“I am Soca!” Q&A with Soca Superstar Kerwin Du Bois From a Utilities Closet in Boston

Soca is the ultimate party music. All of the songs are about partying. Even when soca songs are about God, or zombies, they are still mostly about partying. With its past, present, and future grounded in the islands of Trinidad and Tobago, soca songs are composed for the countries’ rendition of Carnival, the days-long party celebrated yearly in countries across the Caribbean and Latin America.

Soca is quickly gaining popularity outside of the Carnival too. There are more and more crossovers into dancehall and mainstream radio-friendly pop, and soca is more frequently reaching towards European electronic rhythms with style and grace.

The sound has changed drastically since early innovators like Ras Shorty I began to experiment with the boundaries of calypso in the 1970s, incorporating South Asian rhythms and instrumentation from Trinidad and Tobago’s large Indian diaspora. After over three decades of circulating mostly in West Indian communities, European and American producers and djs like Ghislain Poirier, Rizzla, and Murlo, have been finding inspiration in today’s soca riddims and vocals.

Last May, Kerwin Du Bois’s “This is Soca” show at the Unity Sports and Cultural Club in Boston sold out at a 490-person capacity at $30 a head. Djs from the promotions and entertainment group, Sound International, accompanied by a seemingly impromptu group of gentlemen on the drums, had the gymnasium thick with sweat before Du Bois hit the stage.

His performance was fairly standard for a soca show: he called out various countries and cities to ask where the crowd was from, he asked us to wave, and he asked us to wind, he introduced a few ladies wearing the feathered bikinis and head dress typical of Carnival on to stage to dance, he called the largest lady in the audience to dance with. His songs, in true form, are about partying, but his are especially delicate and melodic. What made the show special was that the crowd knew every one of his lyrics, sang along loudly the entire time and danced long after the lights went on and the sound system was turned off.

Despite this show’s success, and the frequent success of soca shows in Boston, (I’m told by dj and promoter Legend that the venue has been dubbed New England’s Soca headquarters)—and even in light of the genre’s rising prominence—few of my friends know what soca is.

So, I caught up with Kerwin for a brief interview after his set. We talked in a utilities closet. It was the only quiet place. He has a shy nature for an international superstar touring multiple continents, and while he has written and produced some of the top soca hits performed by some of the top soca artists for the last decade, he has only just stepped into the spotlight as a performer. Luckily, it’s a role he is becoming increasingly comfortable with. We also discussed his two most recent hits, “Wotless,” performed by Trini outfit Kes the Band (it was included in every soca playlist last year) and “Bacchanalist” which he also sings. Judging by the latter’s constant rotation on NYC’s Caribbean radio stations, the tune is set to become one of the city’s 2012 anthems.

—Zipper Z.


Zipper Z.: What first drew you to soca music?

Kerwin Dubois: Well I’ve been singing calypso, which is actually like the foundation type of music to soca. Calypso really deals with the real issues—like you know poverty or any type of issues they have with the government or what we call peekong, which means humor, where it makes fun of certain things…it could be worldwide and it could be local, and I decided after many years that I needed to make a step up to something more challenging because I didn’t grow up on soca. I grew up on calypso. I started messing around with making soca beats and from there I started a little bit of writing and stuff. And I’m here today. It was really a combination of curiosity and love for the art form that drew me to it.

ZZ: And what year was that that you made the switch over?

KD: Whoo [laughs] that was… I can’t remember the exact year, but I could tell you it was like 17 years ago. I remember getting a drum machine from my dad for my birthday.  That was when I first started experimenting with the beat and the vibe of soca.

ZZ: Where did you first hear soca music?

KD: Ah well, in Trinidad.

ZZ: Were you surrounded by it when you grew up?

KD: Yep. I used to live in soca, calypso, soca. I used to live amongst culture, amongst rhythm, amongst vibe.

ZZ: Can you elaborate a little bit more on that?

