Brooklyn’s Caribbean Carnival season recently passed, culminating in the massive, raucous Labor Day weekend festivities, crowned by the sprawling West Indian American Day Parade down Eastern Parkway. In the weeks around Labor Day, Brooklyn and Queens played host to an abundance of parties and concerts, vibrating with Caribbean music of all shades. The unrelenting party sounds of Trinidadian soca music dominates the streets around Carnival season in Brooklyn as this year’s Carnival hits blast from sound systems and car stereos all around. The Caribbean soca scene is a demanding and competitive, constantly refreshed with a new host of hits around February, when it’s Carnival time in the Caribbean. There are plenty of artists churning out new songs, driven strongly by soca’s unmistakable, powerful rhythms and a deep bent towards dancing, partying and drinking.
Among these soca stars, there are a few that are changing the game with some innovative, cross-genre, international collaborations and experiments. Two of the leaders in this game are the royal couple of soca, Fay-Ann Lyons and Bunji Garlin. The married duo are both soca stars in their own rights, making solid names for themselves for their creative approach to the music, incorporating dancehall, EDM (electronic dance music), hip-hop and Afrobeats. The two, like so many other Caribbean musical icons, were in Brooklyn over Labor Day weekend to take part in the festivities and play some shows. Afropop’s Sebastian Bouknight sat down with the two at their hotel for an extended conversation about the state of soca today and their places in the global music industry. You can read that interview here and while you do so, have a listen to their new albums: Break the World from Fay-Ann Lyons and Turn Up from Bunji Garlin. Also, check out our recent premiere of Fay-Ann Lyon’s new video for the song “Block the Road,” featuring Stonebwoy. Enjoy!
Sebastian Bouknight: Can you introduce yourselves?
Bunji Garlin: This is Bunji Garlin from Trinidad and Tobago.
Fay-Ann Lyons: I’m Fay-Ann Lyons and I’m also from Trinidad and Tobago.
So how do you two know each other?
Bunji: Well, we know each other through the music, but her dad actually introduced us to each other. Of course, Fay Ann’s dad is one of the people responsible for pioneering the sound of soca music into a more festive kind [of music]. He goes by the name of Superblue.
Yes! And you’re also married.
Fay-Ann: [Laughs] How could you forget that part?!
Bunji: [Laughs] Just trying to keep it professional.
Fay-Ann: Yes, we also have been married for a while.
But you do work professionally together too; you make music together.
Fay-Ann: Yes, we’re in the same band and we run our own company.
What is that name of the band?
Fay-Ann: The Vikings.
I can see the Viking on your hat. You’re sometimes known as the “Viking of Soca.” Why do you call yourself that?
Bunji: Well, actually I didn’t call myself that name. I was given that name by a radio announcer in Sweden. We were in Sweden for some years back on one of our tours and we were doing a radio interview and the name kind of stuck on me because of my approach to soca. For who don’t know, soca music is more or less considered a happy music. My approach has been an almost more street style or aggressive approach. And because of that I was given the title of “Viking.”
And you rolled with it.
Bunji: [Laughs] Of course!
You also took the name Bunji Garlin in place of your birth name, Ian Alvarez.
Bunji: Yes, that was way before. That was when I was looking for a name because I had many names before…and I just kind of wanted a name that no one had, so I looked for the weirdest or strangest [one]...and I came up with that. [Laughs].
Bunji for a bungee cord, which is flexible, and Garlin being a name for a type of gun, right?
Bunji: Yeah, the angle of that is that, for the size of the weapon, the damage it causes is a lot. I’m not a huge person—I’m 5’ 8”—but when I take to the stage, I’m a 7-footer, so that was a play on the concept.
Right on. Recently you came together with [soca star] Machel Montano and put out “Buss Head,” after a long time of not seeing eye to eye.
Bunji: Differences [Laughs].
So tell me about that. How did that come about?
Bunji: It came to fruition actually after his manager and Fay, who does a lot of the administrative part of our company…had been talking for like the last two years, after the major stage fall out, or whatever you’d like to call it. Then it was agreed upon by all parties that it should just be a civil reunion, it shouldn’t be musical in any form, it should just be you know…
Just person to person.
Bunji: Yeah, that’s all, put all differences aside. Last year we were in St. Lucia for a show, both of us. So we met at the hotel and we just squashed the beef, took the beef and made beef stew. After that, it just organically developed into, you know, “Bunji, I have this song, I would like you to hear the idea,” so we went into the studio and then it just [went] from there.
Then the song you came up with is about stick fighting. It’s interesting that you’re coming together but you’re coming together over this thing that is about battling, you know?
Bunji: Yeah, you know the song is actually the story of the first line of defense of the Carnival in Trinidad and Tobago, right? A lot of people back home in Trinidad—even I too wasn’t fully aware—that the stick fighters were the reason that Carnival exists now. Back in 1884, a British-led army came to Trinidad. One of their missions was to abolish Carnival in Trinidad and Tobago and the stick fighters are who stood up as the first line of defense and literally defeated the British army, thereby causing the existence of Carnival to remain. If they had lost the battle that morning, Carnival would have been abolished. Remember at that time, Trinidad was still under British rule. So [they were] making sure everything British was being instated or reinstated in the country. And the kalinda warriors—the stick fighters—were who fought off that contingent, thereby allowing Carnival to exist as we know it now.
