Viva la Party Soca
“Ah win!” a jovial Lil’ Rick screamed backstage, trophy in hand, after successfully defending his Party Monarch crown and picking up his sixth title (1998, 2002, 2003, 2007, 2016) overall. Despite performing at the difficult first position, the stalwart still was head and shoulders above the competition that followed with the Dwain Antrobus-produced “Energy” – a rallying cry for peace in this violent climate. “It work for me in my favor,” he said of opening the night’s proceedings in his celebratory interview with NationNews.
Rick was then asked about his thoughts on the dark cloud surrounding party soca, with its perceived declining quality and popularity. His response was expected. “Party music is here to live,” he rebuffed. “And don’t underestimate the party music, it is just that we need more artistes to sing more party music because we enjoying the party music from other countries, so why not from here?” he continued, making reference to Motto’s “Bend Dong” and Freezy’s “Split In Di Middle” – both artistes being from St. Lucia.
You could argue that Rick’s defense was from a place of bias or denial. When the competition he now holds the most titles for is deemed to be lacking in quality, and in some cases being called to be scrapped entirely, you could see why he would be defensive. But he has a point. Party music isn’t dead nor will it face extinction anytime soon, even though the output in the genre has waned over the past couple of years as other subgenres have risen up to displace it as the face of Barbadian soca.
The biggest culprit of this upheaval is sweet soca. Yes, there has always been what we know as ragga soca, but pace’s groovy cousin grew exponentially in the early- to mid-aughts as soca was achieving mainstream looks and the sound started to cater to a wider audience abroad with its crossover appeal. So much so, the inaugural Sweet Soca competition that was held in 2009, and was subsequently won by TC, is now arguably more popular than the Party Monarch – even though there was an initial pushback as it was seen that these slower efforts were a Trini-fication of the traditional raw, bajan sound found in party soca.
Nevertheless, sweet soca has allowed for more artistic range than pace, and has brought new performers to the forefront. Artistes who wouldn’t have been comfortable recording and performing at such high BPMs, or writing “wave ya flag” material, work well in the slower tempo, as it allows them to have clearer lyrics, explore more themes, and develop more melodies than the traditional “jump up, wuk up,” call-and-response.
This can be said, too, of the other offender: the burgeoning bastard child, bashment soca. The Bashment boom afforded the same opportunities for new voices to be heard, mainly because of its lower barrier to entry (hopping on a riddim is cheaper than paying an established arranger). Also, writing for them is easier (which necessarily isn’t a good thing), and most productions are reinterpretations of already famous dancehall riddims, so half of the work is usually already done.
Despite the initial pushback amongst purists, classists and snobs, Bashment’s stock continues to rise here and abroad, slowly nudging party soca out of the spotlight once the quality started to slip. Ironically, its instructional earworms are packaged in the same Bajan rawness that was once associated with the genre. (And it got its first competition last year, too.)
If you let some of the proponents of party soca tell it, the reason for the genre’s stagnation rest squarely on the shoulders of the nation’s disc jockeys. “They push the Bashment real hard, the Sweet Soca real hard and just throw in one or two up-tempos,” former Party Monarch Mikey told Barbados Today.”People cannot feel passionate about a song that they don’t know. That’s how you get a big song – when people hear it over and over.” In a piece on Barbados Today titled Let Party Music Play, a few of the Party Monarch finalists echoed Mikey’s sentiments.
Let me come to the defense of the deejays, for once. Casual listening and partying habits have changed, so whether they are on radio or in a fete, the deejays must play what the masses want to hear. And they mostly want to hear bashment and sweet soca. So, is one obligated to sacrifice time to make sure that the season’s up-tempo music is heard, even if it means affecting the quality of their set? No. Each spinner would make that decision on their own. And if they choose not to, then, oh well.
Last year Alvin Toppin posted on his Facebook page that “power soca is dying”. Hott 95.3’s Hitman admitted to Barbados Today:
I hardly ever play power soca. If I do it would be one from 2008 and back, no further up. I think that power soca is dead. It has been dead for about two years now. I have been trying to tell artistes that for a while.
These are just some examples of pace’s short shelf life. Outside of the odd morning mix or aerobics class, you hardly hear it anywhere outside of the Crop Over-imposed three month window. Because it is seen as just music to invigorate or build a sweat. Sweet and bashment soca live on the radio and on the dancefloor twelve months out of the year, and they cater to a more balanced and relaxed vibe. This longevity brings about more opportunities, especially financially, so artistes are more inclined to record in these genres.
This year there was a twenty percent increase in Sweet Soca entries and a five percent decline in Party Monarch, as per NCF event producer Adisa “Aja” Andwele. “The low numbers for the Party Monarch was evident last year and in fact for previous years too,” he said. Still, on finals night, the competition did have some exciting contributions. It was great to see Grynner and Ras Iley shaking off the rust from their “nursing home”, Faith giving an awesome rendition of her woman empowerment anthem, “Run It”, and Saffiyah had a great debut – doing choreography whilst singing and not missing a breath. If you ever wanted a sign that there was still life, the night’s proceedings made a pretty solid case – even though most of the songs were foreign to majority of those in attendance.
Again, as Rick said, party music isn’t dead. And I agree. It’s just having its time out of the spotlight thanks to changing generational tastes. But the champion has a solution to revitalize it, though, by using established acts like himself to continue to breathe life into it. “If ah could get me, Mikey, Edwin, Peter Ram, all the guys, every year to do that fast soca, it gine work,” he said, before admitting the creation he had a part in is taking the land by storm. He then issued a challenge to his fellow artistes: “Sing a pace song next year. Each and everybody sing a pace song. And wunna gine see how bad pace gine be”. Like Fadda Fox, let’s hope his ideal is not in vain.
Sign up for the INTERLUDE Newsletter – delivered every Friday.