Soca sound springs from calypso roots
With the imminence of the annual Carnival season permeating the air, calypso music, which has been the basis of, and has been inextricably linked to the celebrations, again takes the spotlight. The celebrations, which originated in Trinidad, now see present-day revellers referring to the music as soca (Soul Calypso), but in essence, there might have been very little change to the format since the Trinidadian, Lord Kitchener, made the second Road March song titled The Road in 1963.
The inaugural year, 1962, saw Lord Blakie's Maria copping the prize for the Road March song competition in the twin-island republic. Kitchener's recording of The Road was particularly timely and crucial to future entries. He had just returned from England, where he spent 14 years, after responding in the affirmative to a request from the British Government for workers from its Caribbean colonies to address its labour shortage. Whether or not it was Britain's brand of racism that triggered Kitchener's return, the fact is that he was right on time in his humorous satirical style, to warn any and all steelband men who had thoughts of ruining the celebrations and his enjoyment to desist. His lyrics were aimed directly at them:
'I hear how they planning for Carnival coming
I get information bout the situation
They say they go beat people
And they don't care bout trouble
But tell them don't worry with me
Is a different thing nineteen sixty-three
Because the road make to walk on Carnival day
Constable I don't want to talk but I got to say
Any steelband man only venture to break this band
Is a long funeral from the Royal Hospital'.
Kitchener, no doubt, was reminiscing on the lawlessness and violence unleashed by a set of 'panmen' or steelband players, following a United States navy's arrival in Trinidad in 1941.
Carnival-like celebrations in Trinidad date way back to the late 19th century and song competitions came to the fore around 1932. At that time, the competition was referred to as 'Leggos', but by 1962, it was renamed the 'Carnival road march competition' and became officially entrenched in the Trinidad carnival celebrations. Aldwyn Roberts, better known as Lord Kitchener, born in Arima, Trinidad, on April 18, 1922, and Slinger Francisco, better known as The Mighty Sparrow, born in Grand Roy, Grenada, on July 9, 1935, both dominated the Road March competition with 10 and eight wins, respectively.
Both men were widely regarded as the greatest calypsonians of all times, with Kitchener producing hundreds of calypso songs from the 1940s to 1990s, while Sparrow's plethora of awards, in addition to his eight-time crowning as Calypso King/Monarch, earned him the title 'Calypso king of the world'. One of the winning entries - Sparrow's interpretation of an obeah wedding in a recording of that same name - was palpably chilling, as he sang in his 1966 winner:
'You making yourself a pappy show Melda
you making yourself a bloody clown.
Up and down the country looking for obeah
and you perspiration smell so strong.
Girl you only wasting time
Obeah wedding bells don't chime
And you can't trap me with necromancy.
Melda, oh you making wedding plans,
carrying me name to obeah man.
All you do, you can't get through.
A still ain't goin marry to you'.
Soca, which was really an offshoot of authentic calypso, fused with ingredients of funk and soul, also had its roots in Trinidad and emerged in the mid-to-late 1970s. The godfather of the genre is said to be Garfield Blackman, also known as Lord Shorty. He came to prominence earlier with a 1963 hit Cloak and Dagger, before experimenting for about a decade with fusing calypso, funk and elements of indo-Caribbean music, to produce what he called 'The soul of calypso'. By the end of the decade, calypso music had taken off in a different direction.
By early 1990, the carnival fever had caught on in Jamaica, mainly through the instrumentality of the legendary Jamaica bandleader Byron Lee, who had a plan to bring the music, energy and vibe of Trinidad and Tobago's annual event to Jamaica. A regular visitor to the twin-island republic, Lee became closely associated with, and influenced by, their soca music, celebrations and Calypso King, The Mighty Sparrow. In virtually 'no time', Lee's band - Byron Lee and The Dragonaires - became one of the chief exponents of the soca rhythms, evolving from their earlier style of 'jump up' calypsos.
In an April 2014 interview with the long-serving keyboard player of the band, Neville Hinds, he recounted to me the band's transition from the jump-up sound to soca music, saying, "1967 was the beginning of the soca days with the band. The band was invited to Trinidad for their Independence celebration in 1971, and the following year was the first time we went to Trinidad for Carnival. Thereafter, the band became a regular fixture for Carnival, where we played soca and calypso," Hinds said. In another interview, Byron Lee paid special tribute to the Calypso King: "When Sparrow brought me to Trinidad, he taught me, and I learnt from him the true beat of soca and some of his lyrics," Lee explained.
With rich horns and piercing percussions, the Sparrow/Lee combination produced the immortal album, Sparrow meets the Dragon, which assisted with merging reggae as much as possible with soca. Through his music, Lee's efforts also assisted Caribbean integration by bringing artistes from various parts of the region more closely together. The Byron Lee, Neville Hinds, A. Cassel co-produced 1984 soca recording Tiny Winey became the biggest soca hit of the 1980s and remains one of the big draws at Carnival celebrations.