A few soca songs to take you from start to finish of Trinidad & Tobago Carnival

Carnival masquerader image via Canva Pro.

In the dynamic tapestry of Caribbean music, soca endures as the heartbeat of Trinidad and Tobago's world-famous Carnival celebrations, infusing the festival with joy, energy and infectious rhythm. With Ash Wednesday, which signals the start of the Lenten season, falling on February 14 this year, the 2024 Carnival season has been a short one, but artists have taken it as a challenge to pump out fresh material that is both unmistakably Trinbagonian and universally appealing.

Here's a playlist of personal picks built to take you through what's left of Carnival week — one song for each stage of the festival — the fêtes, Jouvay (the ritual that opens the Carnival celebrations), the Monday and Tuesday street parade, and Las’ Lap, the final hurrah before the festival is over for yet another year.

Fête favourite — “Penthouse” by Voice

Voice has been on the soca scene for some time now, having won the International Soca Monarch title in 2016, and his annual offerings usually put a smile on my face and a spring in my step. “Penthouse” is a clever retelling of an experience most Carnival lovers have had: you've decided to stay home for the evening, until a friend inveigles you to “just pass through and show yuh face” at the party. The rest, as they say, is history: “And now, ah drunk in de people place.”

It's an expertly written tune. The early strains of his resistance feel very structured — almost as if he's being hemmed in by his well-rehearsed excuses: “I ain't going nowhere tonight, ah doh feel de vibe, ah here with de wife.” By the time he gets to the chorus — punctuated by Voice's signature sweetness, with just a touch of that gravelly edge — the narrative becomes freer as he starts to “go dong … wine and go dong,” referring to the corkscrew-like hip movement that is the hallmark of Trinidad and Tobago Carnival. Then comes the joyous juxtaposition of him describing the experience as being “on [a] Penthouse level” high.

It's songwriting magic for me — a relatable storyline, skilful progression, compelling melody and a dash of humour. Most of all, the tune shows the power of soca music to tempt you into things you might not ordinarily do — to become something else entirely — and isn't that the whole point of Carnival?

Welcome the Carnival — “Powder” by 3Canal

J'ouvert — from the French “Jour Ouvert,” meaning “opening of the day” — or the Creolised “Jouvay,” is the elemental ritual that marks the official start of Carnival. Also known as “dutty mas,” revellers cover themselves in mud, cocoa, tar, clay, body paint or even powder, and dance in the streets in the wee hours of the morning until the sun comes up. The use of powder in Jouvay harkens back to sailor mas, beginning in the 1880s when British, French and American naval ships came to Trinidad.

“Powder” is the rapso group 3Canal's nod to the sailor mas tradition, but the song also roots itself in the idiom “You can't play mas and ‘fraid powder,” meaning that you can't get involved in something and be afraid of the risks or consequences. The lyrics also carry a deeper message: Jouvay is elemental and sacred, and must be respected, not mimicked by turning it into a mere fête. This is one of the reasons 3Canal recently announced that 2024 would be the last year it would bring out its Jouvay band: “When every month is a Jouvay is no wonder de ritual get plunder, de children gone asunder, Lord!”

In terms of the musical production, I love that the rhythm section and consistent horns put me smack dab in the middle of the sacred chaos that is Jouvay morning. It feels even more authentic when Wendell Manwarren shouts, “Look meh!” — which as he explains, is what mas is supposed to be: a transaction between the masquerader and the spectator. He laments that modern mas is more “Look at me” — less about the portrayal and more about selfies on Instagram. In the end, people will experience Carnival in whichever way they choose, but I'd rather be in the middle of that Jouvay jam, playing my mas sans selfie, unafraid of the powder.

Carnival Monday — “DNA” by Mical Teja

One of the huge hits of the season, “DNA” is widely considered to be a Road March contender, likely because its anthem-like ode to the festival is both heartwarming and inspiring. The song perfectly captures the sense of national pride that's inextricably linked to the experience of Carnival, no matter if you're living on-island, or coming back to play mas: it's “in our DNA” and “there's “no place like home.”

The song is sweet and compared to some recent Road March winners, moderately paced — which makes it perfect for long stretches on the road, especially on Carnival Monday, which has always been a warm-up to the main event. Special mention: Teja's “Runaway,” a lovely groove that riffs off of Explainer's classic “Lorraine,” and tells the tale of a diaspora mas-lover who flees the cold of New York City and comes home for Carnival.

Carnival Tuesday — “Carnival Contract” by Bunji Garlin

When it comes to the frenzy that accompanies masqueraders finally crossing the stage in full regalia on Carnival Tuesday, two-time Road March winner Bunji Garlin knows that pace counts — and “Carnival Contract” delivers from the get-go, building to a crescendo in which you can just envisage masqueraders bursting onto the stage and letting loose.

It pretty much covers all the same points that “DNA” does — love for Carnival, playing mas with your friends — but in a more assertive way, and I always appreciate the imagery that Garlin strives to create in his lyrics: “Me and Carnival have a contract; every year we go hard like nail, I on de road with truck bigger than humpback whale.” He's also versed in getting the crowd to participate, peppering his lyrics with a bit of the call-and-response tradition, so if you can't remember any other line in the song, you can always sing along to “Hey, hey, hey!”

It'll be interesting to see which of these comes out on top with the most plays on the road this year.

Las’ Lap — “Soul of Calypso” by Machel Montano

Carnival isn't really Carnival without the King of Soca, Machel Montano, being in the dance. This year, however, he opted out of the soca scene, citing the fact that he's finishing his Master's degree in Carnival Studies.

Montano did end up making an appearance, however, in the more traditional calypso arena. His song “Soul of Calypso” — which is essentially the definition of soca music — has seen him going back to basics, embracing his musical roots and paying his respects to the elders of the tradition. Quite apart from the song giving listeners an education about where this amazing musical genre has come from, the clip and almost old-time style of the music is in sync with Las’ Lap's chill, cool-down vibes.

The catchy refrain is perfect for chipping down the road when you're tired and spent, but oh-so-happy that you made it through another Carnival — and the message is all embracing: no matter how you like your Carnival (or your Carnival music) we're all one family. And that, above all, is the heart of Trinidad and Tobago Carnival.

Start the conversation

Authors, please log in »


  • All comments are reviewed by a moderator. Do not submit your comment more than once or it may be identified as spam.
  • Please treat others with respect. Comments containing hate speech, obscenity, and personal attacks will not be approved.