Caribbean Beat Magazine

New wave of Trinidad music

The rhythm of Trinidad Carnival is always changing. The sounds of today — loud, fast, saucy — are rooted in the past, but reflect life as it is in 21st-century Trinidad and Tobago. Caribbean Beat looks at four major trends in today's music - rapso, chutney, ragga soca, and "groovy soca"- and some of the artists riding this musical wave

  • Machel Montano. Photograph by Mark Lyndersay
  • Michelle Sylvester. Photograph courtesy Terrance Rodriguez/Moving Pictures; Makeup & Styling by Dominique La Roche for Mannequins Caribbean
  • KES: (from left) Hans and Jon Dieffenthaller, Riad Boochoon, and Kees Dieffenthaller. Photograph courtesy Studio Works
  • Destra Garcia. Photograph by Mark Lyndersay
  • Shurwayne Winchester. Photograph by David Wears
  • KMC. Photograph by David Wears
  • Maximus Dan. Photograph by David Wears
  • Bunji Garlin. Photograph by David Wears
  • Rikki Jai. Photograph by Studio Works
  • Heeralal Rampartap. Photograph by Sookdeo Baney
  • Adesh Samaroo. Photograph by Mark Lyndersay
  • Neeshan Prabhoo. Photograph courtesy Neeshan Prabhoo
  • Black Lyrics: (from left) Arnold Goindhan, Mark Taylor, Mark Nottingham, Darwin Edwards. Photograph by Jeffrey Chock
  • Ozymajic. Photograph by Nku Davis
  • Ataklan. Photograph by David Wears
  • 3Canal’s Stanton Kewley. Photograph by Mark Lyndersay
  • 3Canal’s Roger Roberts. Photograph by Mark Lyndersay
  • 3Canal’s Wendell Manwarren. Photograph by Mark Lyndersay


Even calypso purists know — with their brains, that is — that as Carnival’s social context changes, so must the music that goes with it. What people know in their hearts, however, is another thing altogether. For many fans of Trinidad and Tobago’s traditional Carnival music, and for people of a certain age, the music being produced by the young artists of today is a monolith: as the great Calypso Rose says in the recent documentary Calypso at Dirty Jim’s, “It’s jump and wave, jump and wave, on a count of four: one, two three, four, raise yuh hand! . . . that’s the reason why calypso has gone through the chute.”

Through the chute and into a new era, perhaps? There was a similar outcry back in the 1970s, when traditional calypso gave way to a form called soca. And you might recall debates as to whether the songs with which David Rudder — now practically an elder — inaugurated his celebrated career in 1986 could legitimately be called either calypso or soca. Next to some of the Carnival music of today, Rudder’s “Bahia Girl” and “The Hammer” sound virtually vintage, but while the aging ear may have difficulty distinguishing between the various strains and styles, there is diversity in Trinidad and Tobago’s present-day music scene, even as artists are being challenged in ways and from quarters their predecessors could hardly have imagined.

Today’s young practitioners of rapso, chutney, ragga soca, and the style VP records has labelled “popso” are doing their thing against a backdrop that was unthinkable even as recently as 1996, when Machel Montano’s “Big Truck” pumped up the volume by several notches and marked what is widely thought of as the previous major turning point in the evolution of Trinidad and Tobago’s sound.

The context in which music is produced today is rapidly evolving, probably even as these words are being written. Digital technology and the Internet have changed everything about the way music is made and marketed (music is now easier to make, but perhaps harder to sell). Trinidad and Tobago has seen the rise of record labels — Keskidee, Rituals — which seemed poised to take the music global, only to watch them evaporate. A few years ago soca bands were the hot configuration — today it’s about soloists being pushed to the forefront. And Trinidad and Tobago’s artists must be looking with concern at the fact that three of the handful of international recording contracts recently offered to “Carnival music” performers have gone to artists from other Caribbean islands.

In the following pages, Caribbean Beat takes a look at some of the current trends and headline acts in Trinidad and Tobago’s ever-evolving Carnival music scene. Who are these young (and sometimes not so young) upstarts? What does the music of today say about the times we live in? And where might the sound be heading next?

Georgia Popplewell


Clear the way

Rapso, Trinidad’s most vital contemporary protest music, evolved in the 1970s and 80s through artists like Lancelot Layne and Brother Resistance. Today, the group 3Canal is at the genre’s ever-sharp cutting edge

Social commentary is a long-standing tradition in Carnival music, but you’re unlikely to hear much of it unless you visit the calypso tents. From time to time, a Machel Montano or a Bunji Garlin will take on the issues, but in the past ten years the most reliable and publicly performed socially conscious music you’re likely to hear without making much of an effort has come from members of the rapso community.

