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Take a visit to just about anywhere in the English-speaking Caribbean, from the Bahamas in the north to the Virgin Islands in the south, and you'll hear it blasting from tinny speakers on public buses and in local shops. Its lilt is unmistakably calypso, but the pulsing, rabbit-paced, drumbeat-manic sound could only belong to soca.
Soca is the people's music, celebrated at festivals year-round and a focal point for carnival season in Eastern Caribbean hot spots like Port of Spain, Trinidad. It is certainly not some antiquated relic preserved and packaged for sunburned tourists on holiday. That's left to the steel pans and hotel lounge combos offering up calypso lite for foreign consumption, easy-listening fare ideal for quaffing umbrella-topped cocktails and limbo dances. Soca is wild and dangerous by comparison.
You get a clear notion of the music's raw power and passion when artists such as Trinidad-born Leon Coldero and his Code-868 band take the stage. From their prizefight entrance to their final encore, they are determined to give the audience its money's worth. Coldero's wiry frame and husky voice are in constant motion, making sure the crowd feels every ounce of his inspiration.
"It's a bold sort of an entrance saying, 'Hey, I am here to make sure, to guarantee [a good time],' because the business that we're in is very intangible," says Coldero, who lived in Kendall for years before recently relocating to Orlando, while Code-868 remains based in Fort Lauderdale. He is known as the "original winer boy" ("wining" is a Trinidadian term for dancing). He works to keep the crowd on its feet, hips in motion, and the girls screaming for more. "I feed off the audience; that's where I get my energy from. Once they get going within the first five minutes or so of my performance then, I mean, it's all over," he says of his ultimate party music.
"Leon never disappoints, mon," says famed Jamaican crooner Freddie McGregor, who is producing the upcoming Rocksteady Meets Reggae and Calypso Part Four showcase in Miami, which is scheduled to include Coldero and Code-868. "Calypso and soca are very popular in Jamaica, just like in other islands. Leon is a people's favorite here [in Miami], so they're looking forward to him and love his wining, you know."
It's surprising that soca is the neglected stepsister of Caribbean music. Reggae and Bob Marley are known the world over, salsa has been familiar to the mainstream since Ricky Ricardo and I Love Lucy, Afro-Cuban influences have found their way into a host of hip new bands from New York such as Yerba Buena, and dancehall singers such as Shaggy and Sean Paul are enormous crossover stars. But soca? Even a hugely influential artist such as Trinidadian David Rudder, for years a perennial soca king, is hardly known outside the Caribbean.
Part of the problem can be blamed on the digital-heavy productions of artist albums, which seem sterile compared with the heat of a live performance. A disposable CD can't translate to the frenzied excitement of a carnival competition, where bands hustle to produce big hits and compete for one of the coveted awards, such as soca monarch, at the annual carnival in Trinidad. But when the season ends, so does its music. Fans and promoters are forever looking ahead, so even the best songs have trouble sustaining enough popularity to cross over into the Western market.
Coldero's career began in the mid-Eighties with Sound Revolution. He went solo in 1991, and then gained notoriety during the next decade as a featured vocalist with Byron Lee and the Dragonaires. He was nominated as Trinidad's soca male artist of the year in 1997 for his hits "Bicycle" and "Rain," and his Strictly Soca was runnerup for best-selling soca album of 1998. He's known for sexy and shirtless high-energy performances, generating a party sound that's heavy on rapid-fire digital samples and percussion.
Coldero laments how the soca scene is centered on carnival competitions. Although they can bring prestige to many artists, they often limit the impact those artists can have. "I don't really think the competition brings out the best in artists," he says. "I think it sort of limits the growth. And that is part of our music, one of the reasons our music hasn't really been as popular as probably we would like it to be. A lot of it is being heard around carnival season, but after carnival you don't hear anything again, and we've got to record a new song and CD for the following year, which is really difficult."
A few songs have managed to break out of the islands by sheer force, like the infectious "Hot Hot Hot" by Trinidadian singer Arrow, a huge Caribbean hit in the mid-Eighties before it was remade for American audiences in 1987 by the campy Buster Poindexter, of all people. It's a classic tune. Lyrically it offers nothing more complicated than several variations on the theme "Feeling hot, hot, hot." But musically, it's a collection of choruses that jumps around from one short, playful idea to another before anything can get boring, managing to switch off the head and turn on the hips. The jangly guitar, hard-skipping bass backbeat, Arrow's forceful vocal delivery, and the nonstop throng of drums and percussion both live and digital have an almost dizzying effect.
Since soca is so effective at getting the booty to shake, collaborating with hip-hop would appear to be a natural progression like it is for dancehall, that other high-energy sound of the Caribbean. But since dancehall and rap have a slower, bass-heavy sound, soca may be too hyperactive for its own good. "Soca music would play at 152, 162 beats per minute [BPMs], while reggae music and even dancehall music would play at maybe 93 BPMs," says Coldero. "It's much slower. Our music is very hyped."
It's a conundrum. The genre's American appeal is still too modest for a label like VP Records, which launches dancehall artists into the mainstream on a regular basis, to spend the big promotional bucks necessary for achieving critical mass with its soca roster, including Edwin Yearwood and Tony Prescott. Meanwhile other, smaller labels such as JW Records don't have the cachet or the budget to compete in the U.S. market.
But as soca's crowd-pleasing and upbeat party vibe grows in influential countries such as Jamaica and Brazil, and songs such as Kevin Little's "Turn Me On" slowly gain crossover traction, the music may gradually seep into the mainstream like dancehall was able to do over its twenty-plus years of existence. Meanwhile, as long as Coldero keeps his hips swiveling and his wining ways rousing audiences wherever he appears, the best for soca is yet to come.