Soca Music Is Caribbean Culture, Just Not So Much Here In Jamaica

machel montano

Michael Edwards

Release Date

Saturday, April 28, 2012


Jamaica's version of Mas has undoubtedly grown, but full entrenchment is still a ways off.

Firstly, I have a confession.

I'm not the most conversant individual with the Jamaican iteration of Carnival. As a carefree late teen, I did participate in the famed Ring Road march at the UWI (immortalized by Fab 5) and as an adult I occasionally watched the big climactic Road March from the sidelines, or attended the Friday Fetes of the Bacchanal at the equally famed Mas Camp (now slated to be a commercial/hotel development).

But I have long since tired of those activities, and musically its still my conviction that, with precious few exceptions, none of the modern-day Soca acts can hold a candle to the calypso giants of the 60s, 70s and early 80s (sorry, Machel). After all, I'm a blues man at heart, and what is calypso if not the blues with an island lilt?

That said, I do have an appreciation for the Carnival as a social phenomenon. I've never had the experience of either Trinidad, Rio, or New Orleans (I did come close to the latter) but the anecdotes and the media suggest that in those territories, and indeed in other jurisdictions, the festivities are part of the national (or regional) identity, inseparable from the psyche of the people. They live for the gaiety, the sensuality and, most of all, for the music.

For most of the Caribbean, carnival means Soca, the vibrant offshoot of the original kaiso that is infused with r n' b and more often recently dancehall. Soca artists are revered in the other islands, and their songs dominate airwaves year-round, notwithstanding the heavy onslaught of dancehall. In Jamaica, however, such is not the case. Outside of the dedicated Carnival season Soca songs make hardly a dent on local playlists, and though the sound features more consistently at outdoor parties, it's hardly the same level of acceptance among the general populace.

This has to do with much more than what one might call the native rights of reggae, though that can hardly be discounted. Reggae in itself is a kind of usurper, displacing, via its precedent ska and rocksteady, the mento (a kind of Jamaican bluegrass) that is foundational in the Jamaican musical context.

Indeed, Jamaicans are undeniably jingoistic when it comes to music appreciation: we are glad to hear of audiences around the world, and of varied cultural backgrounds accepting our sound, but generally balk at allowing the sounds of other cultures to gain a foothold domestically. Rock, long derided as white people music and freaky sounds has only over the last decade had any breathing room here, and even now is largely viewed as the soundtrack of disaffected upper-class or uptown youth.

There is an irony here, as many middle and upper-class youngsters have also increasingly turned to dancehall, the soundtrack of the ghetto for their inspiration, regardless of what it is they may actually be inspired to do some have in fact become producers and rhythm creators, putting their inherently significant resources to use in the service of mostly ghetto-origin artists. Dancehall may have hurt its following with the association with violence, but it's hard to see Jamaicans, of any generation giving pride of place to Soca over reggae. Also, the notion of parading along a thoroughfare, despite the Yuletide presence of the Jonkanoo bands (a phenomenon that has almost vanished, sadly) is fairly alien to the average Jamaican's notion of entertainment, which he (or she) tends to enjoy in a single, preferably open spot.

Closely aligned with that is a sense of the ephemeral when looking at the role of the Carnival observances in Jamaica it's a once-a-year party rather than a cultural benchmark, something the majority of the country does not apparently feel historically tied to. The social nuances seem lost on our revellers. And let's be honest, though historically the Jamaican literary tradition was strong, Barbados and Trinidad are today, far more literary (and literate) societies than Jamaica. This discrepancy is reflected in the lyrical content of Soca, which, while certainly suggestive, has largely avoided the outright crudity that pervades the dancehall space. The double-entendres so common in, and even central to the enjoyment of, calypso/Soca, scarcely arise in dancehall and when they do, appear in a sardonic guise, as in the raps of Vybz Kartel. The worl' boss continues to be revered through the course of his multiple criminal proceedings, but to these ears, even the best of his raps have borne a certain predatory air.

But the class issue, almost Byzantine in its entrenchment (and its motivations), is still the major factor. From costume packages (you're paying a lot for what really amounts, with all the craftsmanship, to very little) to big-ticket events like Beach J'ouvert and others, the stigma of Carnival/Bacchanal being an uptown pastime persists. This, despite the valiant interventions and innovations of the late Byron Lee and a few others. None more so than Lee, who, by his own personal account to this writer (about a year before his death), caught quite a bit of flak in the early days at his attempts to bring the lumpen masses into the Carnival scene.

A gender-based stereotype is also at play. wining (or gyrating the hips) is seen as strictly a woman's domain and any man who moves in such a manner is considered to be gay. The staccato pounding of the daggering craze of a few years back illustrated the working-class Jamaican male's perception of male-female intercourse: rough and self-validating, associating sex with subjugation of the female and the male organ with a dangerous weapon (albeit deployed in close quarters). The undulations of Soca, and of the calypso that preceded it, speak to a more collaborative intercourse, and certainly one where both partners retain a level of eye-to-eye contact, even if the man happens to be holding his partner from behind.

Editor-in-Chief's Note: Michael Edwards is a freelance contributor to MNI Alive.

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