Of Carnival music’s resident forms, rapso is the oldest of the “new wave”. Describing itself as the “rhythm of the word in the power of the word,” rapso traces its roots back to the chantuelles, the griots (storytellers) of plantation society. As a modern music form, rapso is considered to have begun with Lancelot Layne’s protest song “Blow Away” back in 1970 — though it was not until ten years later, with Brother Resistance and the Network Rapso Riddum Band, that it was given a name.

The defining event of 1970s Trinidad was, arguably, the Black Power uprising of 1970. Nearly a decade after Independence, the assumptions surrounding that moment were being seriously questioned, and Layne’s music — unadorned, energetic, angry — reflected the spirit of the times. Brother Resistance and the Network Rapso Riddum Band, Karega Mandela, and Cheryl Byron continued the trend in the 1980s, and the rhythmic drum-driven style crept into the mainstream in the work of artists like David Rudder.

But if rapso had a golden era, it was the mid 1990s, when two record labels emerged which saw rapso as a means of attaining the ever-elusive goal of putting Trinidad and Tobago’s music “on the Billboard charts” (to paraphrase a line from General Grant). Keskidee Records and Rituals Records — neither of which still exists today — invested heavily in the genre, launching the likes of Home Front, Kindred, Chantwell, and Ataklan onto the music scene. Rituals also signed the veteran rapsonian Brother Resistance, who was able to build on the popularity he already enjoyed in certain parts of Europe.

Among the things that made rapso viable is its relative inexpensiveness to produce. Like American rap (which is part of the portmanteau name), rapso’s focus is on lyrical content and on strong, simple rhythms: rapsonians needn’t possess melodic voices as much as charisma and strong lyrics to sing against a backdrop that could be anything from African drums (Ataklan occasionally used plastic buckets) to a computer-generated “riddum”. Rapso is also not strictly Carnival music: its themes and concerns — such as social injustice— seem appropriate for year-round consumption. The progressive image of the rapso community makes the genre a natural fit for bright young progressives with performing ambitions, the sort of people who in the US or UK might have gone for slam poetry.

One of the artists most heavily promoted by Rituals was the group 3Canal, whose members were once better known for their work in theatre and as the movers behind a popular and raucous J’Ouvert band. 3Canal was signed to Rituals in 1997, which makes them relative latecomers to the game. Yet today — together with Brother Resistance — they’re rapso’s most recognisable public face.

“A lot of people are doing work individually, but as a force, as a front, it doesn’t seem as powerful as when we first emerged on the scene,” says Manwarren of the rapso movement (another unique feature of the rapso community is that it sees itself as a “movement”. “Rapso Month” is observed in October).

For many people, as well, rapso isn’t really Carnival music, though Manwarren considers this a moot point. “For me, I’ve never really thought it strange or odd whether it’s considered relevant to Carnival or outside of Carnival,” he says. “I think that Carnival is such a broad beast and the platforms that it provides are so varied that rapso could find itself easily representing in several of the platforms that Carnival provides — the social commentary, the protest, the assertion of self. All those things are inherent in the Carnival, and for me it’s always been a legitimate space to engage.”

So if rapso remains a force in Carnival today, it is largely thanks to 3Canal, who’ve maintained a consistent presence in the festival, releasing music each year and quietly amassing a substantial musical repertoire even as they grappled with radically changing circumstances, including the demise of Rituals Records and the death in 2000 of the group’s fourth founding member, John Isaacs.

“I guess because we were inherently involved in the Carnival before, as bringers of mas [producers of the J’Ouvert band], for us it was a natural evolution,” Manwarren says. “When we did “Talk Yuh Talk” [their 1999 hit], our concern was that the melody was too much like parang. But we didn’t see it as being odd in the context of Carnival. One of the things that we always sought to bring out in our music is the bounce, the rhythm, that power. And a lot of our music is in that heartbeat zone, that feet-shuffling-down-the-street zone which is where we start from in the J’Ouvert, so for us it’s inherently connected to Carnival.

“I think that what’s happened is that a lot of rapso practitioners have always been in a minority trying to represent, let’s say, within the calypso tents or the fete, or what have you. It’s hard if there’re not enough people to carve out a space — “D Yard” [a area behind the Rituals Records offices] was starting to do that very organically. It was a gathering spot where people could come and hear a whole heap of music, but the thing that sort of held it together was rapso.”

