and a brief history of Soca and Dancehall
by Jay Phillips
I used to hate Carnival music. It was always so loud and disruptive when I was little. Growing up, I always tried to be counter-culture, mostly from feeling oversaturated by what I considered dominant culture. But as I reached the formative years of my teenagehood, I discovered how much fun and potential soca music had. I began to understand the power of people celebrating in the streets, uniting to become part of something bigger for a couple of days a year.
As I began to appreciate and come to understand the storied history of Carnival, it became a formative part of my identity, but I still hated my home. I grew up in Trinidad and Tobago, a tropical paradise to many, but always felt it to be void of the communities I wished for. I felt like I was looking from the outside in. As time passed, I grew into myself and moved away from the warmth of Trinidad to the sprawling streets of Toronto, I felt a sense of missing that home. Yet, every time I dipped my toes back into the culture, I would be thrown into an internal conflict. How do I belong in a space, a culture that is in opposition to my identity?
Trinidad is known for many things: its lowkey beaches, 24/7 availability of doubles and the hospitality of a nation. As follows in our National Anthem, “Every creed and race find an equal place.” As much as Trinidad culture, and by extension, the larger Caribbean community, is informed by European Colonialism, never was my ethnicity, as an Asian European diasporic child, an issue or anything more than part of me. Yet, for all the acceptance and celebration, my queerness, my transness is unacceptable. Trinidad is a largely homogenous culture. They say your face can be as ugly as you like, but god forbid your body’s out of shape. You either fit into the narrative or you’re an outcast. Patriarchy and white supremacy are so deeply interwoven in this post-colonial nation that homosexuality was only decriminalized in 2018. The extent to which queer partners can express intimacy in shared spaces is an arm around the shoulder.
To not only go against the grain but to be the first openly queer trans person in my circles, was an insult to the dominant culture. The very nature of many conversations objectifies women. To be a man and “choose” to transition to a woman is an unspoken crime. I became an afterthought in social circles, and inherently disruptive to the “good vibes” of a lime or casual gathering.
What does it mean to celebrate the self through music? Where do our stories in music come from? Music is the language of the soul. Dancing is the language of the body. Through the synergy of these two elements, collective healing and celebration can nurture beautifully. However, dance and party culture are currently heavily tied to consumption and exploitation. Often, the music created and distributed reflects that. While many people enjoy dance music and its elements, the spaces where these take place can be capitalistic and unsafe in nature. Vulnerable people are preyed upon, door entry is based upon optics. Perceived wealth for men and perceived attractiveness for women are the metrics through which people are considered valuable – non-binary people need not apply.
Yet, for all the thoughtless celebration and uncritical socialization of today, Trinidad was built on and from resistance. Somewhere between glorified shuffle buttons and the gatekeepers of genres, DJs are a glue that holds music and dance culture together. While DJing was born out of matters less than martyrdom, DJing is a reflection of the music and genres an individual chooses to select. Soca and Dancehall, the main genres I draw from, have always been forms of power and reclamation for the colonized peoples of the Caribbean. To be a part of Soca and Dancehall music, to be a selector for these genres, I must first understand the history and sociopolitical complexities of the Caribbean over the past centuries. Only through a personal exploration of my histories did I come to understand the scale of the past, and these stories whispered around and shaped by an imperial lens growing up.
I started on the steel pan, the national instrument of Trinidad and Tobago and the only instrument to be invented in the 20th century. At age 7 as I listened outside the music class before school started each day, the sweet sounds of a myriad of slightly detuned steel drums dancing between cacophony and pure harmony left me at the mercy of bliss. My eavesdropping eventually clocked me and I was invited to play auxiliary percussion, smashing cymbals and chiming triangles, usually on time.
Calypso is the precursor to Soca, and by extension all Caribbean music. It was first created in the mid to late 1700’s in Trinidad and Tobago, as captive African slaves brought over by the Atlantic slave trade to work on sugar plantations migrated from the French Antilles along with French Slave owners during the French Revolution. These people were stripped of all connection to their homeland and agency. Through Calypso music, slaves were able to converse, mock and satire slave masters. Many early Calypso were sung in French Creole and led by a type of bard known as a Griot. As Calypso developed, and English replaced French Creole as the dominant language, the Griot eventually became known as a Calypsonian. Music has always been tied to the cultural and social issues of its time, no more so for Calypso. Calypso used picong (a form of friendly teasing) to ‘pick on’ a person or political entity. Calypso music served as political commentary, celebration and documentation of the times. It allowed the masses to confront and challenge undemocratic processes, and to have fun doing it.
