Interview: Bunji Garlin

A homegrown soca hero is poised for international success. He talks “Differentology” and how things are changing in Trinidad.

Photographer Eavvon O' Neal
December 12, 2013


Trinidadian artist Bunji Garlin has had a stellar year. After claiming four Soca Monarch titles and garnering fame across the Caribbean, Garlin is on the verge of the elusive crossover success. In his quest to bring soca to the world, he's forged a more stripped-down, slower sound for the genre and he's quickly making new friends and collaborators along the way. His single "Differentology" recently topped Hot 97's Battle of the Beats competition, landing it in heavy radio rotation; the song has been remixed by Major Lazer, and it earned him a Soul Train Award for Best International Performance. This week he performed with The Roots at the Annual OkayPlayer Holiday Jam and, tonight, will headline Webster Hall alongside the legendary rap DJ Mister Cee. As he's gearing up for next year's carnival season and the release of his Differentology LP for VP Records, we chatted with Garlin about the merging of soca with EDM, the steady rise of "Differentology" and expanding the future of Trinidad's homespun genre.

Stream: Bunji Garlin, "It's a Carnival"

With the growing popularity of "Differentolgy," what have the last six months been like? The last six months have been pretty unusual and hectic because of "Differentology." Unusual, not for me as an artist in terms of traveling and touring, but unusual for the music I represent, soca. All of the developments of the last six months are something that you usually don’t see with soca. It’s been pretty exciting. Everything started lining up and things that you never knew started happening.

Why has "Differentolgy" been such a crossover hit? The stars aligned themselves. What the world has been hearing all of the time, they’re ready to hear something a little different. Hot 97's Battle of the Beats was based on a listener voting system. The people voted that song into the current radio rotation. The Soul Train Awards was also on a voting system. The people voted, that’s why it won. The people were ready for the sound and became involved. The same struggle has been going on back in Trinidad all this time—how to do soca in a different way. I’m not saying what I did was the correct recipe or the right formula, I just happened to be in the right place at the right time.

Soca music is known to have a certain tempo, a certain BPM, and it usually carries anywhere between ten and 10,000 instruments. This was a case where we stripped the music down and left five instruments in: bass, guitars, drums, piano and synths. "Differentology" was designed in way where it was easy to sing and more so remember. Soca music is stereotyped as only ever being about two things—wining or gyrating and jumping up. "Differentology" still told the story of Carnival, with the masqueraders, the sound systems, but yet it was able to translate into life itself. It could be used anywhere. I guess when you have those key components on your side, your music can work anywhere on planet earth. The sound and speed of soca was heading in one direction, and this song did the total opposite.

Speaking of the hyper BPM of the music, soca as a genre has now found itself aligned with EDM. How is EDM being received in Trinidad? EDM has always been a mainstay for Trinidad. Even before the term EDM, when it was called techno or house music, it was always big. Back then, I don’t think DJs even realized what they were doing when they played the music. It was easy to transition between the two genres because they had similar BPMs. They didn’t realize that the two would merge years later. But now, with the advent of Major Lazer and different producers, there are some very healthy integrations taking place between soca and EDM sides within the West Indian community. It is making for something very interesting that I think is going to impact the music world.


How was it working with Diplo and Major Lazer? For the "Differentology" remix, we didn’t actually work together, they just remixed the song. I performed with the whole crew when they came to Trinidad in September for the Major Lazer show. I interact with them over email and Twitter—they’re all cool. We were able to work together on another song, "It’s a Carnival". I was just invited to work with Major Lazor on another project, but that one I can’t talk about just yet.

Tell me about the Major Lazer Free The Universe tour stop in Trinidad. Were they well received? The show was sold out. I want to use the well-accepted carefully. Trinidad and Tobago has different music scenes for different audiences– the uptown crowd and the downtown crowd. Major Lazer fits in well with the uptown crowd. When they hit the stage, the place was packed and the energy was high. As a musician or entertainer, when that happens you don’t really see uptown or downtown, all you feel is the energy and that’s what you pay attention to. We were just joyous that that happened. People were concerned about a group like them coming to Trinidad, but what people don’t realize is how diverse and unique Trinidad really is.

