Every two years I teach Caribbean Music and Culture to students from the University of Delaware.
These sessions are a mixture of theory and practice. And when I say practice I mean practice.
Check this Bajan Dancehall session below led by the amazing Shameka Walters.
Isn’t this great?
This to me this is the gift of all Afro musics, the lived community!
Big shout out to Juanita Clarke on drums who also made this session happen.
It is carnival season in the Catholic Caribbean.
And in the English-speaking areas,
the music of choice will be soca.
It wasn’t always this way
40 years ago it was all calypso.
In fact, many today still tend to refer to all singers at carnival time as calypsonians whether they do calypso or soca. But the difference between the two genres could not be more distinct.
And just to help out those that are still confused, here are the differences between soca and calypso.
Soca music has and always will be a party music. As a result, it keeps the beats heavy and the words light. Calypso, on the other hand, is the old guy who use to party but spends his time philosophizing about life.
If it says “Jump, wine , wave,bacchanal, carnival, jump” it is Soca.
If it says “existential threats to the diaspora need a panacea,” then chances are you are listening to a calypso. See Chalkdust singing a calypso below.
2. Hook line and sinker
If you missed the hook you definitely do not have a soca stream on. Soca repeats itself.
Even though there is repetition in calypso, it does not even come close to soca’s jump and wave stammering. Hear this classic repetition by Barbadian soca star Blood.
3. Brass less – drum machine more
Calypso songs generally have different instrumentation to soca, especially post 90s soca. Calypso songs are generally more organic (although not all the time) and usually feature a brass section of some type.
Here is calypso plus brass plus Singing Sandra.
Soca, on the other hand, is minimalist (not many instruments) with the drum machine, and laptops running Ableton, prominent. They also tend to be more synthesized.
Take “Advantage” of what I mean below ;).
Since the 90s, soca has been in two different time zones, mid-tempo and break-your-neck speed. An example of break-your-neck speed is Advantage above.
Calypsos NEVER EVER REACH these tempos.
So if you hear a song over 150 b.p.m. then it is CERTAINLY a SOCA song. Anything under 130 b.p.m, then it at least has a chance of being a calypso.
(Then you have to go from #1-3 to see if it actually is of course.)
5. Beats (Check out my book Caribbean Composers Handbook on Amazon for more)
Soca uses a number of beats and these have changed over the years. However, if you hear the following beats then you are dealing with a soca song.
Calypso is more than comfortable to maintain the beat like the one below and it has done so for many a year.
So wherever you are from, enjoy the carnival in the Catholic Caribbean but whatever you do, don’t call the soca a calypso.
Like most artists living in tiny countries I do many things within my discipline.
To do that I need help
So here are 10 pieces of technology/websites that I cannot live without.
I came across this website as I was doing my PhD and scouring the web for articles. After singing up for 1 article, something that I thought I would regret, I realized that this site had so MUCH more to offer than just obscure academic material. Referred to as the YouTube for text, this site has music arranging books, songbooks and more importantly, transcriptions of some very difficult songs.
When I first joined it had copyrighted material.(Illegally of course) However, like YouTube, the publishers caught up with Scribd. It remains a great resource nonetheless.
I teach popular music courses part-time at the tertiary level. The Allmusic guide is the stop I make when I am trying to work out the new artists my students are talking about. It is also a good place to fact-check some of the music of the greats.
Even though it is the most quoted website for lazy students, Wikipedia is still a good place to start when trying to learn anything. It has enough starter-up information, and in some cases quite a lot more for you to grasp any concept.
I do many things including running a rather ambitious music youth development group called the 1688 Collective. To keep my life in order, I use Evernote. This app goes across every imaginable OS and its ease of use means that I keep not only reminders, but pdfs and pictures for all the necessary activities.
5. Music Registry (Google +)
Google +, despite parent company Alphabet’s best efforts, continues to be left in the distance by Instagram and Facebook. However, on Google + I follow a fantastic blog called Music Registry. This blog posts all the latest developments within the recording industry as well as really good interviews. I don’t know how they pay themselves as the pluses never really seem to be overwhelming, but this blog is definitely one of the best.
6. WhatsApp for PC
On a tour last year one of my band mates showed me this feature of the ever popular WhatsApp. Since then I cannot describe how grateful I am to him. This feature which mirrors the mobile messaging service, has postponed my carpel tunnel syndrome.
I came up in the early days of computers with highly unstable drives and even more unstable floppy disks and I mean the 5 and 1/4 inch variety. Cloud storage for me was a dream come true where devices could be synched and you could still have your info even if your hard drive got in a fight with the motherboard. Dropbox is one of the easiest to use and is compatible with multiple apps. I store all the music from my ensemble 1688 Collective on here which puts my mind as ease.
Even though it is quickly becoming the granddaddy of the social networks, most people where I live, LIVE on Facebook. It is also the space where I communicate not only what is going on professionally with my life, but also with the over 50 plus members of 1688 Collective. Without Facebook I do not want to think about the amount of messages and calls I would have had to have made to get even one rehearsal off the ground.
9. Microsoft Office Suite
If Facebook is a grandfather, then Microsoft Office Suite is an Egyptian Pharaoh. The most dominant set of programs when it comes to productivity for PC. I obviously spend a lot of time here.
Finale is the first scoring program I learnt. As I do a lot of arranging and composition it is perhaps one of my most used programs. Frequently frustrating but indispensable, I call it my troubled partner.