Over the first year, I was promoted to steel pan and moved around various instruments in the orchestra. I started on the tenor pan, the one you often see on subway thoroughfares or hear sweetly in the distance from a city busker. To this day it’s a familiar, welcome sight: simple yet vibrant, minimal and proud – the rim cut shorter than the dresses I immodestly wear. When I had the privilege of moving across symphony lines, however, the real fun began. Four bass was a practice for me in musical dancing, positioned in the middle of four equally tall drums with a few notes on each. The double tenor with the beauty of being bashful and necessary, added subtle harmony and nuance to the single tenor’s braggadocious appeal. Finally, I found my home on the guitar pan, a lovely middle ground with noise to spare.
Modern Calypso was born in the 19th Century, with the abolition of slavery, and is heavily tied to what is known today as Carnival. During the time between the Catholic new year and Lent, Shrovetide, a ritual of bodily freedom and hedonistic practices brought over by the French, would occur annually. Not dissimilar to Mardi Gras celebrations in the US, this event was exclusive to the white elites at the time. As a result, Canboulay (from the French Cannes Brules) was practiced by slaves in response to this event. Once emancipation came, former slaves created their own version of Carnival by taking to the streets and celebrating their freedom. Due to the self-indulgent nature of carnival and the pervasive racism in colonial institutions, this post-emancipation Carnival was stigmatized and led to the withdrawal of white participation, coinciding with a hostile journalistic representation of Carnival. Carnival became an annual celebration by Trinidad’s African population in resistance to European aristocratic social and political dominance. Calypso would continue to be a form of socio-political commentary, with many Calypsonians critiquing British rule, economic inequalities and the social order, from the second world war up until independence. The People’s National Movement (PNM) capitalized on the growing politicization of Calypso and became the primary organizer for Calypso events. Today, the PNM is one of two major political parties in Trinidad and Tobago.
After moving schools around age 11, and a brief flirt with skateboarding for a couple of years, I had drifted from my relationship with steel pans and was craving something new to bring into my life. Guitar was something I had always seen as part of who I would be, and at age 14, took a first step. It was three months of self-teaching and two years before I could play a full song, but I came into my own. Guitar became a large part of my identity, and an amazing shield for showing the world my passion. It’s been 12 years since I first picked up a guitar and it’s still the one thing in this universe that knows me better than anything else. My pride and joy – a Taylor 214ce, is an extension of me, and a testament to my growth, from the scuffs of the neck to the warm, lush sounds from its body.
Dancehall and Soca were born out of and launched into its own genres by electronic instrumentation and multitrack recording entering the spheres of Reggae, Calypso and Kaiso music scenes. Drum machines and synthesizers would approximate the sounds of brass bands and riddim sections, usually at higher tempos than the musical genres that preceded it.
Soca was born in the early 70s and grew in popularity as the decade progressed. Soca, or the Soul of Calypso, was initially coined by Calypsonian Lord Shorty, who was first to blend Calypso and Indo-Caribbean sounds that were popular during the time.
My passion for guitar eventually led me to audio production and engineering. I was a STEM kid in high school and the ability to logicalize and discover the scientific details of the phenomenon of sound, was a natural evolution of my journey. I was able to explore the various roles a sound person can inhabit, and the dynamic opportunities available to tech people. During that study period, I began my transition and decided to leave the life I’d known so uncomfortably well. I was given the grace of time by my family to figure myself out and found myself in audio engineering roles through the community. Over time, these jobs started blending into the DJ scene. Either working intimately with DJs or being asked to curate a playlist while we waited for the talent to get on stage. I knew in myself, there was a reservoir of Caribbean music from two decades of growing up in the Islands. I knew, intimately, that I had something to say musically.
Dancehall, Soca’s Jamaican relative, was born through Reggae and DUB. Dancehall is inseparable from its roots, which can still be seen today in the various parishes of Jamaica – open-air venues, literal dance halls, with music pouring out into the nearby area for miles. Dancehall was birthed out of a creative desire for accessibility. The lower and working-class people of Jamaica, the predominant listeners and consumers of this burgeoning genre, had no sound systems of their own. Often these mobile sound systems were the only opportunity for people to hear their new favourite songs and riddims. Dancehall was for the people, and due to the nature of sound systems at the time, it came to meet them.
