In a few weeks a large part of the Western hemisphere will spend several days in a fog of drinking, dancing and debauchery. However, most Americans know jack shit about Carnival. We see videos of half-nude women and drunken frat boys slinging overflowing Hurricanes and chains of plastic beads on Bourbon Street in New Orleans, and maybe if we're lucky we get to go there and find out that Mardi Gras becomes increasingly more interesting the further you get from the French Quarter. Carnival/Mardi Gras was originally celebrated in French and other European Caribbean possessions including New Orleans (remember the Louisiana Purchase?), but is now most internationally famous for its Brazilian incarnation where samba troupes in towns and cities from Sao Salvador to Rio de Janeiro spend months rehearsing their choreographed routines, rhythms and song lyrics.
In the Caribbean, the most famous Carnival celebrations by far take place in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, home to steel drums and calypso. When in Trinidad last year a few weeks after Carnival, I saw calypso legend Mighty Sparrow play in a dimly-lit club on the capital's Ariapita Avenue, but many popular artists were still recovering from Carnival and there wasn't that much other live music to be found. Port-of-Spain”s clubs were thumping away with the beats of Soca (Soul-Calypso), which sounds something like dancehall: readers may already be familiar with Soca from its only real international hit, the Baha Men's “Who Let the Dogs Out?” Soca is frequently fused with another Caribbean style popular among the region's East Indian-descended population (half of Trinidad's citizens) called Chutney, that's rhythms rarely slip below 154 beats per minute. This is obviously the perfect music to dance to when riding around in 90-degree weather on the top of a Carnival float.
[Above: Shurwayne Winchester]
In 2006 the Soca superstar Shurwayne Winchester released the Chutney-Soca song, “Don't Stop”, for which he was awarded the Groovy Soca Monarch title of that year”s Carnival parade. “Don't Stop” is a surprisingly well-produced Soca piece that pays homage to Trinidad”s large East Indian community through a bhangra-style rhythmic accompaniment, melodic gestures and Bollywood-esque chord change sequence towards the end of the song. It is impossible to completely appreciate what Winchester does with the Chutney-Soca genre without seeing the song's music video:
At the 2006 Soca Awards, "Don't Stop" won for Best Soca-Chutney Song of the Year, and Winchester received a separate prize for Best Male Soca Artist.
Since you're reading this magazine for free and the lowest price for round-trip Trinidad Carnival tickets hovers above $500, it's safe to say this song is the closest many readers will be getting to Carnival 2008.
Shurwayne Winchester, "Don't Stop":
But good news for some of you: New York's sizeable Caribbean population prefers not to dance around half-naked in the freezing cold and so celebrates Carnival every year on Labor Day on Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn (this past year's event attracted up to three million spectators). Shops located around the intersection of Eastern Parkway and Utica Avenue also have a good, inexpensive selection of Soca, Chutney and dancehall mixes available year-round. Pick up a chicken roti (an Indo-Caribbean “wrap”) around there if you go.
This is the first edition of a biweekly column on "world music" that you might not otherwise know about. Comments may be addressed to "pcartelli" at "gmail.com"