, are still operating within confined niche markets, even as the sound and rhythm of soca are tapped by today’s urban pop stars as a sonic bed for chart-topping hits. The social media numbers for the most popular soca artists pale in comparison to the major artists of other genres: Bajan Rihanna has close to 80 million followers on Facebook, while Trinidad-born Nicki Minaj has 41 million, and Cardi B — of Trinidadian and Dominican parents, and arguably the hottest thing right now — is just beginning, notching just over six million followers on the platform.

As for Destra, she may have a bigger impact regionally and in the diaspora than at home in Trinidad. The Fader, the high-profile music magazine based in New York City, noted in a 2016 review of her career that Destra “tours globally year-round, connecting with her international fan base via trilingual capabilities — she speaks English, Spanish, and French — and the universal language of wining.” That universal appeal is endorsed by her tireless touring — in 2017, she fell from a stage in Bermuda, breaking her ankle, but continued touring and performing, wearing a cast. She has headlined festivals and other events in the US and Canada, the Netherlands, every island in the Caribbean archipelago, Guyana and Venezuela on the South American mainland, and even in Dubai. The global marketplace is her oyster, and soca is her ticket to the world.

Born and raised in the tough Laventille district of east Port of Spain, Destra Garcia is both a product of her community and a patient student of an industry that rewards the deserving and confines the ordinary to the pages of journeyman chronicles. The late V.S. Naipaul wrote that “small places with simple economies bred small people with simple destinies.” Some Caribbean people — like Destra — take such a statement as a challenge, rather than an indictment.

Destra went to primary and secondary school in Woodbrook and then St James, on the other side of Port of Spain, and in that milieu, she excelled at singing calypsos in the various competitions organised for school children by organisations like the National Carnival Commission. She remembers that initial breakthrough. “My teacher, Janice Roach, was the one that found I had a good voice, a good tone, and she found that I was brave. She wrote my very first calypso, ‘Common Entrance’, and entered me in the primary schools’ competition. And I won. My first try, my first attempt at singing in public after she trained me to use the microphone.

“I was only ten,” she continues. “It was just an eye-opener to me. I enjoyed the attention, I enjoyed the applause, I enjoyed being on that stage, and I never looked back.” The spirit of that early mentorship paid major dividends during her secondary school years, when she enjoyed an unprecedented winning streak, this time composing her own calypsos.

While her school provided the foundation for a career, her family and their influence built the framework. The Garcia home was a house of music: Destra’s mother was into soul, her father was into Bob Marley, her grandparents were into old-time kaiso. Her relatives included working musicians playing steelpan and jazz. That “good voice” Destra’s teacher Miss Roach heard was touched by all these musical connections, as well as church and gospel music, developing into a signature powerhouse vocal instrument instantly recognisable among soca fans.

Once Destra left school, she began to experiment with R&B in both solo and girl-group formats, and was sought out to record tracks to be “shopped” abroad by an American A&R executive. An unplanned setback with that project led her to “try soca.” An initial partnership with singer Third Bass on the track “Just a Friend” began her professional soca career in 1999, leading to frontline vocal roles in the bands Roy Cape All Stars and Atlantik, before she struck out on her own. Destra Garcia the music businesswoman was born. As accolades began to pile up, there could be no turning back — but the slings and arrows of the professional soca circuit lay ahead.

The plight of women soca artists in a music sector and genre dominated by men was quickly obvious. “We have to work twice as hard as men to actually reach on their level,” Destra says. “And sometimes we are on their level, but we’re still not on their level in terms of how the world sees it . . . At the end of the day, you do what you need to do: you remember who you are, you stay focused, and you go out there and just get it done,” she explains.

Over the years, she sometimes displayed a perturbing self-doubt and awe under the pressure of the soca competition stage, but was steely, determined, and even bellicose when confronted. She reflected on that reputation in a television interview: “In the past, a lot of people have said, Oh, Destra has a hot temper. Destra’s mouth too hot.” A media darling one day, a target for derision the next. Those days are over, she says, now that she is a mother.

