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Soca alive and well in 2011

Published: 
Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Now that Carnival is over, I can put my two cents in about the music. First and foremost I am most grateful for all of the drinking songs. No, I’m not being facetious.  Those drinking songs make a point that we can’t hide from: drinking is the focus of entertainment in Trinidad. (Let me not speak for Tobago, because I don’t know that I can). It is a sad and dangerous state of affairs when our young people can’t enjoy music and each other’s company when they go to a fete. There’s something wrong with having to drink themselves into oblivion to have a good time. Chutney soca singers have given us this opportunity to focus on the problem, and we need to examine it in a serious way.

Anyway, this was a great year for music. I can only comment on what I heard on the radio or saw broadcast on TV, so I am surely going to miss mentioning a great calypso or soca that escaped me. A neurological issue prevents me from being around loud sound so I did not go to a calypso tent or a fete.
What I did hear represented the cultural state of affairs: Proud people—often in a frenzied state—celebrating themselves, their culture, their history and their penchant for partying. Yes, I missed a Get Something and Wave, a Portrait of Trinidad, a Bahia Gyul, a Jean and Dinah, Rainorama—the list goes on and on—but, again, the music reflects our times.

Benjai managed to capture the essence of us in his patriotic soca, Trini. Everything that makes a Trini endearing is in that soca. He managed to create a message with a combination of pride and humour. We can sing Trini, dance to it and smile. It is a soca hit that will be a lasting memory of Carnival 2011 in spite of the copyright issues about the rhythm track that plagued the song. In general, performers need to be more careful about originality. Sometimes I think it boils down to laziness and a flippancy about other’s creativity. That simply won’t do. Still, everywhere I turned this Carnival, I was reminded of our calypso history. Benjai’s Wine to the Side conjured up images of calypso narratives like Long Time by the late Arrow or This Party Is It by Christopher “Tambu” Herbert. It’s a different story, but the same tradition. It is a story for our time and, again, one we will sing for Carnivals to come.

The same goes for Wotless sung by Kees Dieffenthaller. It is a bravado, and an anthem for independence, in the traditional sense of the word. In a world where we are all expected to act and look a certain way, Kees gave everyone permission to play themselves. That is an important message imbedded in Carnival.
In the past I have been highly critical of Machel Montano, but I am pleased about how he is growing as an entertainer. He has his musical fingers on the pulse of this country. His performances, though sometimes pure frenzy, do manage to transcend the mundane and inject energy into the Carnival in a gloriously spirited way. He put a voice to two of the most important socas for Carnival: Illegal and Advantage.

Here we must, of course, mention Kernel Roberts, the son of the late Lord Kitchener. Kernel is endowed with an extraordinary musical gift. Shadow had been telling me about Kernel’s talent as a master of rhythm for years before Kernel came on the scene. Kernel needs to stick to his original roots and not stray from his own creativity. He is an important bridge between the past and future. Illegal is a very important soca because it reminds us of the tradition of wining in Carnival and the statement wining makes as a form of protest against society. In colonial Trinidad, wining symbolised a struggle for independence—individually and culturally speaking—and in this day of neo-colonialism, the message is equally important. There are so many clever, empowering lines in Illegal.

Advantage is a chronicle of an important cultural event: the people coming back to the stage in the Savannah. I thought Advantage was overlooked for its possible double entendre. Taking advantage and being advantageous provides a positive and negative connotation for the word. In any case, Advantage provided an opportunity to have fun and trample on all our frustrations, which is really what Carnival is about. There were so many impressive J’Ouvert songs that captured the deep, dark mood of J’Ouvert and the riveting rhythms that define it, and I loved the humour and satire of Allrounder’s Wine.

I’ve run out of room to go on about this year’s bumper crop of songs, but let me say this: Soca artistes are stepping up to the plate: They’re creating simple, meaningful songs with lasting lyrics that reflect Trinidad society, and they’re creating memorable music. Meanwhile, calypso is languishing with many mundane songs that are often too didactic and void of anything vaguely reminiscent of a melody.

Next week: More on calypso music in a letter to my nephew, one of the biggest stars of this Carnival.