Soca the Music of Trinidad & Tobago

Calypso is ours and yes, Soca is ours! However, there was a time when Calypso was on the ropes and the youth gravitated to Reggae and Dancehall music. Lord Shorty decided that it was time for a change, but change has a price and there was push-back to his musical awareness. He was focused and created a style of music that incorporated Trinidad Indian style rhythms using Indian musical instruments; he called the new sound, Sokah. However, it was considered too Indian causing Lord Shorty to reinvent the new creation once again. In 1974 he reinvented the music/the vibe by supplanting the Indian instruments/melodies with typical European instruments familiar to Calypso; this new vibe/sound became what is known as Soca today. The growth and popularity of Soca music quickly replaced Calypso as the choice of music for carnival feting in Trinidad and today rules all Caribbean-style Carnivals around the World. This is the story of Sokah which, through a spelling error in a newspaper report, became known as Soca.

Soca music is fusion-style dance music that evolved out of the bowels of Calypso Music in Trinidad and Tobago. The core of the new music included Calypso and rhythms from Trinidad and Tobago's East Indian community. Other musical vibes have been added to the core of the music and this continues to this day. American Soul was also added to the mix. When Lord Shorty said that Soca is the 'Soul of Calypso' many concluded that he was talking about American Soul music... They were wrong! He meant the heart and soul/core of Calypso music!

Today, we have styles of Soca music such as Chutney Soca, Parang Soca, Bouyon Soca, Rapso (Rap Soca) Bashment Soca, Jab Soca, Island Soca, Ragga Soca (not to be confused with Saint Vincent's Ragga Soca, which we conclude, is Groovy Soca) and infiltration of Zouk and Cadencelypso as well as European vibes in Soca. Now one can add Dennery Segment Soca and Afro Soca. This music style (Soca) has supplanted Calypso music as the music of choice for all Caribbean-style Carnivals. Through the Soca Monarch competition, two categories of Soca music emerged Power Soca (speed 160 plus bpm) and Groovy Soca (around 115 bpm). One was the ideal catalyst (Power Soca) for jumping up and having a good time for Carnival 'on the road' while the other, Groovy  Soca, was ideal for having fun in fetes. No one, with the exception of Machel Montano, has been able to do what Super Blue did with Soca music. Super Blue created the 'jump and wave yuh flag' phenomenon of Soca. When he ruled, he was an amazing artist and no one has come along to captivate an audience, get them moving the way Super Blue did it. 

The new music style was named "Sokah" by Lord Shorty; some have spelled it Solka but there is no record of Lord Shorty spelling it anything other than Sokah in the early years. He (Lord Shorty) is the acclaimed creator of the original Soca rhythms. Soca Music is now the heart & soul and musical engine that drives Carnivals of the Caribbean and North America. On this page, you will find some interesting facts on Trinidad's Soca! Now for some honesty, Shorty was not in the studio creating this new music all alone. There were others there working on the new music with Shorty. No one is sure that they set out to create something new but they were there to make music, sweet music. It was Shorty's project but rest assured the creation of the new music was a collaborative effort of the musicians gathered at KH Studios in Trinidad. No mention or credit is given to those musicians but people like Pelham Goddard could shed some light on what really took place at KH studios during the formative years of Soca. 

For those of you visiting this Blog/page for the very first time, and for those who are curious about the music called Soca, the following music clip will help you understand how the music is structured. Keep in mind that this was done during the 'early period' of the music genre's creation - it continues to change today to the point that the various music fusions have blurred the lines between what can legitimately be called Soca. However, it is apparent that there is a labeling issue where almost all of the new music today falls under the banner of Soca with the exception of the newly created fusion called 'Island Pop'.

It should be noted that when Lord Shorty removed the East Indian instrumentation from his creation and used European musical instruments to bring the same style to the music we had the creation of two bodies of music. The style with the East Indian instrumentation went on to become Chutney Soca and the European style instrumentation kept the name Soca. Out of one creation came two forms of the same style!

In the audio clip below you will hear the voice of  Garfield Blackman aka Lord Shorty with his band the Vibrations International explaining the structure of the Soca rhythm.

The Story of Soca (by Jocelyne Guilbault)
If you always wanted to know the story, the history of Sokah Music that became known as Soca well here is an excerpt from an article written by Jocelyne Guilbault back in 1997 that tells the Story of the music genre's birth and transition in the formative years (early '70's period).