Some might argue Destra is yet to achieve the two most important measures of soca stardom in Trinidad and Tobago: a Road March title, for the most popular song on the road during Carnival, and a Soca Monarch crown. It raised questions in 2003 when she was unexpectedly “denied” the Road March for her anthem It’s Carnival — a hit to this day in Carnivals the world over. Her “rival” — or, more accurately, her colleague in the soca fraternity — Fay-Ann Lyons has both titles, plus a distribution deal with US-based label VP Records that should guarantee some chart action for her albums.

Yet this seems to not matter to the cognoscenti, or to Destra’s fans, who dote on her every offering for the annual Carnival celebration. The key to her domination is the near-universal adulation for her among the network of Caribbean and international Carnivals that ape the ethos of T&T’s annual celebration. Then there’s Destra’s impact on the performance aesthetics of many younger soca singers.

Back in 2006, Caribbean Beat described Destra as “perky and girlish, a Trinidadian version of an American pop princess . . . her stage act is G-rated, but still just sexy enough for her to maintain credibility on the Carnival scene.” In 2019, the twentieth year of her career, not much has changed, except now the curves are real. Her public image is iconic — voluptuous, sultry — and unmatched by new interlopers on the soca scene. And in that two-decade career, Destra has had one reliable hit a year, including classics like 2015’s “Lucy”.

So how has Destra survived all these years? Establishing a footprint outside the home market early in one’s career pays dividends in the segmented global music marketplace. The importance of “the brand” in the new music industry has not escaped her. Amazingly — or confusingly, if you are new to her music — Destra Garcia boasts three distinct brand identities, or three alter egos: Destra, the soca queen who launched her career in 2009; Lucy, her wild-child avatar from the hit song; and Queen of Bacchanal (or QoB), the fashion icon who “does mash up de place.”

The question of “escaping” her Laventille roots still subliminally resonates in her music. Laventille was and is a crucible of creativity for original Trinidadian culture. But there is a perpetual battle among Caribbean artists over “keeping it real” — not diluting the brand with obvious crossover elements. Over the years, Destra’s brand of crossover soca has deliberately interpolated elements from global pop music. “It’s Carnival”, written by Kernal Roberts, liberally samples Cyndi Lauper’s hit “Time After Time”; 2004’s “Bonnie and Clyde” draws on 1980s Norwegian pop group a-ha’s “Take On Me”. The results have resonated in the international advertising and marketing sector. Captain Morgan’s Parrot Bay Rum used “Bonnie and Clyde” as the theme music for a TV ad campaign in the US, for instance, while Digicel signed Destra as its first woman endorser in the Caribbean in 2006. Even the island of Antigua, a leading wedding and honeymoon destination, wanted to cash in on her fame by suggesting that her nuptials would be held there in 2018 (a claim denied by the artist).

And corporate entities and tourist boards aren’t the only ones seeking out some of Destra’s musical energy. Both Nicki Minaj and Broadway star Heather Headley have spoken of their interest in potential collaborations. “Destra’s got a great, great voice,” Headley said, “and it would be fun at some point to just sit down and figure it out.” The T&T diaspora and our stars in it have heard that powerful, clear voice.

Journeys to the top never follow a straight line. In Destra’s case, her path has followed the ups and downs of a life shaped equally by island influence and the DNA of family and ambition. Where it matters, the apparently ageless Destra Garcia is already a global player — and her ability to fascinate audiences everywhere in the excitement of soca music is the key to a future that won’t be slowing down soon.

Ten essential Destra tracks

It’s Carnival (2003):
The international anthem of Caribbean Carnival ever since. A winner in everyone’s book

Mash Up (2004):
Rapid-fire instructions that drive feters to, well, mash up the place

Bonnie and Clyde (2004):
On the surface, a song of desire for a long-lost one, but actually about a rag that was lost at Carnival. Allegory gone wild

I Dare You (2007):
The ultimate come-on, if you’re able. Permission is granted

Bacchanal (2009):
An anthem for Carnival that suggests we leave our inhibitions at home

Cool It Down (2011):
A production by the Bajan team D’ Red Boyz that finds a melodic centre outside of Trinidad influences

Call My Name (2012):
A reminder to her fans that she is the elixir for their happiness

Keep on Wukkin’ (2012):
The perfect tune for a couple to wine to. The groove is addictive, instructions included

Lucy (2015):
It’s either an autobiography in song or an invitation for women listeners to proudly connect with their inner wild child

Family (2018):
A soca star recognising who is by her side through thick and thin. Danceable, too