Let’s take up a loose thread from the earlier post, “Judges Jump to Conclusions.” In the recording and Dimanche Gras performance of “What’s Wrong With Me?” Shadow pulls out an old and familiar bone of contention from under his hat. But by 2000 he had sharpened this bone to a spike:
They took all my music,
Disguised it as Soca,
Deprived me of credit,
Which I owned as I suffered.
Few Calypso aficionados take this perennial claim of Shadow’s seriously. There are two versions of the Soca creation story and one of them has ossified into an uncontestable tablet.
The prevailing orthodoxy confidently maintains that Lord Shorty invented a music called “Sokah” around 1973, evidenced in his single “Indrani.” The narrative, and part of the apologetics, of this creation story come from Shorty himself. He described his intentional innovation of what many musicians of the early ‘70s passively characterised as the ‘dying art form of Calypso.’ Shorty set out to cross-fertilize the essential Afro-Caribbean structure of Calypso (albeit with no shortage of Spanish, French and Celtic melodies in the mix) with the rhythms and, in the case of “Indrani” and several other later compositions (including “Om Shanti Om”), Indian-inspired melodies as well. This was a stroke of genius on his part, and was something, arguably, only a Trinbagonian could do given the size and cultural import of the South Asian demographic in this birthplace of Calypso.
Thus from (1) a vexed concern about the impending “death” of Calypso, (2) a heady inspiration to unite chief musical genres of Trinidad & Tobago, and (3) the convenient opportunity (or providence) of being able to reach for these traditions within himself as a native of strongly Afro-Indo Princes Town in southern Trinidad, Lord Shorty genetically engineered a new music. He called the music “Sokah,” with the prefix “So” representing “the soul of calypso” and the “kah” representing “the Indian influence in the music.”
Now this latter reference to “kah” has always been a bit mysterious to me because Shorty never tells us what “kah” means so much as what it connotes for him. When pressed on this cryptic “Indian thing” in “kah” he offered that “kah” is the “first letter of the Indian alphabet” (in fact it is the first consonant of the Devanagari system, which you often learn after you’ve learned how to write your vowels). So we can match the “So” that is Calypso’s “soul” to the “beginning” that’s suggested by “kah” to denote a new direction, a new soul, a reincarnation, if you will, of Calypso music. It is precisely because of Shorty’s philosophical description (augmented by other musicians, journalists and scholars), and perhaps more importantly, his naming of Sokah, that he is given credit for inventing this music. And what a music it became!
This new Sokah music was as exciting as it was controversial. Calypso purists seemed content to watch Calypso die pure (which it never was, what with musicians from Roaring Lion to Kitchener having often laced it with Jazz and Classical music) than witness this Frankensteinian resuscitation by dhantals, dholaks and other Indian instruments seemingly patched together with the European and African ones already in use. Inversely, some Indo-Trinidadians were unsettled and offended by the mischievous and lascivious description of the female protagonist in Sokah’s flagship song, “Indrani” and felt this Afro-Trinidadian, Shorty, was belittling “their” women and by extension the Indian musical traditions he was referencing in the tune. But musicians had taken notice of Shorty’s new sound.
For its part you could call the troublesome new music a hybrid, because hybrids are simply the product of mixture but cannot themselves produce offspring. If you want another hybrid like the one you’ve produced, you have to create a new one from similar ingredients and mix them from scratch. This Sokah was a hybrid, not a new species. Inspired people have continued to make the same kind of hybrid all the way up to contemporary masters like Mungal Patasar and Pantar, and some Soca-Chutney composers, mixing similar Afro-Indo ingredients from scratch and getting their own hybrids. One might say that even Shorty himself was attempting a second Sokah hybrid from scratch, when he seems to have come up with something else. After his 1974 album ,The Love Man, received harsh criticism for his continued use of Indo-Caribbean innovations (complex musical structures that were also stressing out his musicians), he dropped the Indian instruments themselves, replaced them with Western ones, but kept the Indian-inspired rhythms and melodies they had been playing. The yet newer sound on only some of the songs from his 1975 album Endless Vibration was a strikingly international sound, somewhat akin to the Afrobeat we could hear from Osibisa and Manu Dibango, but still unmistakably West Indian.
