PHRASER’S STYLE: How the International Soca Monarch underdeveloped soca music

It has been the impetus for a few soca men and women to develop the capacity for serious money-making but, overall, the International Soca Monarch (ISM) has, for years, done a great deal to put the genre several steps back.

Photo: Soca star Machel Montano. (Courtesy Etceterabuzz)
Photo: Soca star Machel Montano.
(Courtesy Etceterabuzz)

It has encouraged unhealthy sectionalism and underdeveloped the soca music industry, despite being in the best position to promote its development.

To analyse the effect of the show on the genre, we must appreciate that a positive business outcome—ticket sales and sponsorship dollars—is at the core of all ISM decisions.

There can be no doubt that the ISM has been excellent for artistes like Bunji Garlin, Iwer George, Fay Ann Lyons-Alvarez and a host of others, significantly increasing their earning capacity and allowing them to become cultural enterprises.

The Monarch status gives each winner year-long bargaining power to demand a hefty performance fee.

In the case of Bunji Garlin, it also assisted in making his sound mainstream, allowing him to break free from the restricted audience of ‘ragga soca’ and become a multi-millionaire.

Photo: Soca star and former ragga soca champion, Bunji Garlin.
Photo: Soca star and former ragga soca champion, Bunji Garlin.

But the separation of the ‘power’ from the ‘groovy’ in 2005—to paraphrase producer and engineer, Martin “Mice’” Raymond—forced an “artificial distinction” on the genre.

While the two co-existed in the sphere of Carnival enjoyment peacefully in the past, ‘groovy’ and ‘power’ have been pitted against each other—the prize values at the ISM finals falsely determining which sound is worth more.

This invalidates the continuous argument of whether or not ‘power’ soca is dying. It is a construct of the ISM, which un-naturally pushed writers to create tunes that went into the aerobic 150BPM+ sphere as opposed to the 125-140BPM “sweet spot” for the groovy competition.

Imagine, Iwer George’s ‘Fete After Fete,’ the winning ‘power’ song of 2007, had 120 beats per minute (BPM), slower than Sparrow’s Doh Back Back at 128 BPM, Kitchener’s Pan in A Minor at 123 BPM, Maestro’s Bionic Man at 128 BPM, Poser’s Ah Tell She at 130 BPM, Calypso Rose’s Tempo at 127 BPM and Penguin’s Deputy at 138 BPM.

All of those songs, except Pan In A Minor, would have been fast enough to be included in the first few years of the Power Monarch, when ‘power’ was considered to be 125 BPM and above.

Photo: Soca star and entrepreneur Iwer George. (Courtesy Turnitupson)
Photo: Soca star and entrepreneur Iwer George.
(Courtesy Turnitupson)

The tempo divide, according to ISM rules, is now at 135 BPM, up from the initial 125 BPM.

Like Ah Boss, Machel Montano’s 2015 ‘power’ winner is measured at 134 BPM, although he performed the song much faster, at 145 BPM. He even called the song a “power-groovy” composition.

It should be noted that in 2015, Montano did not have a widely-popular genuine “Power” song.

Does that mean that even though recorded songs fit into one particular category, that they can be modified in performance to ensure victory?

Upcoming artistes should realise that there is no genuine validation to come from being a finalist or placing in the competition. Rules are clearly broken; points are not released to the performers for them to genuinely understand where the judges may have seen shortcomings, or more importantly, to determine how they should improve.

The final round of the competition reinforces the vice grip of the big name artistes on the industry.

Very few artists come through the Junior Soca Monarch competition into the ISM, or consistently make the final with popular songs.

Photo: Soca star Patrice Roberts. (Copyright
Photo: Soca star Patrice Roberts.

Patrice Roberts comes to mind. Erphaan Alves is the only other one who sticks out as having been a finalist in both the schools’ competition and the “big people party”, not yet with the frequency of Roberts.

