The Essential Guide to Soca

Everything you always wanted to know about the music soundtracking Carnivals across the Caribbean, but didn’t even know to ask

March 7, 2017

The musical engine driving today’s Caribbean Carnival celebrations from Barbados to St. Vincent, soca began its life as an experiment in 1970s Trinidad & Tobago. Seeking to create a musical unity between his twin-island republic’s East Indian and African populations, Trinidadian music icon Lord Shorty inserted the dholak and dhantal into the Afro-Creole rhythm of calypso on 1973’s “Indrani,” sketching out a new hybrid sound he first dubbed “the soul of calypso.”

Other calypsonians would follow Shorty’s lead, putting aside the pointed political commentary of Trinidad’s original musical export to turn up the party vibes. It would be a decade, however, before soca crystallized into its modern form, incorporating – and then digitizing – the sounds of the street-level brass brands and iron-beating rhythm sections heard at Carnival time to create a sound specially geared for masqueraders to “chip” and jump up to.

Today, soca is a broad category whose numerous permutations can be hard for even insiders to track.

Soca filtered out across the English-speaking Caribbean in the ’80s, developing distinct characteristics on each territory where it touched down. Tempos were sped up on some islands, and slowed on others; instruments added and subtracted. Local folk traditions and popular music trends were incorporated into the stew, leading to the coining of new styles and sub-genres.

Today, soca is a broad category whose numerous permutations can be hard for even insiders to track. In all, about a dozen island nations count some form of soca as their primary musical output. Yet on most, if not all, of these it’s a seasonal genre, with songs generally timed for release in the months just before Carnival. While critics of this approach say that limits soca’s growth, it’s also created a cycle of perpetual innovation, as artists and producers seek to reinvent their brands with each year’s Carnival offerings.

What follows is a road map to help you navigate the many iterations of soca music, and the ways they reflect the cultures of the islands they call home.

Trinidad & Tobago
Definitive Track: Olatunji, “Ola”

Olatunji - Ola

One of the newest strains in the soca economy, Afro Soca is a response by Caribbean artists and producers to the rise of Afrobeats, a similarly broad category of hybrid sounds with which it shares much common ground. Soca is by definition an African-derived form, and soca acts have made overtures to Africa throughout the genre’s existence. But the recent trend of self-identified Afro Soca releases has its roots in a handful of recent cross-continental collaborations, notably a 2014 remix of Nigerian star Timaya’s “Shake Your Bum Bum” featuring soca’s reigning superstar, Machel Montano, that hit big in Trinidad.

A hybrid sound began to shape in 2015, with Olatunji Yearwood winning that year’s International Groovy Soca Monarch competition with “Ola,” a track featuring a West African-inspired choral arrangement and lyrics toasting a dancer for “wining like she from Africa.” The 2016 Trinidad Carnival season brought a wave of Afro Soca productions, including Olatunji’s similarly-hued “Oh Yay,” as well as “Block the Road,” a collaboration between Fay-Ann Lyons and Ghana’s Stonebwoy B.

Afro Soca tracks are generally analogous in tempo to Groovy Soca (slower soca in the 110 to 135 BPM range), often with a guitar melody of seeming West African origin. Lyrically, these songs tend to express a certain awareness of their role in connecting the Caribbean and Africa (Olatunji name checks Afro Soca on “Oh Yay”; in his “Block D Road” verse, Stonebwoy calls out Trinidad & Tobago and St. Lucia). “If you look at every era of soca music, it has always been touched and tinged by contemporary sounds of the day from disco in the ’70s all the way to EDM,” says Trinidadian producer LAZABEAM, one half of the production team Jus Now. “And now that’s happening with Afrobeats in Afro Soca.”

