Carnival in Trinidad, a Brooklyn Parade, and the Birth of Soca Music
By BETH HARPAZ
Brooklyn’s exuberant West Indian Day parade, held every Labor Day, is a cross-cultural celebration like none other. It’s New York’s version of Trinidad’s Carnival (the Mardi Gras of Trinidad), and it’s famous for revelers in feathered costumes and the joyful cacophony of steel drum bands in a massive procession along Eastern Parkway. The parade has helped forge a pan-Caribbean identity among Brooklyn’s diverse community of immigrants from the islands. And as a new book shows, the celebration has also helped pollinate and energize Caribbean music in the diaspora, giving rise to a unique transnational genre called soca.
The book, Jump Up!: Caribbean Carnival Music in New York, by Professor Ray Allen (Brooklyn College and The Graduate Center), offers what the author describes as “the first comprehensive history of Trinidadian calypso/soca and steelband music in the diaspora.”
Trinidad calypsonians and dance orchestras first made records in New York in the late 1920s for “Harlem’s expanding Caribbean community and for export back home,” Allen writes. Those same performers then began staging Carnival dances and masquerades in New York for homesick Trinidadians. Eventually the music became the soundtrack for Harlem’s Labor Day Carnival, where “steelband men, beating single pans suspended around their necks” vied for attention with calypso performers on floats singing the latest hits from Trinidad.
The permit for Harlem’s Labor Day parade was revoked amid racial unrest in the early 1960s, but the event resurfaced in the late 1960s in Brooklyn, where Caribbean immigrants were settling. “Labor Day in Brooklyn,” sang calypso superstar Mighty Sparrow. “Every West Indian jumpin’ up like mad, just like on Carnival day in Trinidad.”
Soon Brooklyn was “the primary center of production and distribution of modern calypso and soca music,” Allen writes. The genre’s biggest record companies, Straker’s and Charlie’s, were based in Brooklyn. Both were founded by immigrants who worked as auto mechanics and car service owners before opening record stores and later, recording studios. Changes in the music industry eventually led to their decline, but Charlie’s Calypso City still sells vinyl today from a Fulton Street storefront.
Drawing on archival research, ethnography, and scores of interviews, Allen shows how calypso evolved under the influence of American popular music. At first it absorbed sounds from ragtime and Tin Pan Alley, then later from soul, funk, and disco. The term soca combines the words soul and calypso.
Music “can no longer be studied in isolation from its immediate neighbors or its international place of origin,” Allen writes. Soca music reflects this “reciprocal flow of musicians, arrangers, producers, cultural entrepreneurs, and audiences across the political and cultural borders separating the Caribbean and New York City.”