"You have artists that get crossover appeal, but then they cross out."
Words by Greg Scruggs
“Differentology,” a soca jam sung by 32-year-old star Bunji Garlin, may just be Trinidad and Tobago’s unlikely new national anthem. A sleeper hit of the 2013 Carnival season, it is proving to have a robust life of its own, long after the masquerading masses left the streets of Port of Spain in February. DJ /rupture dropped it on his tastemaking radio show Mudd Up! on WFMU back in November. Then it peaked on the iTunes singles chart at #2 in late December before simmering through January and February as a popular tune, but it didn’t win any awards in Trinidad’s fierce and decisive Soca Monarch competitions at Carnival time. A month later, however, it’s back, blasting out of Major Lazer’s sound system at Ultra Music Festival in Miami and picking up over 500,000 views to date on YouTube even before an official music video has been released. At home, a military marching band pounded out a precision percussion version for the departure of the outgoing president and the inauguration of Anthony Carmona as the country’s fifth head of state.
Last week, MTV Iggy caught up with Garlin, AKA Ian Alvarez, at Hott Music Studios in the St. James section of the capital city to investigate this phenomenon. The prolific singer, who has captured Trinidad’s soca crown four times, could be responsible for breaking soca away from the perception that the genre is only for wining during Carnival. At the studio, he was reworking his track for yet another civic cause: the Office of Disaster and Preparedness Management asked him to translate the song’s refrain of “We ready” from party-hardy to prevention planning for families in case of emergency. Garlin bounced and bobbed, tapping his foot as he wrote lyrics on the spot from a scripted bureaucratic text. Carl “Beaver” Henderson, a long-time producer from soca’s early days who snuck up on the reggae scene with the 2006 hit Ganja Farmer riddim, coaxed intonations out of the singer from behind the sound board while the instrumental pumped on loop over studio monitors.
As soca drifts away from its calypso roots and into the maelstrom of global pop, dance, and hip-hop, Garlin is definitely the harbinger of a future sound. When asked what even makes the unorthodox “Differentology” a soca tune, Henderson readily admitted, “It’s Bunji’s voice, not the instrumental.” What’s more, this particular song is taking root in Trinidad and beyond because it’s so well made. Soca singles are often off-the-cuff affairs, but “Differentology” packs an unusual amount of songcraft. It opens with a filtered foghorn and isolated piano reminiscent of Chicago house before segueing into handclap percussion and a neo-flamenco guitar lick. It’s a brilliant piece of moody pop, conjuring up Carnival dancers as marching protesters while Garlin belts out “We ready for de road,” holding the last word over a dozen notes. Yet surprisingly, it wasn’t labored over much more than the average Carnival chune. The difference for “Differentology” was the crack team behind it.
In an interview after the session, Garlin insisted that the hit actually came together quickly and almost accidentally while the singer was killing time in the Black Ice Studios while waiting to pick up his wife, Faye-Ann Lyons. (Lyons is a national legend who swept the Soca Monarch competitions in 2009 while pregnant.) Producer Sheriff Mumbles started the riff on electric guitar, which later became the piano chords. “And as soon as he hit it, the melody came in one shot. It was a cosmic something,” Garlin marveled.
As for the Spanish style guitar, Nigel Rojas, frontman of Trinidadian reggae fusion band Orange Sky, told me point blank: “Bunji Garlin is the black Spaniard so the image I wanted to create was a bandido, a renegade, a desperado riding through the streets of the town, a bad Spanish dude.” Rojas, who earned co-artist credit on the track, is, like Garlin, of Venezuelan extraction. Venezuela is only eight miles from Trinidad, so that’s not uncommon.
On the flip side, Garlin pointed out, “A lot of musicians from Trinidad and Tobago have family lineage up the islands, from Grenada, St. Vincent, St. Lucia and if you listen to their music, they have some very strong melodies and very catchy rhymes.” That goes for Garlin too, whose mother is from St. Lucia. What’s more, he explained, “Up the islands you can get songs that outlast the festival. That is something that we have fallen off from in Trinidad and we need to put focus on songs that can last beyond the season.”
In other words, the rest of the Caribbean sings for the whole year, in contrast to Trinidad’s laser focus on Carnival, which creates a compressed, cyclical musical culture. This is never far from Garlin’s mind as he tries to please audiences at home and abroad. A well established artist domestically, Garlin has the island on lock. It helps that he is bona fide musical royalty here. His father-in-law, Superblue, is a calypso and soca institution who made an epic comeback during this year’s Carnival for his first Road March title in 13 years (and his 9th overall since 1980). He has also collaborated with his second cousin, Patrice Roberts, who now duets with soca superstar Machel Montano.
Abroad, however, soca is still far from breaking out into the mainstream to the extent that, say, dancehall has, perhaps for lack of a Sean Paul figure that Top 40 radio recognizes. But when it comes to the c-word, Garlin was cautious. “You have artists that get crossover appeal, but then they cross out. As all musical worlds orbit, I can’t serve two masters. I have to meet each environment without compromising what I have to offer and the integrity of what I have to produce. I think I have been finding the recipe, and ‘Differentology’ is one example,” he explained.
Garlin definitely cooked up success with his Twitter-induced wordplay when he began riffing on how 2013 was going to be “different,” ultimately coining his hit song title. Meanwhile, the aroma is in the air for another as “Tun Up,” a 2011 straightforward soca tune on the X6 riddim got a recent remix by the UK/T&T one-two punch of Jus Now, the bass tweaked from sunny soca vibes to dark UK underground dance floor. Meanwhile, as Trinidad ebbs, the non-tropical Carnival circuit – from Berlin’s Karneval der Kulturen to Toronto’s Caribana to London’s Notting Hill to Brooklyn’s West Indian Day Parade – flows. You can be sure that “Differentology,” if not Bunji himself, will be revving up the crowds wherever the Carnival faithful gather.