After Rituals folded in 2000, 3Canal took matters into their own hands. Today they run an organisation of considerable complexity — were it larger in scale it might even be called an empire. Under the umbrella of cut+clear productions, they produce their own records, manage their own performance schedule, plus a clothing line, a J’Ouvert band, and a Carnival show, while acting as mentors to a stable of young performers and producers like Black Lyrics, Khafra Rudder, and Kekere. The cut+clear compound has in a sense replaced “D Yard” as a gathering space for young people looking to develop their chops as performing artists, or simply to “vibes” off the atmosphere.

In 2005, 3Canal concentrated hard on the performance aspect of things, introducing a live band — the cut+clear crew — into the mix. “We feel as if we’re starting to create a sound — a live sound,” says Manwarren, “but it’s still a challenge. Musicians are for hire, and that impacts on your end product. You have a kind of a changing membership.”

Where other Carnival performers have focused on the “big song”, 3Canal has always gone for the big concept. One of the group’s strengths has been coming up with themes that inform their activities over the space of the year. Last year it was the jab jab, a devil character from the traditional masquerade. In 2006, the bombastic midnight robber will be the guiding principle behind everything from the music to t-shirt designs to the J’Ouvert band to the Carnival show, which, in the space of three years, has cemented its space on the Carnival calendar.

“It’s an evolution of the tent form that’s also hearkening back to a form that was inherent in the season, that kind of variety show, that mixed bag of song, dance, a bit of acting, a bit of this, a bit of that,” says Manwarren of 3Canal’s annual production, which is very simply titled “The 3Canal Show”. “Like SuperBlue says, Carnival is a festival of the arts.”

“We’re like a fringe to the main thing,” adds Roger Roberts, “and because in some ways the festival itself becomes sort of calcified and locked in an official sort of zone, in many ways the fringe is actually the heartbeat.”

Names to watch

Ataklan Born Mark Jiminez and raised in Morvant, just east of Port of Spain, Ataklan’s creativity was obvious from childhood. His inspiration for rapso started around a “standpipe scenario”: he developed a knack for rapid-fire lyrical freestyling by making up lyrics on the spot about “the holey jockey shorts” of one of his mates bathing at a roadside standpipe. “I write a lot. I don’t sleep at night,” he says of his poet’s complex. Listen: Atavival (2001), Atamorphosis (2000), Atanomical (1998).

Ozymajic In 1998 Ozy realised his poetry and stories could be translated into music. Formerly performing under his given name Ozy Merrique, he has an intuitive style and a true love for the artform. “People would always stop me on the street and ask ‘If you still in the music thing’. Then I realised it mattered less if I were in the music thing, as long as the music thing was still in me, that was fine.” Listen: “Free Yuhself” (1993), “Boom Generation” (1994), “Rolling” (1994). Currently working on two new tracks, “Real Trinis” and “Love Shots”.

Black Lyrics The name speaks for the expression of Trini male blackness. Schoolmates Mark Nottingham, Darwin Edwards, and Arnold Goindhan formed Black Lyrics in 1991; Mark Taylor joined in 1995, completing a refreshing style of rapso performance. Nottingham says, aptly, “Our sound is defined mostly by our energy. We put into our recording what we want people to visualise.” Listen: “Feelings (Woi Woi)” (1997), “Krazed” (1998), “Bling Bling” (2001). Currently working on an album for release in 2006.

– Georgia Popplewell



Mix it up

Derived from the explicit wedding-night songs performed for Hindu brides, chutney is Indian Trinidad’s most popular contribution to the national soundtrack, and young artists like Adesh Samaroo are pushing the sound closer and closer to the mainstream

Growing up in the 1980s in the close-knit community of Dinsley in north Trinidad, Nirmal “Adesh” Samaroo’s musical heartstrings would be tugged on by the dholak — a small drum of Indian origin — and the dhantal — a percussion instrument unique to Trinidad. The dholak and dhantal are central to the style of music known as chutney. And Adesh — whose 2002 song “Rum Till I Die” was both highly controversial and wildly popular with the partying masses — is at the forefront of chutney’s continuing “crossover” into the mainstream.