KD: Well what we do in Trinidad is we have things called rhythm sections, which is like people beating hand drums sort of similar to the djembe…the African djembe drum. We have oil drums that we tune to certain notes and we create sound and rhythm off of these. We even take the rims, well, the wheels of tires and tune it to what we call iron, which makes a melodic sound when you beat on it. So every night, or everyday I should say, we would get together and create rhythms and always sing and stuff any which way we could in—I don’t want to call it villages—but in our little communities, always used to do that. Always used to be around, the elders used to do it, there always used to be singing and chanting and all that stuff and I was always exposed to that everyday.

ZZ: So you have a great track out right now called “I am Soca” and when I first saw you, you were on the “I am Soca” tour, so for those who don’t know could you give them a quick answer to the question, “what is soca?”

KD: Whooph! Soca, hm… How can I define soca? Soca in my terms is the soul and heartbeat of Caribbean music. That is my terminology of soca,  that is how I define it—the soul and heartbeat of true Caribbean music.

ZZ: So you had two summer hits that a lot of people are talking about. Last summer you wrote “Wotless” and this year it’s “Bacchanalist.” What is “Wotless,” what is it to be wotless?

KD: Well, wotless in our lingo is really just branding somebody who is…what we call wayward, as in they do whatever they feel like doing whenever they feel like they do. You know rules, they don’t follow no rules. They have their own agendas. I wanted to take that word that people used to highlight in a negative way and transform it into a positive thing. So my version of being wotless is still doing whatever you feel like, but it’s also a freedom. It’s a free spirit thing you know—being you—going out there and enjoying life to the fullest, no matter if times are hard and things getting you down, that don’t mean that you can’t be out there getting on wotless, loving you, loving living in thy own skin, enjoying life as it is. That’s what being wotless is about.

ZZ: What’s a bacchanalist?

KD: Oh Lord! [laughs]. Bacchanalist again, another negative word we use in Trinidad to describe people who like to cause controversy, always causing some sort of animosity or beef or fight or anything like that. I wanted to change it to—a bacchanalist is somebody who goes out there to fêtes, parties, or whatever you want to call it and go there and get their money’s worth now.  If they have to wind they wind the whole night, they wind their money’s worth, they wave their money’s worth, they jump their money’s worth, but it’s just about going out there and having a good time and not stopping. If they have work in the morning they can party from nine to four in the morning. They have to do their work and then its fête again. That is a real bacchanalist. Somebody who always want to be in the heart of the bacchanal.

ZZ: In that song you say, “And this foot is mine,” what do you mean?

KD: Your actual foot. Your actual two p-twos as we call it. Your private twos that takes you away wherever you want to go and make you do whatever you feel like doing.

ZZ: What do you mean your private twos?

KD: That’s what we say in Trinidad [laughs]. Sorry it’s a Caribbean thing though. Like some people they will say like, “how you getting to this party later on?” And we would respond, “on our p-twos.” Private, on our private legs. P is the letter they use in Trinidad for the registration on cars. P meaning “private,” H meaning “hire,” T meaning “truck,” etc. So it’s just your foot taking you where you want to be doing whatever you want to do whenever you want to do it in whichever way you choose to.

ZZ: So talk to me about the importance of jumping up and down and waving flags and winding in soca music.

KD: Well I could talk from what I see with people. People tend to show, number one, appreciation for certain songs that artists are singing by giving them that acknowledgement, that wave to say yeah, you have me enjoying myself right now. That’s one aspect of the wave. Some people like to wave their sorrows away, wave the miseries, wave at their problems away.

KD: The winding is just the seductive feel good side to it. You know, you feel good. Men and women were made to be. You might see somebody that catches your eye, and you want to close your eyes and live in the moment even if it’s a cheap thrill, you take a wind. People always go out with the intention to take a wind on somebody, even take a wind by themselves. Even take a wind by themselves, you know just loose the waste a little bit. It’s a formula to stay young, too. To make sure that the joints don’t lock and the bones don’t get too tight on you.

ZZ: So what’s the “big truck” that they talk about a lot in soca music and why should people get on it?