That’s amazing! So you have to give them props. In the video, there’s this young boy who’s getting into some bad stuff…
Bunji: Right, because stick fighting, also known as kalinda, is a West African martial art, right? So Trinidad and Tobago is one of the few islands that have their own…martial art—stick fighting—which is a form of discipline. Just as many other martial arts before they were regularized and contained to a more marketable form, it was, you know, the battle, the proof of testosterone. A lot of lives were lost through it, a lot of bloodshed. But because of the [cultural] importance of it, it was not done away with. So the government has found a way to kind of regularize it and put it into a format where the general public could come and witness it without anyone losing life, you know?
Right. In the song, there’s a bit of—would you call it patois? Like “Holivay, holivay?”
Bunji: Yeah, holivay is what we learned from the traditional stick fighters. They have a way to prepare the actual stick, which is called the bois, right? They have a way to prepare it. The time, the moon—there’s a certain time to go to the river, there’s a certain time the branch needs to be cured, a time to cut it. The song is actually like a patois chant, about the olive tree: olivier [in French]. The stick is taken from an olive tree, or three other type of trees, that maintain that flexibility even though it becomes hard and dry, without breaking. So the holivay is that chant, you know, giving respect to the tree and the branch—Holivay, holivay, holivay.
Very interesting! It’s a great song, a great collaboration. I recently went to the Despers USA [steel band] panyard in Crown Heights the other day and they’re covering “Buss Head” for [the steel pan competition] Panorama. How does that feel, these steel bands covering your music?
Bunji: Steel pan is something that I never took for granted—Fay as well. A lot of people take steel pan for granted. That is actually the national instrument of Trinidad and Tobago. And in this last decade, very few songs put out from artists in Trinidad and Tobago for mainstream play have actually been transformed into a format to be played on pan. So when it does happen now, it’s really something to appreciate. ‘Cause…the pan contingent or the pan agency, they started writing songs specifically for pan, where years ago they would take a song that was popular and play it on pan. But nowadays, there’s a split, so a popular song might not necessarily make it into the pan arena. So when a song does that, it makes us take note.
That must feel good.
So Fay, as is apparent in the stick fighting and Viking attitude for example, there’s a feeling from soca that it’s a kind of traditionally masculine, male-dominated scene. I’m wondering how you approach that dynamic and face issues that arise from it. Is that something that you have to deal with?
Fay-Ann: Yeah, you actually hit the nail on the head. Since I’ve come out, I’ve been dealing with that. Now, not as much, ‘cause I’ve kind of solidified my position and who I am and things I’ve accomplished musically—more than many of the men. So they can’t bring that argument to my doorstep. But it still exists, nevertheless. [Before], the women were really the attraction. We weren’t there to make a sound or make a dent in the industry…we were there to look pretty and have all the men come to the front of the stage and…do the heavy lifting, so to speak, and mash up the place. So we were more centerpieces to look at; dress pretty in shiny outfits, come on stage and dance. But now that’s changing; the women are actually standing up and saying we no longer want to just be seen, we want to be heard.
Calypso Rose was one of the people that did that [first], when she won the Calypso Monarch title, which was a male-dominated event…Basically, she started a revolution where…women could win a Road March [competition]. To my recollection, she was one of the first women to win a Road March. and that was unheard of. I remember hearing a story about a lady called Lady Trinidad, who got abused verbally because she wanted to sing. So it started years ago, when women were not necessarily welcomed, and when they did welcome you, they gave you a spot to [just] stand there and…your beauty became your main asset. And we changed that; now we have thick women singing, we have skinny women, we have short women, women of all description singing soca across the region, making hit songs, not just being objectified…or not getting an opportunity because of the way they look. So for me—everybody knows I’m part tomboy, part girl, part ragamuffin and Viking, however you want to put it. So my aggression level can go from zero to a hundred in a second, but at the same time I can still put on a pink tutu and be a ballerina. So I’ve learned how to balance being a fighter and then being a defender at the same time.
So you need to have these different sides and you have to be able to fight?
Fay-Ann: You need to! I think people need to have dual personalities. People have it psychologically down as not a good thing. But I think even in your corporate life you need to have dual personalities, cause you’re dealing with different people, different backgrounds…So you need to have personalities developed based on who you’re dealing with, so that you’re trying to get the best possible reaction out of them and prevent conflict. So it’s like [we’re] always on the lookout for conflict resolution. And that’s what we do in the industry; we deal with different promoters, we deal with different types of crowds, types of parties, events…It’s about tailoring your mindset to the different territories you’re going to be in and the different people you’re going to be dealing with.
So, as an artist you need to be constantly mediating all these different types of personalities.
