When calypso purists gather to talk about the state of Carnival music they always seek to compare each year’s issue with those of seasons past. Invariably, there is always derision of the soca genre, some describing the work as inane, citing sameness of rhythm, lack of original melodies and speed of the music as reasons for annoyance and yearning for a return to the “good ol’ days.”
But a careful examination of the music and truthful comparison with calypso of long ago will discover more similarities than discord. For starters, what is referred to as “inane lyrics” is nothing but a reflection of inane conversation, prevalent from people in Parliament to people in the street. This may be attributed to the shift in social and moral values now existent not only in our country, but worldwide, and the creation of a new “specie” of language (if there can be such a thing) brought about by the introduction of the computer and world wide web, and their revolutionary principles.
There has also been stinging criticism of soca singers “riding a riddim,” constructing several songs (often by different artistes) on a common bed of music. But this formula is not significantly different from the “Santimanitay” and “Re Minor” templates used extensively during calypso’s early history. Remember, as well, extempo is performed using a single melody.
More often than not, many commentators who slam today's singers for lack of lyrical content find it difficult to sing even a single line from any of the disliked songs, suggesting they were probably predisposed to finding the work distasteful.
But the question of calypso lyrics has long been a contentious matter. Sparrow's Rose was considered a “song” by complaining peers. David Rudder’s title-winning Bahia Girl (1986) was roasted by fellow contestant Gypsy in Sing Ram Bam the year following, the latter attacking the song's chorus for its absence of lyrics. Interestingly, when calypso legend Lord Melody did the very thing many years ago in a composition titled The Whistler he was hailed in many quarters as innovative. And Lord Nelson’s lyrics-less La La still remains a hit song.
Those who still refer to soca as being performed at “breakneck speed” obviously have not been paying attention to the beat of today’s songs. Actually, outside of the songs that can be described as frenetic, soca has delivered a slew of danceable selections, inclusive of Trini to the Bone, Dr Seales, By the Bar, Life Shaping and lots more, coming from the very group we derisively refer to as the jump-and-wave posse.
And don’t get me started on the lack of original melodies. The word “djamblay,” a street-level description of calypso plagiarism in both lyric and melody, is not of recent vintage, suggesting that this approach has been around for some considerable time. Then there’s the outrage about adapting melodies of foreign songs. By his own admission, Explainer’s hugely popular Lorraine was sung to the melody of The Beatles’ Hey Jude. Kitchener’s My Fancy from way back in the good ol’ days, was a clear copy of I’m in the Mood for Love.
And let us not forget that, so starved were we for a good melodic line back in 1955 that the road march was a German folk-song called The Happy Wanderer.
For the most part, some see the soca genre as a rape of the calypso art-form's integrity. They hold the view that all performers should stay within the box, emulating their forerunners, when that too was never part of calypso. The Roaring Lion didn't follow the rules, nor did The Mighty Sparrow, Maestro, Shadow, Shorty, Rudder or Machel Montano, each in his time.
Actually, we consider them calypso revolutionaries of sorts, daring to change tempo, disregarding the habit of repeating the first two lines of the opening verse, varying the beat and, in total, forging new styles that we now embrace as tradition.
So here we are today, bombarded on all fronts by what the creator of the Soca Monarch Competition would refer to as “more than 1,000 songs made for Carnival alone.”
We need to concede, then, that today's dance is to a different beat - a new one in many respects. And trying to deny any innovation or hybrid a space in the calypso art-form will not make it disappear.