After twenty-three years of the competition, there is no fixed band room, where acts can rehearse for weeks leading up to the competition. There is instead, a mad scramble for rehearsals in the rented and crowded band room.

Musicians are not sufficiently skilled to provide tight, efficient accompaniment. The musicians, especially at the semi-final competition, are terribly overworked.

This has led to the practice of performers with their own bands replacing members of the house band; this is an unfair advantage that does not blood new winners.

To be continued…


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About Jabari Fraser

Jabari Fraser
Jabari Fraser is a journalist and broadcaster. Over the last 14 years, he has worked in media, as a foreign language interpreter and teacher, and as a development communications specialist around the Caribbean.

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  1. I was never aware that Power soca was considered 125 BPM and above when separate Power and Groovy Soca Monarch competitions were introduced back in 2005. To me Power soca has always been 135 BPM and above.

    Can Wired 868 confirm what year was the Power soca category changed from 125 BMP and above to 135 BPM and above?

    Also as far as I am aware most of the big carnival hit tunes and T&T road marches have been uptempo tunes aka power soca tracks from the early 1990’s onwards when Superblue started the jump & wave craze and helped to establish the trend of fast pace songs winning T&T road marches.
    The jump & wave soca of the 1990’s gradually evolved into what we have now rebranded as Power soca.

    My understanding is that the Groovy soca category was introduced to give the singers of slower paced songs a chance to win a competition and get more recognition for their slower paced music since the Soca Monarch competition winners had been dominated by faster paced songs since the start of the Soca Monarch competition in 1993 up until that year 2005.

    What the Groovy Soca Monarch competition has encouraged is the production of a lot more Groovy soca music by soca artists where the Soca Monarch competition is now dominated by Groovy soca hits to such an extent that some folks are starting to believe that Power soca is dying.

    We must keep in mind that prior to the 1990’s that most of our soca music was at a Groovy soca pace and most of the T&T road march hits were at a Groovy soca pace but that all changed in the 1990’s when Superblue started the jump and wave soca craze. In fact it is accurate to say that Groovy soca has been around much longer than Power soca and when Shorty invented soca in the early to mid 1970’s that soca was naturally done at a pace that we can now describe as groovy soca.

    Regards the Soca Monarch competition under-developing soca music, I don’t think that is the case. The main reason for soca music being restricted is our dumb persistence to seasonalise the music and support other people’s music more than our own once Carnival is over. The Soca Monarch competition is not to be blamed for the foolish practice.

    I do agree with Wired868 that the ISM organisers need to be a lot more transparent with how the competition is judged and that the fact that they do not release positions and points for all the artists who take part in the Soca Monarch Final leaves me feeling very sceptical about the fairness of that competition even while it has been one of the biggest events in the T&T Carnival season over the years.

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    The audience is as much at fault since they only seem to lap up the caca that today’s Soca.Artists sing.

  3. Groovy soca has more international appeal than power.. You have Justin Biebers Sorry which is essentially a groovy soca track going number #1 on billboard

  4. Sean Powder

    Wonderful topic. I have limited knowledge of the music business but I am a consumer of all music but specifically West African, South African and Caribbean music. A comparison with Jamaica in my opinion is not appropriate as we are a baby and Jamaica is at minimum a young adult musically. I think we are missing something I see in Haiti, where a deep appreciation for the artists exists over 7 generations. In Haiti brass, skin(drums) and string instruments are being played by large portions of a young population. I rarely see that level of love for our artists nor willingness to work at the instrumental craft. We are a people dominated by African and Indian influences with a musical history 20,000 years old, we may need to look backwards in order to go forward. Sadly, what we are seeing in our music may just be a reflection of where we are as a society.

  5. Selling rum culture as a tourism attraction has worked. Foreigners from colder regions make the journey with dreams of unlimited alcohol and scantily clad women in the streets. Right or wrong I prefer to hear about rum and woman than how much black people you can kill and how much drugs you can smoke or sell.