Definitive Track: Lil Rick, “Go Down”

Lil Rick - Go Down

Barbados is often thought to be the most “polite” of Caribbean islands, but anyone attending a fete where Bashment Soca is featured might quickly shed that notion. Blending soca with the plucky, piano-driven riddims of late ’80s and early ’90s dancehall, this growing sub-genre encourages all manner of rude and dibby behavior, inspiring dancers to wuk up (a Caribbean wine, in its most aggressive form), pelt waist (ditto) and pat and crank (Bashment enthusiast Rihanna’s been known to sneak this suggestive move, celebrated in song by Peter Ram, into award-show performances). “It’s highly energetic, very edgy and youth-driven by design,” says Bajan soca DJ and radio personality Jon Doe.

Bashment soca’s roots lie in what’s known in Barbados as “dub” – popular Jamaican dancehall riddims “versioned” for the local market by Bajan artists. Soca and dub first cross pollinated in a handful of ’90s-era collaborations between Lil Rick, then a popular artist on the dub circuit, and producer Peter Coppin (of Monstapiece Entertainment), specifically 1996’s “Hard Wine.” Rick and Coppin continued to carve out this terrain on further collaborations, perfecting the swing on 2010’s “Go Down,” but it’s only in the last few years that these fusions have come to be labeled as Bashment Soca.

The summer of 2016 saw an explosion in such productions, and the addition of a Bashment Soca Monarch competition to Barbados’ official Carnival calendar. Along with Coppin and Lil Rick, both still active, key practitioners include Stiffy (who won the inaugural Bashment Soca Monarch title with “Tek Off Something”) and Marz Ville, whose “Bang Bim” was the breakout song of Barbados’ 2016 Crop Over season. Artist-comedians Leadpipe and Saddis are also proponents; see the Monstapiece-produced “Condense” and “Ben Up,” performed in their Porgie and Murda guise. The sound has now spread to Trinidad, where this year’s Carnival season brought several bashment-style productions, including Jus Now’s Get On riddim, and the Bashey Vibez riddim voiced by Destra on “Waistline Killer.”

Definitive Tracks: W.C.K., “Bouyon” / Ricky T, “Pressure Boom”

WCK - Bouyon

Residents of Dominica insist that the musical gumbo known as Bouyon is not a variation on Trinidadian soca, but a concoction entirely endemic to the Nature Island. This is, largely, true: Bouyon derives from several folk music styles indigenous to this 290-square-mile paradise between Martinique and Guadeloupe, namely Jing Ping, an accordion-based folk music with roots dating back to slavery days, as well as cadence-lypso, a fusion of calypso and Haitian kadans popularized in the ’70s by Dominican bands Exile One, Grammacks and Midnight Groovers.

Ricky T - Pressure Boom

The band W.C.K. (short for Windward Caribbean Kulture) pioneered the sound in the late 1980s, though it wasn’t until their 1996 hit “Bouyon” that it had a name. “[WCK’s] signature was taking Jing Ping songs, and playing it electronically,” explains John “Soca Johnny” David, a U.K.-based bouyon and soca artist originally from Dominica. “Bouyon originally referred to a type of food cooked in Dominica that would include a mix of everything.”

Early bouyon heavily featured the accordion as well as the sound of conch shells and a wind instrument known locally as a Boom Boom. (“It’s a long tube you blow into, which makes a deep sound almost like a drum,” David says). Over time, a signature snare drum shuffle developed – it’s a busy beat, punctuated with effusive snare rolls – and the pace of bouyon sped up. Today’s tempos are typically between 155 and 160 BPMs, with digital loops and samples largely replacing live instruments, though a handful of bands, including W.C.K., Triple Kay and Original Bouyon Pioneers (consisting of original members from W.C.K.) continue on.

Soca, of course, has followed a similar arc, and the genres’ parallel developments have led to fusions, and some confusion. “Both are centered around Carnival culture so, there are obvious similarities, mainly with Power Soca, which has the same BPMs, energy and a similar rhythmic structure to Bouyon,” David says. The key differences? “Bouyon places a very strong focus on the rhythm, more than lyrics,” he explains. “At a live bouyon event, the lead singer will chant a few lines then let the riddim play, which the crowd enjoys. Lyrically, Bouyon tends to include more social commentary than soca, although there are party-based Bouyon songs and vice versa.”

