Bunji Garlin: 'Here To Stand My Ground' For Soca Music

Dec 23, 2013
Originally published on December 23, 2013 4:58 pm

If you're a fan of the NBA, Grey's Anatomy or Major Lazer, you're probably familiar with Bunji Garlin, the man behind this year's international soca anthem, "Differentology." While the Caribbean tune has been acknowledged via popular TV shows and electronic dancehall DJs alike, Garlin's hit resides within a genre that struggles to churn out chart-topping tracks.

"This is a music that is almost over a century in existence, but yet still you can almost count all our international hits on two hands," Garlin says.

The Trinidadian musician says he's undaunted by the task of becoming the next crossover soca sensation.

"I'm here to stand my ground, and you're going to take note of what I am here to do musically," Garlin says.

Tell Me More guest host Celeste Headlee recently spoke with Garlin about the roots of soca and his reaction to winning a 2013 Soul Train Award for Best International Performance. Hear more of their conversation at the audio link.

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Now as winter is setting in, you may be dreaming of, say, a sunny beach in the Caribbean, some relief from the cold. Imagine you're relaxing on a lounge chair somewhere in the sand and somewhere nearby there's soca music.


HEADLEE: So if you like soca, then you know that voice. That's star Bunji Garlin and that's this year's anthem, "Differentology." Bunji Garlin is no stranger to the soca scene of course, but this year he's broadened his appeal by winning a Soul Train Award this month for best international performance. And he joins me now to talk more about his music. Welcome.


HEADLEE: First of all, I'm sure that there's many people who've never heard of soca music, and it's decades-old. Can you help us understand exactly what it is. Is it as simple as combining calypso with East Indian instruments and African rhythms?

GARLIN: That is the technical explanation, which is combined in the derived African rhythms and the East Indian rhythms of Trinidad and Tobago to form a new merged sound. Both of them actually represent or are derivatives of the original music of Trinidad and Tobago, which is Calypso.

HEADLEE: So let's take a listen to another one of your songs. This is "Soca Bhangra," which was a crossover hit among Trinidad's Indian community when it came out 10 years now. Let's take a listen.


HEADLEE: Is that an accordion?

GARLIN: Yes, I think so. I think so.

HEADLEE: So you have a soca song...


HEADLEE: ...Using calypso, talking about Pakistan and its Bhangra...


HEADLEE: With an accordion.


HEADLEE: That is totally fabulous. What made that one such a hit do you think?

GARLIN: Well, the East India community in Trinidad and Tobago - they support their own - so when they release a song, it becomes one of the biggest songs, if not in the country, amongst their community. And I think what made that song work was the fact that it was the first time I myself was doing a collaboration and integrating with the East Indian society with the music called chutney music. And, of course, I was young because at that time it was considered that the older artists would be the people to do that type of music. Here, you have two young people - one on the East Indian side, one on the African side - we decided to merge worlds. It made the whole young generation know, like a Wi-Fi - everybody wanted to be a part of it. And, of course, the song was a playful song as well. The atmosphere of the song was very playful, it was very happy, it was very colorful, and that took it a very long way as well.


HEADLEE: So you know you haven't made a successful soca song if no one's moving.

GARLIN: Exactly.

HEADLEE: So you were actually born Ian Alvarez, right?

GARLIN: Yes, ma'am.

HEADLEE: And how did you choose the name Bunji Garlin, and why?

GARLIN: Well, I chose the name Bunji from looking at the bungee rope, the bungee jumping. And what I did notice - the more you pull downwards on the rope, the higher it goes when it release. So what I did is I applied that terminology to my life and my experiences. The more you try to pull me down or hold me down, is the higher I go up on release. Garlin is the Caribbean definition of what the military weapon Galil is, a semiautomatic firearm.

HEADLEE: It's a gun.

GARLIN: Yes, right because of its size and the damage it does, I applied that to myself. I'm not big in size - I'm 5'6'' - but when I'm on stage, I'm a very dangerous human being. I approach the stage very aggressive because it is not a game, and I make sure my package is delivered.

HEADLEE: Do you feel like you're at war? I mean, you're talking about a warlike weapon.

