Bunji Garlin on Soca, "Differentology," and Not "Selling Out"

One hit is all it takes for an established musician to become an international star. For Bob Marley, it was "Judge Not." For Shaggy, it was "Oh, Carolina." For Trinidadian ragga soca artist Bunji "The Fireman" Garlin, that song is "Differentology."

"The purpose was to transcend beyond the season of the carnival [in Trinidad and Tobago] so that it can relate to anyone from anywhere," the singer explains. "It was made to stand out among everything else."

And Garlin's hit single does just that. Even those not familiar with the Trini, if they've tuned in to any local pop radio station, watched the tenth episode of season ten of Grey's Anatomy, or even jammed to Major Lazer, they've heard Bunji's big song.

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Now thanks to the track's success, Garlin and his crew will be dropping "Differentology" and shouting "Are you ready?" at Miami's Bayfront Park as part of the annual Best of the Best megaconcert during Memorial Day weekend.

"Just the excitement of performing with all these people," the Fireman marvels. "A lot of these artists, we've been fortunate to come across them many times and work on the same stage as them. It's a nice, family-type environment. It's all these bands from all these different islands."

With steady reggae, dancehall, and soca vibes emanating from Best of the Best's main stage, the good times will definitely keep rolling. But for Garlin, this fest is about more than just having fun.

"Being a Trinidadian artist, many of these opportunities, we don't often get selected for them," he admits. "We always fight for it. This gives us a chance for people to look at our music in a different way too."

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Born Ian Antonio Alvarez, the aspiring soca star changed his name to Bunji Garlin in the mid 1990s as a way to make a statement and pave the way for his music.

"It's a two part name," he begins. "Bunji comes from the bungee rope, because the more you pull the rope downward, the higher it goes when you release it. I try to apply that to my life -- the more you push me down, the higher I go. And Garlin, I got it from the military weapon, a Gatling, but we call it a Garlin in Trinidad. It's small, but causes a lot of damage."

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Coming from such a small island in the Caribbean and now creating soca shock waves across the globe, Bunji Garlin has been fitting, even somewhat prophetic, much like the vision that he once had of his career as a boy.

"I used to always see this image when I was real young, something like a wave of fire," Garlin describes. "And years later as a professional musician, I was in the studio and saw that same vision again. That's when it hit me -- I'm supposed to be here."

Making it mainstream, however, has proven to be more than a matter of fate. He's taken risks. And he's faced challenges. But Bunji insists he never considered compromising his core artistic identity.

"When an artist sells out, when an artist crosses over, they leave a lot of what they know, and when you do that, you leave your whole fanbase behind," he says. "These artists leave what they know and don't fully understand what they're getting into."

So yes, it may have taken 15 years. (He released his debut in 1999.) But finally, Garlin's refusal to sell out has paid off.

"This song ['Differentology'] is one of the first instances of Trinidad and Tobago crossing to mainstream.

"It's happening. And to see something like that happen, it's very encouraging. For our music to do that is our goal."

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Best of the Best 2014. With Bunji Garlin, Beres Hammond, Barrington Levy, Cocoa Tea, Beenie Man, Tarrus Riley, Chronixx, and others. Sunday, May 25. Bayfront Park, 301 Biscayne Blvd., Miami. The gates open at 2 p.m. and tickets cost $47 to $139 plus fees. Visit bestofthebestconcert.com.

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