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SOCA OR DIE: THE MOVEMENT & THE FETES TAKING OVER TORONTO

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BY: MURISSA BARRINGTON 

In less than 72 hours, every last ticket to Dr. Jay’s Doh Cry Ah Leavin’ event is sold out.

The annual event, also known as DCAL, is a sort of going away party for the award-winning DJ who travels to Trinidad every year for the island’s Carnival festivities. The fete (soca party), acts as a teaser for folks also going to Trinidad and to give a taste of Carnival for those who stay in the city.  

This year, DCAL falls on a frigid, snowy Friday night. That doesn’t stop party-goers from lining up outside of Toronto’s Rebel nightclub with tickets in hand. By 11 p.m., the crowd is filing into the massive venue with enough room to hold over 4,000 soca fans from across the GTA. Some in only winter jackets, short shorts and sneakers. 

Soca is the rhythmic, hypnotizing party music synonymous with carnival culture in Trinidad and Tobago, and other islands throughout the Caribbean. It’s also the high-energy music heard blasting from the floats on Lakeshore Blvd. during the Toronto Caribbean Carnival (a.k.a. Caribana) parade that celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. More than 1.3 million people come out to the carnival each year for a joyful celebration of the Caribbean’s culture and their people – who, according to the 2011 National Household Survey, make up one of Canada’s largest non-European immigrant populations. For those who feel the month-long celebration just isn’t enough, soca fetes in Toronto provide them with a much-needed fix all year ‘round.  

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The man whose soca “prescriptions” have gone worldwide is Dr. Jay de Soca Prince. Despite playing the role of both DJ and event planner, Dr. Jay looks at ease in his backstage dressing room at Rebel. Many would be surprised to know that de Soca Prince didn’t really get into soca music until the mid-’90s. 

“When you’re a teenager it’s like, you want to be into what your friends are into and a lot of my friends were into more of the hip-hop and house music…and at that time, that was kind of where I wanted to be,” says Dr. Jay.

Born in Toronto into a musical household, Dr. Jay’s parents would play soca records in the winter to remind them of the warmth of back home. This led to him getting a job at a record store, sparking his passion for music. Today, Dr. Jay is the biggest soca DJ in the nation, upholding Caribbean culture through his work over the past 25 years. His widely-popular mix show “Soca Therapy” made its debut in 2001 on Toronto’s first urban music radio station, Flow 93.5FM, known today as The Move. The show quickly grew a massive following and Dr. Jay became known for his phrase “aye, aye, aye!” whenever he played the highest quality soca coming out of the Caribbean. 

Quality is also important to Dr. Jay when planning his events. 

“Personally, I don’t try to settle for, ‘it’s a regular club I’ll just do whatever,’ nah, nah, nah! This is Doh Cry Ah Leavin’. Let me make sure we get the guy who won the Red Bull [ting] and its DJ Puffy and let’s go all out…For me it’s important to really try to exceed every single time what we do.”

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Dr. Jay looks out at the sold out crowd at DCAL 22.

Since creating trademark fetes such as DCAL and Soca or Die, Dr. Jay has been able to take his events as far as Berlin, Germany and the Cayman Islands. Still, he says there’s something special about fetes in his hometown. What sets Toronto  apart is how people celebrate and embrace the many different cultures of the city, he says.

“To be able to have an event at a club like Rebel where they just had people like Lil Jon here and all kind of big EDM DJs and hip-hop shows and stuff; we’re able to do a soca event of that kind of level here,” says Dr. Jay.  “It shows the progression of the music.” 

For newcomers, the soca fete experience is best described as happiness, says Dr. Jay. 

“It’s just one of those things where if you have an open mind, even if you don’t know any of the songs, when you come to one of these fetes you’re going to catch a vibe. It’s so infectious.’’ 

Soon enough, Dr. Jay is on the go again. Special guest DJ Puffy is on his way to Rebel and the building is almost packed. Dr. Jay sends a few texts before heading out to make sure the party is running smoothly. 

