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The Politics of Labelling Popular Musics in English Caribbean

Jocelyne Guilbault

 Music labels in the English Caribbean1 have been proliferating since the mid-seventies. All of them, but most notably, soca, chutney soca, rapso, ringbang, and ragga soca, have been the object of serious controversies and much confusion on and off the islands.

Take, for example, the following excerpts from daily newspapers in Trinidad. One of the headlines reads: "All's Well at Calypso Semis." Further below, however, we learn that the author is actually referring not to the semi-finale of a calypso competition but of a soca competition: "Fear of a calypsonian boycott at the Carib International Soca Monarch semis was laid to rest shortly before 9:30 Friday night at the Arima Velodrome" (Anon. 1997). Given that the terms calypso and soca can seemingly be used as synonymous, it becomes more confusing when one sees that the terms soca and rapso can also at times be mixed, as is shown in another excerpt: "the rapso style singer/songwriter [Ataklan will be] a semi-finalist in the Carib International Soca Monarch competition" (Maraj 1997). The next excerpt shows that comprehension for the average reader could be even more difficult by the use of no less than four different music labels to refer to the music of the same artist. While the headline reads,"Toronto's soca star Guney Cedeno 'Inside' with...Ragga Soca Groove," the opening paragraph presents the artist as "Stockily-built calypsonian/composer Guney Cedeno is another 'son of the soil' who is achieving great things on the Canadian/North American 'kaiso' scene'" (Morais 1997). Notwithstanding that it is common knowledge in the Caribbean that the terms "kaiso" and "calypso" mean the same thing, the number of terms used in such a short excerpt cannot fail to leave one perplexed.

Given that such write-ups are by no means unique occurrences but rather commonplace in the Trinidadian press, the question is: how has the use of these music labels become so confused? Especially at a time when artists from the English Caribbean are trying to consolidate their position in the world music scene, such confusion in marketing terms could surely be seen as disastrous. As the excerpts quoted above suggest, music labels cannot be looked at as cultural products simply referring to existing popular musics with identifiable traits. The ways in which they are used seemingly indiscrimimately at some times and not at others, on a regular basis, cannot be seen simply as the result of lack of musical knowledge or the mark of sloppy journalism. The differentiation as well as the lack of differentiation made between the terms is of and by itself indicative of particular rapports that are established among them.

As this study shall argue, what is at issue in examining music labels is not to try to find the "right" definitions for each of them and subsequently their "correct" uses. What is needed, rather, is to look at music labels as "devices which are used produce statements through which other objects are constructed, and hence, other sets of issues are addressed."2In other words, we must look at music labels not only in relation to the musical practices they attempt to describe and prescribe, but also in relation to the other statements that are made through them. This study intends to show that, indeed, to talk about music labels means to talk about much more than commercially marketable musical categories; that in many cases it means to talk about the promotion of a philosophy, the vindication of a principle, or the claim to a public space; and that, through the expression of these various positionings, it means to talk about the setting into motion of particular social relations, networks and alliances, as well as the emergence of cleavages and resentment. From this perspective, music labels by definition become simultaneously the object of vested interests and controversies.

The goal of this study is twofold. By looking at the types of investment each label puts forward, I want to show how music labels are enmeshed in power struggles in the various fields (social, cultural, political, and economic) in which they operate. By focusing on the terrains where the controversies raised by the different music labels intersect, I want to identify the specific sets of issues that are at stake in the discourses which the controversies generate, and the particular pleas or vindications that are made through these issues.

In this paper, I will focus on the music labels called "soca" and "ringbang" in relation to the ways they have been defined by their chief exponents, with a particular emphasis on how they situate the music labels in a particular time and space, at a particular historical juncture, in relation to other social, political, economic, and musical practices. In the last section, I will concentrate on the areas of dispute around which the controversies over these two music labels are articulated in order to point out some of the main issues the controversies in effect address. As will be shown, to fully understand music labels, we must look at them not only as markers of musical categories, but as devices by and through which many statements about music, but also besides music, are made.