But long before his debut, and even before iconic figures like Sundar Popo, Anand Yankaran, and Ramrajhee Prabhoo, all of whom have all sprinkled their own unique flavour into the chutney mix, there was the singing of the women at the maticoorh night. The goal of the maticoorh was to offer a Hindu bride-to-be her first lessons in sex education. Behind tightly shut doors, friends, family, and neighbours recreated the activities of an ideal wedding night in song, to the throbbing beat of the dholak and dhantal. The music begged for movement: as the women’s voices grew in variation and intensity, so did the motion of the feet, hands, and hips.

Eventually, these folk songs and dances escaped into public view, and were even presented on Trinidad and Tobago television on the pioneering Indian cultural programme Mastana Bahar in the 1960s. The name for the Trinidadianised versions of these saucy numbers? Chutney.

Today, chutney has taken its place alongside Bollywood film songs and classical Indian music in the soundtrack to Indo-Trinidad (the form is also popular in Guyana). The National Chutney Foundation of Trinidad and Tobago promotes performers, numerous chutney events take place throughout the year, and a Soca Chutney competition is now a highlight of Carnival.

East Indians are contemporary Trinidad and Tobago’s largest ethnic group, and the Indian presence has long made its presence felt in this country’s music. In early calypso this was more at the thematic level, in songs (not always complimentary) like “She Grinding Masala”, but by the time soca began evolving in the 1970s, the Indian contribution at a qualitative or rhythmic level was openly acknowledged, notably by Ras Shorty I. Over the years, chutney and chutney-flavoured songs like Drupatee Ramgoonai’s “Mr Bissessar” and Rikki Jai’s “Sumintra” have been mainstream hits, and in 1995 chutney looked like it was finding a permanent home in non-Indian Trinidad when an elderly Sonny Mann reached the finals of the Soca Monarch competition with his chutney hit “Lootay La”, with lyrics in Hindi.

Ten years later, non-Indian radio stations rarely play chutney music and chutney events are patronised by a clientele that is still predominantly Indian. But chutney is undeniably a part of the Trinidad and Tobago musical menu, and an influential element in Carnival. In recent years, chutney-flavoured songs like Denise Belfon’s “Indian Man” (with Nigel Salickram), Destra and Shurwayne Winchester’s “Beta Beti”, and Machel Montano and Rikki Jai’s “Mor Tor” have rocked both the airwaves and the party circuit, and the Chutney Soca Monarch competition is a major event on the Carnival calendar.

Among chutney performers, the artist who’s closest to a household name is several-time Chutney Soca Monarch Rikki Jai. But fast on Jai’s heels is young Adesh Samaroo.

Adesh’s short career has had its share of rock-star-worthy moments, including near-death in a car accident and his controversial hit song. His reputation for “crushing the competition” has earned him the title “Musical Terminator”, and in 2004 alone he took six titles in Radio 103 FM’s Hall of Fame Awards.

“Rum Till I Die”, his debut release, was a hit among the party-hungry masses, but it also drew acrid criticism. Conservative Hindu Trinidad (never a great fan of chutney, anyway) found the lyrics offensive and irresponsible, and many felt it glorified drinking in a community plagued by alcoholism. Nonetheless, “Rum Till I Die” quickly established Adesh as the bad boy of chutney, a useful designation in the music business, and was a magnet for a fiercely loyal — and heavily female — fan-base (at public appearances, he’s sometimes accompanied by shy young women dressed in miniscule black somethings).

Then on April 5, 2005, Adesh lost control of his car and collided with a wall, fracturing his face and skull. Rumours circulated about an empty rum bottle found in the mangled vehicle. He was unconscious for several days, and was in critical condition for some time thereafter.

But a few months later, the mischievous twinkle was back in Adesh’s eyes. And, in spite of the rumours surrounding the accident, Adesh remains unapologetic about “Rum Till I Die”. “I just say they [his critics] are plain ignorant,” he says. “‘Rum Till I Die’ is a reality. I’m not telling you to go and drink rum till you die. I’m just saying this guy I know said, “I’m going to drink rum till I die” because his lover left him . . . It’s a song about reality.”

He cites Sonny Mann’s “Lootay La”, which attracted criticism because it allegedly degraded the singer’s bhowjie, or sister-in-law (a revered figure in Hindu families). The uproar against “Lootay La” wasn’t as widespread, Adesh says, because audiences didn’t understand the Hindi lyrics.

His fans have also relished the saucy double-entendre of “Caroni Close Down”, lamenting the shutting down of the country’s state-owned sugar production company, which employed a large number of Indo-Trinidadians. He explains the song with a devilish grin: “[It’s about the fact that] we cannot go “for cane”. I sing for controversy. Controversy sells, and I love it.”

