CARNIVAL MUSIC // Carnival Leadership & Education Series by @CarnivalSpotlight

Kya Publishing's carnival-centric outlet @CarnivalSpotlight is featuring a six-part blog series, highlighting various aspect of Caribbean Carnival culture, in an effort to reflect, inform, and encourage the development and documentation of the cultural phenomenon that is celebrated and revered by Caribbean natives, descendants, and supporters around the globe. From a Canadian perspective, we will give an overview and list recommended next steps for those who are curious about and/or committed to sustaining and enhancing the culture that inspires the lives of thousand of international revellers, creatives, and participants each year.

We are all stimulated by a range of external factors, and the power and influence of said factors can drive us to engage in particular behaviours, attend certain events, and invest our time in money in very specific activities. For me, that stimuli is music. It never fails. Particularly when it comes to Caribbean music, it's virtually impossible to ignore the spiritual effects that the combination of drums, riddims, instruments, dialects, and production has on me. I admire the creations, and the creativity. I applaud just how intrinsically beautiful and addictive the sounds are.

Reggae and soca music evoke different emotions from me, although both are driven purely from my soul. When it comes to soca/calypso music in particular, the music drives me towards towards paying attention to and participating in the ritual of carnival. Regardless of the other factors of engagement, it is primarily the music that explains and justifies this interest of mine. It is the music that rests at the root of everything that is beautiful and authentic about carnival culture. The music guides with power.


It's now late January of 2020, and that means one thing: Trinidad carnival is right around the corner. Have I ever attended the mecca of all carnivals? No, regrettably. Not yet anyhow. Have I invested time, attention, and passion into this spectacular ritual? Absolutely, I have. Most recently, I have been motivated to write this six-part Carnival Leadership & Education Series as an outlet for this unshakeable passion and interest of mine. This is my way of contributing to the constantly evolving carnival culture. This is my method of building the online archive of information and context for this festive phenomenon. For the year 2020, this is how I would like to celebrate my love for carnival, and do my part to help sustain its existence.

I love the way the the songs of each season frame the memories and experiences. I love that immediately upon hearing an old soca track, you can place exactly what year it was by the costume you wore on the road that year, who you spent time with, or what events you attended. The music is so specifically tied to the experience of carnival, and the songs and artists are such a carefully orchestrated piece to the overall experience.

From the new season's songs start to roll out in late fall, until they become vaguely familiar in the turn of the new year and weeks leading up to Trinidad carnival, the music alone reminds you of the power, the energy, and the pure force of Caribbean carnival. The music directs the entire experience in the best and most memorable of ways.


The artists are magical. To list them, or reference them each individually would be nearly impossible. Each artiste has their own style and essence of joy that they bring to the scene. They are all equally important pieces to the overall puzzle. I will always love the legends of my time growing up listening to soca: Machel and Bunji, and of course Destra and Patrice. As I grew in my love for soca, I became familiar with so many others and I continue to embrace the new artists that prove themselves to be legends in the making with each passing season, like Voice, Preedy, and Nailah Blackman for example.

Another wonderful element: each island has its own specific sound, cadence, instrumental preference, and energy that they bring to Caribbean music in general, and soca music in particular.

I love the ways in which Caribbean folk are innately drawn to the music of their particular region of origin, through loyalty and of course, cultural familiarity. How the folks from St. Vincent love Vincy soca, and how the folks from Barbados love Bajan soca. I love the Grenadian vibe, the sound of jab jab, and would love to learn more about Dominica and Haitian music. There are so many levels that may not get the same mainstream carnival love as the Trinidadians do (and naturally so), that makes this cultural experience one that still has elements to uncover.


As a Jamaican descendant, I am hard pressed to "choose" between soca and dancehall music, but at the same time, would love nothing more than for the Jamaican soca to establish it's own sound. I just saw a video with Usain Bolt joining forces with Ultimate Rejects, and literally lost my shit. I may be listening to Trini soca most of the time, and connecting with Trini culture on a level...but as soon as a Jamaican even remotely enters the arena, I am 100% there. I love how Bolt loves carnival, and I love what his love has brought to the celebration of carnival Trinidad and Jamaica. That resonates with me.