Although songs like “Om Shanti Om” (from the 1978 Soca Explosion album) would revisit the earlier Afro-Indo musical experiments of “Indrani,” much of the new sounds on Endless Vibrations and the following 1976 album Sweet Music were not those of the hybrid formula Shorty first called “Sokah.” Now the music was a funky, disco-oriented music that journalists themselves had to come up with an explanation for. It was writers listening to this new international dance music who reinterpreted the meaning of the word “Sokah” and changed it’s spelling to “Soca”—the “So” kept to mean “Soul” (which was what Trinis called Rhythm & Blues and Funk music collectively) and “ca” simply designating Calypso. The new funky Calypso sound and it’s name were interpreted, reinterpreted, or as Shorty sometimes insisted, misinterpreted, as a combination of American Soul music and Calypso.
Complicating the situation further was the fact that in 1977 Shorty himself put out a super funky album with an enormous crew, and with him talking in a quasi-American accent (part of a monologue style popular among R&B artists of the time). The tremendously influential album was called Sokah: the Soul of Calypso and its name, while making no reference to Indo-Trinidadian music (or the mixture or mélange of T&T musics supposedly at the heart of Sokah) referenced instead the precise two components that journalists had identified as the two main ones in the new music: “Soul” and “Calypso.” And by 1978, Shorty had abandoned his “Sokah” spelling and, seeming to say ‘oh to hell with it,’ called his 1978 album Soca Explosion. On that album, again, he returned to the Indo-Afro-Caribbean formula of “Indrani” in “Om Shanti Om” and “Come with Me” but in other songs like the irresistible and savage attack on Dr. Williams, “Money is No Problem” and the psalm-like challenge to Reggae’s Rastafarian, bible-quoting dominance of the airwaves “Who God Bless,” the international Afrobeat style continued to reformulate the meaning of the word “Soca.”
It seems that while Shorty was still figuring out the exciting thing he was doing, how he should describe it, and what he should call it journalists and indeed the public were making some decisions of their own. Soca for them was a crossbreed of Soul and Calypso, Indian music optional.
It was this international Afro-Disco Calypso that inspired Maestro, Merchant, Lord Nelson, Black Stalin and even seduced Kitchener out of his traditionalist watchtower. This “Soca” was not a hybrid. It was a new species, able to reproduce in the minds and studios of dozens of Calypsonians. Even Kitchener’s and Sparrow’s! The prominent bass-lines and lyrical, often staccato horns blowing in unison were joined by spacey-sounding synthesizers, organs and other electronic instruments. People happily crowned Shorty the inventor of this music, tracing it right back to him, even though they had essentially discarded his definition and his name for the music. Soca was the new music of Trinidad & Tobago and indeed the Caribbean, with Antigua’s Short Shirt and Montserrat’s Arrow among the major disciples and descendants blossoming across the Lesser Antilles, all mastering the new funky arrangements.
After Maestro’s sudden death in an auto accident in 1977, grieving fans called for his recognition as a co-author of Soca, introducing the second tablet of Soca’s otherwise monolithic history. But Shorty himself recounted his friend Maestro’s original skepticism about “Sokah,” which he says did not alleviate until the Indian rhythms and melodies were finally being played on Western instruments. Only then, says Shorty, was Maestro eager to copy his arrangements, employ some of his crew and even use some of the same vocalisations on songs like his 1976 “Savage.” Indeed you can sing entire phrases from “Savage” along with the tune of Shorty’s “Sweet Music” of the same year but the melodies and horn arrangements are quite different installments in the same genre.
The disagreement over whether Maestro helped invent Soca partially stems from the popular, and somewhat justified, tendency to trace the new music back not to 1973, the year of “Indrani,” but back to 1976, the year that both Shorty and Maestro came out with records that were almost entirely the new funky Afrobeat Calypso—the former with the album Sweet Music and the latter releasing the album Maestro ’76 and the 12-inch (or “disco”) single “Savage.” To boot, the following year, Shorty and his Vibrations International orchestra released the aforementioned Sokah: Soul of Calypso, featuring the exegetical song, “Vibrations Groove” in which the musicians systematically assemble a Soca tune one part at a time, demonstrating what “Socah” is, a la Soul singer King Curtis’ “Memphis Soul Stew” of 1967. And the same year, 1977, Maestro releases an album entitled Anatomy of Soca in which he defends the new genre saying that music can’t be made “for the old folks all de time” (in the song “Soca Music”).
If you’re a Shorty exponent, you see Maestro swooping in and reaping the benefits of three years of experimentation by Shorty. If you are a Maestro advocate, you see those three years as prologue to an essentially simultaneous invention by two musical geniuses, one that may have been inevitable anyway, given the importance of R&B and Funk in Trinidad “blocko parties” of the time.
