Pandemic soca: How COVID-19 is shaping the sound of Trinidad & Tobago's cancelled Carnival

Screenshot from Farmer Nappy's ‘Backyard Jam’ video, via JulianspromosTV | Soca Music on YouTube.

The soundtrack of Trinidad and Tobago Carnival, especially where calypso music is concerned, has traditionally been topical, dealing with national or even global issues that have captured people's interest. The annals of Carnival songs, therefore, double as historical milestones, with the power to orient you in time and space, from politics to world wars.

Soca music, a portmanteau derived from the “soul of calypso,” is to fetes what calypso is to social commentary, but with the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, this hugely popular form of the genre, with all its subsets (including chutney soca), sometimes follows calypso's lead, while putting its signature party vibe on it.

Despite the fact that Trinidad and Tobago's physical 2021 Carnival festivities have been cancelled, performers have still been releasing new material, many of them COVID-related. Here's a look (and a listen) to some of the best offerings so far.

‘Cabin Fever’ — Skorch Bun It, Kes and Sekon Sta

Okay, so this song technically doesn't mention the pandemic. Like much soca fare, it extolls the virtues of a woman's wining ability—the suggestive dancing that is a trademark of the festival—described as “rocking like a boat at sea.” That said, the song's title is something anyone who has been in COVID-19 lockdown can identify with; the tune (and fun-loving video, shot on a cruise ship) simply puts a better spin on it.

‘Horn Proof’ — Kells and Sekon Sta

“Somebody get horn in the quarantine; if it's one thing that is guaranteed is horn”: “Horn,” (i.e. infidelity) is an evergreen theme in soca music, so to make it current, why not examine the cuckoldry that goes on despite the recommended social distancing measures?

To its merit, the song goes on to advise the broken-hearted to handle their “horn” with maturity and not do anything rash, perhaps a conscious acknowledgement of the fact that Trinidad and Tobago has been experiencing an upsurge in gender-based violence, and also a nod to soca's calypso roots in using the music to address pressing social issues.

‘Private Party’ — Machel Montano

Arguably the most successful soca artist in the world, Machel Montano knows how to reinvent himself. With this tune, he invites all Carnival lovers to embrace the change the pandemic has brought and enjoy the festival in a different way: “I'm partying right home, give me the passcode […] the living room is my playground, ah watch it turn to the stadium.” In other words, bloom where you're planted (or, in pandemic speak, party where you're quarantined).

‘Backyard Jam’ — Farmer Nappy

The pandemic has, in many ways, brought the national festival back to basics, summed up in this catchy, feel-good tune that captures all the nostalgia of how simple and authentic the celebration used to be: “We don't need no big promoter, the neighbours go be we sponsor.” It's an ode to the flexibility and resilience of local culture and those who understand that Carnival is so much more than a revenue earner.

‘All House is Road’ — Bunji Garlin

This tune addresses resilience and reimagining in one fell swoop: “You confined in your mind? What happen to your imagination? […] Even if is me alone, Carnival never stop!” It's testimony to the fact that the national festival lives inside each Trinbagonian, a flame that the pandemic cannot extinguish.

‘One Wish’ — Iwer George & Travis World

Tabanca, or a longing for what's been taken away, is something many Carnival enthusiasts are struggling with this year. Part of what makes the annual festival so vital is that it is a channel of release from the pressures of everyday life. This video, which depicts a COVID-positive Iwer George struggling with medical staff as he's carted off to hospital, taps into that culture of enjoyment at any cost: “We do what we have to do, but hear what I want to do! If I had one wish, I'd mash up de place, one more fete and I'll mash up de place!” It's a brilliant comedic commentary on the discipline the pandemic requires, during a season that is, by its very nature, bacchanalian.

‘Better Days’ — Patrice Roberts

With the entire world still battling the pandemic, it's difficult to imagine life post-COVID-19, but this song offers hope for the future: “Better days are coming, coming … change your ways; don't let this moment pass you by and remain the same.” In the same vein, Swappi's ‘God Is Ah Trini’ uses a common local saying to anchor his message that things will look up, and Trinidad and Tobago—and its Carnival—will be all right.

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