While carnival season in the UK doesn’t begin until June, carnival in Trinidad (and other parts of the Caribbean) takes place two days before the Christian month of Lent, which this year begins on Wednesday 6 March. For music lovers, a highlight of Trinidad Carnival is the Road March competition in which Soca artists battle it out for the much-sought-after title. Artists have been releasing new material with the Road March in mind since November, giving the listeners plenty of time to grow familiar with the tunes. By the end of January, there’s already hundreds of new Soca songs to pick from with some artists having released as many as 16 new titles.
The competition has been officially held in Trinidad since 1932 but it’s roots go back almost a hundred years before then. Until the 1970s it was Calypso all the way with Lord Kitchener, Roaring Lion, and Mighty Shadow being regular winners. Then Soca took over with Calypso Rose’s 1978 number ‘Come Leh We Jam’ being the first official Soca song to win the Road March in Trinidad. Calypso Rose had become the first female to take the title the previous year. Other Caribbean islands have Road March competitions too, most of which date back to the 70s. The United Kingdom even held a competition for four consecutive years beginning in 2010, making it the only country outside the Caribbean to do so. The Carnival Road March moves with the times and listening to the winning Road Marches in chronological order not only gives you one hell of a party playlist but gives you an understanding of how Calypso and Soca has developed over the past century or so. Listen to the winning Road Marches from 1967 to 1978 and you’ll witness the birth of Soca in 12 songs. Skip forward to last year’s Road March, ‘Soca Kingdom’ by Machel Montano and Superblue and you can begin to understand why some feel that the older traditions are being lost, it’s almost a different genre.
However, if some of the latest Soca releases are anything to go by, traditions are still important and are far from lost. Adapted yes but not lost. While songs like Superblue’s ‘Rag Storm’, Machel Montano’s ‘Dr. Mashup’ and Iwer George’s ‘Road March Bacchanal 2’ bring nostalgic vibes to the fete, Aaron Duncan sings about going ‘Back To Basics’ mentioning Lord Kitchener and Mighty Sparrow, in ‘Iron Love’ Nailah Blackman sings about her love of the iron bands, a predecessor of the steel band and Superblue gives us a history lesson in ‘Rag Storm’. “Oh my gosh” he sings “since de 18th century de first carnival was in T and T”.
There’s another tradition that can be heard in recent Soca releases that many listeners may not be familiar with. Calypsonians have been battling it out lyrically since the very early days of the genre. Long before Rap Battles and Diss Tracks, Calypso singers would write ‘Calypso Wars’ about their revels and would ‘battle’ one and other live on stage. The art form seems to have made a come back with the ongoing drama between Iwer George and Machel Montano. As Iwer George’s song ‘Road March Bacchanal 2’ explains the drama began in 2018 when Machel Montano’s ‘Soca Kingdom’ won the Road March over Iwer George’s ‘Savannah’. In ‘Road March Bacchanal 2’ Iwer also sings about how Machel ‘blocked’ comedian Sunny Bling from performing on stage with him. Machel’s reply came in the form of ‘Dr. Mashup’ to which Iwer replied to by adding a new verse to ‘Road March Bacchanal 2’. The back and forth continued when Machel released ‘Dr.Mashup 2’, giving us a four song battle with a possible third round on its way.
With so many great tunes competing for this year’s Road March title it’s going to be extremely difficult to pick just one. Could Machel Montano take the title again, giving him his tenth win? Or will Superblue beat all competition for the eleven time? Could Nailah Blackman or Destra become the first female winner in ten years? Rising star Aaron Duncan stands a good chance too. Below is our list of the top ten Soca tunes of 2019 (so far).
With his 1956 album ‘Calypso’, Harry Belafonte had achieved for Calypso what Elvis Presley had achieved for Rhythm and Blues. Harry Belafonte had brought Calypso music, in somewhat of a watered down form, to a mass audience. While Harry Belafonte continued to have Calypso hits in the early 1960s, by 1962 the Calypso Craze in America and Britain had all but died out. The rise of new music genres such as Rock and Ska had left Calypso nothing more than a novelty on the British charts, as demonstrated by Bernard Cribbins’ 1962 hit song ‘Gossip Calypso’ and Lance Percival’s 1965 hit single ‘Shame And Scandal In The Family’. To survive, Calypso had to evolve and fusing Calypso with other genres seemed like the way forward. Beginning at the end of the 1950s, artists on both sides tried merging Calypso with other music until a winning formula was discovered at the beginning of the 1970s and a new genre, Soca, was born.
