How Sweet the Sound

In the spirit once more, of the Merry Monarch’s reign supreme and a fascination with all (if not, most) things soca: I’ve been happily musing on 2011 soca trends. West Indian  popular culture, of  course, offers no end of  fodder — whether it’s sex and dancehallkaiso feminisms, the performance of masculinity by male soca stars, peripatetic postulations around black women’s derrières or, whether palancing is good for the soul (word is, it is).

On that note, it was interesting to see Africa (& strong African elements) trending hard in soca this season. Real damn hard. This season is long but some of these songs came out early, inundating my ears with thundering drums, rippling along polyrhythmic syncopations replete with echoes of the Motherland, or “the jungle” (or both?) On the appropriately titled “Swahili” riddim, there’s Denise “Saucy Wow” Belfon’s “Dance and Dingolay, and” Pelf’s “Obeah“, then there’s Alison Hinds’ “Makelele“; plus, Bunji Garlin’s “De African“, making it feel like “de Maroons never gone” indeed. It is enough to make yuh want to roll an’ tumble down — in the best way possible, that is.

Bunji’s song revisits a kind of neo-Africanness through the eyes of those who view him in Germany first, in the opening stanza, vascillating between his “Trini-man” identity, his Trinidadian identity and his skin colour which is read as African, moving through a celebratory reckoning of said cultural identity: “standard in meh hand / like ah spear going brave,” and “standing up jus like ah chief,” (with Bajans, Antiguans and Grenadians acknowledged along the spectrum) — in one of the most non-euphemistimic ways I’ve heard in new, contemporary soca in a while — he merges all three. Garlin, is also the Black Spaniard, a globalised West Indian citizen, constantly evoking spit-fire identities like a chameleon, as he ever complicates his cultural identity in song.  Additionally, Cassie’s “Tong (Town) Ting” asserts and celebrates the downtown, behind-de-bridge, Piccadilly Greens and all other “tong girls” — “red, darkie and  brown-skin”, whom his zipper wants to take ah grip on — this, all atop a sweet kaiso melody.

Of course, soca and kaiso have never strayed too, too far from Africa. Afro-Trinbagonian calypsonians and soca artists throughout the years, have found themselves revisiting mythic imaginings of where they have come from. This is nothing new. In other ways, other performers have undertaken similar explorations of their own ancestral roots from Anthony Salloum’s soca for the Middle East and Brother Marvin’s conflation of Mother Africa and Mother India.

Africa is there too in Rudder’s prophetic directive for Papa Legba to “open de gate”. Machel, even wanted it to take him back, once. From the shake of the Shango, the clanging of Shouter Baptist bells, to lavways, roll of the waistline, moko jumbies, tamboo-bamboo, wheel-and-tumble-down in a circle and everything else in between. Rudder also saw early rhythmic kinship from West Africa, to Bahia, Moruga and Parlatuvier. Oceans might separate us and West Indian creolisation might throw some new spices into the pot here and there, but the flavour remains the same — as Dr. Roi Kwabena (RIP great soul) aptly shows through the rhythmic threads tying multiple parts of the diaspora together — on his drum.

Or, as one of my good friends lamented on her facebook that people in Trinidad often get incensed when she frequently refers to herself as an “African” — like, they visibly recoil, get uncomfortable, and try to get her into discussions replete with bad reasons about why she isn’t one, rather “just a Trini.” Similarly, I had to somewhat-frustratingly elucidate in my own facebook status once (around the whole race & elections debacle), “1. No one should have to forsake their ethnic self to appear nationalistically whole. 2. Trinbagonian is NOT an ethnicity. It’s a nationality. That is all — nor is it some utopic identity space 3. Don’t ask me to erase my history, please and thank-you & I won’t ask you to erase yours. The most you can ask for is a kind of balance, precariously yet lovingly, suspended between the two.” And that, to me, is a beautiful thing.

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