Bunji Garlin doesn’t smile… at least not in photos. Many years ago, he had a shoot booked on a very stressful day, and the photos portrayed the soca star with a don’t-fuck-with-me demeanor. People loved it. After that, everyone wanted the Garlin glare.
“I showed up to the next photo shoot and started to smile,” Garlin says with a laugh, “and the photographer said he wanted me to look serious. Ever since that photo shoot, nobody wants me to smile in photos.”
Even with that stern stare, the artist born Ian Alvarez has plenty of reasons to smile these days. Garlin is the hottest artist right now coming out of the soca scene and connecting with the general music community.
The Saint Lucian-Venezuelan vocalist was born and raised on Trinidad, an island nation (with Tobago) that claims the richest Carnival tradition in the Caribbean. The American public is more familiar with the Brazilian parties in Rio and Salvador, but the Carnival in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad is arguably the best of the bunch. Moreover, as samba plays an increasingly smaller role in the party-centric Brazilian festivities, Trinidad’s native music, soca, remains the focus.
Caribbean communities in places like London, Miami and New York follow soca, and the occasional novelty track does break into the mainstream, but the genre is only huge in the Caribbean. Garlin, however, is the leading soca artist bringing elements of the music to the masses, often through collaborations that demonstrate the music’s versatility. Notably, he scored a U.S. hit with 2012’s “Differentology” after NYC’s Hot 97 added the song to its nightly Battle of the Beats. After defeating heavy hitters like DJ Khaled and Eminem for five straight nights, the song made it into regular rotation. Radio adds at several more East Coast stations followed, as did a Soul Train Award and a Major Lazer remix, which the Diplo-led trio debuted at Coachella.
“Soca music usually has a faster tempo and at least 10 or 11 instruments,” says Garlin, explaining what helped make “Differentology” connect with a larger audience. “For this song, we slowed down the tempo and took out a lot of the instruments. We really stripped it down. ‘Differentology’ still talks about Carnival, but it also talks about life. I wanted the song to transcend the Carnival season so that it can relate to everyone.”
As Garlin describes it, soca has its roots in calypso similar to the way hip-hop emerged from R&B. The original island vibes still radiate in soca, but the music is now epitomized by fast-paced party tracks designed to make people shout, wave, jump and swivel the hips in soca-style dance moves like whining. (Check out Canadian PM Justin Trudeau trying his hand at soca moves here.) Garlin helps advance the genre forward by pairing it with other musical styles like EDM and hip-hop, but he also reaches into the past by incorporating the political and social narratives of calypso. In this way, he embraces an element of calypso that rarely surfaces in the Carnival-driven soca music of today.
“Yes, that is true,” says Garlin. “I try to tell real stories and have deeper meanings that go beyond Carnival, but I often use double entendre, double meanings. For example, ‘Truck on D Road’ can be a song about the party and being on a large music truck, but it is also about being on the road of life.”
Artists in other genres seem to love Garlin, and various collaborations helped the soca star connect with a larger audience. The aforementioned “Truck on D Road” single from 2014 features an assist from A$AP Ferg, and he collaborated with Skrillex and Diplo on “Jungle Bae” and Damian Marley on “The Message” in 2015. So far this year, Garlin appears on breakout tracks like “Bun It Up” and “Tear Down Venue” with Bad Royale and “Television” with Major Lazer member Jillionaire and NYC producer Richie Beretta. Garlin says that soca and EDM work well together, though he is quick to note why a song like “Television” is different.
“‘Television’ is not a soca song,” he says, noting that it has more hip-hop influence. “The song sounds more like something Flipmode might have done in the 1990s. This is not the type of music that soca artists usually do.”
In a recent interview with Billboard, Jillionaire said, "I've been a fan of Garlin's freestyling since the first time I saw him perform, back in the early 2000s. We wanted to make a song that showcased his lyrical approach.” In the same publication, Bad Royale—a four-person DJ-production team signed to Diplo’s Mad Decent record label—said, “Working with Garlin has been amazing. It’s incredible to see how fast he is and [how he] just [freestyles] lyrics on the spot. ‘Bun It Up’ was actually the first ever acapella he did for us and we’ve been sitting on it until we finally had a track built around it that felt perfect. We really wanted to take it back a little bit and make a track that felt more upbeat and fun and we think we really nailed it.”
Garlin first exploded on the Trini scene in 1999 with the dancehall-infused “Send Dem Riddim Crazy.” After winning the Young King title, Garlin won the Soca Monarch crown (the genre’s highest honor) four times in seven tries between 2002 and 2008. He competed again in 2009, but he lost to his toughest opponent yet... his wife Fay-Ann Lyons.
“And she was pregnant,” laughs Garlin about the loss. Lyons is a major soca star in her own right and the daughter of soca legend Super Blue, and her victory made her the first female artist to win the Soca Monarch crown. “I get asked about [the 2009 loss] a lot, but I understand. There is a lot of interest in our relationship because you have two strong artists in the same type of music.”
Lyons’ win would be the last time either artist won the crown as both pulled out of the competition a few years later.
“Within soca music, the Monarch is the highest level you can achieve,” says Garlin. “I have this drive inside of me to grow, and after winning a few times, I needed more. That is why I stopped competing. When you are always focusing on the competition, it does not leave room to consider new things. I wanted to focus on growing the music and reaching new people, and I didn’t want to have to rely on Soca Monarch as the main way to get my music out. When Fay-Ann and I stopped competing, I saw the benefits immediately.”
Trinidad and Jamaica are both Caribbean islands with similar music influences, but while Jamaican reggae has a strong association with cannabis, does soca have a similar connection with the plant?
“That’s funny you ask because I was just having this conversation,” responds Garlin after a sharp laugh. “With soca music, the energy and tempo are high so people tend to drink alcohol. It goes better with the music. I would say the music fans are mostly into rum and beer, especially at concerts.”
The answer makes sense, but fortunately for ganja-loving Garlin fans, he doesn’t just make soca music anymore.
David Jenison (email@example.com) is Editor-in-Chief at PRØHBTD.