Behind the soca music

Trinidad’s soca artistes are the stars of Carnival, but a host of talented professionals working behind the scenes help make the music

1st Klase. Photograph by Mark LyndersayKerwin DuBois. Photograph by Relzlife PhotographyPrivate Ryan. Photograph by Mark LyndersayTerri Lyons. Photograph by Mark Lyndersay

Sweet, sweet soca is the official soundtrack of feting, wining, and mas — of all things Carnival, in fact. Whether you’re on the streets in Miami, on a float in Notting Hill, or at the mother of all West Indian carnivals in Port of Spain, soca music is that energy beyond words that cradles masqueraders in its arms and entices them to chip, chip, chip down the road towards nirvana.

Many of us see — and hear — only the glittering performances and accolades heaped on hugely gifted soca artistes like Machel Montano, Kes the Band, Bunji Garlin, Fay-Ann Lyons, or Destra Garcia. But the soca hits that Carnival babies thrive on are usually written, produced, recorded, and promoted months before the mas starts, by an unseen cadre of musical movers and shakers.

From the composers to the producers, from backup singers to DJs, the real backbone of the soca industry is in the studio, not on the stage. As the 2013 Carnival season starts its crescendo, Caribbean Beat meets four powerful talents working behind the music, whose creative energy fuels T&T soca’s electric charge.

The Trendsetter: Kerwin Du Bois

Paranormal activity takes place in Kerwin DuBois’s studio between the months of October and November. That’s the period when he puts on his songwriting cap — but before he writes a word, he waits for the light.

We’re not talking about a figurative lightbulb moment here, but actual illumination. It sometimes appears as a spark somewhere in his small home studio in Canada, and one time it was a long-defunct lamp on a desk that lit up without anyone hitting the switch. DuBois knows it sounds strange, to say the least, but he swears it’s true. “Every time I see that light, I know this is the time to create,” he says. “It’s not a spiritual thing, but the musical spirits does come to me.”

Since 2004, DuBois’s spirits have been guiding his pen to write some of soca’s most popular numbers. His credits include songs for Roy Cape All Stars front man Blaxx (“Breathless”, “Tusty”), for Destra Garcia (“Baddist”), Patrice Roberts (“I Am Soca”), Machel Montano (“Bubble Nut”, “Illegal”), Shal Marshall (“Gyal Farm”), and Kees Dieffenthaller (“Ah Ting”, “Wotless”).

But in a genre that is inundated by fresh talent every Carnival season, the only way to truly stand out is to be a triple threat. No one embodies this better than DuBois. He isn’t just a songwriter — he also produces and sings. He achieved acclaim for producing and co-writing “Wotless”, one of the songs that dominated Carnival 2010, and saw Dieffenthaller walk away with the Groovy Soca Monarch title. And in 2012, performing his own composition “Bacchanalist”, DuBois created one of the Carnival season’s definitive hits.

Like Montano, DuBois came up through the ranks of the junior calypso world. He started singing in primary school, and in secondary school took part in the very first Junior Calypso Monarch competition in 1991. He won the title the following year. “Then I branched off, but I was still a junior doing the senior things, competing against people like Cro Cro, Sugar Aloes and Chalkdust,” DuBois recalls.

While his melodious voice and powerful calypsoes captured him the Young Kings title, landed him in the National Calypso finals many times, and took him to Britain, where he won the UK Calypso Monarch title, DuBois wanted more than just fame. “No disrespect to calypso, but when I realised I wasn’t earning anything financially to survive, I tried my hand in soca.”

Research into the music industry showed him that the people who truly earn are the ones who have songwriting credits. “The man who puts the artist in place to earn, earns more than the artist. I tried to study the business end before the performing end,” he says. So after observing his calypso composer Larry Harewood, DuBois tried his hand at writing. At the time, he was living in Britain, so it was harder for him to penetrate the soca scene as a lyrics writer. To get attention, he would come up with melodies for the songs, to create a complete package. “If someone sends me something just in a Word document, I wouldn’t be sold on the vibes,” he says of his strategy.

His first production was on a song called “Black Spaniard” for Bunji Garlin in 2003. But working with Montano — soca’s biggest star — in 2004 was the breakthrough DuBois needed. “‘Bubble Nut’ was a collaborative thing, and an attempt for me to expand into the scene by working with the biggest. To consistently stay on top of things for a long time, like Machel has, is a huge achievement.”

DuBois credits his success to his willingness to carve his own path and create trends. “I was one of the few men who was brave enough to try to experiment with the sound, with the tones, fusing another genre with the music in some form,” he says, holding up “Wotless” as an example of an experiment that went right. “That had five different genres of music combined into one song: ska, dancehall, pop, jazz, African music, and soca.”