And in the midst of this controversy stroll the Shadow watchers who contest this whole linear chronology. They bid us to recall where Shadow was and what he was doing during this whole “invention of Soca” period. What was Shadow doing in 1973-1976 exactly? What is the foundation of Shadow’s claim to Soca? Why does he seem to describe Shorty as a Johnny-come-lately to the new music in his song “Dat Soca Boat”?
…He said he is de Soca king
[That] I can’t make with de Soca king
I call de mental hospital
“Come quick to avoid a funeral”
A man came in my house to beat me
He came in my house to fight me
I belong to de house of music
He is either crazy or real sick
But I don’t want to sink dat Soca boat
(Chorus: I don’t want to sink dat Soca boat)
Just don’t want to sink dat Soca boat
(Chorus: I don’t want to sink dat Soca boat)
I doin’ my own thing
Don’t know why they molesting
I am musically ‘sick’
Mummy beat me with music stick
If I tackle de Soca
De boat might turn over
(“Dat Soca Boat” from If I Coulda, I Woulda, I Shoulda, 1979)
Is Shadow’s claim completely groundless? Is the battle for the watershed of Soca threatening to become a Battle Royale?
Now follow this carefully:
(1) if what makes Shorty’s and Maestro’s music “Soca” is more so the cross-pollination of “SO-ul” and CA-lypso (and not Shorty’s Indo-Caribbean instrumentation that mostly goes missing by 1976), and
(2) if what makes “Soul” music itself what it was to Trinis at that time in the 1970s (i.e., Funk), which was characterised by the pioneering decision to put the bass on top of the rest of the music, essentially having it play rhythm and melody at the same time, and
(3) if this unprecedented melodic bass-line is precisely what Shadow did with “Bassman” back in 1974, then hadn’t Shadow fused Soul and Calypso in 1974, not 1976?
And add this:
If Shadow is universally praised for his originality, if not his downright strangeness, and as journalists such as Bukka Renie (2000) have declared “he copies no one” and yet his musical oeuvre is considered “Soca” today, then what is Soca exactly? Is Soca what we have been defining it as, according to Shorty, who took 3-4 years to define it before Maestro walked away with part of it?
When exactly did Shadow join Soca’s ranks so seamlessly by just being himself? Or maybe we should ask, “when did Soca come and join Shadow’s programme (‘already in progress’) so seamlessly that when we look back on Shadow’s career we call it all “Soca”? Because we do indeed see Shadow as both a Calypso and a Soca artiste going all the way back to that weird, infectious song with the walking bass-line and lightning-fast staccato horn bursts, called “Bassman.”
Put yet another way: if Soca came and met Shadow “doing his own thing,” encompassed Shadow’s music seamlessly, and neither Soca nor Shadow were completely transformed or overthrown by the encounter, can Shadow be described as having ‘adopted’ Soca or did Soca adopt Shadow? Perhaps we should consider whether the category of Soca itself was not expanded by Shadow.
And what of Shadow doing the same thing to Calypso what Funk did to Rhythm & Blues? Don’t Shadow and Art De Coteau hone in on that bass-line, turn it into melody and rhythm at the same time and put it front and centre in the music (which we hear musicians doing in the aforementioned “Memphis Soul Stew,” in which we witness Funk trying to break away from R&B)? It is true that Shadow and De Coteau didn’t reevaluate and elevate the drum kit in the same way as Funk does, but neither does Shorty or Maestro.
So Shadow didn’t just put a little bit of Superfly in his Calypso (i.e., he didn’t just adopt Funk as a flavour), he fundamentally changed Calypso’s use of bass (and horns) by reevaluating Calypso’s structure in much the same way that Funk reevaluated R&B’s. Shadow adopted the mechanics of the Funk revolution rather than simply importing/adopting its finished products.