Invention of Music Labels at Specific Times for Specific Scenes

The musical practices called soca and ringbang have today all taken a share of the musical scene associated in the past almost exclusively to calypso. However, they have enjoyed different degrees of visibility, credibility, and profitability. The place and time at which they were conceived, the traditions to which they are affiliated, the respective philosophies they put forward, the musical characteristics they exhibit and those through which they have been described, all have undoubtedly played a role in the ways they have been received and the networks in which they have been able to circulate. What follows is an account of their respective histories according to the voices which have been acknowledged locally to be among those who have contributed most directly to their development. In many respects these accounts, it should be reminded, have been subject to controversies, as will be explained below.


From Trinidad, the term "sokah" (later spelled "soca") was coined by Ras Shorty I (Garfield Blackman, formerly called Lord Shorty) around 1973, following his musical experiments in mixing East Indian elements with calypso.3 In an interview reported by Roy Boyke, published in the 1979 Carnival magazine, Ras Shorty I described the circumstances which prompted him to put forward a new music label and a new sound.

I was trying to find some thing because the talk was that calypso was dying and reggae was the thing. I thought the musicians in the country had a right to get together and use their minds to renew or improve calypso somewhat.Everybody was putting it down... Calypso was dying a natural death. And to come up with a new name and a new form in calypsoul was what Sparrow was trying to do all along. Sparrow tried to add a lot of things to calypso and it didn't work. I felt it needed something brand new to hit everybody like a thunderbolt...I came up with the name soca. I invented soca. And I never spelt it s-o-c-a. It was s-o-k-a-h to reflect the East Indian influence.(quoted by Ahyoung, 1981: 98)

If one of Ras Shorty I's goals in creating sokah was indeed to "renew or improve calypso," another was to unite the East Indian and the African.4 Through music, he believed, he could help fight "racialism" among East Indians and Africans. In his view, "the fusion of the music can do that. " (personal interview, 6 February 1997). Another of his goals was to attract young people to listen to Trinidadians' own music. Around that time, he remarked that youth preferred to listen to reggae and, furthermore, had come to believe that, to accomplish anything, one had to go to America. In creating a new sound, his aim was to fight this tendency by leading Trinidadians to believe in themselves and to support their own musicians and music.

The term "sokah," Ras Shorty I explained, comes from the combination of two syllables: "The 'so' comes from calypso. And the 'kah,' to show the East Indian thing in the rhythm, right?... I selected the syllable 'kah ' because it represents the first letter of the Indian alphabet" (personal interview, 6 February 1997). Interestingly, Mungal Patasar, a Trinidadian musician trained in Indian classical music, noted that the selection of the syllable "kah" by Ras Shorty I had been particularly appropriate to symbolize the influence of Indian rhythm since, by being the first letter of the alphabet, it signals the start of a movement and, in addition, "kah" is the first syllable of the name of the beat "Kaherwa". It could be concluded that, even if admittedly unaware of these meanings at the time, Ras Shorty I intuitively chose the right syllable to convey not only the inclusion of the East Indian influence, but that of rhythm in particular, in his music fusion.

Even though it was not his first experiment in mixing East Indian and African musical elements,5 Ras Shorty I's song "Indrani" recorded in 1973 represents a key moment in the official launching on the market of the music he chose to call "sokah." The reaction to the song was, however, mixed in both communities. As Ras Shorty I explained, because the lyrics talked about an East Indian woman who, after drinking rum, would lure her man into the bedroom, the East Indians thought that he was desecrating their women and, by extension, their music as well. And because the arrangements of the song featured instruments associated in Trinidad to the East Indians' traditions, including the dholak, the dhantal, and the mandolin, the Africans thought that he was spoiling the music---meaning, calypso.

Despite the complaints, Ras Shorty I produced the year after (1974) an album entitled The Love Man, which continued in the same vein as "Indrani" and, with the exception of one song, featured a dholak on every track. After this album was again rejected for using East Indian instruments, Ras Shorty I decided for his 1975 recording to change the instrumentation. While in his new arrangements he removed the East Indian musical instruments, he nonetheless kept the rhythms they played by distributing them on traditional Western instruments, in particular the drum set and the guitar.6 According to Ras Shorty I, some of the musicians, including the keyboard and the conga players, found it too difficult to play the new rhythms and reverted to those they knew best---the traditional calypso rhythmic patterns. The mixture of the new rhythms combined with the traditional ones on Western musical instruments not only stopped the whole controversy about "Shorty playing Indian," but also proved to be a commercial success for his album named Endless Vibrations.