In 2012, tired of being in the background, DuBois stepped out as a singer. He dueted with Patrice Roberts on “I Am Soca”, with Destra on “Baddist”, and “Runaway” with Bunji Garlin. And then there was his solo hit “Bacchanalist”, which he co-wrote with Kasey Phillips of Precision Productions on the Antilles Riddim. It secured him second place in the International Soca Monarch finals.

DuBois hasn’t written for many people for Carnival 2013. But when we spoke in late 2012 he was working on a song with Montano called “Possessed”, and a collaboration between himself, Montano, and Dieffenthaller, “No Failing”. As he complains that no one is trying to create classics anymore, DuBois urges upcoming soca writers to be as creative as they can, and try not to copy what has been around for the past ten years.

“Being different right now is a trend to follow.”

The Innovator: 1st Klase

His dance skills led to a big break for producer 1st Klase. As he pushes the boundaries with his beats, he never forgets the golden rule: you must be able to dance to it

There’s a moment in every fete when the DJ spins a popular song and people, whether they’re holding a drink, standing in line for food, or just dancing staidly in one spot, react instantly.

They put their hands in the air, bite their lips, and squeeze their eyes shut, their faces contorted from the sweetness of the music taking over their bodies. It’s that moment, that reaction to the opening strains of a soca tune, that Klase Gonsalves — known in the music world as 1st Klase — aims for when he sits in his studio to produce a beat.

For this young producer, the fete is his test site. But the lab where the magic is conjured is his home studio in Chaguanas, in central Trinidad. Sometimes it’s a hit, like his 2012 4D Riddim, featuring Kes the Band (“Stress Away”), Swappi (“Bucket”), and Machel Montano (“Rock It”). Or it might be a miss. But 1st Klase doesn’t entertain the concept of failing. “Everything is a learning experience. Maybe this just wasn’t the time for it, or the right audience.”

It’s this mindset that keeps 1st Klase pushing at the boundaries of his creativity. He’s not afraid to experiment with different sounds and blend them with soca. He claims to have been one of the first to recognise the similarities between techno and soca and to blend the two, when he produced “Come Gyal” for Kes the Band in 2011. “Now everyone and their mother doing techno. I say is time to go back to the roots.”

So on his current False Teeth Riddim — which features Kes, Machel Montano, Swappi, Kerwin DuBois, Bunji Garlin, and Jamaican dancehall singer Konshens — Klase takes a 1940s calypso and gives it a modern soca treatment. “This is the first track I do that will reach everybody, young and old. I did this beat two years ago, but Machel said, ‘Trinidad eh ready yet, hold it back.’”

Staying ahead of the pack is what drives the twenty-four-year-old self-taught producer. And his influence in the soca sphere is growing steadily. He worked on fewer than ten songs for 2012, but this year has two dozen under his belt, he says, consulting a small whiteboard underneath his mixing table.

Klase has come a long way from the schoolboy who had aspirations of being a singer. In secondary school, he formed a performing group with some friends, but decided to learn how to produce when his friends started making up their own beats. As the son of dancer and singer Karla Gonsalves, 1st Klase had access to established producers, and he learned from watching the best at work while accompanying his mother to recording sessions.

He asked a lot of questions, he says, laughing as he acknowledges that he is very persistent. “I don’t care if I in your face, but that is how I learn. Kernal Roberts was my biggest influence. He is like my big brother,” he explains.

His first attempt at soca was with Ken Marlon Charles, better known as KMC. He produced the song “Living Water” in 2009 with the artiste’s assistance, crediting KMC for giving him “fast soca knowledge.” And Swappi’s 2012 hit “Bucket” taught him how to produce power soca.

Playing the “Bucket” demo, he explains how he puts together a beat, adding that he must be able to dance to it. This turns out to be his secret weapon. As a child, Klase took classes with celebrated choreographer Noble Douglas, and learned the latest moves on the street. It led to him joining the dance group Trini Alliance and Machel Montano’s HD dancers. “Machel said, ‘Let me tell you what you have over the others. You see how you dance? Your beat is your dance,’” Klase says, in his best Machel impersonation.

Dance also opened the door to 1st Klase’s big break. When Trini Alliance hooked up with Jamaican dancehall singer Merital during a visit to Trinidad, Klase impressed him with his skill. “They said I was the only Trini that look and sound like the yardies. It was hard for a lot of Jamaican dancers to get visas to travel, so I started flying with them.”

On one of those trips he met Ding Dong, another Jamaican act, and when he visited Trinidad, Klase invited him to his studio. “I played hundreds of beats for him, and he picked one and said he will take it back home. He said, ‘Jamaica will buss yuh.’” By the following night, Ding Dong called him to listen to Elephant Man singing on the track. The next day, he called to play Beenie Man’s vocals. The day after that, Vybz Kartel was on the line, praising Klase’s Giants Riddim, as it was called. By the time 1st Klase got back to Trinidad, artistes were asking to work with him — and he hasn’t looked back.