KD:  Oh the big truck is really the provider of the music the sound system for the road carnival, Monday and Tuesday. And you find a lot of people, either, when they want to take a little rest, if you are allowed to, you go up on the truck, take a little wind on the truck. But the truck was really designed for music and to carry foodstuff and drinks, toilet, porter toilet and all that stuff. On the road, a lot of masqueraders especially the women, hold on the back of the truck, and wind. So they always say hold on to the truck so while the truck moving, they moving and holding on to it and winding with somebody or by them self or whatever the case is. The truck is just really the provider of the music and that energy.

ZZ: So for someone who has never been to a soca party and is just stepping into a soca party, what should they know?

KD: They should know two things. When you go to a soca party there will be no standing still because it is not a movie. You are not going to the movies. There will be no standing still. Always walk with a rag because you will sweat whether or not you are moving because the heat and intensity in that building will generate perspiration on your body. And when you go to a soca fête your whole aim is to enjoy the moment. Live the moment, enjoy the vibe, even if you’ve never heard the music before, at some point in time you will find yourself dancing, like if you do this on a regular. So always expect to go there and have a great time.

ZZ: Where do you think soca music stands in the world right now?

KD: Right now we are at a pretty OK point but we could be much more further because we generate a lot of monies into countries worldwide by they creating their carnivals and all that. But for some reason the artist and the music don’t seem to peak.  Which I think our problem with that is marketing. Our marketing strategies for soca are really not powerful enough to get out there and to be placed amongst the other genres of music.

ZZ: What did you think about Snoop Dogg getting on a soca track, the 4D riddim with Kes the Band?

KD: Yeah it was a good move, but then again what does that do for our culture? You get a voice of somebody who doesn’t really…who doesn’t really appreciate our music to push it out there for us. It is really a good look for Kes getting a world-renowned artist place his voice on his shot. But does it do anything for our culture? Mmm, not really.

ZZ: What do you think about soca merging with European electronic riddims?

KD: I’m all in for that. I always believe in the transition of music and going where the real vibe and that sound are. You know that new age sound. But one thing that I don’t respect about it sometimes…and we do it in soca is that, we always tend to lose our identity and try to sound European or American when we should try to maintain our identity and always stay Caribbean. As far as the vocal is concerned a lot of time you’ll find people try and sing R&B and try and sound popish when they should just try to be themselves. You know, have the music giving you that vibe in the background but try to maintain what you are which is a seed of the Caribbean.

ZZ: Where do you think soca music is headed?

KD: Wooph! That’s a tricky question. Where do I think soca music is headed? I believe that pretty soon we will break international and we will amongst the top respected music genres that are out there because of the vibe and the energy of the music and what we sing about and stuff. And maybe one day we will be on all of these popular radio stations getting A-list plays and concerts might grow into bigger things than just in little community centers and little night clubs, and we might branch off into the bigger arenas, stadiums. Machel Montano already did that by hitting Madison Square Garden, but he can’t be the only one, it’s a whole joint effort and I believe that one day we will get to that level.

ZZ: Where is your music heading?

KD: My music? I am trying my utmost best to make my music appealing to all masses be it white, Chinese, Indian, hispanic, black, you name it. I am aiming for the international sound with a Caribbean feel. That is my main goal right now…to keep the sound international but to keep the feel Caribbean to have the best of both worlds.

ZZ: Do you think you’ve achieved that in “Bacchanalist” and “Wotless?”

KD: No, not yet. That was just the start we opened up doors to a lot of curiosity though. Kes was on—what’s that station called?…in New York—Big American Morning, or something like that on ABC or NBC—one of the two—which opened up doors to people asking,What is really going on with this soca music? What is it about this soca music that is so infectious?”

KD: “Bacchanalist” has captured a market, but not the market that I would like or would have liked to capture. As I say that we are working on remixes to try and filter [“Bacchanalist”] into house, and dance scenes, and also the Latin scene with the reggaeton, and other Latin music.

ZZ: Where are you headed next?

This week I’m in Orlando then Tampa, following that, I’m in Washington D.C., following that the Caribbean, then back to Six Flags in New Jersey, following that is Jones Beach New York, London, Germany, Sweden, St. Lucia, and the list goes on…Miami.

Zipper Z likes dancehall, writing, reporting, and producing.