Regardless, bouyon tracks like W.C.K.’s “Balance Batty” have found their way into the Carnival pantheon on other soca islands. And the term bouyon soca, though not widely used in Dominica, has been coined to describe crossover between the genres; notable examples include “Oh Gosh,” a 2015 release by Trinidad’s Flipo produced by Dominica’s Dada, and “Pressure Boom,” a region-wide 2008 hit by St. Lucia’s Ricky T with a drum beat borrowed from W.C.K. Asa Bantan, the genre’s current general, is fairly typical of today’s bouyon artists in delivering his lyrics in a raggamuffin style indebted to dancehall and hip-hop. Active bouyon circuits can also be found in Guadeloupe and St. Martin, neighboring French territories where the sound has taken a youthful direction, as on Niqo and Lit Child’s 2017 release “Shift Her.”

Trinidad & Tobago
Definitive Track: Rikki Jai, “Sumintra”

Rikki Jai - Sumintra

Chutney Soca, like Afro Soca, is something of a paradox. Soca, by Lord Shorty’s design, was originally a fusion of calypso and so-called chutney music – Caribbeanized versions of Bhojpuri folk songs brought to Trinidad a century ago by indentured workers from Northern India. Yet, as soca came to dominate the music scene in Trinidad, and the chutney elements of the sound became less apparent in mainstream soca, a market developed catering specifically to the tastes of the island’s substantial East Indian populace.

Drupatee Ramgoonai gave the style a name with her 1987 single “Chutney Soca” (and an identically-named album), though “Roll Up de Tassa,” released a year later, was more widely heard. Rikki Jai has been chutney soca’s leading voice ever since; his 1988 single “Sumintra” scandalized conservative listeners with its depiction of a Hindu girl expressing a preference for soca over popular Indian singer Lata Mangeshkar. Fifteen years later, Jai introduced the now-common practice of adapting popular Bollywood songs into soca, with 2003’s “Juma.” “That was the first time you saw [regular] soca parties dancing to some Indian stuff in Trini,” LAZABEAM recalls.

Today’s chutney torchbearers also include Ravi B and Kris “KI” Pershad, frontmen for the bands Karma and JMC 3Veni, respectively. In contrast to the more Carnival-centric styles of soca, chutney soca lyrics, which can be delivered in English, Hindi or a mixture of the two, often deal with marriage and family, sometimes through a humorous lens. (Ravi B’s “Bread,” with its preposterous music video, is a particularly illustrative example.) White rum is also a popular topic. Chutney soca enjoys considerable popularity in Guyana and Suriname – culturally Caribbean nations in South America with substantial East Indian populations – with Guyana’s Terry Gajraj leading the way. New York City, with its large Indo-Caribbean expat community, has also been an important stop on the chutney soca circuit since the 1990s.

Trinidad & Tobago
Definitive Track: Kerwin Dubois, “Bacchanalist”

Kerwin Du Bois - Bacchanalist

The term Groovy Soca took hold in Trinidad & Tobago in the mid 2000s, as a label for the more melodic, R&B-inspired soca emerging at the time. As Power Soca was taking soca into faster tempos, other producers were slowing soca to below 135 BPMs, while absorbing international influences into their sound. A distinction was officially made in 2005, when organizers of the International Soca Monarch competition opted to divide the competition into two separate categories, “Power” and “Groovy.” (This division remained in effect until 2016, when the showcase reverted once again to a single title).

In the last five years, Groovy has become the default sound of soca, drowning out all other styles in terms of quantity and popularity. If you were to walk into one of the all-inclusive fetes held in Trinidad in the weeks before Carnival, you would hear “Groovy” almost exclusively. “What we now label as Groovy Soca is really and truly the original form of soca,” says Kasey Phillips of Precision Productions, who helped define the style with their work on tracks like Michelle Sylvester’s “Sleeping In Your Bed,” winner of the initial Groovy Soca Monarch title in 2005. “The songs are smoother, much more melodious, less aggressive, and the lyrics and feel of the song encourage listeners to dance together and groove, rather than jump and wave.” As for the outdated-sounding name, it’s likely a reference to “Endless Vibrations,” the definitive early soca from Lord Shorty in which the genre’s Godfather sang, “Change the rhythm of carnival to a groovy, groovy bacchanal.”