The complete article is titled, "The Politics of Labelling Popular Music in the English Caribbean" and as mentioned in the first paragraph, was written by Jocelyne Guilbault. I am pleased to publish part of this article today specifically because of the onslaught by many who want to discredit Garfield Blackman as the creator of music. As I have said to many, and in so many different situations, the music has changed but it was Lord Shorty who created the foundation that the music genre was built on. From the early days of Cloak and Dagger to Indrani, Endless Vibrations, and in 1976 Soul of Calypso one can hear the changes taking place in the music even with Lord Shorty. Clearly, there was a fusion of different styles of music but the naming of the genre and the foundation for the music was all a result of the work done by Lord Shorty!

Read the article and take note of how Shorty took the accent of the East Indian music and placed it on the drum set pattern to create the 'New Sound' that was eventually accepted, used throughout the Caribbean, and claimed by many! However, if you are smart enough and follow the music trail you will see all roads initially led to and from Trinidad and the musical genius known as Garfield Blackman!

The following is the excerpt taken from the 1997 article written by Joycelyn Guilbault:
From Trinidad, the term "sokah" (later spelled "soca") was coined by Ras Shorty I (Garfield Blackman, formerly called Lord Shorty) around 1973, following his musical experiments in mixing East Indian elements with calypso.3 In an interview reported by Roy Boyke, published in the 1979 Carnival magazine, Ras Shorty I described the circumstances which prompted him to put forward a new music label and a new sound.

I was trying to find something because the talk was that calypso was dying and reggae was the thing. I thought the musicians in the country had a right to get together and use their minds to renew or improve calypso somewhat. Everybody was putting it down... Calypso was dying a natural death. And to come up with a new name and a new form in calypsoul was what Sparrow was trying to do all along. Sparrow tried to add a lot of things to calypso and it didn't work. I felt it needed something brand new to hit everybody like a thunderbolt... I came up with the name Soca. I invented Soca. And I never spelt it s-o-c-a. It was s-o-k-a-h to reflect the East Indian influence. (quoted by Ahyoung, 1981: 98)

If one of Ras Shorty I's goals in creating Sokah was indeed to "renew or improve calypso," another was to unite the East Indian and the African.4 Through music, he believed, he could help fight "racialism" among East Indians and Africans. In his view, "the fusion of the music can do that. " (Personal interview, 6 February 1997). Another of his goals was to attract young people to listen to Trinidadians' own music. Around that time, he remarked that youth preferred to listen to reggae and, furthermore, had come to believe that, to accomplish anything, one had to go to America. In creating a new sound, his aim was to fight this tendency by leading Trinidadians to believe in themselves and to support their own musicians and music.

The term "Sokah," Ras Shorty I explained, comes from the combination of two syllables: "The 'so' comes from calypso. And the 'kah,' to show the East Indian thing in the rhythm, right?... I selected the syllable 'kah ' because it represents the first letter of the Indian alphabet" (personal interview, 6 February 1997). Interestingly, Mungal Patasar, a Trinidadian musician trained in Indian classical music, noted that the selection of the syllable "kah" by Ras Shorty I had been particularly appropriate to symbolize the influence of Indian rhythm since, by being the first letter of the alphabet, it signals the start of a movement and, in addition, "kah" is the first syllable of the name of the beat "Kaherwa". It could be concluded that, even if admittedly unaware of these meanings at the time, Ras Shorty I intuitively chose the right syllable to convey not only the inclusion of the East Indian influence, but that of rhythm in particular, in his music fusion.

Even though it was not his first experiment in mixing East Indian and African musical elements,5 Ras Shorty I's song "Indrani" recorded in 1973 represents a key moment in the official launching on the market of the music he chose to call "Sokah." The reaction to the song was, however, mixed in both communities. As Ras Shorty I explained, because the lyrics talked about an East Indian woman who, after drinking rum, would lure her man into the bedroom, the East Indians thought that he was desecrating their women and, by extension, their music as well. And because the arrangements of the song featured instruments associated in Trinidad to the East Indians' traditions, including the dholak, the dhantal, and the mandolin, the Africans thought that he was spoiling the music---meaning, calypso.

Despite the complaints, Ras Shorty I produced the year after (1974) an album entitled The Love Man, which continued in the same vein as "Indrani" and, with the exception of one song, featured a dholak on every track. After this album was again rejected for using East Indian instruments, Ras Shorty I decided for his 1975 recording to change the instrumentation. While in his new arrangements he removed the East Indian musical instruments, he nonetheless kept the rhythms they played by distributing them on traditional Western instruments, in particular the drum set and the guitar.6 According to Ras Shorty I, some of the musicians, including the keyboard and the conga players, found it too difficult to play the new rhythms and reverted to those they knew best---the traditional calypso rhythmic patterns. The mixture of the new rhythms combined with the traditional ones on Western musical instruments not only stopped the whole controversy about "Shorty playing Indian," but also proved to be a commercial success of his album named Endless Vibrations.

