My Carnival FOMO is kicking in hard this weekend, to solidify this fact I decided to stay up late Friday night and watch the International Soca Monarch on my laptop. Not quite as exciting as being there in the midst of things like last year but I have to admit I still felt a little like sports fans must feel before watching a big match, the anticipation was real.
International Soca Monarch is a tournament between (mostly) established vocalists from across the globe but especially from the Caribbean Islands of Grenada, St Vincent, St Lucia, Antigua and of course it’s homeland, Trinidad & Tobago. These artists are judged by their performance of one original track and the contest is split between the “Groovy” entries (slower more melodic Soca better suited for radio and Carnival fetes) and “Power” (faster paced and higher impact Soca, perfect for those long days marching on the Carnival parades). Generally the chosen tracks will have had some kind of official release and we’d be familiar with them on the Super Soca Show, however given the “Soca Mafia” favourtism given to a limited amount of songs in Trinidad, they are not always well known by the crowds who have come to watch. This can prove a problem for entrants who don’t fall into those favoured few, as people are often far less receptive to unfamiliar offerings.
Surprisingly, this year’s Groovy winner seemed to fall into the latter category. Not only was it his first time entering Soca Monarch but College Boy Jesse’s chosen track ‘Happy Song’ doesn’t seem to have had anything near the pick up it really deserves, with many of the often acerbic social media commentators unaware of the song at all. Still there’s no doubt that the young singer was aware of his disadvantage and put on a great performance, which included a short medley of other peoples hits (perhaps so that the crowd had something recognisable to latch onto) and a quick additional verse that took a dig at the defending champion Swappi,
“See Shadow dead, Swappi take he voice, he singing all the song and think he can take crown twice…”
This made reference to the fact that Swappi’s entry ‘Jumbie Head’ (as with last year, a collaboration with Ultimate Rejects) and his performance on the night, very much pays tribute to the Calypso legend Shadow, who sadly died in 2018. Swappi came in just behind Jesse at second place with Viking Ding Dong in third, another relative newcomer to the Soca stage despite being a recognisable DJ and Radio presenter in Trinidad for years.
There was some controversy however when Skinny Banton from Grenada failed to place in the Top 3 with his hugely popular song ‘Wrong Again’. This is one of my favourite tracks of the season and there’s no doubt that Skinny put on an energetic performance, though it was quite refreshing to see that crowd favourites alone don’t make a winner, especially with the controversy that followed in the Power Section.
My personal choice for the Power segment was Problem Child from St Vincent, whose track ‘Nasty Up’ is an absolute powerhouse that seems to be causing bedlam in fetes across the islands. Sadly his performance was marred by a number of technical difficulties which no doubt went against him unfairly. Problem was quick to call out forces that he claimed were out to sabotage his win and “keep the money in Trinidad”. Although I wouldn’t be quick to support this claim, the lack of winners from any of the smaller islands definitely has people talking. It’s a tricky call when there is no clear winner, such as last year when Mr Killa from Grenada scooped up the prize for ‘Run Wid It‘. That was the first time there had been a winner from outside of Trinidad and he would have been in for another shot at the prize this year with ‘Soca Storm’ but pulled out of the competition early citing a lack of support and information needed to give his best performance.
Problem Child did not end up placing in the Top 3, although Trini artist Lyrikal came in second with ‘Rukshun‘, a track on the same riddim as ‘Nasty Up’. Third was Olatunji, who is back in the Soca game stronger than ever this year, after some time away here in the UK competing in the X Factor contest.
The winner is where the real controversy comes in. Iwer George is a well respected veteran of Soca and the Soca Monarch contest, however he hasn’t claimed a win since 2007. He’s also been runner up a number of times in the Road March competition (more on that after Carnival) but only ever been a joint winner with Superblue back in 2000. This year has seen him really come out fighting on this count and there’s a strong chance he will win with one of his collaborations, either Stage Gone Bad with Kes (who came second in the Road March last year with ‘Savannah Grass‘) or Conch Shell with Machel Montano and Skinny Fabulous (who took first place last year alongside Bunji Garlin with ‘Famalay‘).
It was with the track ‘Stage Gone Bad’ that he became the International Soca Monarch this year. Although it was undoubtedly a crowd favourite, it was far from one of the best performances with Iwer short on both energy and voice. Things were only really saved when Kes stepped to the stage and raised the levels up further, however it has rightly been pointed out that Kes was not the one in the competition. That said, I do love Iwer George and even though it doesn’t seem fair it’s good to see him finally gain a title again. Hopefully the controversies don’t damage the competition too much as it’s an important institution that really makes for a great start to the extended Carnival weekend and I very much look forwards to being back there again next year.
Don’t forget to tune into the Super Soca Show on Ujima 98FM every Saturday 12:00-14:00 GMT.