Machel Montano, soca’s undisputed king, has been an effective messenger for the style; his “Mr. Fete” and “The Fog,” each produced by Precision, took the Groovy title at the International Soca Monarch competitions in 2012 and 2013, respectively. Other key contributors to Groovy Soca include Kes the Band and songwriter-turned-artists Kerwin DuBois and GBM Nutron, who each penned hits for Machel and others before breaking out on their own with “Bacchanalist” (2012) and “Scene” (2016), respectively. EDM has been a pervasive influence on Groovy Soca in recent years, particularly Major Lazer. The group, whose Jillionaire hails from Trinidad, performs annually on the island, and has collaborated with Montano and Bunji Garlin. Lazer’s remix of the latter’s 2013 hit “Differentology” helped turn it into one of the biggest soca crossover hits of the last decade.

Definitive Track: Tallpree, “Old Woman Alone”

Tallpree - Old Woman Alone

Jab Jab is the sound of J’Ouvert morning in Grenada, when bands of devil-playing masqueraders darken their skin to extreme blackness with molasses, tar, grease or mud and maraud through the streets of the Spice Isle wielding broken pots and pans, goat-skin drums, cattle horns and cow chains. “Jab Jab will start riots, and get people climbing on top of cars,” says Julian Hackett, founder of Julian’s Promos, an online distributor of soca music. “I would say it is the most aggressive form of soca.”

Before 1991, Jab Jab wasn’t a recorded music. “It was more like a Carnival kind of folk music played in the streets,” says Shawn “Mr. Roots” Mitchell, a Grenadian musician and producer of riddims such as Chippin Jab. “There were songs that would stick, that became the foundation of Jab Jab, but more times you would create songs right there on the spot, and everybody would just follow. You’d travel for miles just singing and chanting those songs, and beating drums.” That changed in 1991 when Grenadian band Moss International transferred the energy of Jab Jab Mas to record for the first time with “Jambalesse [Rule].” The song won that year’s Carnival Road March – a title given to the song played the most times during an island’s Official Carnival procession – and inspired other local acts like Rhydum Mix, to record similar tracks.

Trinidad & Tobago has its own Jab tradition, dating back over a century, celebrated by Super Blue on his Road March-winning “Jab Jab” (1992) and “Jab Molassie” (1994). (Penguin’s “Look the Devil Dey,” from back in 1979, also warns of the devilish masqueraders found in the streets at Carnival). However, these songs shared little stylistically with the sound then emerging in Grenada’s streets. It wasn’t until 1999 that the Jab Jab sound crossed over into soca’s mainstream with “Old Woman Alone” by Tallpree, still the most recognizable song of this variety.

Jab Jab songs will typically feature the sound of a conch shell (though, more often than not these days, it’s simulated digitally) and call-and-response chants addressing the Jab Jab massive, and are heavily centered on the drums. Tempos range between 140 and 160 BPMs. “There doesn’t have to be a whole lot of music in it,” Mitchell says. “The drums alone speak. That’s something very deep within our culture.”

Today, Jab Jab Mas and its attendant soundtrack has come to define Grenada’s Carnival, known as Spice Mas. Tallpree’s “Wicked Jab” and “Jab All Over” and Skinny Banton’s “Soak It Good” have further spread the gospel of Jab Jab off the island. In 2015, Cloud 5, a teenage crew from Grenada’s sister island of Carriacou (along with Petit Martinique, the three islands make up the nation of Grenada & the Grenadines) infiltrated Carnivals across the Caribbean and the Diaspora with “No Behavior,” a modified take on Jab Jab with a slower, groovy tempo of 125 BPMs. “We’ve now got to the point where we realize Jab Jab doesn’t have to be fast music, you can also groove a Jab Jab song,” Mitchell says.