I would love to see a Jamaican Soca Monarch, and every part of me feels like this is something that may never happen. Jamaican/reggae artists have been recording calypso music since Byron Lee embraced and developed the culture in 1970's Jamaica. We as Jamaicans are no strangers to the sound or passion behind it.

Konsens, Charley Black, and Busy Signal have easily ridden soca riddims over the years, and I love them for it. Vegas was a pro at it, and Beenie Man even dabbled in soca for a while. I just saw a Vybez Kartel and Machel collab and I love everything about it. But each year, as Trinidad Carnival passes and Jamaica carnival approaches, I think how great it would be to have an established Jamaican Soca Monarch. Linky First came close in 2017, when he was a contender with "Rock and Come In."


The sound of soca is fluid, as are most genres to an extent. And each year there's a trend, and a vibe that the artists naturally run with. I believe that the closer soca and dancehall came together, the easier it was for the artists to collaborate. In fact, there are times when you can't tell if the dancehall song is soca, or if the soca song is dancehall. The easiest way has been to decipher using the artist's origin. If it's Bunji Garlin: soca. If it's Busy Signal: dancehall. Simple.

I always try to see what the advances in Jamaican soca culture are, because the mix of both cultures is exceptionally exquisite to my ears and soul. I believe there was a Jamaican Soca Monarch competition in April of 2000 sponsored by Tastee...but I haven't been able to find any evidence of a similar competition afterwards. While the documentation may seem trivial at time, the conversations are worth having and reporting! I am a firm believer of this.

When asked what would need to happen for Jamaican soca music to advance, a few years ago in an online article from Sleek Jamaica, a few surveyed Jamaican DJs unanimously indicated that an increase in soca production would need to originate in Jamaica for their to be a distinct "Jamaican soca" sound and value...and subsequent Monarchs.

DJ Taj noted the change in music over the years, as Jamaicans have increasingly embraced the presence of soca in parties, and DJ Richie Ras was in support of Jamaican producers developing more music in the genre. DJ Lantern felt as though the exposure to carnival (which is increasing exponentially in Jamaica now) was essential to fully understanding carnival culture, and DJ Franco said that with production, Jamaica could sustain enough artists to hold down their own Monarch for the season.


Because of the music, you can see that even fete culture has expanded from being Trinidad-centric, to finding permanence across North America, and also on other islands come carnival time. Brands like Duck Work, Vale Vibe, and Soca Brainwash have found their way to Jamaican land and are increasing in popularity with each Jamaican carnival season. It's the music, driving the change, driving the enterprise, and allowing for a larger picture of how the culture can expand and inspire change.

Fete culture can be viewed as a result of the music as well, and in addition to the visiting brands like those of DJ Private Ryan, local DJs also are learning towards branding annual events, rather than simply promoting and participating in one-off fetes and parties. In Toronto, we have quite a few steady brands in Caribbean music that have been taking place for ten years or more. The culture definitely evolved, and there was a time when major American brands or radio stations had our influence, but now homegrown soca DJs and promoters can pull in huge holiday weekend crowds and carnival attendees just based on brands that were developed right here in Canada.


To advance as leaders, there requires a firm foundation to be able to monitor and lead as is. Trinidad is currently the obvious leader when it comes to the production and celebration of Caribbean Carnival, based on the meticulous way they have created and sustained a viable economic structure for their carnival to exist.

While it is easy to support and endorse Trinidad while brushing off other less-meticulous and economically questionable carnival music scenes (like, ahem, the scene here in Toronto)...we also have to realize that it takes a village to form before the leader can emerge. To start, we can take a look at the leaders that already exist in our community: the musicians, the vocalists, the panists, and calypsonians. The elders of their craft, who currently reside in Toronto: who are they? Where and when do they perform?

From there, we can take a look at the up-and-coming Caribbean musicians, who have chosen to follow in the tradition of soca and calypso, and not yet gone over to hip hop and trap music. We can continue to support their efforts and endorse the leaders that currently exist, as well as uplift and encourage the leaders in training.

While there are increasingly more producers at home, crafting and creating riddims and movements, we have to always pay homage to the musicians and instrumentalists who are also honing their crafts and providing the authentically pure sounds to accompany the computerized vibrations.


