Post 272.

Typical of Carnival for every one of her seven years, Ziya has been falling asleep hearing soca on loop through day and night, as loud as the chorus of crickets, frogs and barking dogs outside, but drifting through and from under the studio door across the hall.

Before roadmixes hit airwaves and all-inclusives, she’s heard them produced from beginning to end; the experiments with hooks, cowbells and synths, and their ability to add dramatic crescendo, breaks and pace. For weeks, she’d been going to sleep with ‘hello’, ‘hello’, ‘hello’ on repeat. This past week, it was ‘start’, ‘start’, ‘start’, rolling over added drums and vocals.

I’m thinking of the soundtracks to her childhood memories and how she’s inherited an experience I’ve had for almost half my life. Stone began to invent Carnival roadmixes twenty years ago, before producers started regularly sending a tune for something extra and more extended than needed for fetes and radio.

I’d go to sleep while he moved coloured lines and bars around on a computer screen, fixing vocals, pulling out buried horns, sweeps and strums, and re-arranging pan notes. Turning over in the night, I’d hear a section of sound being moved back and forth, back and forth, as he edited songs the way a DJ would, with breathing space for smooth openings and endings that could cut and mix.

Meeting other producers, remixers and DJs, I wanted to write a book about these men working from home, so different from the women’s home-based labour documented in scholarship and in poems about Caribbean mothers working as seamstresses, cake-makers or weavers while children played about them.

Did men working from home have the same experiences? Did they do as much care work while also earning income? Was there a playpen in the studio for those times when they were on parental shift and on creative deadline? Where they always ‘at work’ or did they plan times specifically for family? What was it like for their partners and children for men to be breadwinners at odd hours of the night and in their pajamas? Did music always pay the bills? What could we learn about Caribbean masculinities and labour from these studio guys?

Stone’s own history in first editing tapes before transitioning to hardware such as cds, drives and computers, and then finally ending with software, tones and sample libraries, highlighted the technological shifts that enabled these home studios to impact Trinidad and Tobago’s musical sound. It made these a lens for tracing how globalization’s wider shifts in knowledge, products and capital impact local culture even in small, near-equatorial soca kingdoms.

When we think technological shift, we think ‘Big Truck’, but it probably started with drum machines and four track tapes in these fellas’ teenage bedrooms and, later, in their home-based music studios, even more common today when all you need is a laptop and headphones.

The baby came and the book idea, titled DJ in the House, took second place, but I remembered it as Ziya began to dream to 2018 tracks not yet publicly released. Between us, we had fallen asleep and woken up to various stages in official mixes for Kees, Destra, Rikki Jai, Machel, Sherwin, Dil e Nadan, Andre Tanker, Ultimate Rejects-MX Prime, Patrice, KMC, Trini Jacobs, Bunji, Faye-Ann, David Rudder, Treason, Alison Hinds, Mr. Vegas, Chinese Laundry and even, now deceased, Rocking Randy.

She has more of a subconscious sense of the ‘cutting floor’ or final cut, a reference to unimaginably obsolete days of splicing thin reels of tape, than most of the nation dancing to versions that appear effortless, rather than debated and negotiated.

From today, extended road mixes rule the road. Thinking about their production, and not just consumption, you’d be surprised who could tell us their backstory.



Post 137.

It’s hard to know where young women’s empowerment begins and ends.

Take Patrice Robert’s recently released ‘Hold on Tight’ video. It attempts to show her as sexually commanding, her stilettos shaking the ground, her youthful body taking control of men’s minds whether awake or asleep.

The video highlights what kinds of language are available for young women, especially young Black women, trying to turn sexuality from a source of vulnerability to authority.  It highlights, just as Carnival does par excellence, that there is no pure place for such resistance and assertion of young female selfhood.

Executive produced, edited and directed by Afro-Caribbean men, the video shows Patrice through the eyes of a white man’s wet dream, including his vision of her as first winer girl, then leopard, then native in a forest. We shouldn’t be naïve. Black women came to be seen as naturally hypersexual and animalistic because hundreds of years of slavery mixed White dominance with such desire. It’s unthinkable violence that made it normal and everyday.

This very fantasy justified slavery’s rape and pimping of African women, and the definition of them as less than equal, less morally respectable or civilized than White women, less valued for their minds than their bodies, and less concerned with their political and economic rights than their freedom to be promiscuous. Streaming such a fantasy 50 years after our independence says much about what Carnival’s possibilities for decolonization can and must continue to mean.

When Patrice broke onto airwaves, coming from the calypso arena, she spoke publicly about not wanting to have to expose her body more than she felt comfortable. In those first years, she sometimes even performed in long sleeves and tight three-quarter pants. I’ve watched this change because, almost inescapably, celebration of women’s sexiness defines soca on stage, on screen and on the streets, and increasingly such sexiness is about skin, bikinis, beads, and even high heels. There is validation and joy in it all, just as much as not fulfilling the right ideal can shake women’s confidence or break their career.

I’m not writing against sexiness, nor Patrice, but thinking about young Black women in the politics of Carnival and the Caribbean. How can they challenge sexual passivity and the tyranny of morality without giving greater life to exploitative or stereotypical images of themselves? How can Afro-Trinidadian young women use Carnival and soca to thoroughly trouble both male dominance and desire by playing with irony, parody and mimicry all at once in the ultimate bikini mas, a mas that takes historical dehumanisation and turns it into contemporary emancipation, meaning being able to move in your body and in control on your own terms?

The point isn’t to blame young women for their choices, but to understand how those came to be the choices available, and their implications. It is to challenge the myriad forms of violence amongst which all women carefully thread, or chip, wine and get away without a care. It is to turn the camera on men’s continuing power to determine how young Black women see and display themselves.  It is to question how much feeling powerful can transform systemic inequalities.

Women’s empowerment in Carnival and the Caribbean visibly remains also a story of how colonially inherited racisms, sexisms and other isms still set the terms for femininity, sexuality and power in the twenty-first century. Is Patrice’s performance as a primitive playing a mas or is the animal her mask? Carnival muddies all kinds of politics and pleasures, inviting us to look twice at young Caribbean women’s realities and our gaze at their bodies.