It is interesting to note that it is precisely at the time when the changes of instrumentation took place that the spelling of "Sokah" was changed to "Soca" by a journalist who, according to Ras Shorty I, began his story on him with the headline: "Shorty is doing Soca." In the process, the interpretation of the term "Soca" no longer made reference to the East Indian contribution, and instead proposed to see the term So-ca as the contraction of the music believed to be at its foundation, namely, the fusion of soul (so) and calypso (ca).

Could it be that this change of spelling was done in the same spirit as the change of instrumentation, making the new label more acceptable to the core audience of carnival celebrations, that is, the Calypsonian aficionados? As Ras Shorty I did not protest, the new spelling stayed.

In Ras Shorty I's account, the new rhythms and arrangements of Soca were picked up for the first time in late 1976 by another artist, the reputed Calypsonian Maestro with the song "Savage." Many other artists then followed suit, but it was not until 1978 that Soca as a label became firmly established. This key moment came with "Sugar Bum Bum" by Lord Kitchener---the song which, in Kitchener's vast repertoire, has apparently sold more copies than any of his other songs.7 According to Ras Shorty I, from that time on, Soca became synonymous with party music and moved back to a less sophisticated rhythm section and lyrics. By then, the chief exponents of the music as originally conceived had disappeared from the scene. Maestro had died the year before at a premature age in a car accident, and Ras Shorty I had decided to withdraw from the musical scene.

After "Sugar Bum Bum," in Ras Shorty's view, the new Soca has continued to carry the East Indian rhythms through the drum set and, to use his words, "to punch out the bass line on the drum set." At the same time, however, many new elements have contributed to the continual transformation of Soca, including "a lot of sampling with Zouk, with plenty American influences, plenty funk... A lot of things went on" (personal interview, 6 February 1997). Today, the music called Soca in Trinidad enjoys the greatest media exposure through both the written press and radio broadcast and, in financial terms, is seen as the most profitable one. It has also been institutionalized at the national level in Trinidad through the Soca Monarch Competitions held since 1992 and has been given an even wider scope since the competition was renamed in 1996 "International Monarch Soca Competitions" in order to welcome candidates from other countries to participate.8

But Soca as a music label has not yet been firmly established. Even though the label Soca is known throughout the Caribbean region, outside of Trinidad the term is indeed hardly ever used. And even if the musical practice to which the music label refers is most successful in terms of commercial value and circulation, it continues to be severely criticized, for reasons to be discussed below.

The article continues with a discussion of Ringbang but with a genuine focus on the labeling issue and 'controversies over representation'. Please use the link provided below to read the article in its entirety:

Notes from the article #'s 3-8 in red above as quoted in the original article by the author:
3. Ras Shorty I had already used East Indian influences in one of his first calypsos entitled "Long Mango" in 1966. However, he came up with the term "sokah" in 1973 when he decided to experiment with this musical fusion and make it the basis for his new compositions.

4. The East Indians and the Africans constitute the two most important ethnic groups in Trinidad. The latest statistics on Trinidad and Tobago's demographics evaluated what is referred to as the "ethnic" profile as follows: 40.8% African descent and 40.7% East Indian descent (On October 11, 1995, at the World Wide Webb Site Http: \\\

5. His first composition which mixed the East Indian and African musical elements was called "Long Mango" and was written, according to Ras Shorty I, in 1958 (personal interview, 6 February 1997).

6. For the drummer especially, to play sokah as Ras Shorty I wanted him to play it was at the time revolutionary in at least two ways. The drummer was asked to use another playing technique, namely, to cross his hands for playing, and also to use a greater number of instruments on his drumset not only to feature the various rhythmic lines inspired by the East Indian rhythms but also to provide more color. In his change of instrumentation, Ras Shorty I replaced the dhantal with the triangle, which after 1978 was eventually dropped to be substituted by the iron from the steel band.

7. It should be noted that carnival songs are usually recorded before the calendar year ends and the carnival season begins. In the case of "Sugar Bum Bum," for instance, the song was recorded in 1977 for the carnival season 1978.

8. I am grateful to Alvin Daniell for providing this information.

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Vibrations Groove - Lord Shorty