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In the thick of the crowd, Rhondel Marshall dances with females and greets friends who pass by. Born in Canada, Marshall was still regularly exposed to his family’s Trinidadian culture. Similar to Dr. Jay, Marshall didn’t warm to soca until after his late teens. Known by his 12 thousand Instagram followers as @itsrhondy, Marshall has since become a regular face in the fete scene, either partying or modelling costumes at carnival band launches across the city.

“I go to fetes to relieve stress, dance with women who love the music, enjoy the music and…to preserve what little culture we do have here in Ontario for the Caribbean Diaspora.”

Lately though, the 25-year-old says a change in the fete scene has caused him to go to fewer parties.

“Now if I’m thinking fete, I’m thinking soca.”

“When I go there and I hear other genres or I hear too much of another genre, that’s [gonna] make me think what the hell, was I lied to?”

Marshall says he feels the younger crowd attending the fetes want a wider variety of music played and as a result the culture is becoming watered down. Because of this, he only attends the bigger events now compared to the weekly fetes he attended before. Inside DCAL, DJ Puffy plays a versatile set that includes hip-hop, reggae and dancehall for a seemingly pleased crowd.

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Fete goers of all kinds show up with flags representing their home country.

Back in the early days of feteing, Ryerson Caribbean studies professor Camille Hernandez-Ramdwar says a different issue plagued the scene when she stopped going.

“In the early 2000’s, I remember going to soca fetes and beginning to see things like a helicopter circling after the fete is over and shining a light in the parking lot,” says Hernandez-Ramdwar.

“Or I remember distinctly a soca fete where Rupee had come…and he got on the stage and as soon as he got on, the lights (came on) and the cops came in and it was like OK the fete’s done. You started to see the police coming in because this is a black space. That was the only reason.” 

In 2008, The Canadian Journal of Cultural Studies published a paper by Hernandez-Ramdwar that examined the concept of “Feteing as Cultural Resistance” and the soca posse in Toronto’s Caribbean Diaspora. They found people in the fete scene were trying to assert their identity as Caribbean, rather than as exclusively black. They also found that cultural outsiders in the fete were creating friction. The women, who would wine (a style of dance that involves gyrating and rolling your hips) in the parties felt disrespected by these men who seemed to view their dancing and clothing as an invitation to be groped.

“They couldn’t deal with the really strong independence of Caribbean women who will tell you, ‘Get off. Why you trying to wine on me?’” says Hernandez.

The narrative has since changed and people of all ethnicities proudly make up the city’s fete scene.

“We’re inclusive. It’s not one of those fetes where different cultures are made to feel alienated. I’m seeing different cultures in the front row and nobody’s pushing them like, ‘Yo what are you doing? Get out of here. This is not for you,’ It’s not that kind of a vibe.”

–  Dr. Jay.

Filipino-Canadian RJ Cayetano agrees. The 28-year-old technician who moved to Canada when he was 10 years old, has been a fete-goer for the last 15 years.

“In (the) area where I grew up, most of my friends were from the islands, so I kind of [vibes’d] into it,” he says.

When Cayetano first came on the scene, he noticed he was one of the only people of non-Caribbean descent regularly attending the parties. He says it’s nice to see that a lot more people are joining the community now.

Before he started going to fetes, Cayetano says he was short-tempered and often got into fights at nightclubs.

“I realized that it’s not about trouble (at fetes), it’s about having a good time,” he says. “It pretty much made me a happier guy.”

Cayetano and his best-friend Ray, who he met several years ago, bonded over their love of partying and soca. The pair would eventually call themselves “The Double R” and go to almost every fete in the city.

“Rain, shine, snow, hail. We’ve been through it,” says Cayetano.

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Inside DCAL, the throbbing crowd appears to be mostly 23 years and under. Dr. Jay attributes it to the Caribbean’s cool factor right now. 