Love them or hate them, Adesh’s songs reflect the playful Trinidadian humour called picong; they fit well within the country’s popular music traditions, and he knows it. “Cut my hands, cut your hands — same way I bleed. When I’m on the stage, I’m a superstar. When I come back down, I’m not a superstar. I’m a human being. I’m still Adesh.”

These days, the 24-year-old is spoiling for his chance to prove he is still number one. Post-accident, he promises to take Trinidad and Tobago by storm. But Adesh’s innermost wish is to win international notoriety. He plans to tackle the international music scene in reverse, promoting himself in Europe and then spreading across to North America. He’s working on a cover version of the 1960s rockabilly hit “Tell Laura I Love Her”, and even developing a reggaeton-inspired sound he’s calling “dholakton”. Still boyish, and “bussing” a joke at every chance, he longs for the limelight.

“I feel I’ll be the first chutney artist to make it really big internationally,” Adesh says. “I put more love into the music.”

Names to watch

Neeshan Prabhoo The so-called “Hitman” is renowned for blowing away the competition with his sharp-tongued humour. His 2005 number “More Rum for Me” — better known as “Mr Shankar” to party-goers — was a rip-roaring crossover hit, not just in the fetes but on the streets during Carnival. “The lyrics were inspired by the treatment we guys get when courting,” he says. Prabhoo was the only chutney performer to make it into last year’s Soca Monarch competition — a tough act to follow. Listen: “Doh Hold Meh Back” (1997); Another Hit by the Hitman (2005).

Rikki Jai Now 41, Samraj Jaimungal started his love affair with soca in 1986, but switched over to chutney in 1996. “When two styles come together it can be a stimulant for the business,” he says. In 2005, his ridiculously popular “Mor Tor” swept the fetes. Though he originally recorded the Hindi song in chutney style, teaming up with Machel Montano for a remix drove it to unprecedented tag-team fame. Listen: Rikki Jai Calypso Music, Vol. 2 and 3 (2002 and 2003), Libra Tula Raasi (2003), Aashish From Father to Son (2005); “Sumintra” (1991), “Show Me Your Motion” (1991), “Wine on a Bumsee” (1993).

Heeralal Rampartap The three-time International Chutney Soca Monarch — in 1997, 2003 (tying with Rikki Jai), and 2005 — has been performing chutney for the past fifteen years, but his sound keeps evolving. His brand of chutney soca is cutting-edge, and his lyrics might even be called revolutionary, for a genre dominated by the stereotypes of traditional Indian culture. In his 2005 hit “Treat Yuh Woman Nice” the chutney bard gives advice to men on balancing gender roles and treating women with respect. Listen: “Kay Paharie”, “Run For Meh Life” (both 2005).

– Sabrina Vailloo


Run ragga

Its hard-driving beat and Jamaican lilt make ragga soca perhaps the most popular branch of Trinidadian popular music today, as performed by Bunji Garlin, Maximus Dan, and Machel Montano — the man for whom genre is never a boundary

In 1999, the year the Ragga Soca Monarch competition was added to the raft of Carnival season contests, the first prize went to Iwer George, for a song many believed was not in the ragga soca style. (The competition organisers, perhaps anticipating such contingencies, had in fact hurriedly changed the competition’s title to “New Wave Soca”). A debate about the meaning of the term “ragga soca” ensued, with the likes of Bunji Garlin (who placed second in the competition), Ghetto Flex (who placed third), and producer Kenny Phillips (one of the pioneers of the form) putting in their two cents’.

Today, this fusion of the ragga (ragamuffin) style of dancehall reggae and soca is the most popular, fastest growing child of calypso, dominating not only its eponymous competition, but also the Soca Monarch competition, the airwaves, the party circuit, and the streets on Carnival Monday and Tuesday. Kenny Phillips described ragga soca in 1999 as “soca music which incorporated rapping or chanting with a Jamaican accent.” Bunji said it was “singing soca with a li’l bit of Jamaican accent, but with a soca melody.” Neither the term nor the style, however, is all that new. Jamaican bandleader Byron Lee had a single called “Ragga Soca” in 1996, and in 1989, Trinidad’s Sound Revolution dropped “Dancehall Style” and calypsonian Bally released “Maxi Dub”.

Today, however, ragga soca is a fully developed style, practised by many. It’s heavily dominated by men and marked by swaggering lyrics and an aggressive delivery, with artists like Bunji, Maximus Dan, KMC, Dawg-E-Slaughter, and 3Suns literally commanding the audience with alternating combinations of socially conscious and party-driven lyrics. (One of the few women who have embraced the sound is Denise Belfon, who’s put her own unique stamp on it and holds her own among the boys).

