It Happened On Eastern Parkway: A Soca Mixtape for Labor Day

Abe Beame presents both a primer on Soca music and a mixtape to bump at Carnival.
By    September 3, 2018

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Abe Beame knew Lord Shorty personally. 

We are a country of immigrants but at the turn of the century the foreign-born immigrant population of the United States was 11%. In New York City that number was 35%. You’ll often hear about New York’s West Indian population. The central image is of Jamaicans, Dancehall music and jerk chicken. But in Flatbush, where I’ve lived for nearly a decade, half of the population is foreign-born and two-thirds of that foreign-born population is West Indian. The largest West Indian ethnic group in this neighborhood is actually Haitian, the second largest is Trinidadian.

Trinidad and Tobago (or TNT), like Guyana, had a high influx of East Indian immigrants between the late 19th century and early 20th, as both were colonies of the British Empire. The Indians came looking to escape poverty largely as indentured servants, rubbing up against an Afro-Trinidadian culture brought to the island via the slave trade that preceded them. This led to a culture marked by ethnic and racial divisions and strife.

Dancehall has something of a stranglehold on the mainstream imagination of Caribbean music in New York. Every year we get a couple of breakout Dancehall tracks that play in rotation alongside Hot 97’s typical Rap and R&B selection that isn’t relegated to Bobby Konders weekend late night Caribbean music showcase. That’s a shame, because at the moment, the most interesting genre of West Indian music is coming out of Trinidad.

The Soul of Calypso, or Soca, has zigged where Dancehall zagged. Dancehall has become more and more rap-obsessed, becoming more lyrical, cadence, and flow oriented. Soca is about melody. The production is experimental at its best, glitchy and colorful. It’s high BPM joyful music that is hard to resist on a typical walk down Flatbush when you can hear it pumping out of dress shops, roti spots, and car windows.  

I always thought the idea of Christmas music was funny, an entire genre dedicated to one day of the year. Soca is the same in that it is obsessed with Carnival. Almost every song in the collection here will make some reference to their version of Mardi Gras, which takes place every year on the island before Ash Wednesday. When you think about it, Christmas music is about more than December 25th. It’s about ideas and feelings, specifically expectation, hope, family, and tradition. And in the same vein Soca represents the escape from pain, the celebration of life and the joy in pursuit of lust and love.

There is a term of indistinct origin in patois known as “tabanca.” From my understanding of it, it’s something like, to quote a fictional character who probably never met a Trinidadian in his life, “the pain from an old wound. It’s a twinge in your heart, far more powerful than memory alone.” In New York amongst the West Indian community, it has come to represent a homesickness, a sadness that the ceremony and ritual of bacchanal is happening in your home country without you.

Bunji Garlin, the Soca great who kicks off this mixtape, made a hit song called “Carnival Tabanca” in 2013, but that song isn’t on this tape. Instead, I went with an obscure uptempo freestyle he kicked about what it was like being a part of the Trinidadian and larger West Indian community in the late 80s and early 90s in Flatbush. Bunji presents a Soca culture still finding its feet in a new home, where Soca wasn’t prominently played and had to be sought out to fight tabanca at out of the way clubs and rent parties that catered to its underrepresented community.

But once a year, at the end of every Summer for two glorious days, a horseshoe starting on Eastern Parkway, cutting down Flatbush and veering onto Empire would be closed off for floats and nutcrackers and dancing in the middle of the street. And maybe this weekend some Trini warrior draped in greasepaint and a red flag with a diagonal black slash down the center will hear Fadda Fox or Machel Montano or Patrice Roberts blasting and smell the curry channa in the air and for a moment, it will feel like home.

It Happened on Eastern Parkway:

  1. Bunji Garlin- New York Soca Freestyle (2017)
  2. Destra- Dip and Ride (Set Good Riddim 2015)
  3. GBM Nutron- Calypso (Calypso: The Unsung Legacy 2017)
  4. Preedy- Outta This World (2017)
  5. Farmer Nappy- Abundance (2017)
  6. Aaron Duncan- Born Ready (2016)
  7. Empress Natty- Free and Single (2016)
  8. Fadda Fox- Ducking (2014)
  9. Erphaan Alves- Overdue (2017)
  10. Benjai- Pee Down She Shelf (2017)
  11. Machel Montano- Lip Service (2017)
  12. Olatunji- Ola (Awakening 2015)
  13. Patrice Roberts- Money Done (Fete Life Riddim 2015)
  14. Rupee- Jump (1 on 1 2004)
  15. Marvay- Know the Face (2016)
  16. Blaxx- Hulk (2018)
  17. Dwayne Bravo- Champion (2016)
  18. K Rich- Rude (2016)
  19. Mical Teja- Proud (2016)
  20. Orlando Octave- Single (2016)
  21. Linky First- Rock and Come In (2016)
  22. Kes the Band- People (2015)
  23. Skinny Fabulous- When the Lights go Down (ft. Black Shadow) (2016)
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