Before you even ask.......yes...........that person in the picture below is me.........
Those who know me may find some of the things I may say in this story hard to believe, the first thing they may disbelieve is that I have not always been such a staunch lover of Soca and Calypso.
But the man some of you may be familiar with in the picture directly above and in the image at the top of this article wasn't always the carefree person he is today.....actually I started out more like this.
So the question is how did this sweet little innocent child find his way onto the Soca Scene, into Notting Hill Carnival and to so many Carnivals across the world?
I have primarily grown up in the UK with some sporadic visits to the Island where I was born in Trinidad, but my first contact with the Culture was somewhat taken for granted.
My Parents were hard workers and in order to ensure that our family was moving in the direction they wanted, it sometimes meant that they had to sacrifice some of their time with me by getting my Grand-Parents to look after me for a few days.
While staying with them my Grenadian Grandad and My Trinidadian Grandmother would play Vinyl records of old Calypso Artists like “Trinidad Bill” “Arrow” and “Lord Kitchener” among others.
I was too young at the time to appreciate the things that I experienced there, such as the taste of my Grandma’s homemade Pepper Sauce (Which I made the mistake of adding to a Roti we were having for Dinner one night).
Suffice it to say that my time with my Grand-Parents laid the foundation for my appreciation for where I was born and my Heritage (Even though I did not know it at the time).
Fast Forward 10 years later and my “thing” was Hip-Hop, I loved the rebellious music of that era and the innovation that accompanied it.
The Lyrical content and the beats that were being produced at that time drew heavily on Jazz, the Blues and other types of Music that were not the “In” thing at the time but were respected by the Artists who had grown up listening to their parents and Grandparents play them nonetheless.
Frequent visits to Tim Westwood, Rampage and other Hip-Hip Events were interspersed with house-parties, reggae and dancehall jams with the occasional R&B rave during my early teens. Soca at the time was not so well known or talked about in London.
Where I lived in Brixton was a place called the “Frontline”, it had a bad reputation that I never saw it as a child, due to my mother and fathers good standing in the community.
They owned one, and later two shops on that stretch of road and I knew almost everyone in the area by sight if not by name.
An Off-licence aptly titled the “Frontline Off licence” was somewhere I was sent to frequently to get change when the cash register was low on coins in our shop. The owner, Mike, also a Trinidadian I later learned, was always ready to help us in this way and others.
There was a Community spirit that, even today, still exists in some parts of London and have not yet been extinguished by gentrification and modernization. (The behaviour of the local community after the Grenfell Tower disaster is proof of this).
These areas of London were populated heavily by people of Caribbean descent. Children of Caribbean Immigrants who came to the country based upon an invitation extended by the Government that promised rewards and the ability to prosper.
These Immigrants had a tough time. They were denied jobs and places to stay by the average Londoner of that time, so they could only find places to stay in the poorer parts of London at that time, such as Brixton, Notting Hill, Battersea and others.
So the people within these communities stuck together and were almost always willing to help each other personally or professionally if they could, regardless of where they were from.
This included people whose origins lay outside of the Caribbean.
One day while inside the Front Line Off licence I was waiting for Mike to come back with some change and I noticed a small A6 magazine on his counter, it was titled “Soca News”.
The picture on the front of a beautiful girl in Carnival Costume drew my gaze but what kept my attention was the Man in the Background. He was playing a Steel Pan, the same instrument I had seen on my Grandmothers Record Covers and heard on the Record Player.
(She had also tried to teach me how to play but regrettably, I had no patience for it at the time and soon gave up).
When Mike returned, I asked how much the little Magazine cost and he said “It’s Free” and handed me one.
I thanked him, took the bag of coins and the magazine and left.
This habit continued for the next four to six Months, and I would read stories about the Caribbean, see adverts for Caribbean Products that I could recall being at my Grandparents house and in my own parent's kitchen, and others still that I did not recognise at all.
They also had an events section that had Soca Events, Live Music Events and Community Events that all had one thing in common……..They were all related to the Caribbean.
Now at the time every Party I had been to had been at night but there was one that captured my attention, it was called Cocoyea. It was held at a place called Camden Palace, (it’s now called Club Koko). And I had seen it several times in the magazine and it always started around 5pm-6pm and ended at midnight.
The small description had no pictures and there was no Internet available at that time to check it out, all that was listed was the information, the price, the location and the start and end time.
It was a day-time party, which to my mind meant that it was for my age group (Teenagers).
I read the part that detailed where I could find tickets and I was pleasantly surprised to see that I could get them at a CD Shop in Wandsworth called TJ Records.