It is interesting to note that it is precisely at the time when the changes of instrumentation took place that the spelling of "sokah" was changed to "soca" by a journalist who, according to Ras Shorty I, began his story on him with the headline: "Shorty is doing soca." In the process, the interpretation of the term "soca" no longer made reference to the East Indian contribution, and instead proposed to see the term so-ca as the contraction of the musics believed to be at its foundation, namely, the fusion of soul (so) and calypso (ca).

Could it be that this change of spelling was done in the same spirit as the change of instrumentation, to make the new label more acceptable to the core audience of carnival celebrations, that is, the calypsonian afficionados? As Ras Shorty I did not protest, the new spelling stayed.

In Ras Shorty I's account, the new rhythms and arrangements of soca were picked up for the first time in late 1976 by another artist, the reputed calypsonian Maestro with the song "Savage." Many other artists then followed suit, but it was not until 1978 that soca as a label became firmly established. This key moment came with "Sugar Bum Bum" by Lord Kitchener---the song which, in Kitchener's vast repertoire, has apparently sold more copies than any of his other songs.7 According to Ras Shorty I, from that time on, soca became synonymous with party music and moved back to a less sophisticated rhythm section and lyrics. By then, the chief exponents of the music as originally conceived had disappeared from the scene. Maestro had died the year before at a premature age in a car accident, and Ras Shorty I had decided to withdraw from the musical scene.

After "Sugar Bum Bum," in Ras Shorty's view, the new soca has continued to carry the East Indian rhythms through the drum set and, to use his words, "to punch out the bass line on the drum set." At the same time, however, many new elements have contributed to the continual transformation of soca, including "a lot of sampling with zouk, with plenty American influences, plenty funk... A lot of things went on" (personal interview, 6 February 1997). Today, the music called soca in Trinidad enjoys the greatest media exposure through both the written press and radio broadcast and, in financial terms, is seen as the most profitable one. It has also been institutionalized at the national level in Trinidad through the Soca Monarch Competitions held since 1992, and been given an even wider scope since the competition was renamed in 1996 "International Monarch Soca Competitions" in order to welcome candidates from other countries to participate.8

But soca as a music label has not yet been firmly established. Even though the label soca is known throughout the Caribbean region, outside of Trinidad the term is indeed hardly ever used. And even if the musical practice to which the music label refers is most successful in terms of commercial value and circulation, it continues to be severely criticized, for reasons to be discussed below.


"In the beginning was ringbang..." This is how the headline of an article from the main daily newspapers in Barbados in 1994 summarized the definition of ringbang offered by Eddy Grant, the man who invented and marketed the new music label (Alleyne 1994:1C) . For Eddy Grant (a famous singer/composer from the late 1960s and 70s, Guyanese by birth, who grew up in England, and has been living in Barbados for the past fifteen years or so), ringbang is a concept, not just a sound. "[It is] our food, the way we dress and process culturally." He continues,

The rhythm of Africa is ringbang and it would have altered any music with which it came into contact. It did in North America and Brazil. Learned scholars never paid any attention to that fundamental part of the union, up until today. In [calypso] competition, paramountcy is given to words---madness!

In another interview, Grant further explains:

Ring bang is beyond language, it is that which evokes passion, without language...[I]t is drum oriented, because drum is the foundation of life, it's at the foundation of what makes us move. The atoms and electrons and protons and neutrons in our body are vibrating to rhythms all the time. And yet, it is the one thing when we want to be nasty to someone or some race, or some creed, whatever base, we talk in a derogatory way about their rhythm. The rhythm of a people is what makes them what they are (personal interview, Toronto, 6 August 1995)

For Grant, ringbang has to do with, as he describes it, "the essence of the song, the essence of the rhythm, the essence of the feeling." From that perspective, its reference encompasses all the various music labels meant to represent the musics which have emerged from fusion with African rhythms. This is why Grant insists that "we don't form hybrids seek the essence of the groove. And that is Ringbang, the essence of whatever we are" (ibid.) In this statement, Grant is referring to what he sees as having been divisive among Caribbean people: endless controversies over who created what, who profits from whom, and so on. He remarked, "There is no greater crime to me than black on black. There is no other ethnic group that inflicts so much pain on each other. I would like to see that through ringbang a bridge is made to go across our tribes, the cultures...We are good at tribalisation and we have suffered through it. For years, we have said 'that ain't kaiso.' That has stopped the march of music" (Alleyne 1994: 1C).

