Pirates of the Caribbean

Record execs hoist soca as the island flavor of the season

A recent National Geographic Society survey found that 87 percent of young Americans could not locate Iraq on a map, and 29 percent couldn't find the Pacific Ocean. Should you think that has nothing to do with the music industry, listen to the story of Kevin Lyttle.

Not long ago, on the Caribbean island of St. Vincent, he was a customs officer and a struggling singer of soca, an up-tempo Caribbean music that sounds like calypso on cocaine. Visit clubs like Elite Ark in Brooklyn or Rumjungle in Queens in the coming weeks, and you'll hear it: Soca is music for Caribbean carnivals, and since February launches the most prominent one—in Trinidad and Tobago—carnival revelry will start reverberating in our urban diaspora: at the "Soca Explosion 2K5" concert at Tropical Reflections February 25, or the Elite Ark club's "Trini Toc Fete" show February 26.

These clubs will feature Lyttle's breakthrough product, the pleasingly cheesy party ditty "Turn Me On." He recorded it in 2001 with Vincentian producer Adrian Bailey, and it slowly evolved from Caribbean hit to European smash. In 2003, after touring Canada and Europe—"thousands of people coming out to hear me sing one song," Lyttle recalls—he knew he had music industry manna: a hit single.

Rupee is being hailed as the Sean Paul of soca.
photo: TLA
Rupee is being hailed as the Sean Paul of soca.

The major labels came knocking. Among them was Atlantic Records, fresh off a Caribbean high induced by Jamaican dancehall sensation Sean Paul. Paul's album Dutty Rock was nearing double platinum; it had sparked a joint-distribution deal between Atlantic and Queens-based reggae label VP Records, which also landed Elephant Man on pop charts. "Via the VP deal, we gained experience working Caribbean artists into the mainstream," explains Craig Kallman, co-chairman of Atlantic. "So it made sense to extend ourselves into other islands."

Atlantic signed Lyttle, but there was one snag: geography. Notoriously oblivious to that which lies beyond our backyard—see above survey—Americans and world music don't always mesh. We know Jamaica. We know reggae, and maybe even dancehall. But St. Vincent? And soca? "I tell people I'm from St. Vincent," says Lyttle, "and they say, 'Where? Is that part of Jamaica?' " Breaking a Caribbean singer who's not Jamaican and not a reggae act is like promoting a hot, caffeinated breakfast beverage that isn't coffee and isn't from Starbucks.

Why should this be? Trinidadian music, after all, was Jamaican music before Jamaican music was. Literally: Jamaican mento, which eventually birthed reggae, evolved partly from Trinidadian calypso. And figuratively: Before reggae became the brand name music of the Caribbean, calypso was crossover king. When Harry Belafonte's 1956 Calypso became the first album to sell over a million copies, record labels were modern-day colonialists, scurrying to import cheap raw goods from Trinidadian studios. "A lot of us got ripped off," shrugs calypso legend Mighty Sparrow, whose classic "Jean and Dinah" was covered by Belafonte (and, like some 1950s songs by African Americans that were covered by white singers, has yet to earn him a penny of royalties).

But Jamaica soon usurped Trinidad as home base for the Caribbean's commercial soundtrack. Reggae reigned, thanks to several factors: carnival music's seasonal nature, which stunted its growth; the Jamaican government's active promotion of its music industry; and reggae's embrace of Rastafarianism, which created not just a music but a uniquely, authentically Jamaican culture.

To push Kevin Lyttle, then, Atlantic had to launch a brand. "Have you heard?" a publicist asked me, as "Turn Me On" found U.S. radio rotation. "Soca is the next dancehall." Media outlets printed summertime "Soca Is Hot!" stories. Lyttle visited Live With Regis and Kelly to explain that "soca," short for "soul of calypso," was born in Trinidad, and that it was bacchanalian carnival music. Atlantic shored up the soca saturation by releasing a soca-filled soundtrack to the New Line film After the Sunset. It worked: Lyttle's surprisingly addictive self-titled album debuted at number eight in Billboard, while "Turn Me On," a ubiquitous summer smash, earned the dubious distinction of a slot on VH1's 20 Most Awesomely Bad Songs of 2004 countdown.

"Deluged" (as Kallman put it) with sub-missions from the Caribbean, Atlantic signed another soca act: a fresh-faced singer from Barbados named Rupee, whose single "Tempted to Touch," boldly reminiscent of "Turn Me On," has lately triumphed in Billboard. And according to rumors, last month Atlantic signed Trinidadian soca group H2O Phlo, who rival Jamaican quartet T.O.K. for the "coolest Caribbean boyband" title.

"For this era, I humbly follow the blue-print that Island Records and Chris Blackwell laid out back in the day," says Kallman, referencing Bob Marley's major-label signing and citing Atlantic's mission: to "share a wealth of talent from a region of the world that's incredibly fertile."

To fans of Caribbean music, this narrative has the ring of familiarity. Remember Shabba Ranks, walking with Nelson Mandela and entertaining Arsenio Hall? Or Super Cat, collaborating with Notorious B.I.G? Both dancehall dons are M.I.A. now, but in the early '90s, they—like Sean Paul—were bigger than artists; they were ambassadors for a culture whose colors you now see everywhere on Puma's Jamaica-themed clothing line, on trendy red, gold, and green armbands. From Bob Marley to Sean Paul, Jamaican music has, via select poster children, endured boom-and-bust cycles: One minute it's America's jerk-tinged flavor of the month; the next, it's Chinese leftovers.

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