While ragga soca is one of the styles in the arsenal of Machel Montano, by no stretch of the imagination could he be described simply as a ragga soca artist. With his band Xtatik, Machel, one of the undisputed stars of the soca scene, has also made his mark with calypso, soca, chutney soca, parang soca, soca “lite”, “popso”, conscious soca, and rapso.

Now thirty, Machel started his music career at ten, and at eleven he went to the finals of the National Calypso Monarch Competition with a nod to calypso (“Get Up and Get”) and a statement of his intentions (“Too Young to Soca”). His 1997 album Heavy Duty included the Road March-winning “Big Truck”, which was almost a ragga soca number. In the following year, dancehall artist Shaggy, riding high on his wave of American success, joined him on the party favourite “Toro, Toro” on the Charge album. Collaborations between Trinidadian and Jamaican artists have now become commonplace, especially in the ragga soca arena, but that was the first time a soca performer had collaborated with a Jamaican dancehall artist. Red Rat, Beenie Man, Tony Curtis, TOK, and Mr Vegas would follow. Machel has also worked with calypso greats like the Mighty Sparrow, Lord Kitchener, Lord Nelson, Calypso Rose, Black Stalin, and David Rudder, and chutney icons Rikki Jai and Drupatee Ramgoonai.

“When you take these kinda daring steps — to step out of the normal styles — your style becomes more unique to you,” says Machel. “So for people to really get the experience, they have to get it from you.”

Yet the eclectic Machel is not always satisfied with the finished product. The number of years he has spent in the field has made him a tough critic of his own work. He is not always good-tempered, but his determination is unbending. “I always say to myself: I am not leaving this earth an unsatisfied or dissatisfied soul . . . there is still something there for me to fulfil musically. There is this sound that I have in my head and I see it on stage . . . sometimes I think I may create it for myself or I may create it for those who have to follow, but I think that is my ultimate mission in terms of music.

“When I first started doing this there was always a vision, but it was just so covered in excitement and things happening that you just kinda roll along. I always thought “Real Unity” [both a concert held in 2000 and the title of a collaboration with Drupatee Ramgoonai] was gonna sum up or totally reveal to my audience what I had been trying to do all the time. And that was kinda overshadowed by the disappointment [at the height of the concert, a stand crowded with fans collapsed and a few people were injured] . . . From that point on I was able to stop and realise that this thing is a train and it could either be pulling you or you could be sitting down in the back of it and pushing the buttons and deciding where you wanna go, where you wanna stop, what stop you wanna come off at, what you gonna just look at.

“So sometimes it’s not really what you want it to be, but you have to accept it and you have to try to work out of that. Because that is part of the process of elimination and finding what you really want out of it.

“I am kinda on a path to find something that will say, yes, this is it — and I know I can achieve that feeling, ’cause I have done it before, where I try to aim at something and when it happens I feel the feeling of completeness.”

Montano continues to change the industry and set standards, learning as he goes along. “I was everything. I was a roadie, an engineer, a DJ, a mike man, I’ve even emceed for fashion shows, and everything that I have done feeds into everything I am doing now. It is about being real. Its about being real to the people I am talking to.”

His album last year included collaborations with international recording stars Wyclef Jean and Dougie Fresh, and this year he has plans to include fresh musical styles and collaborations on his new release. “I’ve been learning most of my songs on guitar. I am looking forward to doing a whole set like that one day, though I feel there are a few songs I need to add to my repertoire before that happens. But that can happen at any moment, and sometimes it just happens spontaneously.

“I am not the best singer, I am not the best dancer, not one of the best lyricists, but I can put the whole thing together and make you feel a performance. I take it to the limit. I go to the limit of light. I want it to seem seamless like everything must just be happening, like, Yeah! . . . and when you feel that kinda energy, it is transferred into you, it cannot be destroyed.”

Names to watch

Maximus Dan Starting out as “Maga Dan” at age seventeen, Maximus made his first recording at the former Amar studios in Trinidad. As he shifted from a party style to a more thought-provoking stance, he embraced a new name inspired by the hit movie Gladiator. In 2004, he showcased his vocal versatility with a hit remake of veteran calypsonian Gypsy’s “Soca Train”, and tested the limits of ragga soca with the genre-shattering “Building Shake”: a sound harking back to Trinidad’s kaiso past, changing the pace of today’s soca music. Listen: “Only Gun” (1996), “Slow Wine” (1997), “War”, “Lash Satan” (both 2002).