Grant sees ringbang as a "corporate logo," one which goes beyond the petty battles over music labels in the Caribbean and which could incorporate them all. In his view, all Caribbean popular musics are related through their common emphasis on rhythm and have inspired each other.

The term "ringbang," coined by Grant around 1994, comes from the vocables---bang, bandam, bang, bang, bang---sung by Caribbean artists during the performance of many of their songs. (Ringbang thus becomes the equivalent of scat in American music.) And the goal behind the creation of this label, according to Grant, is precisely having to do with the promotion of what is at the origin of the term, that is, a lifestyle---a particular way of walking, talking, and being, out of a multitude of specific, yet diverse, experiences---which makes Caribbean musicians what they are.

In the actual sound production, Grant translates his vision of ringbang by a heavy emphasis on the rhythm section and an avoidance of "thick" instrumentation which---in an implicit reference to, and desire to contrast with, today's calypso sound---refers to the removal of the horns, whenever judged unnecessary (personal interview, Barbados, 7 March 1997). He describes ringbang music as drawing on a great number of musical influences, including tuk music (a term which refers to a traditional musical genre and particular music ensemble from Barbados),9 soca, traditional lavwè (French-Creole term which refers here to the call-and-response based on short musical phrases associated with African musical traditions), and also dancehall (another term for dub music from Jamaica).

"The hot new word on nearly every music lover's lips this Crop-Over [1994] is ringbang. We've heard about it; we've heard it" (Alleyne 1994: 1C).10 This was in Barbados in 1994. Interestingly, the word "ringbang" was first heard on a recording by one of the most reputed calypsonians of the Caribbean, Black Stalin (from Trinidad),in two of his songs, "All Saints Road" and "Black Woman Ring Bang," featured on his compact disc entitled Rebellion released the same year. This was, however, no coincidence. Black Stalin was recording at the time on Ice Records Ltd.---a company owned by Eddy Grant. It is important here to know that Eddy Grant has legally registered the music label "ringbang" under his name. In practice, this means that only the artists who have signed agreements with him, generally those who appear on his label, are entitled to use the term.

Regardless, however, whether the term actually appears on the title of the song or in the lyrics, ringbang music as sound has been recorded by some of the best known artists of the English Caribbean, including Gabby from Barbados, Black Stalin, Calypso Rose, Superblue, and Marvin and Nigel Lewis from Trinidad, among others. The greatest number of artists associated with ringbang, though, comes from Barbados where Eddy Grant's recording studio is located.

While today the music known as ringbang could be said to have reached a large public---judging from the way several "ringbang" songs became major hits---its label is still the object of heated controversies, as will be discussed below.





Calls and Claims Through Music Labels


 Based on the views of their chief exponent, the presentation of soca and ringbang has shown how these music labels have emerged from the complex and constantly changing dynamics of the worlds which not only prompted their invention, but also marked their orientations---be it by compliance or defiance. Through this presentation, we have seen how both labels have been used as a device to produce statements not only about musical values and practices, but also about social and political orientation, ethnic identity, economic situation, music industry, historical conjunctures as well as historical connections, and so on. This last section focuses on the controversies these various statements have produced and the kind of issues and claims that have been articulated through them.

To summarize the findings, I will concentrate on the areas of dispute around which the controversies over the Caribbean music labels have been formulated: music, institutions and policies, and representation. As will be shown, on the terrain of music, issues related to the legitimacy of naming, authorship, and musical value are addressed, and claims to musical autonomy and recognition are being played out. On the terrain of institutions and policies, the issue of competitions is at the centre of heated debates through which attempts are made simultaneoulsy to canonize some musical practices and to discredit others. On the terrain of representation, issues related to identity and monopoly are debated by participants who vindicate the right to be acknowledged and respected. As I will argue in the last section, the issues and vindications formulated through music labels and their designated musical practices are not only interrelated to many other fields of practice (social, political, economic, and cultural), but are implicated in their on-going transformation.