I grew up passively, and eventually, actively listening to these genres. As a femme non-binary person of colour from the Caribbean, I have my foot in many doors. Too often, these windows of intimacy with the self are either contradictory or mutually exclusive. The genres I lend myself to and curate often have tropes and themes that are actively harmful. So how can a DJ or musical curator create equitable, safer spaces? Reading the room and feeling the vibe are fundamental elements to being a DJ, but shifting focus from just enjoyment, towards monitoring the crowd for possible altercations is also important. There is power in shutting off the music and spotlighting who’s crossing boundaries in a moment. Everyone wants to have fun and enjoy themselves, but fun and freedom don’t truly exist in space unless all participants are at ease and feel safe.
Through discovering myself in DJing and curating my own events, I strive to foster a caring, safer space where people of all walks, expressions and identities can cohabitate and share in collective healing. I want to explore how the celebration of self through music, how dancing your heart out can be a detox to the rigorous work capitalism inflicts upon us. As a DJ and musical curator, I want to uphold the authenticity and bliss these gatherings can provide, while also making space that is healing and safe. Through music and dance, we can find our own voice; our bodies can find freedom.
Beyond that, a DJ has the world of music in their hands. There must be intention and acknowledgement of what songs are selected. DJs should recognize how much impact there is in selecting songs. A focus on empowering, celebratory themes with the music is important but not all songs must be about love and self-care. Looking at the overall selection of the night’s music as a canvas on which to mark ideas of a good time, and what that means for the individual and the collective, is impactful.
DJ Private Ryan, a Trinidadian-based Soca DJ, began sharing his mixes on Facebook while in university away from home. He created these mixes to connect to his fellow diaspora and soothe their disconnect from their Caribbean homes. 14 years later, he is the most prolific source for Caribbean music mixes and the international go-to for a Soca party. Through creating humble mixes in his dorm room in Florida, he helped ail people’s homesickness and connect them to their roots – something I would also be grateful for during my time in a dorm. He found his own voice through musical curation and became a sensation in Caribbean Diaspora spheres.
A fellow Soca DJ from Trinidad, based in London, Blasé Vanguard had this to say about the power of DJing as a person from the Caribbean:
“The way I grew up where I come from, a party would have so many different genres of music, Soca and Dancehall were always staples, but it all flowed in a way that we could enjoy ourselves […] I always thought that was amazing.”
“I also grow up on rapso, So my musical foundation has and will always be Caribbean.”
“I think I have a vision and foundation that’s very very unique and it allows me to connect with all types of people, and a Caribbean energy that is welcoming, allowing others to connect with me. Every connection with a member of the audience is a gift, and so we move together.”
I have been to countless parties and “fetes”. These experiences have given me an intimate understanding of the culture and energy that makes these parties so great. But equally, it has given me pause to see how harmful and unsustainable these events can be. Homophobia and misogyny are intertwined within music culture. Violence and bigotry are encouraged both lyrically and by patrons. Yet, for all the troublesome behaviour exhibited in Island music, there is change. Buju Banton, famously known for his incarceration and recent release, has for one, removed one of the most controversial homophobic songs in Dancehall, “Boom Bye Bye” from his catalogue. Female dancehall artists such as Spice, Shenseea, and Macka Diamond are revolutionizing what it means to be women in these hyper-masculine spaces. After having been in numerous crowds enjoying both uplifting and problematic songs over the past decade, to then become the person behind the booth intentionally selecting music I feel empowered by, is something to cherish.
What’s beautiful about DJing is that every day there is a new song, a new chance to shift the narrative. Every time I get behind the controller, I have the opportunity to reclaim my musical history, empower those that love this music as I do but feel they have to sacrifice a part of themselves to enjoy it. To feature euphoric and meaningful songs that get the crowd to stop and sing their heart out and embrace every part of themselves in the process is power.
Jay aka pothound, is queer, trans, Scarborough born, Trinidadian raised Space Maker, Producer, Skater, DJ, Sound Nerd and general shit talker living in Tkaronto/Toronto.
A leader in the skate community, Jay’s involved in Christie Pit’s Grrrl’s skate and organises DIY skate. They are currently the Technical Director of Tea Base, a curious community arts space in Toronto’s Chinatown Mall. Jay is also an organizer and resident DJ of the queer soca/dancehall event Cooler Fete.