Antigua / St. Thomas (US Virgin Islands)
Definitive Track: Jam Band, “Showtime”

Jam Band - Showtime

Trinidadian soca, coming from the calypso tradition, emphasizes the vocalist, with bands generally playing a supporting role. Not so in the region’s smaller islands, where self-contained units commonly known as jam bands run the road. Antigua’s Burning Flames, formed by brothers Toriano, Clarence and David Edwards (better known, respectively, as Onyan, Oungku and Krokuss) are the Caribbean’s most celebrated soca band, with over three decades of regional classics to their credit. With songs like “Stylee Tight” and “Bicycle,” Burning Flames expanded the role of the drum machine in soca, blending electronics with live instrumentation to develop a faster-paced sound than was heard on other islands at the time.

The Jam Band sound, also sometimes referred to as Riddim Box, is most closely identified with the U.S. Virgin Islands, home of the Jam Band fronted by Nicholas “Daddy” Friday. Jam Band were one of several St. Thomas outfits, along with Imaginations Brass and Seventeen Plus, who began incorporating drum machines and other electronic elements into their recordings and performances in the mid-’80s – as early as the Burning Flames, by some accounts. The Virgin Islands sound is perhaps best distilled on Jam Band’s “Showtime,” Road March winner at 1994’s St. Thomas Carnival, and still a surefire party starter in the USVI. (Friday passed away in 2005, however his former group, originally known as Eddie and the Movements, carry on under the moniker Awesome Jam Band).

Trinidad & Tobago
Definitive Track: Super Blue, “Get Something and Wave”

Super Blue - Get Something and Wave

The bridge between soca’s mid-tempo early days and the mania of today’s Power Soca, Jump and Wave (or “Rag and Flag”) is the sound of 1990s Trinidad, when Austin “Super Blue” Lyons — soca’s James Brown — injected the genre with exuberant patriotism and gospel-like fervor. Soca had settled into its rhythm in the 1980s, as heard in producer/arrangers Leston Paul, Art de Coteau, Pelham Goddard and classics by David Rudder, but was still essentially regarded as an offshoot of calypso.

Super Blue drew a line in the sand with “Get Something and Wave” in 1991. From this point on, songs encouraging revelers to participate in a communal expression of freedom and pride became the standard, capturing and defining the spirit of Trinidad Carnival going forward. “People [at Carnival] were waving their flags, and saying put a rag onto your flag – [‘Get Something and Wave’] capped it off and demarcated it as a thing,” Lazabeam says.

Artists like Iwer George, Preacher and Ronnie McIntosh also made major contributions to this period, especially after the creation of the first International Soca Monarch competition in 1993. But it was Super Blue who brought the spirit of Trinidad’s Shouter Baptist tradition – a syncretic faith combining African traditions with Christianity – into soca, giving it a more spiritual, transcendent quality. “He brought that style of singing into soca, which had a huge influence on Caribbean music, and that sound swept around the Caribbean,” Lazabeam says.

Whistles – the tools of masquerade band leaders directing their minions through the trenches of the Carnival processions – are an indispensable hallmark of jump-and-wave soca, as are the brass bands which have largely been phased out as soca music production has gone almost fully digital. The jump-and-wave era still looms large over soca, though: See Bunji Garlin’s “1995” for a recent, nostalgic ode to this time and style.

Definitive Tracks: Burning Flames, “Carnival Train” / Tizzy, “Expose”

Burning Flames - Carnival Train

Antiguans have their own name for music in the 158 to 165 BPM range, which would typically be labeled “Power” in most other Caribbean territories: Jumpy Soca. There’s several reasons for the distinction. For one, Antigua’s been doing blazing-fast soca longer than anyone. “Burning Flames kind of set the benchmark in terms of soca music in the 160 BPM range,” says Antiguan soca selector DJ Jime.

To this day, songs entered into the Jumpy Soca Monarch competition at Antigua Carnival tend to echo the spirit of ’90s Jump and Wave and those early Burning Flames classics, favoring instructive, exhortational lyrics and rhythms emphasizing the clanging sound of iron. “A lot of [Burning Flames’] old hooks were saying things like, ‘Run to the left, kick to the right.’ It was much more interactive as a fete-goer or party goer,” says DJ Jime. “With songs like ‘Bicycle,’ you would mimic riding a bike.”