    Rum culture is a part of our fabric and the fact that it is so popular is indicative of how citizens and foreigners feel. For the record I have never gone to a bar because an artiste said so.

  6. Soca competitions hurt soca period. They confine soca to a season which lasts for about 3 months because the ‘best’ songs don’t get released until after November into December in TnT and May to July in Barbados. No other major genre places the same ‘professional’ artistes in competition against each other year after year with the aim of winning a prize. All the other genres have artistes who either make albums for sale or for promotion to do tours or both. Bunji has realised that, Destra has, Machel has. I have now heard 3 Bunji songs in 2 American TV shows so he is making money from sync licenses which is year round income potential.

  7. But Dominic, you’re saying that the International Soca Monarch HAS helped soca? The convo went in different directions and I wasn’t show.
    If so, then how did it help? I feel putting a judge and a score book is generally a sure way to inhibit creativity in any field.

    • The prize money from ISM has helped attract more and more artistes to soca and upping their game. Even in saying that, I acknowledge that there are/were many problems in ISM.

      I’m not sure I agree that competition inhibits creativity. If that were so, how would you explain the rise of the talent competition shows like The Voice, Idol, etc.

    • The ISM’s aim was always to gain max revenue for the promoter…everything else was a side benefit. Problem is/was people mistook it for a talent competition. Wrong. Voice and Idol are talent competitions. ISM is a fete where you pay the artistes whom the judges (?) decide have won.

    • You look at these talent without understanding the music industry. Look at the last winner of the Xfactor I believe she make it as an artist.
      The song she sang as Forever Young Rod Stewart and Bob Dylan both did that song. That’s record company and publishers money power talking! Every Xfactor winner have to sing the songs given to them to keep the royalties coming in and attract a new generation to the original artist.
      In Motown it worked the same way lots of talent that were not song writers didn’t have to worry, because Smokey Robinson as a song writing was unique. He is blessed he could look at you and write a song for an individual as tailor will cut a suit.
      How many of the talent on these show with all the mass exposure actually make it as world acclaimed artist, there are people that have won the Xfactor and never made it!
      Allan Powder when any music brakes the everyone jumps on board, the preacher, comedian, rum man, ganga man and the rest!
      Run don’t attract tourist, most of the foreigners that go to places like Grenada are not tourist, they are people the go home to visit family. They don’t go into hotels the go into the villages where their families are!

  8. Me?
    I’m fed up of all these imaginary separations of a single genre.
    It’s all soca …… Chutney, Power, Groovey …. all one soca!

  9. Growth is on a scale and can be incremental. It is not a binary thing, as in, on or off.

  10. If your frame of reference is American radio stations then you can arrive at that conclusion. However, if you look even within the Caribbean(Jamaica), Latin America, Africa……all of these places are enjoying the music. Additionally, the simple fact that artistes can make a living, some even getting rich, off their art, that’s also a sign of growth.

  11. Also, I really don’t know that Carnival has helped any of the associated musical genres to become international successes. Successful singers/rappers etc aren’t putting out a new album every year. People take their time to craft an album – an entire body of musical work. This thing where you have to put out a song or two or three… every year… to please the same audience doing the same thing… Idk that that helps anybody grow musically.

    • Good artist release music every 2 to 3 years and sometimes more. They go on tour to promote their album, and the know when to release. The carnival does not help but they need writers, Grenadian people children going to nursery and sing soak it good.
      This backwardness is not my culture, do you think we could bring Soca artist into a London school!
      The day that happens I’ll lead the protest!

  12. Chabeth Haynes Exactly! The hip hop community, the REAL originators are taking back the art form in the wake of all the racism and police brutality in the USA. Now is not the time for rapping about bitches and bling. Now is a time for CONSCIOUSNESS and REVOLUTION. There is a Afro-Punk Movement, there is the Hip Hop Metaphysical Movement.

