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DJ Barney Millah - Germany’s godfather of soca
When German DJ Barney Millah speaks, the words that come out of his mouth are not sprinkled with his native Berlin accent. Instead phrases such as “yeah man, ah coming!” “fellahs,” “and ting,” and “ by he” come out with the familiar sing-song inflection of a Trinidadian.
Added to that, he likes a good lime.
“I am not the kind of European who likes to chill on the beach. Once I have food and drink, I’m good,” he said during an interview on Skype.
He proclaims his love for Germany and his place of birth, Berlin, but his exposure to the Caribbean has made him feel as if he was born in the wrong country. Blame the soca music that he plays or blame the fact that he once took it upon himself to visit Tobago solo or that his girlfriend of seven years is a Trinidadian and her family has so embraced him that he has become an honorary Trini.
For those in the soca industry, Millah is known as a point man for pushing the music in Europe. Bunji Garlin recently posted a picture of the two of them in a brotherly embrace on Facebook, explaining in brief the story behind the man.
Bunji wrote: “…he was the second person to ever start playing soca in Germany but the first to actually stick with for a decade or more, anytime he would play soca everyone would leave, some even wanting him to be fired because they didn’t like the music…THAT IS A DEFENDER OF SOCA and the world of soca should know and respect this man…”
It’s true, Millah said. He cleared a club once. He cleared the floor at other parties and he didn’t care. As long as he played soca he was happy, he said.
His attraction to soca began in 1987 when he purchased his first vinyl LP, a soca sample titled Soca Train. Among the songs on the album were Kitchener’s Sugar Bum Bum, Crazy’s Soca Tarzan and Arrow’s Hot, Hot, Hot. By then, he was already a DJ with a reggae background. Both reggae and soca were hardly played at parties in the 80s, except at the African clubs.
In 1991, he travelled to Jamaica to know more about reggae and dancehall. There, he met the late Caribbean music icon Byron Lee who performed a groovy mix of reggae, dancehall and soca. By the time Millah returned to Germany, he established his sound system—which comprises DJs with a variety of mixing styles, hype men on the mic, and a vast library of music.
He also told his boss at the record store where he worked that he was interested in soca music. He persuaded him to sell some music in the store. That was where he met Franky Fyah, of the famed Soca Twins sound system, who often bought records there and often had conversations about Carnival.
In 1994, at a beach club opening in Berlin, he saw a melting pot of all people but reggae music was only played. “There were Grenadians, Trinis, people from Guadeloupe and Guyana. I said to myself, why don’t I give them some soca music? In 1997, I opened a club playing on Monday nights, some fellahs came every Monday night. And a bouncer who was there, originally from the Virgin Islands, told me you have to play soca for them.”
That same year, VP records released Soca Gold and Trinidad performers were also exploring the dancehall movement by incorporating their own styles. The names back then were Bunji (who appeared on the local airwaves with Ragga soca), Magga Dan (now known as Maximus Prime) and 3Suns who visited Germany to mix their music.
When the sound system broke off in 2000, Millah felt he had more freedom to play soca. In 2001, Millah made his first visit to T&T, visiting the sister isle first through the advice of a former neighbour who was originally from Tobago. He stayed with the neighbour’s family. There he met his sister’s neighbour who sang with Byron Lee. Staying with her family in Arima, she introduced Millah to Ronnie McIntosh, Machel Montano and Maximus. “That was my first Carnival and that was it there. The virus really broke out,” he said.
Since then he has visited five times for Carnival, the last visit was in 2008. He has also frequented New York’s Labour Day playing on the road for the band produced by his girlfriend’s father. “I play for a back yard party on the night before Labour Day, strictly soca, no reggae,” he said. “I love to play for a mature audience. I like to see couples move together. I let it flow, I let the people dance. I don’t cut the music, I play back in times and modern, with the right mix.”
Back in Germany, Millah felt the on the road feeling, not as a DJ but jumping along with the Soca Twins music truck during the Carnival of Cultures, which takes place annually in late May to early June. Before, he played reggae music on the road. That particular Carnival, he was replaced by a team from Hamburg and enjoyed the jump up instead. It also triggered the idea of bringing his own music truck on the road. So after talks with Franky Fyah, they started their first band.
“We had about 20 coming out in just t-shirts. But they didn’t supply rope, so we had about 14 to 15 masqueraders and 600 behind the truck!” Millah said. “Now we have two trucks—Carnival Fever and Carnival Explosion. One that is strictly mas and other with no costume.”
The girlfriends of Millah and Franky Fyah are in charge of the Carnival costume band, which has since increased to 220 masqueraders. In all, between the two bands, there are close to 2,000 people who follow them. The package to the Berlin street fete also includes tickets for a welcome party, a beach party and a glow party. Among the Caribbean artistes to have performed with Millah are Skinny Fabulous, Peter Ram, Lil Rick, Bunji and Fay-Ann.
Having established himself as a go-to man for soca music in Germany, Millah admits that its presence is still limited. Although reggae and dancehall is still his major business, he still plays soca when he works. The African patrons are getting into it, he said, because of the hype of the genre azonto (which is played in Nigeria and Ghana) and is compatible with soca music.
“On the radios this (soca) is not happening except for a multicultural station. And even then, that is a few times. You get Sean Paul and Beanie (Man) but there is more focus on hip hop and R&B,” Millah explained.
Nevertheless, Millah believes he has been able to change a lot of people by playing soca. “Now you see them at a lot of parties,” he said.
Martin Jay, the UK’s leading soca DJ, is a big fan of Millah and DJs like the Soca Twins. Jay told the T&T Guardian, “Barney champions soca music and it gives us a broader horizon when Barney Millah and the other guys in Europe are promoting soca like it’s their music. It’s like it’s their navel strings are buried in the Caribbean. Full respect to Barney.”