Controversies over music

The legitimacy of music labels

The music labels, soca and ringbang, have been both described in musical terms. While some of their distinctive traits have been fully recognized, the status of these traits has raised questions. One of the main issues which plagues these two music labels is whether the musical practices they designate should be "named" at all.

In both cases, the definitions of soca and ringbang given above acknowledge their immediate filiation with calypso. From this perspective, many of the issues which have confronted the two labels have concerned the legitimacy of their naming. One of these issues, notably, has had to do with musical variation. For many people, soca and ringbang have been seen simply as variations of calypso and have thus been treated as such, by using the terms interchangeably. From a purely structural point of view, the question nonetheless arises as to when a variation of a given musical genre becomes its own entity. In this regard, some studies have attempted to show in musical terms "how much" difference or similarity the musical practices to which the music labels refer have with calypso in order to confirm or contest---depending on the writers' points of view---the legitimacy of the labels under review.11

The legitimacy of some of the new music labels has also been raised in relation to another consideration, namely, the influence particular musical elements used in a given musical practice should have in the naming of that given practice. This particular issue has been raised more specifically in connection to ringbang. Ringbang has been described not only by Eddy Grant---the inventor of the label---but by many observers as well, as a musical practice which integrates several rhythmic patterns associated with several musical practices/labels of the Caribbean. One of the rhythms used in ringbang, identified as being derived from tuk music, has been perceived by several traditionalists from Barbados where this traditional music originates, as being what gives the music its distinct character. Based on this musical consideration, the label "ringbang" has been perceived by several people in Barbados as a misnomer and has therefore been contested. The issue in this particular case is what makes a music new. Similar to the issue raised in connection with what is considered musical variation and what is not, the question which arises here concerns the amount of mixing with other rhythms it takes for a given rhythm associated with a particular name and tradition to lose its identity and become part of something new. Even though posed strictly in musical terms, the answer to this musical issue does not depend, in my opinion, upon musical considerations only. As will be discussed below, it is more often than not interrelated to many other claims, dealing for example with the issue of representation.


The issue of authorship

Apart from raising questions in relation to the legitimacy of its naming, the music label soca has generated debates about who invented its musical practice. The issue of authorship has been raised less in relation to the invention of the new names than in relation to the musical practices to which they are meant to refer. Several singers/composers/musicians have indeed claimed its paternity, with the inescapable result of open quarrels and the publication of bitter controversies on the topic in the newspapers. Interestingly, however, from personal interviews with many of these artists, it would appear that the claims they each make may not be about the same musical aspects.

It should be remembered that, in relation to the carnival music scene, the musical practice named soca was the first musical practice after calypso which was able to earn both public visibility and commercial success. In this context, the coming of the music known as soca to the stage in the middle 1970s was particularly notable because of the change of sound and rhythmic feel it brought forward. Most of the artists who claim the paternity of soca focus precisely on this, namely, the change of sound and rhythmic feel they each brought to traditional calypso.12 The issue here is whether the changes they each made in their respective attempts to "renew" calypso were necessarily the same as those involved in the musical practice which Ras Shorty I at the time named "sokah" 13---including the East Indian rhythms. In all cases, it should be noted that it is the controversy over the authorship of the music named sokah which ironically brings to attention the issue of naming and the power "naming" gives to claim.


The issue of musical value

The next set of controversies dealing with the music per se has been about musical content and, in particular, the musical value of the musical practices referred to by the new music labels.

Soca has been described in reference to the specific musical characteristics of the musical practice it designates. The musical aspects of the practice named soca emphasize and the changes it proposes have not , however, been met with unanimity. The issue has been about musical value, concerning not so much the melody but the lyrics, hardly the harmony but to a large degree the selection of tempo and musical arrangements---in accordance with the music field within which these musical practices operate.

