Whither soca?

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Above: Seashell, by voronin-76/DepositPhotos.

BitDepth#1237 for February 20, 2019

For the first time in 45 years, I was face to face with Hollis Liverpool, The Mighty Chalkdust. He was sitting quietly in what seemed like the bombed-out ruin of the top floor of the SWWTU hall, the home of a calypso tent called the Revue for decades.

The last time I’d been in that space, I’d come to photograph the tent’s legendary leader, Aldwyn Roberts (Lord Kitchener), and it had the feel of an aging executive boardroom then, with calypsonians bustling back and forth preparing for their turn on the busy stage.

Now, it was just dusty floors, carelessly painted wood paneling for walls and irregular slats of wood underfoot.

Chalkie, which I have no authority to call him to his face, did not remember our last encounter. I’d come calling at his home to interview him about this new “soca” thing for the youth page of the Express, The Young Scene.

He’d launched then into a practiced history of calypso, explaining its evolution to a callow child, and concluded by saying, “it’s all stories; a calypso is always about something.”

As I thanked him last week for his generosity all those years ago, I reminded him of what he’d told me, something that made a world of sense four-and-a-half decades ago.

He glanced up at me for a moment, leaving the obvious unsaid. We had both come a long way since then. And so had soca.

In 1975, the Road March was Kitchener’s Tribute to Winston Spree. We were still two years from the end of the Sparrow/Kitchener hegemony of the road, and the effective end of calypso’s grip on the music of the streets.

For Dieffenthaller and George, it’s a possible moment of consummate schadenfreude for men left standing at stage side while bands pranced away with Montano’s song.

Give More Tempo landed in 1977 and Calypso Rose (McCartha Lewis) would ride that bubbly number to become the first woman to win the Road March. In that ground breaking soca song, Rose’s vocal is tracked closely by a keyboard synthesiser that echoes her call to “go down San Fernando.”

Heard again today, the work stands as a pivotal point in the shift from storytelling to sing-along, the minimalist horns almost buried in the mix by arranger Pelham Goddard’s aggressive keyboard accompaniment.

Music producer and production lecturer at UTT Martin Raymond notes the introduction of drum machines in productions by Leston Paul in the mid-1980’s, specifically Kitchener’s Break Dance and Byron Lee’s Tiney Winey as key to the introduction of computers to soca music.

In retrospect, there is a clear lineage from Rose’s soca benchmark to today’s competition for the road, specifically this year’s.

I’ll sometimes take a stroll through St James’ Kiddies Carnival event to get a sense of what makes the children excited. You can’t fool young ears with hyping.

They get stoked by what moves them and on almost constant repeat this year were two collaborations, Machel Montano’s work with Skinny Fabulous and Iwer George, Conch Shell and George’s pairing with Kees Dieffenthaller, Stage Gone Bad.

The two songs aren’t just duelling for earspace, it wouldn’t be out of line to see this as a second referendum on the two schools of thought at play in the crafting of the Road March, and more specifically, a return bout in the battle between Famalay and Savannah Grass in 2019.

Once again the lyrical sparseness of one song, Conch Shell stands, or rather wines, in bold contrast to the verbosity of Stage Gone Bad.

While Iwer and Kees trade lines explaining why the stage has gone bad, their rival gets busy shellellellelling.

For both Dieffenthaller and George, it’s the eve of a possible moment of consummate schadenfreude for two soca pros left standing at stage side while bands pranced away with Montano’s song.

“What is striking this year is the near-absence of inventive melodies in favor of single note or two note chants,” Raymond said.

“This seems to be a direct consequence of the success of Famalay last year. Stage Gone Bad is a notable exception in the melody stakes.”

It’s also likely to be the result of the commanding success of a few composers, who are contributing many of the most popular songs, he believes.

“If Stage Gone Bad wins,” said Raymond, “it will be only the third Road March in a minor key, and the first since Shurwayne Winchester’s 2005 Dead or Alive.”