Tizzy - Expose

Interactive lyrics have a long history in Antigua: Benna, a folk style with roots in slavery times which later developed parallel to Trinidadian calypso and Jamaican mento, was typically delivered in a call-and-response format. DJ Jime cites “Supaman” (2012) by Ricardo Drue, one of the island’s top soca stars along with Tian Winter, as a continuation of this legacy. “He says things like, ‘Start to run, hands up deh’ where you are basically mimicking Superman,” Jime says. “That is one of those things that will always be part of the Antiguan culture.”

St. Vincent & the Grenadines
Definitive Tracks: Skinny Fabulous, “Head Bad” / Problem Child, “Madhouse”

Problem Child - Madhouse

Power Soca is soca in its absolute fastest form, with tempos typically above 160 beats per minute. “These are the songs that give vigorous instructions, and keep the energy levels very high,” says Precision Productions’ Kasey Phillips, producers of Machel Montano’s “Advantage,” “Pump Yuh Flag” and “Float” among other power soca anthems.

The term “Power Soca” came into use in 2005, when it was designated as one of two categories in Trinidad & Tobago’s then newly-divided International Soca Monarch competition. However, it was coined in St. Vincent by producer Zowi Stapleton, known as The Great Zeee, then working as part of the crew Hysyanz. “It was a little Def Jam Records for soca artists – we all came in this one clique and changed the thing up,” Kubiyashi says of Hysyanz. “We did this crazy outer-space music, where we would go up to 165 and even 170 beats per minute.”

A Vincentian raised in London, The Great Zeee looked to hip-hop and grime in creating instrumentals like the Flood Storm Riddim, which spawned Problem Child’s “Mad.” “Regular soca music wasn’t giving me the vibes that I would want to feel, so I came up with something different,” he told Toronto radio personality Nurse Karen in 2009. “It’s like how you have garage music from the UK, and then grime music, which is a harder type of garage music.”

While Zeee’s inspired productions certainly shook up soca at the time, Trinidadian producers like the late Sheldon “Shel-Shock” Benjamin had been increasing the tempos in their productions in the years just prior, perhaps setting the stage for the Power Soca revolution. “Shel-Shock was pushing the fever pitch of Carnival to testing levels,” Lazabeam says. “Purists then would say that is not soca. But then people started to equate soca with that style. It diverged. All soca artists, in order to be legit in the soca world, would have to have offerings on both the Groovy and Power Soca side.”

Today’s power soca anthems are more like sped-up jump-and-wave, with a sunnier disposition than The Great Zeee’s original productions. (See JW & Blaze’s “Palance” for power soca at its most lighthearted) The goal of each is to become Carnival “Road March,” an honor given to the song played the most times during a given Carnival parade. For this reason, soca artists will hold their power releases back until the last days of the festival season, in hopes of maximizing their impact and “power” on the road. Tracks that miss the mark, especially those from big-name artists, can be big flops, but a successful release will enshrine your song in history as the defining anthem of a given year’s Carnival.

Jamaica / St. Vincent & the Grenadines / Trinidad & Tobago
Definitive Tracks: Kevin Lyttle feat. Maddzart, “Turn Me On” (St. Vincent) / Bunji Garlin, “Send Them Riddim Crazy” (Trinidad)

Bunji Garlin - Send Them Rhythm Crazy

Ragga Soca is a term used across the Caribbean to describe soca with lyrics delivered in the raggamuffin style of dancehall deejays. However, in Trinidad & Tobago and St. Vincent & The Grenadines – island nations with competing claims to this strain – the definition is not so cut and dry.

Bunji Garlin, the most recognized and prolific proponent of Trinidad’s Ragga Soca style, places its beginnings in Jamaica itself, specifically with Byron Lee, the bandleader and producer who fostered connections between Jamaica and Trinidad throughout his career. “Byron Lee and the Dragonaires would do versions of soca songs from Trinidad, [and] collaborate with artists like Admiral Bailey on songs like ‘Soca Butterfly’ and ‘Soca Tatie’ – soca versions of prominent Jamaican dances at the time,” Garlin says. “[They] had horns and melodies like a regular soca [song], but the bass would have been real Jamaican flavor.”

