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Trinidad and Tobago: The Soca Kings Play Songs of Anti-Love

According to the advertisements, the headliner at this evening's “Ladies Night Out” Valentine's Day concert in Port of Spain, Trinidad, is soca music star Bunji Garlin, but that may be more a marketing ploy than anything else. Garlin is the current golden boy of Trinidad and Tobago's music scene, in the wake of winning Soul Train and MTV Iggy awards for his 2013 hit song, “Differentology“.

The concert's actual moral centre, if you will, is the American R&B crooner Peabo Bryson, who made a name for himself in the 1980s with ballads like “If Ever You're In My Arms Again”, “Tonight I Celebrate My Love”, and the theme song from Disney's “Beauty and the Beast”. Unlike Bryson, the other performers in the lineup—all soca artists—will have to dig deep into their repertoires to find a song extolling the kind of values Valentine's Day represents. The performer needing to make the least effort might well be Mr. Killa, a singer from Grenada whose song this year is a tribute to plus-size women called “Rolly Polly Girls“.

It could be argued that this is all Valentine's Day's own fault, for falling in the middle of the festival nearest and dearest to the Trinidadian heart. Trinidad and Tobago's Carnival, arguably the world's pre-eminent pre-Lenten festival after the one in Brazil, is a season when conventional morality takes a back seat to spontaneous expressions of the kind of behaviour frowned upon by clerics and other supposed gatekeepers of the human soul.

In the last century, there were only 23 years in which Valentine's Day did not fall within the Carnival season. This year, the two days of Carnival proper are March 3rd and 4th, but since the week after Christmas the country has been swept up in the euphoria of the festival. Against the backdrop of an spiralling crime rate (in this nation of 1.4 million there've been over 60 homicides since the beginning of 2014), people are partying like it’s business as usual. Except for world wars (the festival was put on hold between 1942-45) and epidemics (polio, back in 1972), nothing stops the Carnival.

This evening, many Trinidadians will observe Valentine's Day the way others do throughout the world: flowers and chocolates will be sent and received and restaurants will likely be filled this evening with dining couples. But come February 15, the rules of Carnival will prevail once more. And Carnival rules and Valentine's Day values are about as incompatible as an Aries and a Capricorn.

During the first two or three months of any year, in addition to partying too hard and drinking more than is good for them, Trinidadians will often find themselves dancing in suggestive fashion—or “wining”, as that style of dance is called—with women and men to whom they have no particular, or long-standing, romantic attachment. Or sometimes no attachment at all: as Farmer Nappy sang last year, “Nothing [ain't] wrong with…wining on a stranger.” Not all of these interactions are innocent, but contrary to appearances, and as hard as this is for my close friend's European boyfriend to understand, much of the time it's really just about dancing. 

The music form driving these dancefloor antics is soca, the modern-day successor to calypso. During the Carnival season, soca is the soundtrack to the lives of large swaths of the population, blaring from radios and car sound systems and towering stacks of speaker boxes at a never-ending series of parties and spreading the gospel of slackness.

“I come out to live my life/Drink a rum and live my life/I'm the happiest man alive,” sings Machel Montano on “Happiest Man Alive“, an anthem which neatly sums up one aspect of the Carnival ethos. At parties, deejays will often mix Montano's song with Skinny Fabulous’ “Behaving The Worst“, with which it shares a rhythm track. In one of the hits of 2012, singer KI gave voice to a key male fantasy in the ultimate anti-love song, “Single Forever“, which enumerated the virtues of being unattached. 

With lyrics like the above, it's obvious that soca and Carnival have the potential to wreak havoc on intimate relationships, especially among those inexperienced in the workings of the culture. During the Carnival season, you cling tightly to the notion—or appearance— of monogamy at your peril. Some savvy couples negotiate a set of ground rules stating roughly that during the carnival season (almost) anything goes, provided life reverts to normal on Ash Wednesday. 

For, as everyone knows, the perpetrator of Carnival-induced behaviours isn't him or herself to blame: in the world according to soca human beings are powerless in the face of infectious rhythms, gyrating bodies and rum. 

This year there's any number of songs placing the blame on the oppressive power of the bassline, or a woman's gyrating buttocks (known in current soca parlance as the “bumper”), the sight of which instantly drains the average male of free will. “When de riddim hit you you does get on wassy for true,” sings Machel Montano on “Shameless”, “wassy” being a catch-all for a range of slack behaviours. “That bumper is too real,” cries a helpless Kerwin du Bois on “Too Real”. “I wanna wine but it lookin’ dangerous/And I just want to grind on you.” 

Soca's closest approximation to a love song this year may well be Cassi's “Man in Yuh House“, in which the persona expresses a desire to be elevated from the status of “horner man” to official lover: “I want to be the man in your house, and not the horner man/I want to take you out/Just like a normal man/Tonight I not hiding/I out in the open/For your man to see.” A lovely sentiment, but it's still not likely to make anyone's Valentine's Day playlist. 

Georgia Popplewell (@georgiap) is a writer and media producer from Trinidad and Tobago, and Managing Director of Global Voices.

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