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Where Soca Music Begins and Ends

Bunji Garlin

Artwork depicting Trinidadian musician Bunji Garlin. Photo by Paul Lowry on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

If it sounds like soca, and makes you dance like soca – is it still definitely soca music? The success of the carnival song, Differentology, by the artist Bunji Garlin has spurred public debate about what exactly constitutes soca, a style of music that originated in Trinidad & Tobago. The song breaks with tradition instrumentally in several ways.

Trinidadian musician Michael Low Chew Tung hosted a lengthy discussion on his Facebook profile to explore the issue. The discussion evolved into a discussion of music history and the development of the Trinidadian music industry.

We share parts of the Facebook conversation below with permission from all quoted.

Michael Low Chew Tung started the discussion by asking whether the song “Alingo” by Nigerian pop duo P-Square qualifies as a soca song:

Soca 2014- So seeing that Bunji and Faye Ann have blurred the lines, would you call this a soca? And if not, why not?

Nigel Campbell believes it qualifies as soca:

Soca. Four on the floor, and the percussive pattern on the synth snare. Their “problem” (if it is at all) is that they aren't Caribbean but African.

According to Dion Boucaud, anyone can make soca, just as anyone can play jazz:

The question then, is soca a genre? If it is, then it can be produced by any artiste from any country in much the same way we produce Jazz. Pop or Rock. In my humble opinion this is soca, built on the same structure as any produced in Trinidad. They may not call it that, however if the influence is from here or if it is as undefined as what we produce then opportunities exist to brand it. The ones with an identity crisis over what we produce is us. They have no qualms in Japan calling what they do soca. My two cents.

Michael Low Chew Tung believes that what is now marketed as soca has strayed far from the essential qualities of the genre:

I submit that the problem in Trinidad, is that soca 2014 has very little of what makes it soca, and now morphed into EDM [electronic dance music]. Aside from “content” related to carnival as Ian stated, there isn't much else.

Rubadiri Victor, however, believes that there are elements which unite all musical expressions in the African diaspora:

Rhythm is the main signifier. The African Diaspora is made up of Rhythm Nations who have created national sounds based on rhythmic permutations of ancient ancestral patterns- each with its distinctive character. There have been fusions and borrowing- determined by the power of different outposts of the diaspora during respective Golden Ages: Calypso affected rhythms in America, the Caribbean, Latin America, and Africa from the 1930s to 50s, pop, rock and especially funk influenced stuff from the 50s to the 70s, and reggae and dancehall from the late 70s to 90s with hip hop dominating since. Important to note however has been the unspoken role that Soca has played since the 80s in influencing all the world's popular music- the only thing that has stopped this identification has been our cowardice and stupidity and refusal to claim what is ours

Victor added that much of today's pop music has been influenced by soca, even though it is not always acknowledged:

The entire sound of popular dance music now- which is the pop of the world- is completely derived from the unspoken influence of Soca music on the dance scenes and best DJs and producers of the world and the artists who have been crafting rhythm based music for the last 30 years who have been listening and influenced heavily by Soca and our Carnivals…

M.Rudder asserts that what is now called soca should be considered a whole separate genre:

This is not Soca. It is the new genre called “Island Pop”. Differentology kept one Trini element in it, but not in the drum and bass, but in the Horns; the Shango beat in the horns of the chorus which, to me, was genius. Cant believe I reach late for this discussion.

In a separate thread, Michael Low Chew Tung critiqued the notion that a single element could qualify a song as soca by listing several songs that would then have to qualify:

After all this, do you still think having only one “soca” element in a tune makes it a soca?

Nigel Campbell quoted one of the jazz greats to argue that what is and isn't soca depends on the song:

Thelonius Monk once said, famously, “I don't have a definition of Jazz. You're just supposed to know it when you hear it.” I would assert that a similar sentiment can be made for soca. The fluidity of music makes definitions sometimes pointless, but we know it when we hear it.;

Mackini Joseph questions the extent to which contemporary soca constitutes a separate genre:

From what i see posted here and based on my own knowledge of African derived music; soca to me cannot be classified as a genre. We developed a form of musical expression in Trinidad and called it soca. But this form of of expression (energetic soulful music) developed in other places where the cultural background is similar. When we listen to all the variants of this music Salvador Bahia, Dominican Republic, The French Caribbean Islands, Suriname, Colombia, Grenada and Most of latin america, the lines begin to be blurred as you can hardly distinguish any large differences in the music and it's feel. Just my two cents.

He later clarified that while the roots of the music are distinct, they have all evolved in a similar direction:

…Samba, Son and Calypso's pulse are extremely different. I am talking about the evolution of the music into the various forms that we have today; mainly in it's modern electric forms. Most of the time “watered down”.

Michael Low Chew Tung thinks that educated listeners could differentiate the types of music:

Outsiders think it's all the same but on careful analysis, the patterns emerge. For example: What is the rhythmic difference between Son, Calypso and Samba? While you may think it's all the same because they share some characteristics, it's where the pulse is felt in each one that is uniquely different.

Carlos Thompson does not think the mixing of the musical genres is such a bad thing:

Good discussion, but let me play devil's advocate here. Is the blurring of the lines a bad thing? Would it help the art form if we all agreed on what is soca? And the same for parang, chutney, kaiso? In this world we are just 1.3m so shouldn't we embrace all our artistic variations and interpretations (even our interpretation of rock, r'n'b (Carol Addison comes to mind), fast soca, new parang etc)? For me I love the fact that we have all these forms from poetry to comedy to pan to music. I just wish we were less competitive among ourselves and move away from giving shedloads of money to the winner and devil take the hindmost approach. In the end we just might be cutting our noses to spite our faces?

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