Professional musician, singer and songwriter Sharron Phillips of Mason Hall is on a mission to bring back the “essence” in soca music.
Phillips has produced five soca songs for Carnival 2018: Push Back on It, Road Call, Misbehaviour, Junction Dawg and Run Them out the Party.
An international jazz, soul, funk and techno artiste, who left Tobago for a musical career in Europe, having started singing at five, Phillips said soca was never on her to-do list, but after hearing lyrics for some of the 2018 songs, she felt there was a dire need to restore the “essence” to soca music, starting in Tobago.
She has been based in Tobago for the last three years, having injured her back, chest and face in 2015. While participating in the King and Queens Carnival competition as a costume designer, at the Shaw Park Cultural complex, she fell into an open manhole in the carpark. She said this was the darkest time in her life, at the peak of her career as a musician.
“There are no words to express what I have been through. When you cannot walk, talk, and have to eat out of a straw for ten months, it is very depressing. I was very frustrated, especially considering that most of my life was spent representing Tobago either in the form of music, culture or designing.
“I’m not proud of it but after this I became very suicidal…I did my best with what God blessed me with to make my island proud. It was heart-wrenching to know that at a time when I was doing something for the State, this happened and then everybody (authorities) acted like they didn’t care,” she said in an interview.
She said her zeal to sing, write and design was completely gone. “I hated this place, to be honest. There is a certain level of disdain that you adopt when you have sacrificed it all to represent what seems to be ungrateful people.
“I have never asked for any handouts to assist in the many years of my musical career living in Europe, representing the red, white and black. However, it was sad that I received no help when I got damaged; I decided to quit and shut down completely by choice,” she said.
Phillips said she was unable to sing for a while because of her injuries, which included a subsequent minor stroke.
“It took me a lot of therapy to accept that I am permanently like this now and I’ll look this way forever. Also…self-acceptance of my reality as a singer is that even if I am to start back singing, it would be painful to reach to that point I left off at,” she said.
In the midst of this dark moment in her life Phillips said her two children were her rays of light and the boost of strength she needed to lift pen to paper to produce music once more.
“My children were my biggest support. They told me that I always tell them if the world serves you lemons, make lemonade and sell it. Doesn’t matter what rock is thrown at you, use it as a foundation stone and keep going. They told me they would not let me shut down because I never taught them how to quit. Those words changed my life,” she said.
So, still recovering from emotional, physical and psychological pain, Philips decided to head into the Carnival 2018 fray head-on.
She calls this move “occupational therapy” – doing something to restore broken pieces in her life.
“I had to be a psychiatrist, a doctor, a lawyer, a teacher, everything with that mic in my hand. The mental inspiration for me would be more intense,” she said.
She said all five soca songs were written in four days in December and recorded in two days. Three Fridays ago, the first song was heard on radio stations in Tobago, as well as Trinidad, the UK and the USa. She said her expectations have been exceeded with the songs not being out more than a month now.
Her first recorded track, Push Back on It, is a groovy soca with an afro-beat mix.
“This song expresses how sweet and nice Carnival makes me feel. And when you hear this type of music all I want to do is push back, wine back, wine back, rock back, grind back and jam in my section. I decided to do that as it would be easy for everyone to remember and relate to. I want to show that a nice groovy soca doesn’t have to be slutty or derogatory in any way, but instead very melodic, that can portray the pure taste of soca with no mixes or fusions with other genres.”
Road Call is one of Phillips' power soca tunes.
“It seems to me like the Carnival is becoming watered down, because the real power, passion and drive behind the soca vibes is being extinguished. This is where the Road Call song came from, because it's the whole road the bands need to take over for Carnival.”
“We in the Tobago Soca Monarch have not really had the essence of power soca. In Tobago, it is still more reserved and laid-back. In Tobago. the Carnival culture is dying and the reason for that is we are trying to use the influence of our folk culture on the national Carnival, which does not carry such.
She sees Tobago culture as heritage, which has its time, "and Carnival also has its time. The two do not go hand in hand unless a costume is being created.
“In order to push the culture, we must give it room to grow. That is why I decided not to include the folk but to allow the culture to run.”
Junction Dawg, another power soca mixed with electric dance music (EDM), focuses on the Mason Hall junction near Shorty’s Bar, a popular liming spot for villagers.
“It’s like no other place to vibes. So 'Meet me by the junction, I’m down by the bar and we having a time.' It’s basically calling out everyone to meet me by the junction. Plus, I was born on Easterfield Road junction – I am a junction dawg as well.” Phillips said she has since received tremendous praise from Mason Hall villagers for the production.
Run Them Out the Party is a song “where we don’t condone the bad behaviour in festive events.
"So, for those who like to fight in the party, this is to let you know we are taking our party back. We are not going to let others make it uncomfortable for those who spent their money to have a good time.
“Also for those who don’t like to spend their money for drinks but asking for the biggest drink and pouring the most with the nastiest attitude,” she added.
Her last two verses are for “the perverts and freaks who are in the dark corners aiming at helpless drunk young ladies”: "'If you touch me, I will touch you and leave your whole body black and blue.' That’s not a threat, it’s a promise.’
She said her inspiration for the song comes from the reports of an increase in violence against women in TT.
“Misbehaviour is more melodic, it has a feel to it that sends me back to that year of Calypso Rose’s Carnival, which I am hoping the nation is striving to regain,” said Phillips.
Nowshe has entered the soca arena, even if for the first time, she plans on contesting the Tobago Soca Monarch and the International Soca Monarch 2018 competitions, and to vie for the Tobago Road March title.
For Phillips, the Tobago soca she is doing is for the culture, for the youth and for the island.
“I don’t think we have to lose the culture to incorporate the youth. They have done it bad for too many years. We need to preserve the culture in order to market it to the world. We complaining that tourism is dying: tourism is a product. and entertainment is one part of that product. We shouldn’t have to compromise the standard and quality of the art form to incorporate the youths. They must come in and maintain, develop, not destroy.”