Fay-Ann: You definitely need to. ‘Cause sometimes you meet promoters who have no clue, they’re first-time promoters, and they might miss a beat or two. So you don’t go scratching on people because they’ve [messed up], but at the same time, you have to put your foot down and say O.K., this is how it’s done. [You have to remember] there are other artists that are going to come up—your children might be one of the artists that have to come and deal with that promoter. Case in point: I am now dealing with promoters that my dad dealt with back in the day. So it’s kind of surreal for them that some of the venues that they book for me to perform in, they booked my dad to perform in the same venues 10 or 15 years ago. There’s an MC named Wassy—he used to introduce my dad onstage in New York City. I started singing and he’s introducing me onstage now, so I don’t know if, in 10 years, 15, 20 years—if he’s still around—he’ll be introducing my daughter on stage.
Right, so you have a very long and personal history with soca and calypso. How have you seen people adapt or seen the music change over these decades?
Fay-Ann: For one, it’s way more business-structured than before. I’ve heard stories of artists performing for women and a drink of rum. That was your payment. I’ve heard of artists just performing for the sheer entertainment of it. Now, the music, from a business standpoint, is more structured. You have a lot more artists being more financially conscious; they’re saving their money, they have nice cars, they’re living in nice homes, their kids are in good schools…they’re looking at it as a job that can enable them to take care of their families. Before, you would see artists more susceptible to…drugs and all these different things that, you know, really mashed up their careers, their vocals. Now you see artists joining the gym—some of them are vegans! We have one or two of them that don’t eat a lick of meat. So from a holistic standpoint, they tend to be more conscious and aware of the things that are not healthy to do, so they tend to be more mindful of extending their lives and their careers. There’s artists who set up companies and get an assistant to help manage the bookings and run things properly. Before it was, “Where do you want me? O.K., I’ll come do it, no problem.” It was unstructured; it was all vai que vai.
So, business-wise it’s changed and music-wise it’s changed. Before, we were strictly live instruments. Now, we have people using some serious software and technology back home in Trinidad, creating beats and creating music. They’re [also] integrating the new forms of music that are coming out. Because of social media, we’re able to find out what’s happening [around the world] and see how we could probably…be influenced by that and create something new and different. Before, like, it was a ship a lot of them took to go to places like London… which is three weeks at sea. So you’re missing out on three weeks of stuff that’s happening…and when you do get the information, it’s another three weeks to come back to Trinidad to tell the masses what you saw. So that’s a whole six weeks of information you would have lost. Whereas today [you have] cellphones, social media, Internet; bam. It’s instant, it’s in your face, it’s real time. It’s changing real fast.
We were able to capitalize on Instagram Live…When we did the “Buss Head” tour, a lot of people were trying to figure out how that was going to work [because] it’s a song. How are you going to transcend from the song…to people understanding that “Buss Head” could not be limited to a song; it could actually be conceptualized into a tour. And what we did was a series on Instagram Live—people loved it when they saw the interaction with the two bands performing onstage at the same time. We would switch from our band to Machel [Montano’s] band…So people around the world were seeing that in real time, which has not been done before.
For us, the business is being changed [and] the mindsets of artists are being changed. And we are now realizing that where we were, we should not have been because we’re too talented and too advanced of a people. Not knocking anybody, but one of the major things that has changed is that we no longer see just one region as the pinnacle of success. ‘Cause before, everyone wanted to come to America to make it. Nobody studied Africa, nobody studied Europe. Everybody was like, “If you don’t make it in America, you’re not a real artist.” And then—boom—we realized: Patoranking, Ketchup, Stonebwoy B; all these people existed. Where is this? Africa! Africa has these things poppin’? What’s going on?! And if you click on [Ghanaian artist] Stonebwoy B’s profile, it opens up to another artist and to another artist. And then this just blows your mind ‘cause you’re realizing [that] here you put all your eggs in the American basket. But you’re realizing Europe also has a huge, huge market for music. We started doing Berlin and…what was amazing was that they knew the music! We’re like, “But we didn’t know you guys knew the music!” and they’re like, “What do you mean?! We’ve been coming to Trinidad for years! We have DJs that bring the music back up and we listen to it and play it in the clubs.”
We weren’t aware because…there’s no mechanism in place that feeds the information back to us to let us know, “Hey, your music is reaching here, your music is reaching there.” You have that in hip-hop, you have that in r&b, you have that in pop. Even in the Afro market, there’s means and ways of actually seeing how far the music’s reaching…but for soca…when you get there, you find out if they know it.
But clearly you’re making your way across oceans: you just were nominated for the Nigerian Entertainment Awards in the “Afrosoca” category.
Fay-Ann: Yes, and I started doing stuff with Stonebwoy B.
Yes, actually Afropop is going to premiere the video for that track. [Check out our premiere of the video for Fay-Ann Lyons’ single “Block the Road,” featuring Stonebwoy.] Can you tell us about that video?