“Back in my day, I didn’t want to go to school with like, curry chicken in a Thermos or Pelau … But now it’s cool. The whole Caribbean culture is a cool thing. Having Nicki Minaj and people who are proud to be from the Caribbean … We didn’t have that.” 

Just last year, more than 15 singles by mainstream musicians had the sounds and styles of Caribbean music. Songs like dancehall-heavy Work by Rihanna, Sorry by Justin Bieber, and more recently, Shape of You by Ed Sheeran, have all spent weeks at number one on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart. Musical group Major Lazer have based many of their tracks on dancehall and soca sounds. The group has collaborated on songs with soca artists like Machel Montano and Bunji Garlin.  Some critics wonder if mainstream musicians are even exploiting the music. All the while, soca continues to grow and evolve, picking up elements from EDM, afro-beats and dancehall along the way. 

At 1 a.m., DJ Puffy is introduced on stage as “a DJ who defends sweet soca music.” The Barbados-native’s skillful mixing of soca with electronic beats and his control of the crowd is what earned him the title of Red Bull’s 2016 Thre3style World Champion. The competition crowns the world’s best party-starting DJ. 

Soon enough, smartphones come out and cameramen scramble to capture DJ Puffy diving off the stage and crowd-surfing back to the front. 

It’s a contrast to the tall fences on Lakeshore during Caribana, separating performer from spectator in a way that some feel is unnatural. Only a couple months away from the festival’s 50th anniversary, it’s still unclear what will be done to solve the recurring issues at the Caribana parade.

Hernandez-Ramdwar remembers when the parade was on University Avenue and says the problems began when it moved to Lakeshore. 

“When they put up the police barricades, you really began to see and feel this division now between people who were officially in Caribana, who were the masqueraders, and [those] who were on the sidelines,” says Hernandez-Ramdwar. 

As fences grow taller, the more people are determined to storm the parade. The most recent attempt by organizers to stop stormers was by charging spectators $20 to get anywhere near the parade action. On both sides, spectators and masqueraders are dissatisfied with the parade’s organization. A petition on Change.org created shortly after last year’s parade demands that the Festival Management Committee be replaced by a new committee. The petition is 307 votes shy of its 1,500 goal.

Marshall says he looks forward to seeing how effectively the stormers, who disrespect the integrity of the parade, will be dealt with this year.  For now, though, he’s surrounded by the thousands at Rebel who appreciate the culture. 

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After a string of high tempo tracks leave people sweaty and out-of-breath, steelpan-like drums fill Rebel as Calypso by Nutron begins to play. “I feel like they trick me with the calypso. Like they inject it straight in meh blood.” Eyes close and arms raise as people sing along, “Woy yo, Woy yo, it’s soca or die.”

The phrase soca or die is a spin off of the Vote or Die campaign during the 2008 U.S. elections. Today it’s a line of branded merchandise, parties across the globe and for many, a way of life.

“I believe soca or die means soca or nothing at all,” says Marshall, who hopes to see exclusively soca music fetes make a comeback.

Regardless of the various issues and differing opinions within the soca community, there is one factor above all that remains unchanged. The love of the music. It’s what keeps fete-goers like Marshall coming back every time.

“There’s a corn soup man who comes outside of every fete,” says Dr. Jay, “Even -3, it’s snowing, you’re going to see the dread outside … I think the music is what is allowing all these people to earn a living… and keep the culture going.

“It’s everything to me. This is my music, my culture, my life. This is what I do.” 

Video Courtesy of  DrJayTV via YouTube

At 4 a.m. DCAL is over. The DJ’s play their final song for night – “Full Extreme” a breakout hit by Ultimate Rejects.

“The city could bun (burn) down, we jammin’ still. The Economy could bun down, we jamming still,” roars vocalist Maximus Dan.

With all of the negativity in the world right now, a song to dance to and a call to remain positive is just what people need. So, when looking for an escape, head to the nearest fete or even put on some soca music and find that in spite of everything, we “jammin’ still.”

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