GARLIN: No, it's not the fact that I'm at war, but I put my mind in a battle-type atmosphere because you're this lone single artist about to go on stage to face 20,000 people. If they sense any fear in you that can be the end of your career immediately. So I approach the stage very aggressive. Like, I'm here to stand my ground and you are going to take note of what I am here to do musically.

HEADLEE: And you're married to a socha star, Fay-Ann Lyons - daughter of one of the most famous soca singers, Superblue. So this is - I have to imagine that in your family soca becomes kind of a way of life.

GARLIN: Yes, it is actually. The amazing thing about it, though, is that the way we were grown, musically, in Trinidad and Tobago, in our homes - soca wasn't the dominant force of music in the household. It would've been other music from around the world. And more so because in my family - my mom is actually Pentecostal - so I grew up in a Christian home and there was the notion of when carnival time comes around in Trinidad and Tobago, we would leave our homes and go to the church camp. And we moved the whole communities away from the carnival atmosphere because our parents didn't want us kids to be a part of the carnival arena or the soca arena.

So we grew up listening to music from all around the world. But what it did do is that it forced us to start to emulate music from around the world rather than home. And that, too, kind of damaged the industry back home because, like, three - four generations was held back from things that they should of known and could have known. And that probably could've had our music at a different level on the world scale right now.

HEADLEE: I wonder what you think about why soca hasn't gotten a huge foothold in the United States on a par with, say, reggae music. They were kind of coming up at the same time, you know. Soca was developing also in the late '60s and early '70s.


HEADLEE: Why the difference?

GARLIN: Well, if you look at the songs way back when, again, soca wasn't the existing music at the time when reggae music came on to play - it was reggae and calypso. But what made both of them work internationally at that time - they had a wide range of topics. People from any part of the globe could relate to the music. What started happening was when calypso music started to become territorial, political arena-type songs. So a calypsonian in Trinidad basically started singing songs that was geared towards the Trinidad and Tobago market only, and about the politicians and governments and stuff like that. And if you're selling music to the wide world, they may not necessarily want to hear that.

They want to hear something that they can connect with. Reggae music had crossed that bond and was continuously catering for audiences around the world in terms of content. And that is why I always say there was so few international releases from the calypso and soca world - "Rum and Coca-Cola," "Day-O," "Hot-Hot-Hot," "Who Let The Dogs Out," and then way down, afterwards you had Rupee and Kevin Lyttle. I mean, this is a music that is almost over a century in existence, but yet still you can almost count all our international hits on two hands.

HEADLEE: And yet, you're starting to change that. You just got the Soul Train Award I mentioned. I understand the song, "Differentology" was featured on "Grey's Anatomy," the show on ABC.

GARLIN: Yes, yes it was.


HEADLEE: Is there something consciously you're doing as a songwriter to make it have more universal appeal?

GARLIN: Well, yes and no. When we did this song, the goal wasn't really for international appeal, but was more so to do something to stand out from what we already know - a fresh sound. Soca music usually has anyway from 10 instruments to almost a hundred instruments playing in one song. We decided to simplify it and go back to the original way, which is, like, five basic instruments - drums, keyboards, bass, guitar and your voice.

When we did that, we realized that the song was easier for anyone to sing. It could go absolutely anywhere in the world and stand. So I think now it was a lesson learned in this situation, that there's a new formula or a new recipe or new format that we could try with our music to reach international audiences.

HEADLEE: Well, let's hear some more music. This is "Carnival Tabanca," something you might hear at carnival.


HEADLEE: That's about - you know, to a certain extent, that's about as sort of smooth and slow as a soca song gets. Don't you think?

GARLIN: Yes, ma'am.

HEADLEE: There's no such thing as a slow groove in soca.


HEADLEE: Do you ever feel like there is a slow song outside of soca that you want to write?

GARLIN: I've never - I don't think I've gotten to that point yet in my mind. I guess it's somewhere there waiting to be discovered. And I may not be the person to do it, it may be someone else. And if it does, I guess it will be a good thing as well.

HEADLEE: Trinidadian soca star Bunji Garlin was kind enough to join me from our bureau in New York. His single "Differentology" is remixed by the DJ group Major Lazer - is out now. And his album comes out - his new album comes out in the spring. Thanks so much.

GARLIN: Thank you very much for having me.


HEADLEE: And that's our program for today. I'm Celeste Headlee. And this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We'll talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.