Fay-Ann: The video was set to look like it’s in Africa. We actually filmed it in Jamaica, ‘cause of the similarities, geographic-wise. It was so weird! It looked the part. And we got these two little cute kids to pretend that I was in Africa and was lost and was looking for Stonebwoy B. Then these girls come out and say, “Oh my gosh, it’s Aza Sefu”—that’s what a lot of people call me now: Aza Sefu,” which means “powerful sword.” I think it’s Swahili—aza means powerful, sefu means sword or teacher depending on the language. I think in Japanese sefu is teacher; in Swahili it’s sword. I like words that have empowerment and strength in [them]. I can’t see myself being “Sexy this” or “Lovely this,” you know? I think that’s corny; It’s just not me, its not my style! I like that empowerment thing. Anyway, it’s just a fun video with girls dancing…but it’s about Stonebwoy B and myself meeting for the first time. And in actuality, we met for the first time when we shot the video; it was the first time I ever met him face to face.
No way! So you met after you recorded the song?
Fay-Ann: Yes, we recorded it separately. He was in Ghana, I think, and I was in Trinidad or Jamaica. We would converse in the phone about different parts [of the song]. And when we did the music video, it was the first time I’d ever seen him face to face. It’s crazy! And we just clicked like that. I think we have great synergy. He’s like one of the coolest dudes ever, coolest, coolest, coolest people ever. He was down. He came, we did the video for a couple hours…where I meet him in his village and everybody, all the dancers, gather around, you know? We had fun shooting it! And now we’re working on a second project.
Great, we're looking forward to hearing it!
Fay-Ann: Thank you! Before, I did not know that these people existed and what great work they were doing. And it took me [coming] out of the shell, the box we were in, to say, “Hey, let’s go find out what’s going on in the world,” because we keep going in circles, being influenced by the same people, doing the same things over and over and we’re not really making any mark. When you meet these people, and they’re like, “Hey, I know your music, I’m such a fan,” you realize they’ve been doing the work and you’ve not been doing the work. So now, we’re working, we’re learning, we’re understanding, we’re meeting people, we’re networking. I love the blogs that do African music…we’re actually reading, seeing who’s who, seeing what they’re doing.
It’s a whole world out there! Bunji, I feel like you’ve been really living that up, doing all kinds of collaborations with all kinds of musicians, making really innovative, interesting stuff. You’ve got songs with Damian Marley, Ketchup from Nigeria, Diplo, Freddie MacGregor or Young D.
Bunji: Yeah, Young D is Nigerian. The nice thing about this is that we kind of are approaching frontiers together. Because as [Fay Ann] just completed this project with Stonebwoy B, I just did a remix with [Ghanian musician] Fuse ODG for the song that he just released called “No Daylight.” We are working on a new project and Fay has something she’s doing with someone else. I guess the mushroom cloud is broader when we both do it like that.
And my thing is that I always try to maintain that sort of diversity ‘cause, back home in Trinidad and Tobago, that’s what the radio used to sound like to me. We used to hear every music from around the world, and we still do. But [when we come] to the U.S. or the U.K. or whatever we hear the resident music of that nation prominent over everything else. But back home in Trinidad, it was the reverse; we would hear music from all over the world and only Trinidad and Tobago music when Carnival time comes. And there are a lot of different factors for the reason behind that, which is like an encyclopedia book full of stories [Laughs].
So you’re in New York City right now. How important is the New York scene, particularly the Carnival scene, to the music back home? Does New York shape the sound of the music?
Bunji: Well, let me say no before I say yes. The music at home is not definitely affected or shaped by the sounds of what is happening in New York in the West Indian community. It changes sound not because of what is happening in the West Indian community here, but because of what is happening in the world of music, from the EDM [electronic dance music] to the dancehall to the hip-hop. Everyone is borrowing sounds from each other: EDM from dancehall, soca from dancehall, dancehall from EDM, hip-hop from r&b and everyone is borrowing bass lines and keyboards and synths and drums and patterns. So now the most distinct sound from all of the world music apart from the rest is those Afrobeats. They have an original sound that sounds like nothing else that exists, right?
And it’s taking over.
Bunji: And it’s taking over crazy, crazy, crazy. And soca is now following that footstep, right? You know the history of the people who stand behind soca—the Trinidadians—we’re very…what happens in the world now, we then move to that 10 years later. We will still find emphasis being put on the songs of way back when or yesteryear or three years ago. Which is good! Because it allows us to show that good music doesn’t die. But we kind of need to cut away from that sometimes and allow advancement at the same speed the rest of the world advances, so we can always be in the march. We put forth a soca that we think is new but actually it’s sounding like it’s five years old and again we get left out. So we’re kinda trying to break the cycle right now. I think the most important thing about the West Indian community in New York right now is that they exist as a community. It’s not necessarily dependent on the music, because once we supply the music they’re going to go for it. And now they have their own artists here from Trinidad. It’s kinda just shaking hands now from across the bridge.
It’s been that way for a long time, right? Like [calypso king] Mighty Sparrow moved to Brooklyn and would record here but would go back to Trinidad for Carnival.