If we insist upon the orthodoxy that places Lord Shorty (and secondarily, Maestro) at the watershed of Soca between 1973 and 1976, and for sake of simplicity exclude Shadow and Calypso/Soca arranger extraordinaire Art de Coteau with their early 1970s experiments with melodic bass lines, Sci-Fi-sounding synthesizers and those rapid-fire, staccato brass arrangements, Shadow still remains a masterful innovator and precursor of the 1976 So-Ca (i.e., Soul & Calypso) phenomenon. In the end, the 1973 Sokah of “Indrani” is not the funky, Osibisa-esque Soca of 1976-1982, which swings back and forth like a pendulum between the hectic abandon of the Disco dance floor (e.g., Maestro’s “Bionic Man” of 1976) and the theatrical grandeur of a blaxploitation soundtrack (e.g., Black Stalin’s “Vampire Year” of 1981). And we cannot deny that starting in his 1973-1974 studio recordings Shadow and Art De Coteau pioneered an experimentation with Calypso that became part of the history of that same funky music other people called Soca. Art De Coteau, after all, arranged for several of the Soca giants. We can also observe that this Soca confluence happened without Shadow needing to make any adjustments to his steady programme of innovation during that period.
We might see Shadow’s music as a branch of Calypso that punched a separate and earlier hole in the perimeter of that category, not far from the hole through which the new species, Soca, would sprout later in 1976. Maybe Shadow’s innovation and Shorty’s weren’t exactly the same but today, after virtually everyone has tried their hand at Soca, it is hard to tell the two legacies apart.
If you think I am being unnecessarily harsh on what I must call ‘the runway narrative of Shorty’s creation of Soca,’ my contestation is not of Shorty’s account of events nearly as much as it is a rejection of the way Caribbean scholars construct history. Our former colonial masters have taught us a history that is essentially a story of wars and great men—processes, women and the Global South be damned.
If you read any history of, say, the gingerbread house, a fascinating example of the cosmopolitan nature of our Trinbagonian and Caribbean culture, you will swear that a Scotsman, George Brown, was responsible for the whole phenomenon of openwork architecture, in Trinidad at least. Countless Indo-Trinis installing Mughal-inspired openwork jalis (transoms) in their houses (like the ones at Lion House in Chaguanas), numberless Africans building porches around their houses, and the British and French Orientalist adoption of Chinese pavilions bringing those to Trinidad, Haiti and Martinique are not nearly as interesting as the biographical story of a man, George Brown, who ‘revolutionized’ the architecture of Port-of-Spain with his mechanical fretsaw. All those Africans, Indians and Chinese (and even a fair number of Frenchmen and Spaniards too) are subsumed beneath the billowing trouser legs of one George Brown, a fella who basically edited and selected from a vocabulary assembled by thousands of nameless masters before him. The stories of steel bands, firms, trade unions, political parties and indeed the whole nation of the Republic of Trinidad & Tobago are told (and taught) in much the same way.
This is “Great Man” history. And this is the history we tell of Shorty and Soca. It is the kind of history that Shorty and Shadow themselves grew up with so they too have entertained contentious views of their roles in Soca history.
Shadow has also entertained us with several Calypsos on this controversy, including the two mentioned in this post.
I for one love to watch a thing “begin” because it is trying to watch something “begin” that you realize there is never a precise beginning moment at all. The microscopic, sub-atomic grain of a process as it unfolds renders a “beginning” more like a shorthand designation of a general time and place than like a hard truth. And as Western scientists and Western religions argue over how the universe “began,” I am always struck by their tacit assumption that a beginning is a very real thing, rather than a quaint, somewhat ethnic, literary device that gets a story going.
I am still looking for the “beginning” that holds up to analysis. The creation of Soca is one such contested beginning, with Shadow a little earlier than or simultaneous with Shorty depending on who you ask, and with Maestro arriving just as the DJ turns up the speakers in the blocko party. Everyone else seems to arrive at the party to find the three of them already there…diggin’ Rhythm & “Blues in [their] shiny shoes.”
 Rudolph Ottley, Calypsonians from Then to Now vol. 1 (Arima: Book Masters, 1995), 63-64.
 Jocelyn Guilbault, Governing Sound (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2007), 173-174; Rudolph Ottley, Calypsonians from Then to Now, 65.
 Jocelyn Guilbault, Governing Sound, 173. In fact, the explanation Shorty gave Guilbault when she asked him in 1997 about the significance of the latter half of this “Sokah” spelling is the fullest I’ve found in the sources I’ve located.
 Rudolph Ottley, Calypsonians from Then to Now vol. 1, 74.
 Bukka Renie, “Shadow’s Lament: Am I Ugly?” (http://www.trinicenter.com/BukkaRennie/2000/Mar/Shadowslament.html)
 Circa the mid to late 1960s was when pioneers like James Brown finally made an entirely new genre out of the increasingly clarified “Funk” category. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Funk