I have this theory that the islands and territories of the West Indian archipelago were once all joined together. Without any sea between the islands. Just one long arc of land. Made of dirt and stones and rocks and so on. Call it outlandish if you like, but I reckon my theory is sound. I base it on a couple of things far more accurate than scientific research: music and rum.
Moving along the archipelago sampling the rums of Jamaica, Antigua, Barbados, Trinidad and Guyana is like enjoying glorious variations on a single theme. It’s as if someone started making rum and constantly experimented on the blend. My theory takes notice of the fact that you cannot blend rums while on the high seas. Ergo, a land link.
The music of the Caribbean is very similar. The beat is the same, only the tempo varies. As you move away from Jamaica, the skank-didi-skank of reggae and dub (dancehall) gives way to the faster-paced cadence and zouk of Dominica and St Lucia before accelerating to the jump-up-and-shout tempo of the calypso and soca made in Trinidad. (If you go as far south as possible, to Brazil, the beat is still the same, although by the time it reaches Rio only Brazilians can move their waists fast enough to be able to call a samba a dance. Given this, and the Guyanese rum, it is obvious that the archipelago was once connected with the mainland.)
How come all the islands produce music with a similar beat? If the West Indian islands were not all together once, how come there is soca dub?
Ten years ago, if dub or reggae music was played at a Carnival fete in Trinidad, there would have been a riot. People would have thrown chairs and broken bottles and spat with disgust. If you suggested to a Jamaican that there would be a Trinidad-style Carnival in Kingston, complete with calypso music, he would have either dismissed you as a fool or shot you in the head, depending on whether he came from Stony Hill or Trenchtown.
Ten years ago both Jamaica and Trinidad would have been suspicious and resentful of the threat to their own cultures posed by the music of the other island. And today there is soca dub, the blending of modem calypso with modern reggae into a whole that is considerably greater than the sum of its parts.
At the Trinidad Carnival in March this year, one of the most crowd-pleasing songs was Arrow’s Wine Yuh Body, a song hanging somewhere between dancehall and soca. Last year, Cathy Ella sang the amazing Frenchman Soca, a lilting soca number in the middle of which there is a Jamaican-style rap done by a Trinidadian in a Jamaican accent. One of the most successful songs of 1989 was Bally’s Maxi Dub, a calypso which blended soca and dancehall styles to perfection. On Carnival Friday night in Port of Spain this year, at parties aimed at young audiences (the people they call “the youths”), Trinidadian DJs mixed dub and soca in roughly equal proportions. About the only place you will not hear dub nowadays is the Jamaican Carnival.
Soca dub is one of those things which, when done, makes such obvious good sense that you wonder how come it took so long to think of, like the flip-top on toothpaste tubes. Reggae singers in Jamaica have always been able to release a reggae cover of any hit song in a very short time. And any song can be reggae-fied. I have heard reggae versions of Greensleeves and Galveston. But with soca there isn’t even the need to go into the studio: all the DJs have to do is play the single at 33 rpm and chant the chorus live.
My theory is that there must have been a land link between these territories which allows them all to dance to the same beat. And I’m pretty sure I’m right. Even if the islands were not joined together (which would go against the grain of the rum), there is still the obvious, immense land link: the continent of Africa.