Bunji: Right, exactly. But what happened is that when they did that, their Trinidad flavor remained a distinct form, even though Sparrow was living here, even though [Lord] Kitchener was in the U.K., Lord Invader was here. They did all their recording here, like at Charlie’s Records or wherever else. But when they come home, the sound is back home, you know?
Because the community maintains it?
Bunji: Yeah, yeah. So that is the main importance of the West Indian community here in New York. It helps preserve the songs. I guess we have to balance now [of] how we preserve, what we preserve and how much we preserve. Without actually saying, you know, “Do away with this,” ‘cause we’re not trying to do away with it.
Right. It seems like in a lot of popular music around the world right now, people are kind of removing some of their own identity, to find that global popularity. Maybe they’re getting rid of some of the lyrics that might be particular to themselves or their community to be accessible to the wide world. Are you experiencing that in soca? Is that something that you need to do? Do you want to?
Fay-Ann: Well, it depends. If you’re looking at the music from the business perspective—let’s [think about] bread, for instance. Bread has remained bread for many years, but now you have variations of bread. That doesn’t mean the bakery has changed. What the bakery realized is that now there are people that have celiac disease, so you can’t have gluten, so they start making gluten-free bread. It’s still a bread, but you’re making different formats or different types of bread to have more customers come to your door.
That’s what we’re doing with soca. To us soca is a bread, it will always be a bread. But we’ve realized, for instance, there’s people that go to church…but they’re still very culture-oriented. They love their culture, they believe Carnival represents their culture, they’ve accepted that, but they’ve also accepted their Lord and Savior. For them, there would be a contradiction if they go to church on Sunday and then go listen to a song that says some sort of derogatory lyrics. But for them they feel no contradictions if they go to church on a Sunday and then they put on a song like “Raze.”
We’re saying to people that it’s O.K. to have many different types of bread. You can make different types of music to cater to different types of audiences! You do not have to limit yourself to “wine, jam, put your hand in the air” and whatever the case is. If that’s all you do, they’re going to think that’s all you can do. It’s all a matter of perception and culture, cultural background, where you come from, what you believe, what you’ve been exposed to. So what’s normal in one country may be abnormal in another country…or just to another person’s mind based on how they’ve grown up. Wining to us might be normal, but wining to somebody else might be vulgar.
So for us, it’s very important to pay attention to what you’re trying to do. People like Bunji and myself, who are diversifying—he will do EDM music but still keep [his sound]…When you hear Bunji on a track, you’re like, “That’s Bunji.” So that’s Bunji keeping the bread. But at the same time his lyrics might change. So it might be saucy in one particular region because it’s catered to that, but when he’s doing something for [somewhere] else, it might be a little less aggressive or it might be a little less tame. We’ve even had issues trying to explain to our local people why we have to pronounce words a particular way a particular way in interviews internationally. They’re like, “You don’t sound Trini!” We’re like, “If we sounded Trini, they would have a hell of a time trying to decipher what we just said when they leave, you understand? 'Cause we cannot speak like we’re speaking to each other on the block.” [Laughs].
Fay-Ann: [Laughs] It would just be very, very fast.
Something that’s interesting to me about soca, in relation to calypso, is that calypso is all about the lyrics, all about the clever wit and trying to say things as fancy as you can, as well as getting into social commentary.
Bunji: Right, right, correct, the social commentary.
But soca is really party music.
Fay-Ann: Yes, soca is like, “Don’t pay rent, take the rent money, go and buy a costume and go and party.” That’s what soca is. [Laughs] Soca is, “O,K., we know you have stress, but go party, you’re going to have the stress tomorrow, don’t worry about it.” We have a saying in Trinidad that you take a drink for everything. Somebody dead, you take a drink for that; somebody born, take a drink for that; your wife leave you and you get divorced, don’t worry, take a drink! You understand? You got a promotion, hey we should take a drink for that! So we take a drink for every single thing. That’s our remedy for celebration and that’s our remedy for tragedy. But other people wouldn’t understand, they’d be like, “Y’all are alcoholics.” [Laughs] No, we’re not alcoholics, we’re drinkers! It’s different…In actuality it might be we’re just alcoholics. [Laughs] But the way we put it across, you can’t tell! We know how to hold our liquor, you understand! Because again, territory and cultural background shapes your perception of who you are.
Bunji: We burn it off a lot too, ‘cause the atmosphere of soca music is a very active atmosphere, it’s like a gym class, it’s constant moving, wining, gyrating, so whatever liquid you put in, you sweat it out, you know? ‘Cause nobody really goes to a soca party to stand there on one tile, you know? Really and truly, in the Caribbean aspect of things, alcohol is like rehydrating, you know?
Fay-Ann: [Laughs] Oh my gosh, that’s the Trini, you know?
Bunji: We might drink water at the end of the whole night, you know?
Fay-Ann: Which I don’t understand, cause I’ve been in this industry for the last, well, almost all my life, and I do not drink.