    Is CRITICAL times we living in. The power of music has to be used to speak to the times and inspire the people going through them. Don’t worry, little by little the mindless hedonism will start to become less affordable, less distracting, less fulfilling, especially when the mark buss. Then people will realize their soul calling out for something MORE.

  13. Good so you know it kids and student are the main buyer of music and they are the ones that go to the shows and festivals!
    The pack out shows that finishes at midnight week in week out, the rap and reggae artist can don it in the middle of the week!
    Tell me which soca artist can do that in the west end of London or which promoter will run the risk to stage such a show.
    If the kids not playing it the press have no reason to write about it, and don’t expect them to be out at 2 am!
    I have being around the music business for nearly 40 years, and I’m talking about the real music industry.

  14. Actually I think the lyrics coming out of rap/hip hop are more and more returning to the social consciousness that existed in the early days of the genre. To Pimp a Butterfly for example really isn’t just about money and women.
    There will always be songs about women and money in rap because those things either form part of the new reality or the desired reality but there is definitely a social consciousness/awareness that just doesn’t exist in soca.
    Having said that however, with respect to soca, I am not always sure what people mean when they say it has grown. Grown where?Do we think the average American in a metropolitan area where there is no Carnival can name three soca artists?
    Is soca music on heavy rotation at either urban or pop radio stations around the world in the same way that reggae and dancehall are? Are musicians outside of Trinidad and Tobago borrowing from soca musically for their own songs, the way Magic! borrowed from reggae for that “so rude” song? What do we mean when we say it has grown? Just that domestically more people are singing soca because it seems like easier money and there is no real demand that a soca singer actually be able to sing?
    On another note I think it was Sean Paul who in an interview once said that dancehall will never be mainstream in America because it’s just too fast. I’m guessing the same theory would be applicable to soca.

    • The difference is dancehall is totally different, because it is reggae which has many different styles. Reggae artist don’t go on tour because they have talent, they leave Jamaica when their stage craft is ready.
      If is only talent you have stay at home and get it right, which musician will leave Jamaica to back them?

    • So what would be your best advice to soca artists given the reality of Carnival and the demand to produce songs for the season every year?

    • Write poetry, buy a Bob Dylan song and read it, it’s poetry!
      Teacher Nick Thomas taught it like this:
      Write it short and sweet, the beginning middle and end must be strong. The singer is the conductor because the band is the orchestra.
      Artist release music for Christmas because that’s festival organiser look at, and summer release.

  15. I do not work in the music industry.

  16. Have you any experience in the music industry and how it works?

  17. Read what I said. Anyone can cherry pick a song. Like I said, holistic.

  18. Are you comparing soca to rap, have you listen to the lyrics on some of the rap music. Soca is so weak most of the time it is blended with reggae to sound good.
    There are 12 year old in this country that will out write a Soca artist!
    Listen to Rap m

  19. What is the big difference between a rum song and a rap song about money and women?

    People are so ready to pronounce the death of soca, yet it continues to grow. Just as in nature, with organic growth comes successes and failures. If you consider the fact that many more of our youngsters are getting involved in the music, that is the biggest success. ISM, for all of it’s issues, has helped. Sometimes we need to take a holistic view, rather that a pointed one. We have much more to be happy about than not.

  20. The judges are alcoholics, so the rum song wont go away, there’s no other music in the world, where grown men sing and write so much shit.
    They keep talk about talent without knowing what the word mean, having talent doesn’t mean you are ready. Even in the island where soca is the local music, how many kids do you see walking with a guitar.

  21. A revolution and Renaissance is OVERDUE for soca music. It is going to cannibalize itself and die out unless it reinvents its landscape and its purpose. The songs are becoming more and more predictable, formulaic and less timeless.

    Meanwhile, the social environment is RIPE with issues, inspiration, innovation and people are HUNGRY for something to move them, inspire them, unite them, motivate them to change their world.

    Another bumcee or rum song is not it.

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