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It is the colourful sound of an island people once oppressed and now proudly multicultural. It is the soundtrack to carnival celebrations carried out all over the world. This is the story of how the music that has come to define Trinidad and Tobago’s youth culture came to be.
Text by: Brittany Carter      Country: Trinidad and Tobago

espite the sweltering heat of early March, Machel Montano took to the stage in a leather suit. He began his performance of his rousing soca single, “Advantage,” by demanding of everyone in the audience, “Put your rag in the air!” The music had every element of a winning Soca Monarch song–high energy, a fast beat and a melodic group of background singers to carry the song into the pitch black night. With this number, Montano was out to show the crowd that an advantage is just what he had. He became the winner of the most important musical competition of Trinidad and Tobago’s carnival season, as well as 2011’s unofficial ambassador of soca music.

Immediately off the northeastern coast of Venezuela, the dual-island nation lies far south in the Caribbean. The biggest of these two islands, Trinidad, is a place defined by its pride and its culture. Trinidad is also the birthplace of soca music, which once a year travels around the world riding on the tails of the tradition of carnival.

One half of the aggregate nation, Trinidad’s history is composed of several painful stints of enslavement and displacement, all of them intertwining to create its rich and resilient culture. Native Americans peacefully lived on the island until the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1498. His appearance initiated the upheaval of the island’s natives, which were entered into the slave trade and sent to various places in South America to work in colonies.

Then, in 1592, Spain and France began to import West African slaves to establish the island’s tobacco and cacao industries. In 1797, the British took over the slave colony, and less than 40 years later, slavery was abolished. After this social and economic milestone, Britain began to send indentured workers, who were mostly East Indian, to convert the island’s natural resources into profit. They worked to cultivate sugar cane for more than a century.

Today, people of Trinidad boast of their multicultural history in a display of resilience over its historic oppression. The primary industries of the republic are oil and gas, and the official language is English. However, as a testament to its storied history, several nonstandard dialects of different languages are spoken, including French and Spanish.

In the early 1970s, a native Trinidadian named Garfield Blackman rose to fame as a calypso singer. He went by the stage name of Lord Shorty and became a signature artist of the genre, which is a hybrid of African and European musical traditions. For much of the 20th century, it was calypso, not soca that stood as the undeniable sound of Trinidad. However, Lord Shorty began to hear rumblings of a new music genre from the Caribbean called reggae. Thinking that his beloved calypso was quickly becoming a thing of the past, he began to infuse it with the traditional East Indian music that was also prevalent in Trinidadian culture. He breathed new life into the music form and called his creation soca.

From its introduction to the public in 1973, soca was a sort of love child of calypso and Indian music. However, there were other influences, too, including blues, soul and reggae. Though percussion is the most dominant force in most songs, traditional soca also relies heavily on horns, electric guitars and bass. Musically, it became the ultimate expression of Trinidad’s multiculturalism. The very existence of a music genre with roots traceable to so many countries echoed the very essence of being Trinidadian.

But the lyrics were another issue. From the beginning, the lyrical content of soca has been characterized by what some native Trinidadians refer to as “smut”—sexually-laced double entendres that invite dancers to be provocative. Despite some artists’ well-meaning bids of songs that warn young people not to fall into the worldly traps of drugs and other evils, soca was and is primarily party music.

Just as Trinidadian culture spawned soca, soca is now spawning a culture of its own. Nowadays, in a night club or on the streets of Trinidad, the start of a soca song is sure to bring with it “bacchanal.” This phenomenon is recognizable by the way listeners work themselves up feverishly, entranced by the music. You can’t use just your ears to listen to soca; enjoying this island music requires your whole body to get into it.

Soca singers often mobilize their audiences with demands to “wine,” “bubble” or to “jump and wave” (with your Trinidadian flag in hand). All of these movements should exude sensuality, Trinidadian pride, or both. In the language of soca, of which the very essence is to cross physical and verbal boundaries, to “wile out” is to be moved by the music and to have a good time.

Dr. Rick Davies, professor and chair of the music department at SUNY Plattsburgh, commented on the youthful nature of the music, especially in today’s context. He says, “Soca is more for the younger crowd. It’s like American pop. It’s like love and dance and whatever else.”

Fittingly, soca is the soundtrack to what may be considered the grandest party all over the world—carnival. Trinidad and Tobago’s carnival takes place in late February each year in Port of Spain. Several months in anticipation of carnival, new soca music is released to the masses, and the Trinidadian community lights up with fan rivalries about who will have the most played track when the festival begins. Every year, the International Soca Monarch competition crowns the artists with the most played songs and the best performances. The music debuted in Trinidad and Tobago during this season finds its way to celebrations across the Caribbean, and even as far north as Toronto and New York.

To be sure, this annual competition is not an end but a melodic beginning. As nations around the world celebrate carnival, they celebrate soca music, too. These performers help to bring Trinidad and Tobago to the rest of the globe as their popular songs and youthful dances begin their annual journey around the world.


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Easy Summary

Trinidad and Tobago are Caribbean islands off the northeastern coast of Venezuela. Trinidad is the birthplace of soca music.

Native Americans peacefully lived on the island until the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1498. After his arrival, the island’s natives began to be enslaved and sent to work around South America’s colonies.

In 1797, the British took over the slave colony, and less than 40 years later slavery was made illegal. Britain began to send East Indian workers to convert the island’s natural resources into profit.

Today, people of Trinidad and Tobago are proud of their multicultural history. The official language of the country is English, however, several nonstandard languages are spoken, including French and Spanish.

In the early 1970s, a native Trinidadian named Garfield Blackman rose to fame as a calypso singer. He went by the stage name of Lord Shorty. Lord Shorty began to hear about a new music genre from the Caribbean called reggae. Afraid that calypso was going to disappear, he began to mix it with the traditional East Indian music that was also popular in Trinidadian culture. He called his creation soca.

Trinidadian culture created soca, and soca is now creating a culture of its own. You can’t use just your ears to listen to soca; enjoying this island music requires your whole body to get into it. Soca singers often mobilize their audiences with demands to ‘wine’, ‘bubble’ or to ‘jump and wave’ (with your Trinidadian flag in hand). All of these movements should exude sensuality, Trinidadian pride, or both.

 

Comprehension

Below you will find text comprehension questions. Read and listen to the text and answer the questions (we recommend you read first and then listen).

Soca

Quiz

 

Grammar in Use

Below you will find PDF documents with the Grammar in Use.

Elementary. The Passive.

Advanced. Gerunds.

Vocabulary

Soca.

Musical Terms.

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