Soca, the faster-paced, danceable derivative of calypso created in Trinidad and Tobago(T&T) in the mid-1970s and now the dominant music of the Anglophone eastern Caribbean archipelago, has, with few exceptions, enjoyed very limited success beyond these islands’ shores. There is Arrow’s incredibly durable single “Hot Hot Hot,” which has been translated into more than 20 languages and is still being licensed onto new compilations, 22 years after its initial release. David Rudder’s brilliant portrayals of Caribbean culture earned him enthusiastic acclaim among world music aficionados and iconic status in the late ’80s/early ’90s. Machel Montano conquered international dance clubs in the mid-’90s with his soca-dancehall-house fusion “Come Dig It,” and is credited with making soca palatable to a younger generation more attuned to hip-hop beats and dancehall riddims than calypso’s orchestration.
There are the soca novelty hits too: “Follow The Leader,” a 1996 Trinidad Carnival sensation became a 2000 chart-topper for Germany’s Soca Boys. The Baha Men’s remake of Anslem Douglas’ Carnival hit “Who Let The Dogs Out?” was morphed into an American sports anthem and T&T’s Sugar Daddy’s 2003 boom shot “Sweet Soca Music” has earned him superstar rank in France, but those tracks are about as far removed from authentic soca as Germany’s Black Forest is from Trinidad’s tropical terrain.
Pinpointing authentic soca is a daunting task even for the music’s most ardent fans. Is it what soca’s creator Ras Shorty I conceived as the soul of calypso in his groundbreaking tune “Indrani,” marrying Indian dholak drum beats to African-derived calypso rhythms in a musical union between Trinidad’s dominant ethnic groups? Perhaps it’s the resonant brass and bold arrangements heard in Kitchener’s late ’80s classics or the get-something-and-wave frenzy-inducing chants found in Super Blue’s mid-’90s Carnival Road Marches?
Currently soca’s international spotlight is shining on Barbados’ Rupee, whose music, a soca-pop-dancehall hybrid, is often characterized and criticized as not being, well, authentic soca. “There is always a debate as to what is soca,” Rupee observes. In any musical genre the art form is about progression and fusion. Soca today is definitely not what it was 10 years ago. People say that the music I have been making for the past three years is not soca but they fail to recognize that music is about evolution.”
The latest phase in soca’s development, particularly on the international scene, blends velvety, crooned vocals (devoid of any Trini or Caribbean vernacular) supported by R&B rhythms, accented by an uptempo, subtle soca inflection. The template was established with the success of Kevin Lyttle’s breakthrough single “Turn Me On,” which reached the upper tiers of European and North American charts and pop radio playlists in 2004, three years after its release at carnival on the island of St. Vincent. As Lyttle’s accomplishments pried open doors that were closed to all Caribbean music forms except for Jamaican dancehall and (later) Puerto Rican reggaeton, Rupee arrived with an equally crossover-friendly single “Tempted To Touch.”
Originally featured on his 2002 CD Leave A Message (released to coincide with Barbados’ annual Carnival called Cropover, the island’s premier musical event), “Tempted To Touch” became extremely popular throughout the Caribbean and at several Caribbean-styled carnivals in North America and Europe. The song’s lilting melody and infectious call-and-response chorus eventually broke free from Carnival restraints, reached number one on a Toronto pop station and became a major hit throughout Europe, which attracted the attention of several major record labels.
“Based on the fact that Sean Paul blazed a trail for dancehall and Kevin Lyttle signed with Atlantic and did big things for soca, ‘Tempted To Touch’ caug