While other Trinidadian soca artists like Preacher and Iwer George had dabbled in ragga sounds, General Grant, of Kiskadee Caravan (a performance collective which included both reggae and soca acts), became well known for mixing the styles in the mid-’90s, inspiring dancehall-minded local acts like Garlin, 3Suns and Maximus Dan to take up soca. A Ragga Soca Monarch competition was even instituted during 1999’s Trinidad Carnival, but was met with backlash from critics who saw the embrace of Jamaican music as a detrimental to Carnival, and was discontinued after 2001.

Ragga Soca met with less resistance in St. Vincent, where it was embraced by local soca godfathers Becket and Winston Soso (who outlines his reasons for indulging the style on 1995’s “Ragga Soca”) in the mid ’90s. The band Touch became known for incorporating dancehall into their sound around this time on records like “Sexy and Irie.” Ragga Soca was accepted as an authentically Vincentian artform, and its definition was expanded to include not just songs with ragga vocals, but all soca with slower tempos, closer to the pace of dancehall and pop.

“They were innovators when it came to adding new sounds into soca,” Julian Hackett of Julian’s Promos says, citing Vincentian artists like Kevin Lyttle, Troots N Ice, Jamesy P and Fryktion, and producer Mark Cyrus. “It was basically what you are hearing now – the crossover radio sound of soca.”

Skinny Fabulous, St. Vincent’s reigning present-day soca star, breaks down the Vincentian approach: “Ragga Soca is highly defined by the pace. It is way slower than Power Soca. And it allows for a slower delivery that can easily be mixed with a dancehall song or your typical pop music. Ragga Soca in St. Vincent is what Trinidad & Tobago will now call Groovy Soca.”

Kevin Lyttle feat. Maddzart - Turn Me On

Producer Kubiyashi notes a key stylistic difference between most Groovy and Ragga Soca. “Ragga soca is always kind of signatured with an accent tom,” Kubiyashi says. “You do what you want with your snare pattern, but you have to have that accent tom. The weird thing is groovy soca isn’t about the groove as much as it’s about the vocalists. Ragga is about the groove.” Bunji Garlin offers a contrasting explanation in describing the more hardline, Trinidadian approach to Ragga Soca. “What makes Ragga Soca stand out is the focus on compacted or strong lyrical content,” says Garlin, who won Trinidad’s Ragga Soca Monarch title in 2000 and 2001 with “Chant Down Babylon” and “Licks,” respectively. “People who would have ordinarily been dabbling in dancehall or hip-hop gravitate towards ragga soca because you can keep your same lyrical content from dancehall or hip-hop.”

A well-known and illustrative example from the Vincentian school of Ragga Soca is “Turn Me On” by Kevin Lyttle, which rose out of Vincy Mas (St. Vincent Carnival) in 2001 to become one of the biggest soca crossover hits ever, peaking at No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 three summers later. Borrowing lyrics and melody from 112’s “All My Love,” it was soca in its most radio-friendly form, but roughened around the edges with raggamuffin vocals from fellow Vincentian, Maddzart.

“That was a typical Ragga Soca song because he was singing in that slow pace, with pop melodies, and then you had Maddzart come in with a typical dancehall delivery,” Skinny Fabulous says, referring to the original version of “Turn Me On.” “We consider that Ragga Soca.”

St. Lucia
Definitive Track: Freezy, “Split in De Middle”

Freezy - Split in De Middle

Saint Lucia is where the French and English Caribbean meet. Creole is still widely spoken on the island, which changed hands 14 times before the British wrested control in 1803, and soca here is often spiced with melodies from zouk, the sound of the French Antilles. Recently, however, Lucian music has taken an unexpected turn towards Portuguese Africa. “Kuduro music is our music right now,” says producer and artist Lashley “Motto” Winter, the principal figure in the wave of St. Lucian soca kuduro.