Calypso had remained popular among folk artists. Dutch duo Nina & Frederik had hits with Calypso songs across Europe. One half of the duo, Frederick van Pallandt, had been born in Copenhagen in 1934 and had lived in Trinidad with his parents in the 1950s were he had formed a Calypso band. He began performing with Nina Møller in 1957 and the couple married in 1960. They began recording in 1957, recording an EP of Calypso songs for the Dutch market. Their first UK release came in 1959 with another EP of Calypso numbers titled ‘Volume 1’. The EP reached number thirteen on the UK EP charts. They became popular with fans of Folk music and had a top thirty hit in the UK in 1959 with their version of ‘Mary’s Boy Child’ (First released in Denmark in 1957). Their debut album ‘Nina & Frederik’ was released in 1960 and reached number nine on the UK Album Chart. In 1961 they were given their own series on British Television called ‘Nina And Frederik At Home’. In America the folk group The Kingston Trio included a number of Calypso songs in their repertoire including ‘Zombie Jamboree’. They had originally formed in the early 1950s and had called themselves Dave Guard And The Calypsonians. As Calypso music became wrongly associated with Jamaica in the late-1950s, the group changed their name to The Kingston Trio, after the city of Kingston in Jamaica. South African folk singer Miriam Makeba recorded some Calypso numbers during the 1960s including ‘The Naughty Little Flea’ (1960) and ‘Can’t Cross Over’ (1962).
While the late 1950s had seen popular singers like Nat King Cole and Earth Kitt attempt to record Calypso music, the early 1960s saw Calypso music cross over into other genres. American Rhythm and Blues singer Gary U.S. Bonds recorded the album ‘Twist Up Calypso’ in 1962, mixing Calypso with Rhythm and Blues and the latest dance craze, The Twist. He had a hit in America with his single ‘Twist Twist Senora’ – A twist song inspired by ‘Jump In The Line’. In 1963 American Doo-woop artist Jimmy Soul recorded a version of Roaring Lion’s 1934 song ‘Ugly Woman’. His version was titled ‘If You Wanna Be Happy’ and went to number one on the Billboard Hot 100. Rock ‘n’ Roller Chubby Checker tried his hand at recording Calypso music during the Limbo Craze of the early sixties. Among his offerings were ‘Man Smart, Woman Smarter’ (1962) and ‘Mama Look A Boo Boo’ (1963). Calypso also crossed paths with Jazz. British jazz clarinetist Acker Bilk recorded his take on ‘Jump In The Line’ in 1958. American Jazz saxophonist Sonny Rollins had been using Calypso rhythms in his music since 1956. His 1962 album ‘What’s New?’ included versions of ‘Brown Skin Girl’ and ‘Don’t Stop the Carnival’ and in 1965 he recorded ‘Hold ‘Em Joe’. In 1964, Jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie recorded the album ‘ Jambo Caribe’ which mixed Jazz with Calypso and other music from the Caribbean. The Alan Price Set had a top twenty hit in the UK with their version of ‘Don’t Stop The Carnival’ in 1968.
Calypsoians had been using electric guitars in their recordings since the 1940s. An early example being The Roaring Lion’s 1946 song ‘Mary Ann’ which featured a guitar solo by Trinidadian Fitzroy Coleman. The electric guitar grew in popularity among Calypso performers during the 1950s thanks to the popularity of Rhythm and Blues and Rock and Roll music from America. Artists like Lord Kitchener and The Mighty Sparrow used electric guitar regularly in their recordings throughout the 1950s and 1960s. It was during this era that Calypsoians began to fuse Calypso with Rock music. The Bermudan band The Talbot Brothers were among the first to fuse the two music styles. They had success in 1957 with their cover of ‘Mary Ann’. The Talbot Brothers’ recording career ending in 1962 and Ross Talbot had a short-lived solo career. His 1964 album ‘Bermuda Is Paradise’ mixed Calypso with Twist music and Rock music. His 1964 single ‘Short Skirts And Polly Pants’ was marketed as ‘Calypso Twist’. It contained a lengthy guitar solo. Antiguan Calypsoian Lord Short Shirt used riffs from Beatles songs in his 1965 single ‘Beatles and The MBE’.
Formed in Barbados in 1962, The Merrymen’s line-up was similar to the Rock bands forming in Britain at the same time. Their line-up included three guitars, a bass guitar and drums. They played upbeat versions of Calypso songs including ‘Island In The Sun’, ‘Jamaica Farewell’, and ‘Mary’s Boy Child’. Their biggest success came in 1966 with their single ‘Big Bamboo’. They had further success in 1967 with their version of ‘Archie (Break Them Up)’. Lord Creator recorded the song the same year. Born in Trinidad, he moved to Jamaica in 1959 and in 1962 he recorded ‘Independent Jamaica’ which became the official song for Jamaica’s independence. Lord Creator recorded the album ‘Jamaica Time’ in 1964. The album included a Calypso version of Bob Dylan’s song ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’.
Byron Lee and The Dragonaires were one of the best loved Ska bands of the 1960s. Byron Lee took the band in a different direction in the mid-1960s by adding Calypso to their repertoire. In 1966 they backed The Mighty Sparrow on his single ‘Only A Fool (Breaks His Own Heart)’ which was followed by the 1969 album ‘Sparrow Meets The Dragon’. The album included covers of ‘Born Free’, ‘Walk Away’, and ‘Try A Little Tenderness’. These recordings saw The Mighty Sparrow performing in a Crooner style. By 1968 he had returned to Calypso music with the upbeat singles like ‘Mr. Walker’ (1968) and ‘Sell The Pussy’ (1969).
