- 19 September, 2014
- by Grenada Spot
Trinidad's hero takes us aboard his float in New York's West Indian Day Parade and tells us the long story behind his massive success.
New York's West Indian Day Parade has marked the city's Labor Day weekend for decades, and this year, the festivities begin at 9 p.m. on a Wednesday night. "They say this is the last weekend of summer!" yells local radio celeb DJ Prostyle, doing his best to make everyone aboard the VP Records' "Carnival Gold" yacht party forget that Thursday and Friday are technically still work days.
Sailing down the Hudson River, Prostyle and his 105.1 colleagues DJ Self and DJ Norie spin 2014's biggest Caribbean hits: springy dancehall from Jamaica and uptempo soca from Trinidad. Under normal circumstances, this music would create a frenzy. Tonight, however, the boat's main hall is nearly empty. After all, who wants to listen to soca when one of the genre's biggest stars — Bunji Garlin, the man who intends to spread this music all the way across the globe — is outside shaking hands and posing for pictures?
An hour later, however, he and his fans are back inside, and the whirlwind begins. Bunji gets behind the mic and plays his latest smash, "Truck on D Road," changing the words to refer to a "boat on the sea." He enters into a genuine freestyle that describes the vessel and raises the room's energy level. He drops "Differentology," the breakthrough track that has appeared everywhere from sporting events to Grey's Anatomy, from Port of Spain fêtes to global EDM festivals, and when he reaches the song's chorus, a resounding "We ready for the road," the sing-along is so loud that it can almost be heard back on shore.
Born in 1978, Garlin (government name: Ian Alvarez) grew up in Arima, one of Trinidad's larger towns and the birthplace of calypso legend Lord Kitchener. In the decade before Garlin entered this world, another calypso legend, the six-foot-four-inch Lord Shorty, created soca by making the older genre even more danceable, adding Indian rhythms and instruments, a little bit of Haitian cadence and – depending on whom you ask – some American R&B. Over time, the music became faster and harder, and its lyrics began to incorporate more party-starting call-and-response. It now rules the island – especially during its pre-Lenten Carnival celebrations – and tracks like Arrow's "Hot, Hot, Hot," Kevin Lyttle's "Turn Me On" and, yes, the Baha Men's "Who Let the Dogs Out" (originally a hit for Anselm Douglas) have reached the American mainstream.
Garlin, though, like almost all Trinidadians, has long listened to much more than just soca. Sitting in a Midtown Manhattan office, taking care of a little work before returning to Labor Day celebrations, the singer cites a list of early influences that includes – but somehow is not limited to – "latin, zouk, reggae, soca, calypso, pop, drum-and-bass, techno and house."
"Because of where we are situated in the chain of islands, and because the way our society is built, I was exposed to all kinds of music," he says. "At that time, American Top 40 was a big part of Trinidad and Tobago society, so I gravitated to anything that was on Casey Kasem's show."
Soon, dancehall replaced American Top 40, and Garlin ditched Kasem for artists like Yellowman and Wayne Smith. "Every day going to school was like a party on the bus," he remembers. "In Trinidad we called them Maxi-taxis, and the drivers would have soundsystems in their vehicles, as loud as if they were going to a car show. Because of the way dancehall was engineered, the sound quality was more suitable for a soundsystem like that — especially opposed to soca."
When Garlin finally made it to school, he and his friends would freestyle back and forth, reworking the Jamaican themes and flows that they had heard on the Maxis. After graduation, he kept clashing, engaging in what he describes as "lyrical exchanges of war" and developing his skills against artists who were doing more than killing time between class. After producer Daryl Braxton suggested that he add a little soca back to his style, he made his first professional recording, scoring his professional hit with the frenetic, Aaliyah-interpolating "Send Dem Riddim Crazy."
The record has become a classic, holding its own on many of the compilations that define the era, and it was received the way classics are so often received: "The initial reaction was close to blasphemy," says Garlin. The singer had brought his style closer to soca, but many felt it still wasn't close enough – even though his intense lyricism was a throwback to Lord Shorty's original vision for the genre and Sixties bands like Byron Lee and the Dragonaires had previously canonized Jamaican-Trini fusion, the new wave of so-called "ragga soca" was said to be tainting the country's music.
"It took some hip-hop elements, it took dancehall, it even took some EDM – whatever songs were hot at the time, they'd just take the melody and flip it," explains Walshy Fire, a Jamaican DJ whose Miami radio show helped Garlin's early music reach America. "Jamaica was the most dominant island in the region, and dancehall and reggae were the most dominant sound. The people who would have been not happy with ragga soca would have thought soca should stay pure or authentic."
Garlin, however, offers his own interpretation of soca authenticity – and a cutting defense of the open-mindedness that has central to his career: "Soca was itself not an original music, it was a merge of the two cultural backgrounds from the indentured laborers and the slaves. So ragga soca was just doing what soca had already done."
Ragga soca, it turned out, wouldn't survive past the early-Aughts, but 15 years after releasing his first single, Bunji Garlin continues to get bigger and bigger. On the Friday after the yacht party, he performs alongside Beenie Man and Shabba Ranks at Hot 97's annual On Da Reggae Tip concert. From there, he flies to Texas, joining artists like Skrillex, Diplo and Dillon Francis for two dates with the EDM-centric Mad Decent Block Party; and on Sunday night, he returns to join his wife, a fellow soca star named Fay Ann Lyons, at Hot 97 DJ Mister Cee's annual 5 Alarm Blaze. The West Indian Day Parade, the weekend's main event, starts early the following morning.
As ragga soca began to wane in the early-to-mid 2000s, Garlin continued to move his style closer to the genre's mainstream, winning the annual Soca Monarch competition – a three-round attempt to determine Trinidad's hottest star – four times in a seven years. Where tunes like "Soca Bhangra" experimented with more Indian elements (a style now known as "chutney soca"), "Warrior Cry" and "Blaze De Fire" became global anthems, the singer's aggression and lyricism setting him apart from other artists.
"That's where the production started to get really good and the topics started to vary," says Walshy. "'Warrior Cry,' that could be a political song, it could be a rally song for a team, it could be something that you listened to during carnival time – it was one of the most amazing songs I'd ever heard."
Still, the hit that defined Garlin's career wouldn't come until 2012. Titled "Differentology," the song begins as j'ouvert – the overnight celebration that precedes carnival – ends: The sun is raising up, the crowd is waking up and the party still goes on. While the verses describe the scene, minor chords, hand claps and flamenco guitar build a tension that won't be released until the song's massive hook, that simple, sustained "We ready for the road" bellowed over rave-suited synth stabs.
"Those minor keys are what carnival is based on," says Lazabeam, the Trini half of trans-Atlantic production duo (and frequent Bunji collaborators) Jus Now, discussing the track's greatness. "What makes our carnival different from the Roman-style carnival, it was brought out of an uprising: The streets of Port of Spain were burning, and out of that came j'ouvert. It's a very euphoric kind of time, but to be frank the music is darker at the time, and it tends to have a realer edge to it."
"I'VE BEEN WORKING IN THIS BUSINESS FOR 20 YEARS, AND THIS IS ONE OF THE MOST UNIQUE RECORDS I'VE EVER COME ACROSS"