That day I hopped onto a Bus and sought out the store. The owners Lynda and Lawrence were very friendly, and while I was there I heard the sweetest sounds coming from the speaker boxes, I cannot describe the feeling that it gave, but suffice it to say I ended up spending some money and almost an hour in the Shop.
I left with my Ticket and 6 Cd’s of Soca Music, this was the first time I purchased Soca Music and I will never forget it.
Up until that time the only Music I had purchased were Hip-Hop Cd’s and R&B cd’s so these new CD’s were like Treasure, I still have them now and the Music on them still hasn’t lost it’s effect on me.
A week later the day of the event arrived and it dawned on me how unprepared I was. Aside from the Music on the Cd’s, my impression of the couple at the CD store and the scant text on my “Soca News” Magazine I had absolutely Zero idea of what to expect, no idea what to wear or even if there was an age limit.
I had assumed that the event was aimed at Teenagers because of it’s start time. But while preparing to go I realised that this was an assumption and began to worry.
I decided on dressing for comfort rather than focus on looking smart. I put on a brand new Tracksuit and Trainers, got a fresh haircut, dabbed on some Cologne, reached for my ticket and I was off.
I resolved to leave Cocoyea after an hour if I didn’t enjoy myself but remembering the Music on my Cd’s I was reassured that even if I stood up talking and interacting with no one for the entire night, It would still be worth staying just to listen to the Music.
I had done that at many Hip-Hop parties before as Hip-Hop was not, shall we say, the most intimate type of music. I still enjoyed it, but lets just say that I had never gone there and significantly expanded my social circle during an event. The environment was not as social as I would have liked.
By the time I got there it was an hour after the start-time, I looked around and almost no one was there. I saw a Man on the door and another Man who caught my eye and approached my to sell a ticket to the event.
After waiting outside for 15 minutes to see if any more people would arrive I decided to go inside, gave the door man my ticket, put my coat in the cloak room, and walked into the venue.
I stood in awe for several moments.
To my left and immediately behind me I saw a long Bar, and in front of me I saw a massive, wide, dance area. Right at the very end was a stage and I could just about make out a DJ set-up in the distance.
I wondered how the organisers could hope to fill a Venue like this. Especially if the footfall remained as it was……….It was massive……..and it was empty.
The Music however was brilliant, they were playing Calypso music, and some of it I was pleasantly surprised to recognise.
I went to the Bar, asked for a Rum and Coke, and was asked a question that I didn’t anticipate, “What kind of Rum would you like?” the bartender asked. This was a new question to me as normally every bar would simply automatically give you Bacardi.
I asked him what types they had, and was given several options, I recognised Wray and Nephew from the Frontline Off Licence, but they also had Cockspur, Mount Gay, Bacardi (Of Course) and several other Brands that I did not recognise.
I chose the Cockspur, and after tasting it I made a promise to never drink Bacardi again (A Promise that I broke several weeks later).
The Music was sweet, the venue, whilst empty, was extremely nice, and the Cockspur and Coke was doing things unmentionable to my Taste Buds….the event was empty, but I was satisfied.
Now I would like to add that contrary to the opinion many hold about me I am a little bit of an Introvert. I very much enjoy my own space, I don’t enjoy small talk and prefer communication that is a little more depth and sincere than the average individual, although this has come at the cost of being a bit more of an observer than a participant in some social settings.
I decided to have a wander around the venue, no point standing up doing nothing right?
The Carpet beneath my feet stretched out several metres and then gave way to a wooden floor that extended towards the stage in the distance. And above, the low ceiling ended parallel where the Carpet met the Wooden floor.
I walked forward and stepped onto the dance floor and was awestruck again. The venue was not just long and wide, it was high.
The Ceiling was several floors high, and walking further out onto towards the stage allowed you to look up and see two balconies on either side, one above the other. Behind me there were two or three floors above the ground floor, with doors that seemed to lead to other rooms.
I took a look around, got lost a few times and decided to go back to the Bar for a refill of Cockspur and Coke.
Whilst there I saw some people had entered the event.
They varied wildly in age, there were several people amongst them aged roughly between their teenage years all the way up to 60 and they were all dressed differently, I was pleased to see the teenagers with them weren’t too dressed up. But they looked good, it was clear that they were there to party hard, the girls wore trainers or flat soled shoes and the guys wore shorts, or tracksuits with trainers.
The clothing they wore set me at ease as it was clear that regardless of their age they were all there to enjoy themselves as themselves, rather than dressing up for the event, they each presented themselves as they were normally, There were no High Heels, very little make-up no shirts and definitely no smart-trousers. They were all dressed casually and presentable. And this had the effect of making them seem much more approachable than people I had come across in other events.