Collaborations like that are what he believes soca needs to reach the music mainstream, and he continues to make those linkages. In 2012 he worked with Grammy-winning producer DJ Poet, whom Machel brought to Trinidad to work on his 2013 album. Klase also flew to the New York studio of über producer Jerry Wonda to add his brand of soca to Nicki Minaj’s “Pound the Alarm” remix.

“We need international help. Every genre of music is out there in the world, except soca,” he says. “Soca will buss soon — nothing happens before its time, and when it happens, you can’t stop it.”

The Mood Maker: Terri Lyons

Her father and half-sister are superstars of the soca stage, but Terri Lyons dominates the recording studio. The go-to singer for back-up vocals balances her “chorus” work with a budding solo career

From the late 1980s to the early 90s, soca artiste Austin Lyons, aka Superblue, dominated the Carnival soundtrack with monster hits like “Get Something and Wave”, “Flag Party”, and “Bacchanal Time”. As the new millennium dawned, his daughter Fay-Ann Lyons took up the mantle, ensuring the “Blue” legacy lived on as she won Road March titles in 2003, 2008, and 2009. And while Fay-Ann continues to be a major force in soca, carrying her father’s torch on the frontlines, another Lyons offspring is dominating the back end.

Terri Lyons is best known to soca fans as a performer who seems to be perpetually in her famous half-sister’s shadow, with moderate successes like 2012’s “Cah Stop Moving”. In the studios, however, Terri is unrivalled. The dimple-cheeked vocalist is the go-to chorus singer for almost everyone in the soca industry.

“I did work for Zan, Patrice, ‘Palance’ by JW and Blaze, Shal Marshall’s ‘Police in the Session’, Machel’s ‘Advantage’, ‘Pump Yuh Flag’, ‘On de Avenue’ — everything,” says Lyons, running through the list of performers whose tracks she sang the choruses for in recent years. “TC, Destra, Swappi’s ‘Bucket’ . . . I did chorus for Iwer George, Blaxx, Nadia Batson, Devon Matthews, Bunji Garlin . . .” She’s even done backup for gospel singers.

She’s by no means the only “chorus girl” in town, but Lyons is the most sought-after. Her versatility, she says, makes her a hot ticket. “There are other background vocalists, but when it is time to render a powerful vocal, they don’t have that. I could sing ballads, rap — anything. If Iwer asks for grungy, I could give him that. If Machel come and want melodies and harmonies and choirs, I could give him that.”

She credits her mother for that skill, but it’s from her famous father that she learned to exercise patience in the execution of her craft — essential in the studio, where a particularly picky artiste might insist on perfection, and Lyons can’t leave until the song is done. “The longest I ever stayed in the studio with anybody was with Machel, when I worked on ‘Gold’ from his Going for Gold album,” she says. “We started at nine o’clock in the night and worked until 7.45 in the morning. When I have to do chorus for him, I don’t take on anything else for the day,” she explains, laughing.

Lyons started her singing career early, at the age of nine. The only child of Superblue to grow up in Port of Spain (the others lived in Point Fortin, Blue’s home town), she sang in calypso competitions at her primary school. She also entered national competitions, including the Junior Calypso Monarch, and sang the jingle for the first Junior Soca Monarch competition, “Soca in the School Bag”.

Later on, her late mother Dionne Phillips, also a singer, entered her in karaoke competitions and queen shows such as Miss Teen T&T, in which Lyons was the second runner-up. She also accompanied her mother to her gigs singing backup for many calypso artistes, including her own father.

“Around 1999 or 2000, when I was in secondary school, I started off with my mom doing chorus on some of my dad’s songs. From there I started doing backgrounds for calypsonians for NJAC shows, and with that I moved on doing chorus for Fay-Ann,” her sister. “I worked on many of her songs — ‘Make a Stage and Move’, ‘Wave to the Sky’, ‘Heavy-T Bumper’.”

Then, through producer Darryl Braxton, who worked on Fay-Ann’s songs, Lyons met Kernal Roberts, who wrote and produced for Machel Montano. Roberts had his own studio, Rama, and he often called on Lyons to provide background vocals for the tracks he produced. As her reputation grew, so did the requests for her services.

She combines her behind-the-scenes work — which also includes singing jingles and doing voice-overs for numerous ads — with her own solo career. It isn’t always easy, she acknowledges, recalling that she struggled to get the hang of managing the conflicting schedules. Now she finishes her recordings in August, as most artistes tend to head to the studio after Miami Carnival to work on their material for the next Trinidad Carnival season. “After Christmas I cut off, though, ’cause I have to save my voice for my shows,” says Lyons, who also appears with the first all-girl soca band SASS, and competes for titles like Young Queens — in which she placed third last year.