Both soca and ringbang have been severely criticized for the so-called lack of depth of most of their lyrics. They are usually accused of lacking story, rhyming qualities, and at times, morality, or of having too little to do with the local context. To varied degrees, the compositions associated with both labels have also been condemned either for using a too fast tempo or for reducing the musical arrangements to what is perceived to be a few simplistic melodic lines, and to make matters worse, played by mechanical sounds only---with the almost exclusive use of synthesisers and drum machines. These tendencies, it should be remembered, are judged against the music which has served (and has been used) to establish the standards within the carnival music scene--calypso. (Rarely indeed are they considered outside this framework, in relation to other musical genres or criteria which would most likely shed a different light on the same given compositions.) Placed against what is perceived to be the fixed qualities/characteristics (the two terms are seen here as synomymous) of calypso lyrics, the compositions associated with the new music labels which demonstrate another orientation are severely criticized in the public media. It is important to note that, in such controversies, the blame is usually placed on the influence of commercialism. Within this perspective, both soca and ringbang are presented as the products of economic pursuits rather than the products of social, political, or humanist concerns, or artistic endeavours (understood here to be above monetary preoccupations). Again placed against calypso,14 which is traditionally viewed as the music by and for the people and as articulating the local people's worldviews, the lyrics associated with the new musics cannot but fail to receive approval.

Controversies over Institutions and Policies

The issue of competitions and canonization

The arrival of soca and, later on, of ringbang on the carnival music scene has posed a second set of controversies most particularly in relation to the music competitions organized during the carnival period. The controversies which the new practices and labels have generated have revolved around three interrelated, issues: the definition of the music label under which the competition is organized, the criteria which, in concrete terms, allow some compositions to be admitted and others not, and the degree of conformity , called here, "authenticity," the compositions admitted in competitions have to display in order to be successful.

In the case of the long-established calypso competition, for example, the question has been raised whether songs associated with soca should be admitted in the competition. This question has proven to be rather problematic since the musical practice named soca is viewed simultaneously as a variant of calypso and also as different from it. (In this regard, it should be noted that there is a soca competition which is organized apart from the calypso one.) Within this conjuncture, the same songs have been allowed to participate in different competitions, with however the effect of raising even further the legitimacy of soca as music label to which the songs are associated. Such a dilemma has led to what could be called "rituals of valorization" which have included the publication of a series of articles in daily newspapers and interviews on both radio broadcast and television explaining in particular what calypso is about and should be, and debates in public media about the values of soca songs.

The issue of authenticity

One other set of controversies over calypso competitions concerns the issue of authenticity. Authenticity in this case has been judged in relation to the relative proximity of a given song to what is considered traditional calypso in terms of forms, lyrical content, rhyming scheme, rhythms, instrumentation, and so on. Within this perspective, songs which do not conform to the idealized model of traditional calypso are criticized or simply rejected---as has been the case for most soca and ringbang songs up to the present time.

Controversies Over Representation

The third and last set of controversies I want to examine deals with the issue of representation. Since music labels are customarily associated with particular groups of people and specific geographic territories, some of the most heated debates over the music labels have questioned the kind of associations that have been made and promoted through them. The main concerns have been about what these music labels represent in relation to the issue of identity and who is represented through them, in relation to the issue of monopoly.

The issue of identity

The debates over this issue have been articulated in several ways in respect to each label, but also depending on who is speaking, from where, for whom, and for which interests. In connection with soca, the debates of the 1980s and 1990s have been concerned with the issue of identity on moral grounds. The association of soca with "jam and wine," a Caribbean expression which refers to sensual dance movements, has been despised by many. Especially since soca is at this time one of the most played music during carnival, locally, regionally, and internationally, the fear is that its renowed emphasis on fast rhythms and sensual motions serve to reinforce the caricature that the Caribbean is only about fête and sex.

In the same vein, as one of the most prominent musics on all public media, it has been severely criticized for producing what is considered to be a negative model for youth through its supposedly exclusive emphasis on fête and continual invitation to escapism.

