Bunji Garlin Breaks Out: On the Road With America’s First Soca Pop Star
New York’s West Indian Day Parade has marked the city’s Labor Day weekend for decades, and this year, the festivities begin at 9 p.m. on a Wednesday night. “They say this is the last weekend of summer!” yells local radio celeb DJ Prostyle, doing his best to make everyone aboard the VP Records’ “Carnival Gold” yacht party forget that Thursday and Friday are technically still work days.
Sailing down the Hudson River, Prostyle and his 105.1 colleagues DJ Self and DJ Norie spin 2014’s biggest Caribbean hits: springy dancehall from Jamaica and uptempo soca from Trinidad. Under normal circumstances, this music would create a frenzy. Tonight, however, the boat’s main hall is nearly empty. After all, who wants to listen to soca when one of the genre’s biggest stars — Bunji Garlin, the man who intends to spread this music all the way across the globe — is outside shaking hands and posing for pictures?
An hour later, however, he and his fans are back inside, and the whirlwind begins. Bunji gets behind the mic and plays his latest smash, “Truck on D Road,” changing the words to refer to a “boat on the sea.” He enters into a genuine freestyle that describes the vessel and raises the room’s energy level. He drops “Differentology,” the breakthrough track that has appeared everywhere from sporting events to Grey’s Anatomy, from Port of Spain fêtes to global EDM festivals, and when he reaches the song’s chorus, a resounding “We ready for the road,” the sing-along is so loud that it can almost be heard back on shore.
Born in 1978, Garlin (government name: Ian Alvarez) grew up in Arima, one of Trinidad’s larger towns and the birthplace of calypso legend Lord Kitchener. In the decade before Garlin entered this world, another calypso legend, the six-foot-four-inch Lord Shorty, created soca by making the older genre even more danceable, adding Indian rhythms and instruments, a little bit of Haitian cadence and – depending on whom you ask – some American R&B. Over time, the music became faster and harder, and its lyrics began to incorporate more party-starting call-and-response. It now rules the island – especially during its pre-Lenten Carnival celebrations – and tracks like Arrow’s “Hot, Hot, Hot,” Kevin Lyttle’s “Turn Me On” and, yes, the Baha Men’s “Who Let the Dogs Out” (originally a hit for Anselm Douglas) have reached the American mainstream.
Garlin, though, like almost all Trinidadians, has long listened to much more than just soca. Sitting in a Midtown Manhattan office, taking care of a little work before returning to Labor Day celebrations, the singer cites a list of early influences that includes – but somehow is not limited to – “latin, zouk, reggae, soca, calypso, pop, drum-and-bass, techno and house.”
“Because of where we are situated in the chain of islands, and because the way our society is built, I was exposed to all kinds of music,” he says. “At that time, American Top 40 was a big part of Trinidad and Tobago society, so I gravitated to anything that was on Casey Kasem’s show.”
Soon, dancehall replaced American Top 40, and Garlin ditched Kasem for artists like Yellowman and Wayne Smith. “Every day going to school was like a party on the bus,” he remembers. “In Trinidad we called them Maxi-taxis, and the drivers would have soundsystems in their vehicles, as loud as if they were going to a car show. Because of the way dancehall was engineered, the sound quality was more suitable for a soundsystem like that — especially opposed to soca.”
When Garlin finally made it to school, he and his friends would freestyle back and forth, reworking the Jamaican themes and flows that they had heard on the Maxis. After graduation, he kept clashing, engaging in what he describes as “lyrical exchanges of war” and developing his skills against artists who were doing more than killing time between class. After producer Daryl Braxton suggested that he add a little soca back to his style, he made his first professional recording, scoring his professional hit with the frenetic, Aaliyah-interpolating “Send Dem Riddim Crazy.”