Bunji Garlin Ian Alvarez, as he was known before his 1998 debut, melds soca, hip-hop, and dancehall to create a fresh, raw sound, pumping up audiences with his hard edge and rough-and-ready performances. “In the Ghetto” won him the International Soca Monarch Title in 2002, but he also goes down in history for his determined “conscious” slant — as in his anti-rape salvo “Licks” — a welcome departure for ragga soca. Listen: “Send Dem Riddim Crazy” (1998), “Brass”, “Breakaway”, “Bad Man”, “Chant Down Babylon” (all 2000); The Chronicles (1999), Revelation (2002), Black Spaniard (2003), Graceful Vengeance (2004).

KMC Ken Marlon Charles’s story starts with a hard-knocks upbringing in south Trinidad. He has an understandably tough exterior, but his 2004 love-ballad “Soul on Fire” has a softer, sweeter sound than his usual heavily dancehall- and hip-hop-inflected fare. KMC cites Maximus Dan, Destra Garcia, and Shurwayne Winchester as respected peers. “They walk similar journeys like me to accomplish their dreams.” Listen: “Soca Bashment” (1998), “Pieces of KMC” (2000).

– Tracy Assing


Pop goes soca

Whatever you choose to call it, the soca-pop-R&B hybrid popularised abroad by Kevin Lyttle, Rupee, and KMC shows soca adapting to both international listening tastes and market -ing plans. But at home in Trinidad, Destra Garcia’s version of “groovy soca” is the buouyant sound of Carnival today

At any given moment in Trinidad and Tobago’s musical history, there’s a genre being put forward as the sound most likely to do for the country what reggae has done for Jamaica. Soca, rapso, and ragga soca have held this position at various times — and ragga soca is still in the running — but the “money sound” these days is indisputably that style variously known as groovy soca, crossover soca, or — if you’re a VP Records marketing executive — “popso”.

If you happened to turn on your radio during the 2001 Carnival season, you’d have been sure to hear a song called “Turn Me On” by a little-known Vincentian crooner named Kevin Lyttle. Mid-tempo, easy on the ears, perhaps a little treacly — you didn’t necessarily have to like “Turn Me On” to understand its widespread appeal, and as the weather warmed up in other parts of the globe it became a summer hit in other markets as well. Then Atlantic Records offered Lyttle a recording contract. Life-size cutouts of the guy begin appearing in record stores in North America, and a music video directed by Little X was in rotation on MTV and elsewhere. The sub-genre known as “popso” was born.

VP Records, coiner of the rather awkward term, describes it in their literature as “the latest hybrid sound from the Caribbean . . . a blend of contemporary R&B, hip-hop and dancehall reggae styles filtered through today’s cutting edge soca artists and producers”. That’s marketing-speak, but it’s also a fairly accurate description of the sound popularised worldwide by Lyttle, as well as Rupee from Barbados and Trinidadian KMC in his “Soul on Fire” mode. Yet mid-tempo rhythms and crooning vocals are hardly a new strain in calypso and soca — in fact, one of the tracks chosen for VP’s 2005 Popso Jamz compilation is Denise Belfon and Ghetto Flex’s “Wine and Bend Over”, which dates from way back in 2003, when it was categorised as a ragga soca number.

A crossover sound is, by definition, a natural target for criticism, destined to get up the backs of hardcore fans of the various ingredient genres. And Trinidadian artists have in fact been known to lose or let go of record deals allegedly for refusing to cross over — to alter their sound to the extent that the contracting parties wished.

Not surprisingly, “popso” has inspired strong feelings among West Indians. “Stop messing around with an already established art form. To the many where this artform is a part of their culture itz [sic] a slap in the face,” says one comment at the de cooler: soca news website. “Kudos to VP Records . . .” says another, “for finally owning up to what sell-outs they are.” “Don’t we have this already? by ‘Groovy Soca’, ” goes a third. “Popso — can’t they be more creative and use what T&T already call it and stop messing around with it. Let’s get a petition going to have it remain as Groovy Soca.”