The issue of identity has been at the heart of the controversies over ringbang but from yet another source of concern, this time, in relation to national identification and representation. The selection of the term "ringbang" over "tuk"---the name referring to the traditional music and rhythm originally from Barbados which, as indicated above, in the mind of many Barbadian traditionalists is thought to give the music in question its distinctive character---is indeed said to have erased the possibility of establishing any connection between the music and the nation-state which has provided its distinctive character. The dispute over the term, it could be concluded, has been articulated through musical arguments mentioned above, but with the interrelated concern about the politics of representation which have been at stake in the naming process.

The issue of monopoly

The controversies over music labels have articulated the issue of representation not only in relation to questions of identity, but also of monopoly. The use of certain music labels and not of others in the public media and in official publicity has brought to the fore the question of who and what, in the process, gets to be represented. More particularly, the common use of the music label calypso to encompass soca, rapso, ringbang, and ragga soca has been seen by some partisans of these labels as a resistance to accept difference and change (be it in terms of musical tastes, artistic directions, philosophical orientation, political affiliation, economic ambitions, and so on) and as an attempt to continue to dominate the music scene by giving it a semblance of homogeneity.

From a political point of view (in the large sense of the word), to continue to use the new (and no longer so new) music labels interchangeably with calypso has been seen particularly by some Caribbean observers outside Trinidad in terms of control and power struggles, as a means to undermine the significance---and by extension, the legitimacy----of the practices referred to by these labels. The attempt, in their view, has been to safeguard the prominence and the status of calypso on the carnival music scene at the local, regional, and international levels, as the music label synonymous with carnival, and the ultimate musical reference by having been at the origin of all these developments. This way of thinking has not only led to the adoption, albeit for different reasons, of the same practice as described above---the indiscriminate use of the terms---but also, it is felt, by so doing, has prevented to a large extent the possibility for these labels to be acknowledged and to circulate. The confusion about the new Caribbean music labels has indeed been such that most of them are not known outside of the island where they were created, or that when they are, they are not used.


Concluding Remarks


It should be clear that music labels cannot be looked at exclusively in the context of the music industry, and that they cannot be interpreted soley as the product of economic pursuits. To concentrate exclusively on the music industry would prove inadequate to show how music labels participate in the rethinking of ethnic relations, the transformation of enslaved mentality, the promotion of an Afro-centric philosophy, and the lessening of generation gaps. In the same way, to interpret music labels as solely the product of economic pursuits would not permit us to understand how several population groups have come to place so much affective investments and to see so much political stakes in the debates over them.

Music labels must be situated at a multitude of levels in order to appreciate how their emergence and the extent of their circulation on the market are interconnected to on-going racial, political, historical, musical, economic discourses, practices, and institutions, and how these music labels are implicated through their own stance and status in their continual transformation.

As we have seen, music labels do not only describe but also prescribe musical practices. And through them, they not only call upon, but also claim certain rights, respect, and recognition in regard to such sensitive and crucial issues as identity, autonomy, and power.


1.Since the music industry of Jamaica has developed to a large extent independently from the rest of the other English-speaking islands, it not included here. An examination of its politics of labelling music would require a study of its own.

2.The approach presented here is derived from a study on Créolité and Francophonie by Grenier and Guilbault (1997). The wording is either slightly altered from the original or presented ad verbatim, as in this case (ibid: 214).

3.Ras Shorty I had already used East Indian influences in one of his first calypsoes entitled "Long Mango" in 1966. However, he came up with the term "sokah" in 1973 when he decided to experiment with this musical fusion and make it the basis for his new compositions.

4.The East Indians and the Africans constitute the two most important ethnic groups in Trinidad. The latest statistics on Trinidad and Tobago's demographics evaluated what is referred to as the "ethnic" profile as follows: 40.8% African descent and 40.7% East Indian descent (On October 11, 1995, at the World Wide Webb Site Http: \\\

5.His first composition which mixed the East Indian and African musical elements was called "Long Mango" and was written, according to Ras Shorty I, in 1958 (personal interview, 6 February 1997).

6.For the drummer especially, to play sokah as Ras Shorty I wanted him to play it was at the time revolutionary in at least two ways. The drummer was asked to use another playing technique, namely, to cross his hands for playing, and also to use a greater number of instruments on his drumset not only to feature the various rhythmic lines inspired by the East Indian rhythms, but also to provide more color. In his change of instrumentation, Ras Shorty I replaced the dhantal by the triangle, which after 1978 was eventually dropped to be substituted by the iron from the steel band.

