The term soca (initially spelled sokah) was coined in the 1970s by Trinidadian musician Lord Shorty (Garfield Blackman), who sang calypso, a type of Afro-Trinidadian song style characterized by storytelling and verbal wit. According to Lord Shorty, the new music was meant to be a fusion of calypso with East Indian music, a reflection of Trinidad’s two dominant ethnic groups. Others, however, have explained the term soca as a contraction of “soul calypso,” emphasizing the music’s connection to African American and Trinidadian traditions.
Although soca is sometimes considered to be a subgenre of calypso—owing to the historical relation between the musics and their common association with Carnival—the two traditions differ in a number of notable respects. In practical terms, soca functions primarily as music for participatory singing and Carnival dancing, while calypso is more closely linked with performances for seated audiences in “tents” (indoor theatres). Indeed, the genre names calypso and soca formalize a distinction between tent and road (where Carnival dancers parade) that dates back to the 1910s, when singers first began to perform for paying audiences during the weeks leading up to Carnival.
Lord Shorty’s 1973 song “Indrani” was one of the first songs to generate comments about the new genre of soca, comments that focused not just on musical style but also on the portrayal in song of an interracial love interest. “Indrani” used Indian-sounding melodies, Hindi words, and Indian instruments, including the dholak drum. Lord Shorty’s Endless Vibrations album in 1974, by contrast, clearly drew on soul (or rhythm-and-blues) music from the United States. By 1978, when the veteran calypsonian Lord Kitchener (Aldwyn Roberts) jumped into the new genre with “Sugar Bum Bum,” it was clear that soca was neither a one-man style nor a passing fad.
Soca’s innovations, while on one level an expression of Trinidadian modernity, were on another level a response to the international success of reggae in the 1970s. Given soca’s international orientation, it is not surprising that non-Trinidadian singers also became involved with the music. In 1983 singer Arrow (Alphonsus Cassell), from Montserrat island in the Lesser Antilles, had a big soca hit with the song “Hot Hot Hot” even though as a foreigner he was not eligible to compete in Trinidad’s Carnival competitions. In the 1990s singer Alison Hinds, from Barbados, and her band Square One rose to international soca stardom, and they remained perennial performers at Carnival in Trinidad until they broke up in 2004.
Also in the 1990s, Trinidadian Super Blue (Austin Lyons) sang the most popular road march (song for Carnival dancing in the street) three years in a row, beginning with “Get Something and Wave” in 1991. With this song, Super Blue established a new model for Carnival music that featured a faster tempo, energetic rhythmic vocalizations, and lyrics that gave instructions to the dancers, such as “get something and wave,” “jump up,” “break away,” and “hands in the air.” Such lyrics came to constitute one of the most obvious differences between calypso and soca. Calypso songs for the tent privilege wordplay and message over danceability, and they have narrative texts in which a story unfolds across several verses. By contrast, soca songs are as important for their rhythmic drive, excitement, and physical impulse as they are for their verbal meanings; moreover, they are usually built in short phrases, often presented in call-and-response form.
In addition to the lyrics, emphasis on synthesized sound and on studio production techniques distinguishes soca from calypso. Many of the electronic drum sounds, synthesized melodies, and studio effects that distinguish soca recordings cannot be reproduced in the calypso tent, where all of the singers are accompanied by the same house band. However, even on the road, top soca singers such as Super Blue, who perform with their own bands, cannot always precisely match the electronic sounds and studio effects used in their recordings. Soca songs are most often heard during Carnival in their recorded versions, played on sound systems with huge speakers, often mounted on moving flatbeds or “DJ trucks.” The power of low frequencies is particularly important to the aesthetic of soca, which features pounding bass lines that are felt as much as they are heard. (This technological and stylistic feature has certain parallels in American funk music and Jamaican dancehall.)
Sometimes particular rhythms are also cited as markers of soca style. For example, in a four-beat grouping, the kick drum (bass drum played with a foot-operated beater) and bass in soca tend to play a double stroke on the second and fourth beat of a four-beat grouping (if counted: one, two-and, three, four-and…), avoiding the on-beat bass of older calypso, which stresses beats one and three. Many contemporary calypso songs, however, also use this rhythm, which complicates the stylistic definition of soca.
Soca has since its inception displayed an exceptional openness to stylistic innovation. This openness has been reflected in such hybrids as chutney soca (chutney being an Indo-Trinidadian popular music) and ragga soca (soca fused with the Jamaican style dancehall), which developed in the 1990s. Mainstream soca artists such as Machel Montano have also innovated aggressively, especially in their studio production, which has boosted the studio recording industry in Trinidad.
Some soca musicians and fans have hoped that soca’s incorporation of new ideas and styles would help Trinidadian music reach international markets in the way that Jamaican reggae had done. In the early 21st century, soca remained somewhat at a disadvantage, however, because, unlike reggae and many other commercial musics, its style and marketing remained closely linked to the seasonal celebration of Carnival. Consequently, soca’s international dissemination has been linked to a broader effort by Trinidad’s government and business interests to market the Carnival concept and thereby generate work for Trinidadian singers, costume designers, and musicians at major Carnival celebrations in the Caribbean, Europe, and North America.