Some months back, a friend of mine wrote a concerned note about this year’s soca hit ‘Palance’ which stormed Trinidad Carnival 2010. The tune ended up with the coveted Road March title. Written and performed by two local radio DJs JW & Blaze, ‘Palance’ sparked an up-in-arms reaction by some hardcore Trinidadian soca lovers.
How could two radio DJs who aren’t even soca musicians set the musical tone of the Carnival season? The song was a warning sign of a new (and perhaps unwelcome) guard emerging in contemporary soca style and production. This mediated influence of the people’s festival might be placing the future of Carnival music dangerously under the power of radio (in US terms, we might think the case of Clear Channel’s domination of our popular play lists feeding the music to the people rather than the people letting radio know what they want to hear…but then, this has been the case in the US for quite some time and why so many choose alternative stations to get independent radio). For many of Trinidad’s concerned cultural citizens ‘Palance’ made one pause to consider soca music’s next evolution. Could this be the coming of a less democratic Carnival?
But some might counter that these two DJs bold seizure of the Road March title is the highest indication of cultural democracy’s preservation. Speaking on behalf of the duo, JW’s reaction to their musical coup sounds like a grassroots – up from the people – one: “We have won the hearts of the people and I am very grateful. I think the people took ‘Palance’ to the next level. It was a fantastic victory and what made it even more fantastic was that it was a victory for the people because when the results were announced, there was not a sad face in the whole venue, everybody was happy, it was pure celebration” (See Newsday). The bacchanal JW & Blaze caused with the song and in fete circles lay at the heart of Carnival consciousness where everyman/woman has a voice and a chance to compete, to prove his/her mettle before the people. If this ent Carnival freedom what is?
But this debate is also not new. During my first Trinidad Carnival experience in 1996 there was an outcry about the death of soca as people then knew it. ‘Move it to the Left’ was cast as a puppeteering of the masses through mindless directed movement. ‘Lotayla’ and ‘Chutney Bacchanal’ heralded the rise of chutney soca, a new musical hybrid on the Carnival music market. And Krosfyah’s string of hot tunes, leading what was to be termed the Bajan Invasion, were a dominant part of the soundtrack to my first season of wining, fete and madness. All of these minor evolutions in Carnival music upset its established narrative as an Afro-Creole local-national party music.
I am fascinated with this dilemma because I see how this most recent musical cultural incident is both freeing and un-freeing, how it signals battle lines drawn between an old guard and a new one, and how it brings to bear the persistent question of tradition v. change – a debate that rears its head in the changing tides of any cultural performance history. The manifestation of the cultural battle is an indication that a form is deeply foundational to the experience of a community. The fierceness to claim a certain kind of soca and the loyalty to protect the genre by old-school soca devotees is a display of love. But it is also a display of gatekeeping.
As I read local Trini news articles on this musical/cultural controversy, the debate felt familiar. I could link it to an ongoing issue I’ve been trying to work through as I analyze my own Chicago cultural roots. I am a child of disco & house. It is the music that most colors my sense of myself from my adolescent years to the present. It is the music my sister introduced me to that also brought in my introductions to sex & sensuality, to liquor, desire and other big kid games. It was my point of entry to a certain kind of blackness that I didn’t have access to growing up on the Northside, but also of an openness (at least in musical aesthetic and rhetoric) that made my bi-racial identity much easier to manage at that age. So for me it is more than just music, it is an exquisite expression of who I am as a Chicago-born citizen and everything that I love and hate about this city. It is in this music and dance culture that, as Trinis would say, I bury my navel string.
I know there are many like me, house lovers known by their ability to identify anthems, places, DJs and who can tell some part of the historical narrative of house as an organizing social force in the urban space of Chicago. Within this fold, there is a sense of secrecy and exclusivity in order to make sure the folks who truly “love” house are present. This brand of Chicago house is for those who want a club experience that is about music, about dancing and about spirit not what you’re wearing or who you are with. This is love. For those who know the rites of jackin and wailing and hands in the air and …is it all over my face…
House has come to be more than music, but the representation of a way to think and be. It is a humanistic philosophy about living openly, flexibly, honestly and lovingly in the world. And it does all this through music, movement and the embodied fellowship of like-minded folk on dance floors, around bangin’ mixes and through life-affirming memories of sweat, bass, percussion and funk/blues drenched vocals. Because I love Chicago house, I want to see it comprehensively researched and disseminated as the urban folk cultural phenomenon that it is. This is the only way I think we can protect its complex history. This is also the only way we can responsibly let it go.
More and more I see a dividing line between older generations of house lovers and newer ones that looks a lot like the dividing line between generations of soca lovers. A recent thread discussion on Facebook by a Chicago house DJ erupted in a scroll of posts debating whether what younger DJs and club kids were listening to could be termed authentic Chicago house. Here was love & gatekeeping making a strong territorial mark.
I understand that newbies to house & disco might not know its history as a resistant cultural politic for marginalized folks of color, class and alternative sexualities. I understand that while they may get house’s sensibility of sensual and spiritual freedom, they may not understand where that sensibility comes from. Truly, if house wants to live in the 21st century it will have to adapt to and incorporate the interests of our rising generations. But, while I firmly believe that every cultural form shifts to meet the conditions of its current time, I also believe that foundations and roots matter too. The kids need to be schooled to know that Chicago house derives from a legacy of African American cultural politics. Chicago house is chain gang, blues, gospel, jazz, funk, bop, disco at its root. It continues the tradition of speaking pain, speaking resistance and catalyzing healing through music and dance.
And yet…and yet when I think about house music in the city of Chicago and the keepers of the guard, the civic pride of genuine househeads, I have to consider more closely the contours of this cultural love. Is love selfish? Is love selfless? Is love about opening up or is love about setting limits? Depending on where you stand, what you’re talking about and to whom, love like culture has a changing face. And like culture too, love is definitely a battlefield.
The danger of democracy is that it can breed shitty or dumbed down art & culture, but the alterative scenario of an elitist gate keeping guard deciding what “is” art & culture and what is not, what “is” tradition, national, us, them, etc. is far more painful (and diabolical) to bear. So I guess us house lovers will have to contend with the new kids claiming the music but not necessarily knowing the roots. We will just have to work harder to document and educate to make sure our narrative is still on the table. And I guess old school soca lovers will have to contend with new variations in Carnival music. The older heads will just have to remain watchful helping Carnival’s aesthetics of spirit, freedom and bacchanal stay as unruly as ever.