Fay-Ann: No, you can put whatever bottles around backstage and it will stay right there when I’m done. My rider’s probably the simplest rider. I say, “A bottle of water and two nectarines,” and I’m happy. [Laughs] For me, if I drink and go on stage I might do a handstand or literally forget my words. So for me, I do wine, I’ll take a sip of port and then go straight to sleep.
[Laughs] I hear you.
Fay-Ann: You see! [Laughs] Exactly. But the culture is [such that] if you’re an artist, in Carnival, you have to drink. Culture again. In our culture, alcohol is a part of the festivities. You will not make any money if you throw a dry party.
Right, that’s obviously a very important part of what inspires soca music. But you can hold different realities too, right? The party atmosphere, the “take a drink for everything” atmosphere, but also—like Bunji—your song, “The Message,” with Damian Marley. It goes in a very different direction, with political reggae/dancehall vibes. Can you do that same kind of political stuff with soca music?
Bunji: Yep, I’ve been doing that for many years. That’s how I was able to stand out so quickly. I would take a beat that everyone was dancing to and sing a story of what was happening down in the ghetto, or “no one can take blessings from me,” “Bless U,” all different type of stories that absolutely have nothing to do with drinking, partying, wining, dancing. But the lyrical content was so strong that when they hear it, it still connects and it makes you feel like, “Yeah, this man’s saying what we’re thinking.” The art of storytelling is one of the most important aspects of music, as far as I’m concerned. As a woman in the business, people will expect [Fay] to sing all these sexy songs, but when you check her histories, none of the songs are actually lewd, none of that. They tell the story of like what happen in Carnival on the road. Or the song she has, “Raze,” which is actually about…
Fay-Ann: The Holocaust.
What!? That’s about the Holocaust?
Fay-Ann: [Laughs] Yeah, yeah.
Bunji: She can give you the story. [Laughs]
Fay-Ann: “Raze,” R-A-Z-E, is to destroy, to demolish, right? When everybody hear “Raze,” in Trinidad, they don’t look at the spelling, they just hear the song. I watch a lot of documentaries…and historical documentaries are the ones I love the most, about countries, political takeovers, all these things. And I was watching one where…one of the armies that defeated Hitler’s army…was walking through a particular town or city and the buildings were really demolished. They were going from building to building and calling for people to come out, basically signaling that it’s O.K. to come outside. So that’s why I say, “A new day dawning,” which means, “O.K., you are free.” And “fête-ing calling,” which means celebration. “Wake up everyone who’s sleeping,” like all the people who are hiding. I was like, “[It] would be really cool if I did a song about that and have people party to it and see if anyone [picks] up the difference!” [Laughs] So I kept the actual word, R-A-Z-E. I was hoping somebody would notice that “Raze all hands in the air” doesn’t make any sense. And nobody caught on! Everybody’s like, “Wow, we love this song, how did you get inspiration?” And I’m like, “The German war.” And they’re like, “the Holocaust?” Yeah!
“All hands in the air, everybody show me something.” Everyone was coming out with their hands in the air. You couldn’t tell who was Jewish from who wasn’t, unless you saw the patch that was on their arms. So that’s why in the second verse, [I sing], “my motivation and inspiration, a culmination of one people.” And the parts where I’m saying, “I don’t want people to miss this,” [I’m telling] people, “Don’t not pay attention, we want everybody to witness this.” There was a point in time when the war was going on and they were trying to get the different countries involved and they were taking so long, and millions and millions of people were being killed. We need people to witness stuff and if you witness something, it changes your perspective on things…[if] you see what’s really happening and you see the suffering of the people, these really frail-bodied people at the side of the streets, then you understand how serious it was. I’ve read books on the Holocaust and slavery and that and it’s very cool for me to find ways to write songs that encompass history but I sit down and watch my people party and they didn’t catch on to it.
Fay-Ann: Like “Catch Me;” It’s a song about friendship. But everyone thought it was a song about being drunk on the road Monday and Tuesday. Because if you say, “Somebody just catch me if I fall, don’t let me down,” it means you’re drunk, so you’re telling your friend, “Hey, if you see me drifting…don’t let me fall.” [But] it’s not [about] that. Drifting means you have no control over your life, like a boat in the ocean without an anchor; you’re just drifting and you’re trying to get some sort of structure in your life. So if you have a friend who’s literally a drifter—and a drifter’s a term used for people that wander; who just pick up and go looking for themselves internationally…cause they don’t feel like they fit in anywhere. So that’s why “Catch Me” is for people who see somebody who’s going through stuff but [are] not recognizing the symptoms; that they’re asking for help. It meant if you see me struggling [on] Monday and you say, “Nah, she’ll be all right,” and [on] Tuesday you come back and you see me struggling, I want you to take that as an indication that something is wrong and help me out.
Brilliant! I feel like that’s so in the calypso tradition, with these singers singing things that mean something totally different than what they’re actually saying. But it’s also kind of the opposite of calypso, right?
Fay-Ann: Yes, exactly! They normally do it with the more sexually risqué songs, you know?