7.It should be noted that carnival songs are usually recorded before the calendar year ends and the carnival season begins. In the case of "Sugar Bum Bum," for instance, the song was recorded in 1977 for the carnival season 1978.

8.I am grateful to Alvin Daniell for providing this information.

9.The music ensemble playing tuk music includes a bass drum, a "kettledrum" (a local terminology which actually refers to a snare drum), a triangle or other percussive instrument, and a penny whistle, which has replaced the fiddle over the last 120 years and actually leads the band (Wayne "Poonka" Willock in personal interview, 12 March 1997, Barbados).

10.The term "Crop-Over" used to refer in Barbados to the festival performed at the end of harvest. Today, it refers to a festival organized at the end of July, ending on the first Monday of August.

11.See, for example, Ahyoung (1981), Dudley (1996), Hill (1993), and Liverpool (1993, 1994).

12.It should be remembered that, with the exception of Ras Shorty I, most artists who were doing musical experiments with calypso in the first half of the 1970s did not name the result of their experiments.

13.To my knowledge, no one has seriously challenged the authorship of the term "sokah" made by Ras Shorty I.

14.Used often as the ultimate reference, calypso in this context is not surprisingly most often referred to as the "artform."

Cited References

  • AHYOUNG, Selwyn Ellore. 1981. "Soca fever: change in the calypso music tradition of Trinidad and Tobago." Master's thesis at Indiana University.
  • ALLEYNE, "Adonijah" Peter. 1994. "In the beginning was ringbang." Sunday Nation, August 7: 1C.
  • ANON. 1997. "All's well at calypso semis." Sunday Guardian, February 2.
  • ANON. 1995. "Chutney flagship star, Sundar Popo, releases spicy ditty: Cool yourself with cold water." Sunday Punch, December 24.
  • DUDLEY, Shannon. 1996. "Judging 'by the beat': Calypso versus soca." Ethnomusicology 40(2): 269-98.
  • GRENIER, Line and Jocelyne GUILBAULT. 1997. "Créolité and Francophonie in music: socio-musical repositioning where it matters." Cultural Studies 11(2): 207-34.
  • HILL, Donald. 1993. Calypso calaloo: Early carnival music in Trinidad. Miami: University Press of Florida.
  • LIVERPOOL, Hollis Urban Lester. 1993. "Rituals of power and rebellion: The carnival tradition in Trinidad and Tobago." Ph.D. dissertation, University of Michigan.
    • _________, . 1994. "Researching steelband and calypso music in the British Caribbean and the U.S. Virgin Islands." Black Music Research Journal. 14(2): 179-201.
  • MARAJ, Aneela. 1997. "'Ataklan': believe in yourself." Newsday, February 1.
  • MORAIS, Robin. 1997. "Ragga soca groove." Sunday Punch, February 2.
  • VINCENT-HENRY, Andre. 1993. "Talking race in Trinidad and Tobago: A practical framework."Caribbean Affairs 6(2): 23-38.
  • YELVINGTON, Kevin Al. 1992. "Introduction: Trinidad ethnicity." In Trinidad Ethnicity edited by K. A. Yelvington, 1-31. London: MacMillan Press Ltd.


  • Black Stalin. 1994. "All Saints Road" and "Black Woman Ring Bang" on Rebellion . Ice Records Ltd. 931302.
  • Lord Kitchener. "Sugar Bum Bum." Melodies of the 21st Century. Charlie's Records, TRCCS-006.
  • Lord Shorty. 1973. "Indrani." (a 45 recording) Shorty S-002.
  • Lord Shorty. 1975. Endless Vibrations.. Shorty SLP 1001.
  • Maestro. 1976. "Savage." Extended play 45.
  • Montano, Machel and XTatic. 1997. "Tayee Ayee"; "Big Truck" on Heavy Duty .
  • JW Productions JW117.
  • Red Plastic Bag. 1993. "Ragga ragga." Happiness..

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