On Endless Vibrations: Locating Soca Music

Lots of people recently returned from Trinidad and Tobago Carnival thoroughly energized from the parties, dancing, and most of all, the powerfully loud and beat-driven soca music. If you’ve never hear this music up close, blasting from the slow-moving soundsystem trucks that crawl their way through the streets of Port Of Spain, it’s quite an overwhelmingly immersive experience. There’s nothing like it: the sound is so mightily, crushingly loud it not only goes through you–it compresses air itself, making you feel light. Talk about presence! Though it doesn’t capture the volume of the experience, here’s some footage that shows one of the trucks:

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Developed in the late 1960s and early 1970s, soca is a fusion of musical styles, initially building on its predecessor, calypso music. Calypso’s biggest star was Lord Kitchener (1922-2000). One of his early hits from the late 1960s was “Take You Meat Out Me Rice”:

Soca also incorporated elements and instruments from Indo-Caribbean chutney music. The singer Dropati is considered the founder of modern chutney. Her 1968 song “Gowri Puja” has an upbeat tempo and features the sound and rhythms of South Asian percussion instruments (e.g. dholak drum) that articulate an offbeat feel similar to the groove of modern soca:

Early 1970s soca classics include songs by Lord Shorty/Ras Shorty I (Garfield Blackman 1941-2000), such as “Endless Vibrations”

and “Sweet Music” (which has some nice bass synthesizer work on it too!)

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In 2014, the sound of soca has some things in common with that panoply of styles that is referred to today as electronic dance music (EDM). First, its textures are almost entirely synthesized/electronic. (Even the singing voices are heavily processed.) Second, both soca and EDM have a driving, four-on-the-floor kick drum pulse that anchor the songs and direct the dancing listeners. Soca adds an offbeat snare drum syncopation pattern (on the fourth 16th note subdivision of beat one, and the third 16th of beat two) that gives the music its distinctive lilt and forward propulsion. Even though all soca beats are programmed, they can, of course, be played on real drums. This instructional video demonstrates how to do it:

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In the songs played at Trinidad and Tobago Carnival 2014, we hear various blends of the soca and EDM soundworlds. A good place to begin is Farmer Nappy’s “Big People Party.” In the context of other recent songs, it’s somewhat old-fashioned sounding, complete with a horn section (song begins at 1:20):

Bunji Garlin’s “Carnival Tabanca” is a slightly downtempo tune that substitutes hand claps for the 4/4 kick drum. In this song, one kick pattern plays every second beat, while a second, deeper-pitched one plays every eighth beat, giving the song a multilayered, smooth feel:

Kerwin Du Bois’s “Too Real” features a keyboard playing the off-beat pattern usually played by soca snare drum:

And finally, there’s the ever-present singer-producer-songwriter Machel Montano, Trinidad’s most famous soca artist. Like Du Bois’s “Too Real,” “H.M.A. (Happiest Man Alive)” features a keyboard part that does heavy syncopation work:

The song “Sound Bang” is one of Montano’s many collaborations, this one a duet with Major Lazer, an electronic music project of American DJ Diplo. Meticulously constructed, “Sound Bang” features an infectious half-time ukulele-like refrain that bookends intense 4/4 kick sections. In this piece you can also hear dramatic DJ-esque filter sweeps and snare drum blurr-rolls that demarcate the different sections of the song. The tempo is fast, fast, fast, perhaps pointing towards soca’s ever-intensifying future trajectories:

 

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