By David Rolland
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To some who are unfamiliar with Caribbean culture, reggae might seem to be the dominant form of music in that region. It's easily the most popular style that matriculates out to the States, and with the long list of reggae luminaries in Jamaica at any given time, there's no fault in assuming that reggae is the end-all, be-all of Caribbean music. But look east and southwest of Jamaica and it's soca, not reggae, that drives the pulse of the English-speaking island chain. It's been mashing up dancehalls, carnivals, and backyard parties for the past 50 years, from the Bahamas to St. Kitts. The hottest soca star of the current scene is Trinidad's Bunji Garlin. He's just released a potent album the sixth in his catalog and, at the relatively tender age of 28, Garlin is arguably the genre's biggest name, though fellow West Indian artists such as Trinidad's Machel Montano and St. Vincent's Kevin Lyttle might beg to differ.
For the uninitiated, soca is a sexually charged, uptempo form of music that's thought to have originated in Trinidad as a more party-based extension of calypso. It traditionally involves steel drums, cowbells, whistles, and electric percussion and is most celebrated during Carnival and Junkanoo season throughout the Caribbean. As for what sets Garlin apart from most of his contemporaries, it's his ability to combine the urban elements of Jamaican dancehall with the festive vibe of soca to create a subgenre all its own. He's got a slightly more aggressive style that's catching on with youth all over the island chain, giving the genre new legs and helping it spread beyond its normal confines.
"My style is ragga-soca it's a fusion of dancehall and soca vibes, which is different than what other artists are doing right now," says Garlin, speaking by phone from Trinidad. "It's more raggamuffin, more of a down-in-the-ghetto kind of music, but people are taking to it."
Garlin's latest album, Global, was released last week on reggae power-label VP Records, which in itself testifies to the growing power of soca. He's one of only two soca artists on the label, and his new hit single, "Brrrt," is tearing up mixtapes and nightclubs from Fort Lauderdale to New York. The song is full of jump-up-and-wind energy and mile-a-minute lyricism that's catchy and loaded with crossover potential. Massive B sound system just released a version of "Brrrt" for its Big Tunez Vol 3 compilation, and that's been racking up radio play ever since. Globalis in fact the first disc that Garlin has intended for a wider audience, he says; his previous material was strictly for West Indian territories.
"It's time to make the music grow," he says. "I naturally hate to be stuck in one place for too long... In order for the genre to grow, we have to put out music that people throughout all of the islands can feel, not just for Trinidad."
Garlin is candid that it's not easy competing with major dancehall artists. There's one particular verbal squabble he was dragged into with reggae artist I-Wayne that still hasn't disappeared. Early last year, I-Wayne was quoted in Vibe calling soca "devil music" and saying that partying with soca is like "dancing with demons." Garlin took offense and quickly recorded the song "You Bad or Wha," which, among other things, asks I-Wayne if he's bad enough to oppose a whole nation by himself. Although Garlin says he's moved on from the subject, he still feels that the attack on soca and Trinidadian culture as a whole was unnecessary. More important, he wants to see people's priorities set straight.
Soca is sometimes attacked, he says, "because of the way it's represented. Because of what goes with the music, the costumes, the masks, and people dress up, sometimes wearing skimpy outfits, people give it a hard time. But with people jumping and prancing in Carnival, you can't do that in jeans. You have to dress loose. But on the other hand, you have music that they give support to [like hip-hop] and some of those songs [that] support killing. [Trinidadians] don't promote music that promotes bloodshed. But we as humans have a way of mixing up priorities. Songs that support killing get rammed forward all the time."
Although it may seem that Garlin is taking shots at hip-hop as a whole, he's got a blazing song on his new album, "Swing It," with hip-hop artist Chris Black that should quell that assumption from the time you press play. He's also teamed up with locally based reggae legend Freddie McGregor on the tune "One Family," which was recorded in Jamaica last year and is intended to show that the two styles of music can stand strong together. He's not letting the haters get to him, and in typical clap-back fashion, he's letting his music speak for itself.
It's hard not to see Garlin as a sort of ambassador of soca, willing to defend it at all costs to preserve its integrity throughout the Caribbean. He's not amped on accepting that role yet, he says, but he can see himself wearing that crown down the line.
"I don't think I've gotten there yet. I always can see me being in that position sooner or later, but you can't force trying to claim that title. It's tough when people dis soca, but when they do, our level of patriotism, it goes up 100 percent."