The 21-year-old Winter (who now resides in Brooklyn) says kuduro from Angola and Cape Verde began to appear on Lucian radio nearly a decade ago. “I was 10 or 12, and I heard a song called “Kiriri” by Costuleta, also DJ Nais. These guys were playing huge in Saint Lucia. That influenced us and made a shift, and we started our own kuduro music, merging the original African kuduro with more Lucian melodies and instrumentation.” Soca kuduro, like its Angolan counterpart, is all about the drum pattern, a distinctive set of hard kicks and snares that typically moves at around 147 beats per minute. “You hear a lot of congas and kick rolls – that is a signature thing – and the snare is very present in the beat,” Winter says. “It hits hard. Typically, there is only one lead instrument for the whole entire beat, but it’s very catchy.”

Soca kuduro songs are short and direct, rarely exceeding two minutes. Lyrics are delivered in both English and Creole, but those in the former category are almost always flavored with Creole phrases. (“If I don’t throw in a few Creole phrases, my Lucian people will feel I’m forgetting about them,” Winter says.) The topic of choice for most songs in this youth-driven strain is the movement of female body parts, as heard on Winter/Motto’s own “Bend Dong” and Freezy’s “Split in De Middle.” Saint Lucians have already taken to calling soca kuduro “local music,” Winter says, to differentiate it from more commercial-sounding strains of soca popular on other islands. “In Trinidad, they went all the way to EDM soca and they kind of forgot about the traditional side of things,” Winter says. “Soca kuduro is taking that place. Right now, it’s what people want to hear.”

Soca is said to be among the elements (along with zouk, dancehall, European techno and traditional African sounds) which inspired the original kuduro records out of Angola in the 1990s. Its arrival in the islands, in effect, brings things full circle. With St. Lucia conquered, the sound is beginning to make inroads into other islands. Winter’s Force It riddim (pronounced four-say), which blends kuduro snare patterns with Jab Jab’s faster pace and the tribal call of the conch shell, features appearances from Grenada’s Lavaman, St. Vincent’s Problem Child, Trinidad’s Shal Marshall and Marz Ville from Barbados, among others. Winter is surprisingly bullish about the genre’s potential: “Last year was a breaking point where it reached Trinidad and different islands. This year, it should be able to take over entirely.”

Definitive Track: Krosfyah, “Pump Me Up”

Krosfyah - Pump Me Up

Barbados really began to make its presence felt in the soca arena in the early 1990s. Songs like Red Plastic Bag’s “Ragga Ragga” (1993) and “Dr. Cassandra” (1994) by The Mighty Gabby captured audiences across the Caribbean and beyond, while the establishment of Eddy Grant’s Ice Records on the island elevated the quality of local productions.

The subsequent years saw the rise of the bands Krosfyah, Square One and Coalishun, featuring the dynamic singers Edwin Yearwood, Alison Hinds and Rupee, respectively. The collective innovation of these groups was an increased emphasis on melody and the adoption of R&B-style singing, a contrast to the largely rhythm-driven productions and calypso-style vocals typical of Trinidadian soca at the time.

Shaped by Bajan producer and arranger Nicholas Brancker (a classically-trained musician who these days performs with Roberta Flack), Krosfyah’s “Pump Me Up“ (1995) is archetypal Sweet Soca, its mid-tempo rhythm draped in sentimental acoustic guitar and keyboards, while soca heartthrob Yearwood appeals directly to the ladies with his cries of “Oh Gosh.” While Barbados hardly had the market cornered on melodic soca with a romantic twist, it’s safe to say this style was perfected on the island and, in 2009, a Sweet Soca Monarch competition was instituted as part of the Crop Over season. Though Sweet Soca is now thought of as an analog to Groovy Soca – these days a catch-all term for soca in the 120 to 135 BPM range – a Bajan school still persists. See “Know the Face” by Marvay, a promising young singer, for an example of Barbados soca at its sweetest.

Header image © Sean Drakes / CON

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