Toronto's steel pan scene is vibrant, and just passing by a pan yard pre-Carnival in Toronto is a tradition and welcome addition to the summer activities. We have to give credit to the Ontario Steel Pan Association, that has been around since 2003 and continues to produce their flagship event, the Pan Alive competition that takes place on Carnival Friday at Lamport Stadium.

From groups like the Toronto All Stars Steel Orchestra headed by Salmon Cupid, or Wendy Jones and the Pan Fantasy Steel Band, there is no shortage of talented pannists in Toronto. Afropan Steelband has been around since 1973 under the leadership of founder and arranger Earl La Pierre Senior, and management by one of his musical sons Earl La Pierre Junior.

Educator and performer Joy Lapps heads up the SteelPan Experience, instructing others on her instrument of mastery, and Tropicana Community Services offers a steelpan program to local youth in Toronto. There is Panatics, and the Silhouettes, and even Symphony X in Stony Creek. New Dimension, or Steelpan with Suzette many instrumentalists have emerged as leaders just within this one instrument in Toronto, and have paved the way for many youth to enjoy and perform and sustain the beautiful sound of the steel pan.

While the individual performers do not always get face time or due recognition, it is important that we pay attention to who these leaders are, and the contributions and sacrifices they are making for the music, and for the culture overall. While the DJs and producers are making waves in the club and driving the international soca community centres, and other gatherings and practice environments, the musicians are also doing their part to sustain the beauty of soca and calypso music.


The local music instructors, programs, and schools in your town will love it if you come to their annual recital, performances, and endorse the young and new performers they are training. Music education, while not always culturally diverse in the provincial/municipal education systems, can still be beautiful and nostalgia-evoking for cultural reasons.

If you are unable to support the concerts in person, perhaps you can purchase a few tickets, or donate the amount of the ticket to the organization. It's important to keep these businesses in operation, and to encourage the young to learn their craft and sustain it. Just as we need to teach the next generation about Super Blue, Calypso Rose, and Byron Lee, we also need to educate them on the musicians behind the artists and the theory behind the DJs and producer's technical skills. We have to nurture the systems of education that allow the professionals to exist and create.


Here are a few recommendations. We've touched on soca artists, various islands, and briefly looked at the influence of DJs and producers, and even pannists. Let's take it a step further and I challenge you to find out who the local soca artists are in your town, or the nearest major city near you. Check out their music online, subscribe to their YouTube channel, and follow them on IG. Make an effort to get to know more about them, and even go out and support one of their shows when possible. If you find someone unique, tag us on Instagram at @CarnivalSpotlight and we'd be happy to share the good news and sounds!

Find out about the other local Caribbean musicians in your town, and see if you can find any old stories or footage of their contributions to the culture. Maybe on an old recording, or film. Other than the steelpan, see who the keyboardists and brass players are. The drummers. Where in your city do they practice, and what organizations are they affiliated with?

It's easy to connect with soca artists, soca DJs, and to enjoy music at festivals and fetes. Let's take it a step further and pay attention to the music and scene on a new island every now and then...there's so many to choose from. Let's look at the traditional Caribbean instruments like the steel pan, and try to uplift that portion of the carnival celebration. Investigate the artists, and song writers, and the other musicians who work to advance and enhance the craft.

I say "let's" because it is a lot of information to uncover and investigate at once, as an individual. I'm pretty sure I could research and entertain a full Ph.D. dissertation on the possibility of the Jamaican Soca Monarch becoming a "thing"...

@CarnivalSpotlight is here, and our objective is very intentional. I'm here as a writer a communication specialist, with a specific commitment to cultural arts. I'm committed, and as long as I can write, and as long as I can hear the sweet sounds of soca music, I will do my best to research, communicate, and share what I believe to be the most beautiful and inspiring and liberating culture on earth. I will proudly do my part to help to inform and share (and enjoy!) the music of my people: the music that brings so many people so much joy and self-understanding.

We encourage you to directly engage with your local Caribbean Carnival community, endeavour to understand the culture on a deeper level, and consistently contribute to the ongoing development and cultural enterprise of the carnival industry.

In an effort to preserve the contemporary Toronto Caribbean Carnival experience, we wrote a fictional book about one Toronto couple's introduction to the world of soca music and mas; "Carnival Spotlight" is a part of Kya Publishing's Urban Toronto Tales novel and short story collection, written by Stacey Marie Robinson.



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