Trinidad and Tobago’s music is inextricably linked to the explosion of sound, colour and cultural expression that propels the country’s Carnival. After a relentless, rum-fuelled stream of fêtes, parties and dedicated preparation lasting weeks, it is the music that keeps masqueraders dancing and parading along through the two-day climax of Masquerade. While Carnival is now largely viewed as one of the world’s best street parties, its musical roots are steeped in political and social commentary, humour and innuendo. All of these elements are present in calypso, which is both soca’s precursor, and a musical tradition that remains prominent today.
Calypsonians emerged in the early 20th century as both reflectors and influencers of popular sentiment in T&T. With a knack for communicating issues and current events pertinent to society, often with biting satire and comedic wit, calypsoes were considered a way of keeping the population informed of current events in the country and abroad. T&T’s head of state in the early 1950s, Albert Gomez, labelled calypso as “the most effective political weapon in Trinidad”, wielded by “men reared in poverty and oppression”, writing songs “cleverly camouflaged with wit and banter”, and accompanied by “the sharp tang (acridity) of social criticism”. Some of the most influential calypsonians include Mighty Sparrow, Atilla the Hun, Lord Kitchener, Calypso Rose and David Rudder.
But while calypsonians were influential in shaping domestic dialogue and affairs, exposure to the modern music industry and its financial opportunities did not come until the mid- to late 1930s.
Local Advocate, Global Reach
Portuguese immigrant Eduardo Sá Gomes is widely regarded as having had significant influence in bringing calypso to the early attention of the recording industry. An owner of music stores throughout the West Indies and South America, he was T&T’s only distributor for a host of US record labels, including Decca Records, Brunswick Records and numerous others. Seeing a business opportunity from calypso’s local popularity, Sá Gomes began sending artists to New York to record their music, starting in 1934 with Attila the Hun and Roaring Lion. The recordings were successful both in the US and in T&T, spurring what became an annual pilgrimage of calypsonians to be recorded in New York under the co-sponsorship of Sá Gomes and Decca Records. In the late 1930s, as Calypso grew in popularity and gained greater attention internationally, other labels sent mobile recording units down to T&T.
The advent of the Second World War brought US troops to T&T, and with them international exposure and another subject for lyrical exploration. The song “Rum and Coca-Cola”, by calypsonian Lord Invader, was a commentary on the corrupting influence he perceived the soldiers to be having on Trinbagonian society.
A hit locally, the song was soon appropriated by US entertainer Morey Amsterdam, who was visiting the islands to entertain the troops. Upon his return to the US, Amsterdam copyrighted and licensed the song to the girl group the Andrew Sisters. The song – sanitised and toned down from the original – was a hit, marking the first time a calypso tune reached number one on the US Billboard charts.
The fact that the song had been plagiarised did not go unnoticed, however, and following a protracted law suit, Lord Invader was awarded an undisclosed sum in a settlement. By this time, calypso music was experiencing a surge in popularity in the US. In 1956 Harry Belafonte released the album Calypso, which became the first record in history to go platinum, selling more than 1m copies.
By the late 1960s to early 1970s, calypso’s international influence had started to wane in favour of emerging genres such as disco and reggae. Calypsonian Lord Shorty (Garfield Blackman), unhappy with the growing influence of international music in T&T, began to experiment with new rhythms and instrumentation. In his landmark 1975 album, Endless Vibrations, Lord Shorty formed the blueprint of soca music. As Trinbagonian musician Machel Montano told OBG, soca is the soundtrack to Carnival. The festival’s music was heavily inspired by calypso and pioneered by the musician Lord Shorty, who employed East Indian rhythms and created music based on mantras. The album was a huge success, creating a musical revolution in T&T. In 1977 Lord Shorty had religious epiphany following the death of a friend, which spurred him to convert to Rastafarianism, move to a remote corner of Trinidad and change his stage name to Ras Shorty I.
There is considerable irony that the blueprint for Carnival’s soundtrack, with all its hedonism, was created by a musician that went on to live a pious and secluded life. Doubly so, given his own well-documented exploits in the hedonistic arena prior to his religious conversion.
And while such issues still receive some consideration in soca, far more attention is given to the bacchanalia of drinking, wining and reckless abandon, with threads of humour running throughout – whether Lord Kitchener’s classic “Sugar Bum Bum”, or Farmer Nappy & Destra’s 2017 hit “Technically”, which playfully ruminates on the relationship of a couple following a breakup.
That is not to say that the tradition of social commentary prevalent in calypso ceased with the rise of soca. Indeed, 2017’s Carnival Road March – the most popular song played over the two-day parade – was soca hit “Full Extreme” by The Ultimate Rejects. “Recession, doh bother we. Promote ah fête and yuh go see. We go party, to the full extreme. An light it up, with kerosene. The Treasury cud bun down, we jammin still. The economy cud fall down, we jammin still,” MX Prime chants, giving voice to the frustrations prevalent in T&T society in the wake of economic hardship and frustration.
But while the sentiment is real, the song is cathartic, echoing a uniquely Trinbagonian mentality towards adversity that – no matter how bad it gets – joy in life will still be found.
Soca music’s seasonal relationship with Carnival has much to do with its patchy success in penetrating the international music scene. Artists have relied heavily on live performances in the lead up to Carnival, as there are few other commercial opportunities in T&T throughout the year, nor are there any record labels of any significant note. Rather, the more successful soca musicians look to perform during various regional festivals, in addition to the international circuit consisting of smaller, largely diaspora-driven Carnivals in Berlin, London and further abroad.
Some artists have taken a more deliberate approach towards disseminating soca internationally. Machel Montano has looked to collaborating with foreign acts like Major Lazer, Shaggy and Pitbull, launching a satellite Carnival in Hollywood, and developing the feature film Bazodee as vehicles for Trinbagonian culture. More recently, calypso icon Calypso Rose set the world alight with her latest album, Far from Home, which won the World Album of the Year award at Victoire de la Musique, the French equivalent of the US Grammy Awards, and reaffirmed Calypso’s relevance on the world stage.