*no ranking order.
*special mention to YouTube and Google Chrome.
I love doing workshops.
Here I am at Edna Manley College in Jamaica speaking to how Dancehall music can be used as melodic and harmonic material for Jazz large ensemble.
The case study here is Summertime, the Vybz Kartel composition mixed with the more well known Gershwin one. The students are using the fused melody to go through various Caribbean styles as well.
Jamaican Dancehall music has always maintained the Afro-Diasporic aesthetic of having a distinctive voice. This voice does not merely relate to content but the sound of the voice.
Here is a Top 10 of the most distinctive voices in Jamaican Dancehall.
Tiger was one of the mid 80s Dancehall dons. Tiger’s unique self call-and-response, where he goes between a broad pronunciations and a deeper clipped tone, is not only humorous but terribly unique. He also possesses one of the most elaborate speaking/chanting styles you will ever hear on a stage. If that was not enough, he also uses his call phrase, “see!” copiously.
9. Shabba Ranks
In the early 90s Shabba Ranks was possibly the biggest name in Jamaican Dancehall. Shabba gained cross-over success with his Mr. Lover track which replaced the Dancehall reggae beat with a generic back beat. However, I have chosen the seminal “Dem Bow” tune which started a whole genre to showcase his unique vocal. Shabba brings a deep baritone and an aggressive attack to his chanting. He also has surprisingly clear diction especially when compared to other Dancehall artists.
8. Vybz Kartel
From the modern brigade we have Vybz Kartel who has a school of Dancehall performers who implement his template of low chanting and contrasting higher pitches between sections. This style makes Vybz Kartel distinctive and a solid member of this list.
Sizzla brought a distinctive lyrical voice to Dancehall in mid-90s. As a Rastafari from the Bobo Ashanti mansion, Sizzla set about inserting his ideology which at the time was largely relegated to Reggae. Sizzla also brought a new approach with a singing chant style that used double-time rhythm and falsetto singing. As time went on, Sizzla utilised more of the falsetto and remains one of the most recognizable voices in Dancehall.
Eek-a-Mouse was one the early 80s Dancehall performers and a contemporary of the more famous Yellowman. With his nonsense syllables and a nasal voice, Eek-A-Mouse set himself apart in terms of sound.
5. Snagga Puss
Although not original in terms of sound, the idea of chanting like Snagga Puss the cartoon character, is a stroke of genius. With a speedy vibrato like the character and a quick rise and descent pitch at the end of each word, Snagga Puss scored some moderate Dancehall success in the late 80s and early 90s. Needless to say, his lyrical content was mostly far from serious.
Here is another of the post 2000 Dancehall artist. Mavado and his call, “baby” are as well-known as his singing come chanting style. Unlike Sizzla, he does not use the falsetto, instead Mavado engages in what can only be described as a whine where he constantly slides into notes like if his fingers are caught in a door. His success shows this style pays off however.
3. Lady Saw
In a space dominated by men, a female voice would of course stand out. Lady Saw is easily the premier female voice in Dancehall and has been for quite for a while. She also is very rhythmically secure with an attack and ride of riddim that is as good as any.
2. U Roy
In the earliest days of Dancehall this toaster was the man. With an elaborate speaking style that doesn’t always reflect a Jamaican accent, U Roy was a pioneer and is still distinctive some 40 years after his initial success.
1. Tommy Lee
Tommy Lee is the youngest person on this list. Due to the fact he emerged so late in a genre of so many great and unique voices, he took it upon himself to be as extreme in terms of sound as is possible. From an extremely nasal voice, to a guttural sound and an elaborate style like Tiger, Lee does it all. The combination is not to everyone’s taste, especially the older Dancehall heads. However, Lee has marked a space for himself and no one sounds like him.
Remember, can’t include all!! Who are some of yours?
Christmas is an important event in the Caribbean.
Here are five musical genres that are/were rooted/routed to this time of year.
1. Tuk – Barbados
Tuk music is a fife and drum music. It is perhaps the only indigenous Afro-Barbadian genre to have survived colonialisation. At Christmas, Tuk groups would come through villages playing and drinking rum. Tuk music is hardly ever played at this time anymore and has moved into the realm of nationalist celebration.
2. Masquerade – Guyana
Masquerade is another fife and drum music with a strong musical similarity to Tuk. Like Tuk, the playing of it at Christmas has waned.
3. Plena – Puerto Rico
Plena is the one of the major indigenous Puerto Rican musical forms. The music is seen to have been created by English-speaking Caribbean migrants in the 1800s. It is also one of my personal favourites when it comes to Caribbean genres.
4. Parang – Trinidad and Tobago
Trinidad is one of the more cosmopolitan islands in the Caribbean. Parang shows the Hispanic cultural influence as it was traditionally sung in Spanish and uses instruments found in other folk cultures of the Hispanic Caribbean. There is a Soca-Parang variant that is popular but here it is in its traditional form.
5. Parranda – Venezuela
To end, here is a popular genre from Venezuela. Parranda sounds like a more rhythmically complicated version of parang and I am sure they come from the same root. Here is one of my favourite groups, Maracaibo 15.
So I hope you have enjoyed this brief Christmas blog.
All that I am left to do is wish you a
Please enjoy it wherever you are.
Caribbean Music Man