Calypso music remained popular in the Caribbean and while the recordings were still popular among Caribbean communities in the UK, British Calypsoians struggled to make a living from making music. Artists such as Young Tiger and Mighty Terror began performing Jazz music at the end of the 1950s. Young Tiger later began an acting career and Edric Connor took a similar route. In Liverpool, Lord Woodbine began co-managing the Rock group The Beatles in 1960. Lord Kitchener returned to Trinidad in 1962. He was followed by Mighty Terror in 1965.
In Trinidad and Tobago, Lord Kitchener remained popular throughout the 1960s and early 1970s. He won the Carnival Road March a total of eight times between 1963 and 1973. Female Calypsoian Calypso Rose (Real name Linda Sandy Lewis) also became popular in this period. She was born in Tobago in 1940 and had begun performing in 1955. She originally used the name Crusoe Kid and was later given the name Calypso Rose by the Calypsonians Mighty Spoiler. She began recording in 1963 and travelled the Caribbean. She became the first female to win the Calypso King contest and the Roadmarch in St. Thomas in 1963. She became best known for her songs ‘Fire In Me Wire’ (1967) and ‘No Madame’ (1969). The latter criticised the treatment of domestic servants.
Trinidadian Calypsoian Lord Shorty (Real name Garfield Blackman) had a hit with ‘Cloak And Dagger’ in 1963. He was born in Trinidad in 1941 and began recording in 1962. During the 1960s and early 1970s he experimented with fusing Calypso with other music genres and especially the Indo-Trinidadian music, Chutney. The first example of this was his 1962 song ‘Long Mango’ which had strong East Indian influences. His 1966 song ‘Indian Singers’ is also a good example of Chutney-Calypso fusion.
With the decline of Calypso’s popularity in the second half of the 1960s, Lord Shorty attempted to modernise the music. Taking Soul, Funk and Chutney influences, Lord Shorty’s experiments lead him to develop a new genre of music that he defined as ‘The Soul Of Calypso’ or ‘Soca’ for short. His 1973 single ‘Indrani’ was the first to be defined as Soca and his 1974 album ‘Endless Vibrations’ helped the music take off in Trinidad and Tobago. Lord Shorty also had success with the early Soca songs ‘Soul Calypso Music’ (1973), ‘Endless Vibrations’ (1974) and ‘Sweet Music’ (1976).
From Steel Pan bands and Soca sound systems on the road to performers on the main stage and Reggae sound systems in Potternewton Park, Leeds West Indian Carnival has always been a musical event. Although Steel Pan, Reggae and Bashment all play a part in Leeds West Indian Carnival, Calypso and Soca have been the dominating sounds of carnival over the last fifty years. Below is a list of 50 of the greatest Calypso and Soca songs from the last 50 years to celebrate 50 years of Leeds West Indian Carnival.
Archie Buck Them Up – Lord Creator (1967)
Fire In Me Wire – Calypso Rose (1967)
Sell The Pussy – Mighty Sparrow (1969)
Indrani –Lord Shorty (1973)
Endless Vibrations – Lord Shorty (1974)
Jump Up –Byron Lee (1975)
Home For Carnival – Lord Kitchener (1975)
Give More Tempo – Calypso Rose (1977)
Sugar Bum Bum – Lord Kitchener (1978)
Soca Baptist – Super Blue (1980)
Bills – Arrow (1980)
Siamese Twin – Lord Nelson (1980)
Hot Hot Hot – Arrow(1982)
Tiny Winey – Byron Lee (1984)
Long Time – Arrow (1984)
Ah Coming – Mighty Power (1985)
Pan In A Minor – Lord Kitchener (1986)
The Hammer – David Rudder (1987)
Bacchanal Lady – David Rudder (1988)
Dollar – Taxi (1991)
Jab Jab – Super Blue (1992)
Jump (On D’ Count Of 4) – Second Imij (1992)
Jump And Wave – Preacher (1994)
Time To Wine – Iwer George (1994)
Big Belly Man – Mac Fingall (1995)
Movin’ To De Left – Nigel Lewis (1996)
Doggie – Anslem Douglas (1998)
Follow The Leader – The Soca Boys (1998)
Footsteps – Xtatik (1998)
Jouvert Morning – Byron Lee (1999)
Magician – Burning Flames (2000)
Jump – Rupee (2001)
Trinidad – Invasion Band feat. Naya George (2002)
Carnival – Machel Montano & Destra (2003)
Get On Bad – Bunji Garlin (2004)
Sweet Soca Music – Sugar Daddy (2004)
Madder Dan Dat – Machel Montano (2005)
Pan And Soca – Bunji Garlin (2007)
Water – Iwer George (2009)
Carnival Again – Biggie Irie (2009)
When Carnival Come – Super P (2009)
Tornado – Otis (2010)
Madness – Soca Johnny (2010)
On D Road – Machel Montano (2011)
Carnival Is Our Life – Bunji Garlin feat. Beenie Man (2012)