Right, like taking the explicit things and making them sound more genteel.
But here it has a party sound but it actually means something much deeper.
Fay-Ann: If you can do that with sexual songs, you can do that with history! If there’s something in history that you could use, you can educate people at the same time [that] they’re partying. After they’ve already loved the song, then you can explain it to them and they can be like, “O.K., I’m more in love with this song now ‘cause I realize it has a bigger purpose!”
I’ve actually had church groups in Trinidad turn “Raze” into a gospel [song]! Instead of saying, “Raze” they say “Praise!” So you’re seeing churches singing, “Praise! All hands in the air, everybody show me something.” They’re using the wording to say, “Come out and meet Jesus,” you understand? “There’s a new day dawning, come out and meet Jesus; he’s on the road. We’re on the road to go meet Jesus.” And the whole church goes, “Praise! All hands in the air!” It’s awesome! So now I have this song that’s about the Holocaust, [but is] associated with the party, and now I have churchgoers singing the song from a religious perspective!
Amazing. You’re both exploring many different ideas in very creative ways.
Bunji: Yeah, I mean, the Beatles did it…[But] because of the environment they were in, they could take a year and a half off just to indulge yourself in India somewhere and allow themselves to explore, to be immersed in the culture and come up with new songs. But in the soca arena now, we don’t have the allowance of being away for a year and a half or two years, you know? Unless you’re really a magician. Our industry is driven by presence. You always need to have something new. And the society’s trained into the format that every year you must have new music; every Carnival you must have new music. It doesn’t matter if you have a hundred years of success, of Grammys and Soul Train [Awards] or whatever else. If next year’s Carnival comes and you don’t have a hit, a hundred years doesn’t mean anything to them.
Fay-Ann: We have a saying that you’re only as good as your last hit.
Bunji: Exactly. That’s how our society is. So we always have to find the new. But it gives us an advantage. It makes our mind exercise faster—we know we don’t have the luxury of taking a year of finding something new. So we have to find something new in one month or in two days, as the case may be. We kind of get used to the pressure. In some cases, getting used to the pressure kind of just stagnates, but some cases it encourages a new form of metamorphosis.
Right, definitely. It’s clearly making a difference. All this new soca is getting a lot of love around the world these days, getting picked up by big international names like Drake, Rihanna, Major Lazer. They’re capitalizing on the soca sound, but they’re not taking the whole of it.
Bunji: Right, yeah. Like the snare [taps out the soca rhythm]. Fifteen years ago, them snares would not have been used by an r&b artist or a pop artist, you know? [It’s] the swing of the music, the island vibe. They would’ve refrained from it because they didn’t understand it. Record execs would have seen that using that type of sound doesn’t make sense because [it] doesn’t generate the kind of income they want. It’s an income game. But by us traveling so much out here, we get to understand what works, what doesn’t work. So we’re at a stage now that’s undeniable: the sounds of the islands are penetrating all music all over the world.
The biggest fuss is that, back home in Trinidad, just as in Jamaica as well, we all hope that someone will say, “I took this from the sound of soca, or I took this from the sound of Jamaica.” And that is the grievance in the islands: “O.K., we know you took the sound, you know that we know that you know you took the sound. At least say, ‘Well, I took the sound.’” They give [British pop singer] Ed Sheeran so much love and respect…because when he did [an] interview, he was saying that [Ghanian musician] Fuse ODG and them from Ghana…wrote some songs on the albums…and he was telling them that this song, “Shape of You,” was influenced by listening to the sounds of Africa, of Afrobeats. And…he was like, “Yeah, the vibe came from soca too.” We don’t see that happening with a lot of the artists. That is the problem the islands have with all these artists. They love them, they love the songs but they just want to hear, “O.K., I took this sound from this island, from that island.” But when they don’t say it, they feel like “O.K. so you don’t even…respect us enough to give us a little credit.”
Fay-Ann: It’s like you have a girlfriend but you don’t even introduce her to your friends.
Bunji: Right, exactly!
Fay Ann: When you see her in public, you’re like not going to really talk to her. But when nobody’s around, she’s your girlfriend.
Right. So I saw an interview [Bunji] did and you said that one of the problems with Trini soca is that the songs don’t always outlast the season; they don’t stick around for a long while.
Bunji: Right, because most of the songs are created for the season. That’s why I started writing different, that’s why Fay started writing different. I used the word "outlast," but it sounds harsh. It’s about playing outside the season as well as inside the season. But…the [Carnival] season goes from one place to the next and the music follows. But even if there is not a season here or anywhere, the music…should still play. So what does that mean? It means that we need to bring the music up to the caliber that the DJs feel to play it or the people who buy the music feel they should buy the music, they feel they must have the music.