Very soon the entire Carpeted area was full of people and I was amazed at how quickly the place had filled up. It was almost as if they all ran to the time of a special clock that allowed them all to turn up at exactly the same time.
The Music started to increase in tempo, and the DJ’s (Whom I would later learn were Smokey Joe and Martin Jay) Beckoned people to come forward over the Microphone, and people started to drift forward. The venue made use of Fog Machines that pumped mist that rolled across the dance floor emboldening any people like myself to follow the crowd.
The Tune changed in Tempo and they played “All Aboard” by the Trinidad Band Atlantik, it was one of the tunes that had been recommended to me at the CD store where I had purchased the Ticket and I began to dance.
It’s hard to describe what those first few seconds were like, time seemed to cease to exist. I didn’t care who was there, who was watching or what they were doing. And they didn’t either.
The crowd had simply followed the instructions of the DJ and just like that BAM! The party was in full-swing. No Warm-up, no preparation it was chilled-out one minute and then all of a sudden it was a full-blown party, people continued to flood into the venue, filling up all of the other floors and the ground floor, still leaving enough space to dance.
The tempo increased again when they began to play a tune by the Dominican Band WCK, the tune was called “Bouyon” and made the use of an organ amongst its instrumental ensemble. (To my shame I laboured under the mistaken belief for years that this was actually Soca before a polite Dominican girl in a Fete educated me about WCK, the island they are from and the Music from that Island).
BUT, the music energised everybody, there were flags waving, waistlines jamming, flexing and whine-ing up all over the place. People were gently bumping into each other sometimes and then apologising, laughing then carrying on, others would take the opportunity to dance together. To me it was amazing.
I’d seen nothing like it before, both the Boys and the Girls, and the Men and the Women were dancing together or by themselves. There was playful chatter and flirtation and funny sights like the occasional couple falling on the ground as they over balanced, people were dancing on one foot and it just seemed like the funniest most enjoyable place to be.
This is what it looked like
With all of this going on around me I hadn’t noticed but I had stopped dancing and reverted to becoming an observer for a moment, the party was in full swing and the tune had changed again, this time they played “Moving to the Left” by Peter C Lewis.
The Chorus of the tune tells you to move to the left, then to the right, backwards and forwards.
And the crowd loved it! people were bumping into each other dancing and howling with laughter. I artfully managed to join in the fun without spilling my drink and after moving backwards in the direction of the Bar and then forwards towards the stage I found myself waist-to-waist with a girl facing the stage, she knew I was there, and she didn’t even bother to look around. She just danced moving her Hips left and right and it was all I could do to keep up,
Close to the end of the tune she started to lower her waist still moving her hips. However unlike some of the twerking we see today this was different. Still upright and bending her legs only she was still upright and still able to move her waist! I followed her down and after 30 seconds my legs started to ache!
I held out for what seemed like an eternity (but was probably actually only another 30 seconds) and the tune changed, and with that, as quickly as the dance had begun it was over, she stood up and moved away dancing to the next tune.
This was an utterly new phenomenon to me. At Hip-Hop and R&B raves the interaction between men and women was often very limited, unless you were in a house party, and when you did dance with someone it was usually someone you had an interest in or were attracted to. Dancing with someone was a signal of interest usually initiated by the Male, and she usually only danced with you if she was interested in you.
In this environment it couldn’t have been more different.
Everyone there was connected and in time with the Music, and dancing with people held almost zero ulterior motive and zero obligation.
It really did seem that we were there to enjoy this aspect of our culture and the music rather than to impress anyone, attract attention or meet people that we were attracted to.
It was ALL about the Music!
It was also pleasant to chat to a few of the guys there too, they were friendly and informative. I learned that the event was a fairly regular event that was held on some Sundays and on Bank Holiday Mondays. And the best part of it was that they were almost ALL descended from the Caribbean, just like me.
It was a really good feeling. I also met a bunch of guys who later became some of my best friends, after seeing them at the beginning and end of every Cocoyea Event. (We always were the first to get on the Dance Floor and the last to leave the party).
I danced non-stop for over 4 hours that Evening and lost count with the amount of girls I danced with, at the end as I left I began to shuffle towards the Bus and half-winced half-smiled at the ache in my legs. I’d never had so much fun!
On the Night-Bus home I actually laughed out loud still scarcely believing the amazing night I had just had. All the fun, the good music and good people I had met of all ages that were there.
I wanted to see them again and experience that environment at the next available opportunity.
And although I didn’t know it yet, it was the first pro-active step on a long and enjoyable journey towards learning and appreciating where I’m from and my culture.
But that’s another Story!