She confesses to being bothered by her inability, so far, to really break through as a solo performer. But Lyons is not about to give up her chorus work to focus on her solo career. It’s all music, she says. She enjoys it, and recognises the importance of the role she plays. “We help to bring the mood to the song, and that helps the artiste to send out what they are trying to do. We help with the feel of the song, we brighten a song,” she says, singing in various styles to demonstrate her point.

Her dream is to make it internationally as a dance singer. She already has a dance track called “Hell of a Night”, from the Track 7 production team, posted on YouTube. And while she works assiduously on making that goal a reality, chorus singing continues to pay the bills.

“If today or tomorrow I real take off, I mightn’t have as much jobs,” she says. “But I won’t stop.”

The Professional: DJ Private Ryan

Private Ryan first made his name through his popular soca podcasts. Now he’s the most sought-after DJ on T&T’s party circuit — with his sights on an even bigger world stage

When you talk to Ryan Alexander, it becomes clear he’s a very clever businessman as much as a DJ. Fellow DJ Hypa Hoppa dubbed him Private Ryan years ago, a catchy play on the name of the Stephen Spielberg war film. But Ryan’s success is thanks to his ability to understand trends and map out a strategy for his career. Over the last five years, Private Ryan has become the most sought-after DJ in Trinidad and Tobago. No fete or party today is complete without Ryan at the turntables, and as his reputation grows, so does the demand for his services outside the twin republic.

“It is the combination of a lot of things,” he says of his meteoric rise. “I’ve been playing since I was a student at St Mary’s College [the boys’ secondary school in Port of Spain] in the 1990s, so lots of promoters know me since I was young — and I was a DJ on 96.1 FM. On top of that, it’s the marketing.”

And keeping up with technological trends has given Ryan an additional edge over all the other Trini DJs. While he pursued his marketing degree at Florida International University, the young DJ’s parents would drop him off at Miami clubs to spin, and he noticed that the diaspora community there was out of touch with new music coming out of Trinidad and Tobago. So he started creating podcasts of his live DJing for people to download from his website. His aim was twofold: to get people accustomed to the latest music, and to show off his skills.

Those podcasts, now running for five years, remain popular, and are available throughout the year, as Ryan covers a wide range of musical genres, including soca. His podcasts recently crossed their two millionth download mark. Making them available at no cost has been key to Ryan’s fame. “You have to think long-term,” he says. “Something like that goes viral, and it grows your popularity. I have travelled the world because of people who flew me to their shows because of those podcasts.”

Private Ryan’s free mixtapes are also popular. The mixtape — in the twenty-first century, no longer an actual cassette tape but a collection of songs on an album — is a tool used by underground rappers in the United States to get their music heard on the street. Ryan’s mixtapes are eagerly anticipated, as they tend to unearth new music, both local and international. He also works on radio frequency Red 96.7.

His choice of songs and influence among listeners are so respected that many soca artistes go to Ryan first to release their music. “I was the first to buss [Bunji Garlin’s 2013 track] ‘Differentology’. They brought the demo to me while they were in the process of creating the sound.”

What sets Private Ryan apart from many other DJs is his approach to his craft. For him, it’s a business, not just a hustle. He is not the type of DJ who just shows up at a gig to play. He practices beforehand, carefully selecting the songs he wants to present to the audience. He’s also skilled at gauging a crowd, absorbing the energy in a party, and tailoring his set to increase the vibe or simply maintain it as needed.

The preparation shows. Ryan knows how to hype a fete, and there’s a noticeable improvement in the party atmosphere when he takes over a turntable, usually with a hype man at his side. “I have a style that is identifiable because it is a brand, and that is what I want,” he says. “I believe in connecting the energy in music, so I connect the things that make sense together. I also look at the party, who’s there, the age group, and how would I feel when I am at a party.”

And though he does not limit his music to soca, Ryan — like so many others in the field — is confident that soca will eventually break into the US market. When it does, he wants to be the one out there playing it on a major festival stage. He speaks of the way the French DJ David Guetta took house music out of the European domain and across the pond, making it into a worldwide phenomenon by finding popular singers from other genres to ride the wave. Private Ryan has plans for doing the same with soca, and is working on an album in that vein. “Soca is out there, but it hasn’t been branded yet. It will take some time, and it is evolving, but we have to separate festival music from what is exported to the world.”

Getting soca to the world means putting himself out there also — a fact Private Ryan knows all too well. He has been making strides in that department, winning the Caribbean DJ of the Year title at the first-ever Global Spin Awards, held last November in New York. Other well-known DJs like Guetta and the Dutchman AfroJack were award winners at the international event.

For Ryan, that recognition is just the beginning. He says: “I am on their radar.”