Fay-Ann: We don’t want our music to be played only in Carnival that caters for West Indian people because then if West Indian people don’t put a Carnival on, that means the end of our Carnival music. We want it to be played on the radio stations like regular, we don’t want it to be played on the radio stations [only] because it’s a Carnival in that particular city or state or area. They play the soca…but it’s not mixed into another song. They give us a little segment, which we’re grateful for, but at some point in time…you have to know that your music is influencing other people’s music and other people are taking elements of your music and going mainstream with it. So you have to stand up and say, “We do have the potential, our music does have the potential to make it big.” The consideration that is being given to us [is] appreciated [but] we also want the acknowledgement that, if these people could sample stuff from our region and make it big, that we no longer should just be considered; we’re supposed to be acknowledged. We don’t want the consideration anymore; we want the acknowledgement.
Right on. So pushing these new kinds of songs is a way of survival, or making yourself known to the world.
Fay-Ann: Right, it’s strength in numbers. It’s a numbers game. If we’re doing this stuff with African artists and American artists and European artists, and everybody eventually links up and…when you connect the dots, you realize it’s a big picture. But until we start to diversify, holding on to it [won’t work]…we have a saying: Caribbean people love to say, “This is we thing.” Yes, it could be “we thing.” Diamonds is not “we thing.” We don’t mine diamonds in Trinidad, but y’all have diamonds on your neck don’t you? So we have to stop with “we thing” in terms of possessiveness and let it go! Soca is a young music, soca is a baby and it’s growing. The problem is we want it to stay a baby so then we can control it. We can no longer control soca. So before somebody comes and takes the entire thing…because nobody has the rights to it really…or [if they] even rename it something else and that takes off, we’re left in the dust. We’re saying, “diversify.” We explore, we experiment, we learn, we create, and we fight for acknowledgement and not consideration.
Definitely. So, Fay, you have this album that came out in March, and, Bunji, yours dropped two days ago.
Fay-Ann: Yes, mine is Break the World and his is called Turn Up.
So for both of you, what are you doing on these albums that might reflect everything that we’ve been talking about: new ideas, new sounds? What should we listen for?
Fay-Ann: Well, mine was released a couple months ago [and] debuted at number three on the reggae Billboard charts, which was a first for any female soca artist ever. So the album itself has 15 or 16 tracks, all written by me. And it’s as diverse an album that you can get from a female artist. ‘Cause I do traditional soca, I have a mix with the EDM-type, I have the Afrobeats sounds that I did with Stonebwoy B, I have the dancehall that I did with [soca singer] Buffy. When you listen to it, you hear multiple personalities from Fay Ann Lyons. I’m singing, I’m deejaying; there’s hardcore power soca, there’s groovy soca, there’s a bit of everything. [There’s a] versatility of soca music…It actually enhances and adds flavor to anything you put it in. So that’s why the album was done like that, so you can get a wide array of songs with the influence of soca.
What about you, Bunji?
Bunji: Well, I’ll say that, for me—as opposed to the last album, which was kinda geared towards facilitating the cross-market scenario that was happening, being signed the deal with RC and VP Records and all that—I let [Turn Up] remain or marinate in the sounds of the Caribbean itself. Because I now believe that the music of the islands is at a place where the engine can push itself from market to market, as opposed to the artists [needing] to put emphasis on changing dialect and sound…to play elsewhere. But now the music is moving on its own strength. Now we can comfortably sit back and do things in our way and in our style. Still in a modern way, still maintaining a bit of that retro way, and making it all come together. That’s what I did with this album. I only have three features on this album: Damian Marley, R. City and another artist from Trinidad… called Jungle. He hasn’t been on the scene in a while. We kind of collaborated and the producers that I worked with…were very open-minded in terms of the songs that we wrote. We wanted to break the mold of traditional soca just a bit. Just [to] top it off with a little tinge of this, a tinge of that. Because of their open-mindedness it worked perfectly.
It’s a great album!
Bunji: Thanks...I am a person who likes to imagine different ways of doing things that no one would think about. Like I would use concepts from video games and things for live appearances or performances and tie it in, and people will be like, “Wow, what?” And I’m like, “Yeah, my secret weapon.”
Fay-Ann: World of Warcraft.
[Laughs] World of Warcraft?
Fay Ann: They should give him an endorsement, seriously. I’m pitching for a World of Warcraft endorsement. He even got me on the game! The funny thing is, when we first started dating, I came to his house, he’s like, “Come to the house, meet the family and everything,” and I’m like, “O.K., cool, I’m going to meet the guy I’m dating,” and I get there and he’s on the computer and I literally sat in that house for like two hours just watching TV and he was like, “I’m almost finished with this quest, I’m coming!” I come back a second time and he did the same thing again! So I went and got my laptop and downloaded the game and created an avatar and that’s how I had to spend time. That was our dates.
[Laughs] You’d sit next to each other and play?
Fay Ann: Yes, so we’d meet and then he would have to come help me do quests and that was a date!
Fay-Ann: No it’s not! [Laughs] I think I’m probably the only chick who went on dates in World of Warcraft.
I love it. Well, on that note, we’ve got to wrap up. Thank you both so much for taking the time to speak with me and have fun this weekend!
Bunji: Of course, no problem.
Fay-Ann: Sure thing!