What’s your performance schedule like during carnival season? From the first of January to the beginning of March, I do shows every weekend. Then for the last two weeks leading up to carnival, it’s shows every night and on the weekend its five or six shows a night. Each show is an hour-long set with a full band. So you’re talking about six hours of straight performing and that’s not even counting the travel time between each venue. It’s hectic, but it’s something that we’ve become immune to. When we first started, there were times when we’d black out or get tired, but now it’s nothing.

What are you plans for carnival 2014? My wife Fay-ann Lyons, who's also a soca artist, and I have started releasing new music for next year. I have "Red Light District", which is doing well already, "All O’ Dem" and of course "It’s a Carnival" with Major Lazer. Fay-ann just did a song with Richie Baretta called "Catch Me"– it’s so out there!

Can you describe the sound of the new album? The album will be a very unapologetic. What you tend to find, especially with soca artists, they tend to want to try new things, but you can feel and sense their safe zone and that they don’t want to go beyond it because they think they might get criticized or neglected by the scene on a whole. Fortunately for me, I went through all the ridicule and neglect when I first entered this business. I know how that feels, so it doesn’t matter anymore. If a new sound doesn’t work, well it just didn’t work, I’ll find a next thing to work. This album will capture all of the sounds of what soca is and what its going to be. It basically makes the statement that in the world of dancehall, pop, EDM and everything, there is a place for soca. If you don’t like it sorry, if you do we rolling.

Will it be similar to "Differentology"’s stripped down sound? I don’t want to say that it will be similar. There will be songs like that but we’re not specifically steering all the songs in the "Differentology" direction. Those songs are already doing what they should have done, so we're looking for other songs to do other things.

What are you looking forward for the new year? I'm really looking forward to seeing what will happen, with myself and with the music on a whole, now that there is a new found attention. I don't want to say that its only because of me, a lot has been going on with soca music even before me. I'm just playing a part. Now that we have record execs talking to artist again, all these producers from around the world want to work with soca artists, we're getting email saying people want to come to Trinidad for a month to study the musical scene and the style of writing– its a whole new movement. Personally, I'll continue looking for a new for the music to sound. It might sound impossible but its not, there's always the possibility of the new.

The music market in Trinidad is so closely tied to the carnival season and the Soca Monarch competitions, and is mainly driven by singles. Traditionally artists skip full albums, releases a handful of songs leading up to carnival and then just tour for the rest of the year. Is aiming at crossover success changing your output and the way you create music? It’s a weird cycle that we've adopted because of the season we try to cater to. When carnival is done, all the artists hit the road to facilitate the other carnivals around the world. Then when it's time again, there's this mad rush to book studio time and no one is saying let me put out a proper album. From since the old days of calypso, our scene has been driven by each artist having one song. Even though we had hundreds of calypsonians, everything was concentrated into just two months, as opposed to the American or European scene where you could have multiple artists releasing constantly songs. We were trapped in this model because it was thought that people wouldn't want to hear the music year round, but now that has changed, soca is played throughout the year in Trinidad. Artists are getting into releasing full albums. Holding prestigious titles like Road March or Soca Monarch doesn't have the value that it used to. Long time, if you win one of the competitions that would determine the year you have abroad. It doesn't work that way now, you have some of the biggest songs that aren't even taking part in the competition and the competition songs people don't want to hear them after the night that they win.

Do you still care about the titles? Nah, I don't. I grew myself out of it. It's evident what can happen. By drifting away from the contest era, I was able to broaden my horizons. Because when you're so concentrated on the competition, you leave little room to consider where the music can go after that. So Fay-ann and myself have pulled out of the competition race in order to focus on the music in different ways. We don't have to rely on Road March or Soca Monarch to get the music out. "Differentology" was the evidence of that.

Interview: Bunji Garlin