Bunji Garlin: Soca Warrior
- Words: Jesse Serwer
With all the sounds reverberating through Germany at any given time, soca might be the last musical form you’d expect to encounter in Deutschland. After all, the tropical genre has almost exclusively been associated with Caribbean carnival season or, to a lesser degree, club nights attended by expatriates (primarily in the U.S., U.K., and Canada) from Anglophone Caribbean nations like Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados, and Guyana.
But on one hot July evening, a Berlin recording studio was the latest frontier for the frenetic, relentlessly upbeat amalgamation of calypso, soul, African and East Indian rhythms–or at least a rough, rugged variation of it. In the midst of one of the more extensive tours ever undertaken by an artist from his native Trinidad and Tobago (soca’s ground zero), Bunji Garlin has stopped in to the homebase of local soundsystem Supersonic, where he’s recording a track over one of its new rhythms.
“This was really the first year that soca artists have come to places like Munich, Berlin, Hamburg,” Garlin says during a break from the session. “A lot of places where we went, people had never seen or heard soca artists before. But now they know of it because of [Trinidad and Tobago’s national soccer team] the Soca Warriors and the World Cup [in which, for the first time in the nation’s history, T&T competed last year]. We’re laying the groundwork and the doors are opening very, very wide.”
To be fair, soca has broken through to the worldwide mainstream before, but it has mostly been in the form of novelty hits like David “Buster Poindexter” Johansen’s late ’80s bar mitzvah banger “Hot Hot Hot” (a cover of a 1984 song by the Antiguan singer Arrow) and the Baha Men’s jock jam “Who Let the Dogs Out.” Jamaican singer/guitarist Byron Lee and his band, The Dragonaires, have also toured extensively with a repertoire that features, but is not limited to, soca, and soca artists Kevin Lyttle, Rupee, and Alison Hinds [see below] have all scored hits with crossover tunes that impacted nations outside the Caribbean. Still, the genre–which was birthed in the early ’70s when Trinidadian calypso performer Garfield “Lord Shorty” Blackman began speeding up calypso’s tempo and incorporating influences from his island’s large East Indian population–has had a far less significant impact on the world music market than its Jamaican cousin, reggae.
But while the Soca Twins, a pair of native-born German selectors who were in tow for much of Bunji’s aforementioned European tour, have been spreading the soca gospel throughout the Rhineland and beyond, Garlin’s mission is slightly different. A proponent of the sub-genre ragga-soca (soca with vocals that are chatted in a dancehall-like fashion), the 27-year-old toaster is known for outlandish stage costumes (recent Trinidad carnival performances have seen him appear in a kimono and phantom mask as well as full SWAT team regalia) and his intention to shatter the barriers imposed by soca’s hectic, patriotism-enhancing sound (the directive “Wave your flag” might be its most common lyric).
Take Garlin’s two most notable singles this year, “Brrrt” and “Fire Fi Dem.” Collected on his sixth album, Global, released in May on VP, the two tracks take their cues from surf rock and techno, respectively–and most certainly bear little in common with calypso.
“Fire Fi Dem” rocks Danger Zone’s Wipe Out rhythm, a reggae-fied interpretation of The Surfaris’ 1966 classic instrumental of the same name. “Brrrt,” meanwhile, was recorded on Bobby Konders’ March Out rhythm, a high-energy dancehall track that sounds a whole lot like Erick Morillo’s club-cheese classic (as Reel 2 Real), “I Like to Move It.”
“I thought his performance [on “Brrrt”] was sick,” says Konders, who slipped Garlin the March Out rhythm when the two met in New York City last year. “I’ve seen his growth over the years and I know he has that attacking deejay style, so I thought he would be perfect.”
“Not everybody listens to techno music because of the speed–soca has the same situation, so immediately I recognized the position we in as a people,” Garlin explains of his decision to work over tempos that deviate from soca’s usual 150- BPM range in order to perpetuate the culture. “I was hoping to experience doing something [with] techno while I was [in Germany],” he continued, adding, “I have no fear of no type of music.”
While outsiders tend to perceive Trinidad as one big soca party, the opposite is actually true; a big reason why, Garlin explains, his palate is so broad. “When Carnival’s done, all di radio stations in Trinidad switch to music from all over di world, and that’s it for soca until next year. The other nine months we [soca artists are] all over di world.”
Garlin’s greatest innovation isn’t necessarily his choice of rhythms, though. He also brings weighty subject matter to a genre whose lyrical depth rarely goes beyond exhortations to jump around and, simply, party down. “Brrrt,” whose chorus finds Garlin mimicking the sound of rapid-fire gunshots, sounds like one of dancehall’s gunman tunes but, upon closer inspection, is actually an indictment of reckless gun-slinging. “Don’t Waste the Water,” a collaboration with Shurwayne Winchester originally released in 2005, uses a double entendre to stand for both sexual fulfillment and conservation advocacy.
“Not every country in the world has a Carnival; not everybody understands about jumping around with the flag and waving,” Garlin said. “If you listen to the music that everyone else is listening to around the world, it has something they can live to. [Until now], soca wasn’t really providing that–that’s what held it back for many years.”
A look at the key players in the Caribbean’s other music scene.
St. Vincent singer Kevin Lyttle’s cavity-inducing “Turn Me On” had one of the longest lifespans of any single in recent memory: Recorded in 2001, it blew up in the Caribbean in 2002, hit Canada and the U.K. in 2003, and reached #4 on the U.S. pop charts in 2004. Like other soca tracks that have crossed over internationally, it was remixed into a form that is not immediately recognizable as soca.
Former graphic designer Rupee scored a major international hit with 2004’s pop radio-ready “Tempted to Touch.” The handsome, U.K.-born Bajan–basically, the Sean Paul of Barbados–could more recently be heard crooning on “The Game of Love and Unity,” the official theme to the 2007 Cricket World Cup, alongside Shaggy and Faye-Ann Lyons (Bunji Garlin’s wife).
While he’s yet to score a U.S. hit on the order of a “Tempted to Touch,” Montano who first emerged at age eight, in 1982, with “Too Young to Soca”–is considered soca’s biggest star, and sold out Madison Square Garden earlier this year. Claiming to be the first human being to go “high definition,” he re-dubbed his band, Xtatic, “Machel Montano HD” for his most recent LP, The Book of Angels, released in February.
Like Rupee, Hinds hails from Barbados but was born in the U.K.; on the scene since 1986, she is often referred to as the “Queen of Soca,” a title further cemented by her most recent album, November’s Soca Queen (on the 1720 label). She is possibly best known for her 2005 girl-power anthem “Roll It Gyal,” the Caribbean’s answer to Destiny’s Child’s “Independent Women.”
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