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Soca 101: What you need to know about Carnival’s most essential music genre

Which soca artists do you need to check out before Carnival? And how do you dance to it?

On Monday August 27, the Red Bull Music x Mangrove Truck returns to Notting Hill Carnival with some of soca music’s top talents including VoiceIwer GeorgePatrice Roberts and Hollywood Sachy in tow, alongside radio personality Trevlyn the Voice, UK sound system The Heatwave and Mangrove residents. Despite its ubiquity at Notting Hill and carnivals and fetes across the Caribbean and North America, soca is a genre that is not often understood and recognised by the general public.
And so, in anticipation of Notting Hill Carnival, here are some essential facts about soca to know before you touch di road.

Why is soca an important part of Notting Hill Carnival?

Soca is the essential sound of the Caribbean carnival celebrations, most notably Trinidad Carnival in Port-of-Spain, upon which Notting Hill Carnival is based. While Notting Hill Carnival has taken on its own distinct shape and form – with stationary sound systems playing reggae, dancehall, soul and other genres adding to the festival’s flavour – soca is the sound you’ll most commonly hear playing on floats and trucks during the main Carnival procession.

How is soca different from other genres at Carnival, like dancehall?

Soca is faster than dancehall, with tempos typically ranging between 120 and 160 BPMs. Unlike dancehall, which can convey a variety of moods, soca always takes a celebratory tone, perpetuating carnival’s central themes of release and freedom. Many soca songs, like Naya George’s Trinidad (Right Hand) are blasts of pure patriotism, encouraging revellers to “pump” and wave their island’s flags with reckless abandonment.

Where does soca music come from?

Soca music was first developed in Trinidad and Tobago during the 1970s by Lord Shorty, aka Ras Shorty I, as a modern evolution of calypso. Seeking to create a musical unity between his twin-island republic’s East Indian and African populations, Shorty inserted traditional Indian instruments like the dholak and dhantal into the Afro-Creole rhythms evolved there decades earlier. Shorty called his creation “The Soul of Calypso,” which was later abbreviated to sokah and, eventually, soca.

How do you dance to soca?

The typical response to soca among Caribbean revellers is to start wining, a tightly-controlled, circular gyration of the waistline. Wining, which is sometimes inaccurately mislabeled as twerking, can be done individually, by both men and women, or together in pairs. For a thorough rundown of carnival dancing etiquette, read LargeUp’s Do’s and Don’ts of Wining. Of course, if you’re playing in one of the masquerade bands at Carnival, forward motion along the parade route is essential. For this, there’s “chipping,” a shuffle done expressly for this purpose.
Patrice Roberts performing in Trinidad (2011)

Patrice Roberts performing in Trinidad (2011)

How has soca music changed over the years?

In the early years, soca was made with live instrumentation supplied by rhythm sections and brass bands. While there have been periodic revivals of this style – such as Tron’s RR Rhythm, a major Trinidad Carnival force in 2016 – almost all soca today is produced electronically.
In recent years, EDM has been a major influence, as has Afrobeats, which led to the coining of a fusion style called Afro Soca in 2014. Soca has also taken different shapes on different islands, such as Barbados, where bands like Krosfyah brought forth a more melodic, mid-tempo sound in the ‘90s dubbed “sweet soca” and, later, “groovy soca."
These days, Barbados is known for bashment soca, a 50-50 fusion of dancehall and soca rhythms typified on songs like Marzville’s Bang Bim. In St. Vincent in the early 2000s, producers The Great Zeee and Kubiyashi upped the genre’s tempo to the 160 BPM range, creating a style known as power soca. Much of what you’ll hear on the road at Carnival today falls into this category.

Which soca artists should I check out?

Machel Montano is the undisputed king of soca. Emerging as a child star in 1984 with Too Young To Soca, he’s dominated the Caribbean music scene since the late 90s when he took over Trinidad Carnival with an unprecedented, and still ongoing, run of road march smashes. There’s a seemingly never-ending pool of soca talent in Trinidad and Tobago, with Bunji GarlinDestra GarciaKesFay-ann LyonsIwer George and Patrice Roberts among the most consistent acts of the last two decades.
Leading the way for soca’s newest generation are Nailah Blackman, the granddaughter of Lord Shorty, and Aaron St. Louis, a/k/a Voice, winner of Trinidad’s International Soca Monarch competition in each of the last three years. Each island in the Eastern Caribbean has its own set of stars who can be counted on to produce Carnival anthems yearly: These include Skinny Fabulous (St. Vincent), Lil Rick (Barbados), Ricardo Drue(Antigua) and Skinny Banton (Grenada), to name a few.

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