But, like it or not, pop calypso is having its moment in the sun. Of the foreign recording contracts handed out lately, all have gone to practitioners of the smooth new vibe. And only two of them so far — Sugar Daddy, who had a European hit with “Sweet Soca Music”, and KMC with “Soul on Fire” — have been from Trinidad and Tobago. Artists like Dawg-e-Slaughter have lowered the tempo and jumped on the “popso” bandwagon, and natural crooners like Edwin Yearwood and Shurwayne Winchester and groups like Da Bhann probably feel like they’ve found a home. With its innocuous themes of love and good times, pop calypso is also being positioned as the anti-dancehall sound — it’s unlikely you’re going to find a “popso” artist barred from performing on account of homophobic lyrics or inciting violence.

But there’s more than a single strain of pop calypso. While several Trinidadian artists have gone the route of the Atlantic/VP version of “popso”, Destra Garcia, over the last several years, has been forging her own crossover style. On 2003’s “Carnival” she hijacked a Cyndi Lauper melody and turned it into a huge hit which, two years later, was still setting Carnival fetes alight (and was adopted by the tourist authority for their Carnival marketing campaign). She followed in 2004 with two equally catchy numbers, “Up In the Air” and “Bonnie and Clyde”, as well as a popular duet with Shurwayne Winchester called “Come Beta”. “Bonnie and Clyde” would go on to be the theme song for an advertisement for Malibu Rum.

In 2005, she released her second album, Laventille, an ambitious tribute to her home community, and while it didn’t spawn anything on the level of her three previous hits, Destra had already arrived at a point in her career where her place on the Carnival circuit is practically assured. Today she’s known as both a solo artist and the lead vocalist for the band Atlantik (which she joined after a brief period on her own, after leaving Roy Cape All Stars, singing lead on hits like “Tremble It”), and she’s in high demand on the international Carnival circuit.

On stage, Destra is perky and girlish, a Trinidadian version of an American pop princess. While others writhe and gyrate, she leaps and kicks her feet in the air; unlike the queens of Jamaican dancehall — or her compatriot Denise Belfon — her stage act is G-rated, but still just sexy enough for her to maintain credibility on the Carnival scene. Her songs are buoyant and transcendental in a pop music kind of way, inspiring a sort of airborne abandon — her 2005 single, in fact, was entitled “Fly”.

In her short career, Destra has added three pop anthems to the catalogue: no mean achievement in the music business, and especially in the context of Carnival, which each year sees scores of “hits” which months later nobody has any recollection of ever having heard. Destra’s is the kind of sound that a young person, living at the crossroads of cultures and technologies that is Trinidad and Tobago today, is likely to produce, and the breeziness of her music may well act as an antidote to the hard edge which often characterises life not only in Trinidad and Tobago, but in many other corners of the globe.

Destra won the Road March title in 2003 at the Labour Day Carnival in Brooklyn, but she’s yet to win either the Road March or Soca Monarch title in her native land (though she’s come close). In interviews, however, she’s been philosophical. “It’s not about that,” Destra says. “It’s never about that. It’s all about the music. You remember ‘Bonnie and Clyde’? You remember ‘It’s Carnival’? That’s right. It’s all about the music. The music is memorable.”

Names to watch

Shurwayne Winchester Road March is no easy title to win, certainly not two years in a row. Tobago-born Shurwayne’s “The Band Coming” (2004) combined strong melodies with his trademark croon to make a massive hit. His clean-cut good looks didn’t hurt. In 2005 he won the crown again with “Dead or Alive” (2005), a tribute to revellers’ sheer determination to enjoy Carnival at all costs. Listen: “Take Your Time”, “Splash” (both 2002), “Get Out of my Dreams” (2004). Also lent his vocals to Destra Garcia’s crowd-pleasing soca-chutney crossover hit “Come Beta” (2004).

KES the Band Kees Dieffenthaller is a veteran of Trinidad’s rock scene, but he’s best known as former frontman for soca outfit Imij & Co., pairing up with Michelle Xavier on numbers like “Hypnotise”, “One Day”, and “The Way”. In 2004, along with brothers Hans (drums), Jon (guitar), and kindred spirit Riad Boochoon (bass), he broke away to launch KES with a fusion of soca and rock sounds. “When we’re outside playing our music, we realise how special and unique we are to be Trinbagonians.”

Michelle Sylvester 2005’s International Soca Queen is best known for her soulful R&B vocals and hip-hop rhythms, combined to good effect in her hit “Sleeping in Your Bed” — a song about a tit-for-tat tryst and its consequences. For seven years Sylvester honed her sound performing with brass bands like Horyzon and Sound Revelation. Now enjoying a solo career, she’s targeted new audiences and caught the attention of a growing fan base.

– Georgia Popplewell