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Heavy beats burst out of car windows across Opa-locka as Trinidadian-American pirate radio DJ Gisselle "the Wassie One" Blanche blasts the latest hip-hop-flavored release from soca queen Alison Hinds. Inside a tidy house on the city's north side, the big bass of Mixx 96 FM gives way to the tickling pulse of the more traditional tunes sung by 30-year calypso veteran Mighty Shadow. "We're what you might call a middle-age mas band," explains Inskip Morris, leader of the masquerade band D'Gathering. "This is what we're used to." Reading glasses perched on his nose, he twists wire around the aluminum tubing that will hold up the wings of his costume for Miami Carnival 2001.
Four of his countrymen, their muscles thick from work in construction and masonry, mill about the screened-in porch, drinking beer and talking foolishness to pass the time. "Our band is usually small, but it's active," boasts Winston Robinson. Better known as Crebo (the Sneak), Robinson has been with D'Gathering since the first Miami Carnival back in 1983. He's seen the carnival here grow, and he, like his fellow masqueraders, has heard the music that blares along the parade route change.
Calypso, which has livelied up the Caribbean since the turn of the Twentieth Century, enjoyed something of a craze in the United States in the Fifties that still rides through the culture on Harry Belafonte's banana boat. In the Sixties and Seventies, calypsonians started throwing in elements of African-American soul to create a variation now known as soca -- mixing soul and calypso to come up with a heavier bass line with a dense electronic texture. Most notably, traditional calypso's often biting and hilarious political commentary gave way to commands to party, jump, wave, and wine summed up in the best-known soca song outside the islands, "Hot, Hot, Hot."
"There's an ongoing condemnation of soca as having vacuous lyrics," says Steve Stuempfle, curator at the Historical Museum of Southern Florida. "This is a major debate in the calypso world." But if some traditional calypsonians have complained that soca changed calypso for the worse, many of those who originated soca have the same to say about the newest generation of musicians now borrowing from African-American hip-hop and R&B. This year those influences have even been structured into Miami Carnival, with urban station 99 Jamz (WEDR-FM 99.1) cohosting a new event called Jamfest before the annual steel-pan competition and BET's Hits from the Street covering the event.
David Rudder, one of the most influential early figures, laments the loss of storytelling in today's soca. "When that is gone, the magic is gone," he says sadly. "People talk about, “Well, it's not on the charts; look at this reggae music, it's on the charts.' But calypso is a totally different thing." Aiming for a larger market outside the islands takes the bite out of calypso's political commentary. "You can write a song attacking your congressmen," he points out. "The rest of the world might not care, but you get your point across to him."
Rudder realizes he is now raising some of the same objections that were once leveled against him, but he believes his generation had a stronger sense of history. "I always felt the music was supposed to change, but within the field of what we know in the calypso world," he observes. "When you go too far into R&B, you lose the groove that is soca."
Mike Andrews, long-time host of the Caribbean music show on WVCG-AM (1080), admits he has mixed feelings about calypso's latest incarnation. "It's new music; it's exciting," he says, "but what I don't like is the lack of lyrics and good musical arrangements. A lot of these songs just use the computer to throw in a drum track. It's pure crap with a beat."
There are notable exceptions, says Andrews. In addition to the more traditional powerhouses like Shadow and Rudder, he praises Mashel Montano, the prodigy who formed Xstatik fifteen years ago, at age eleven, and is currently recording a solo project with Atlantic Records designed to cross over into the lucrative U.S. R&B market. Similarly Alison Hinds of Square One has teamed up with rapper Foxy Brown. Edwin Yearwood of Krosfyah is experimenting with rock and roll as well as Haitian compas. It's significant that both Square One and Krosfyah hail from Barbados, believes Andrews. Thanks in large part to the work of Barbadian producer Nicholas Branker, he says, "Those groups have done a very good job of capturing what good calypso is."
For Alison Hinds, one of only two female winners of the Party Monarch title bestowed each year on the most popular calypso singer, it's all good. "There's more experimentation going on than before," she says. "I think that's a positive thing. People of other cultures can relate if it's party music. There's no boundaries."
Back at D'Gathering camp, Inskip Morris agrees. "When we get out on the streets, we chip to whatever music plays."