Travel, Travel Stories

The Music of Trinidad Carnival: Old School Meets New School

March 12, 2014

Before I moved to New York I didn’t know the difference between reggae and soca. Or calypso and dancehall or any other beat that sounded remotely like Bob Marley. I mean it’s all the same right? It all comes from from Jamaica or one of those other islands that start with St. Something or other. This was my myopic perspective growing up in South Carolina with extremely limited exposure to Caribbean culture. I saw the entire region as one big monolith of Black people who all wore dreadlocks and listened to Shabba Ranks or that Beany Man guy.


Now that over half my passport stamps are from the Caribbean, my eye is much more keen to the nuances between each country, and one that has continued to attract me repeatedly is Trinidad is the energy and vibe of soca music. And it’s crazy because as a non-West Indian who barely understands half the words to the songs, I’ve become addicted to the music just like everyone else who attends carnival because it’s not as much about the lyrics as much as it is about the vibe and the memories associated with the songs.

auntcoralThe music that permeates the air during carnival usually falls into 2 categories – high energy soca, and steel pan music – which have very different sounds.  While all the young folks are out on the road whining on top of cars and making grandbabies in the middle of the street to the tunes blaring from huge DJ trucks, many older citizens still hit the road with the smaller steel pan bands that play not just the latest songs but also more traditional tunes. My first year when I stayed with my “Trinidad Mom” Auntie Coral,  it was so cool to hear her talk about how much she enjoys the steel pan music. Like older Black Americans who don’t understand today’s hip hop music, she doesn’t really understand the new soca, saying it’s basically just “jump up put your hands in the air” with no real stories like back in the day. Luckily, during carnival the two generations don’t really try to compete with each other, simply coexisting in their respective places within the soundtrack of carnival.

So last night, it was kinda awesome to see the two generations come together unexpectedly at a fete called Phuket. At the end of the party when the DJ cut the music, a “riddim” band called Hands of Rhythm continued playing as guests left the venue. My friends and I walked over to listen and were kinda geeked when we realized that instead of the traditional rhythms, they were playing some of our favorite soca tunes from this year! The kind of stuff you would hear in Private Ryan’s Soca Brainwash mix, was translated into a full band with steel pans, drums, trumpets, and a trombone. And the band members were all fairly young, which was the cool part to me because they were keeping the tradition going in a way that appealed to the younger generation.

While the fete was decent, I literally could have just sat with a drink and listened to that band play all night. And it’s hard for me to articulate why my friends and I found that set to be so awesome. We stood and cheered and danced for as long as they would play, and then chanted “We Want More!” when they were finished, eliciting a few more songs before they packed up for the night.


I took a little video with my phone, but this was one of those moments that make me encourage people to come to carnival and see it for yourself. There’s so much more to the experience than partying and costumes, and embracing these little cultural gems give special meaning to every trip. I imagine when I’m Auntie Coral’s age, I’ll probably still be at fetes watching the young folks dance in foam like this awesome lady to the left that I met at Sunnyside, but I imagine I’ll also wake up at 3 AM to play J’ouvert with the steel pan and riddim bands just Auntie Coral did this weekend, and my prayer is that it’s something like that night at Phucket. Check out the clip below to get a taste for yourself:

Here’s the original song “Happiest Man Alive” by Machel Montano:

Here’s the cover by Hands of Rhythm (pardon the less-than-stellar camera phone video 🙂

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  • Reply Shameka March 12, 2014 at 2:10 am

    I love this article. I grew up listening to Steel pan, as my mom used to play in a band and she would take me to many shows. I fully appreciate the different levels that there are to soca music. The stories are still there in the music, but they are less political and more about individual life experiences of the artist. If you ever need a translation don’t be afraid to ask. 🙂 I wish I was at Phuket to hear that band. Awesome.

  • Reply Paraiso Asiatico March 20, 2014 at 5:59 pm

    Ooo damn was hot!!! I def need to try and catch Panorama one of these years in Trini!

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