Soca icons Bunji Garlin (Ian Alvarez) and Fay-Ann Lyons-Alvarez have always done things in their timing and in their own way. Bunji had to fight for his brand of soca to be accepted in main party circuits and by many of the older generations, and to some extent, the struggle even continues today. And he and Lyons-Alvarez opposed the odds when many said that two such dynamic energies were bound to fail as a couple in the soca arena.
Never conforming to trends in music, or societal pressure, seizing the Road March title, called the Visit Trinidad 2023 Road March this year, with their mega-hit “Hard Fete” was no different. The two did so with a party song that did not necessarily fit the Road March mould.
The win marks the second Road March title for Bunji who captured the accolade in 2019 alongside Machel Montano and Skinny Fabulous (Gamal Doyle). He shares the title with his wife, Lyons-Alvarez, whose name was also registered on the Road March entry form and who is credited as co-writer and a co-executive producer of the song.
A four-time International Soca Monarch champion, Bunji told Sunday Guardian from overseas via WhatsApp call that winning the Road March felt a bit odd since Road March has never been his area of focus and that he was still processing everything.
“It feels good but slightly strange because Road March is not really my scene. The whole approach is different. Soca Monarch is more my thing,” he said, reminding of the time he sang that he would never win a Road March in his 2004 composition “Warrior Cry”.
He said when he penned “Hard Fete”, aided by Lyons-Alvarez, he never set out to write a song for the title of the tune played most often at the judging points along the Carnival Monday and Tuesday parade route. Produced by Gregory "DJ Avalanche" Hodge, Bunji and Lyons-Alvarez, the rousing “Hard Fete” was a power soca “from the people for the people.” It was meant to rekindle the old vibes and energy that ruled the fetes in an era before social media and cell phones became distractions while people partied, Bunji said, pointing to Thursday and Friday throwbacks he and his wife would post regularly on their respective social media accounts of the frenzied vibes in the crowd when they won various titles over the years.
He said he was inspired by the comments of some from younger generations who would express amazement at the euphoric atmosphere at such events and wish that they could experience the feeling.
“And then every now and again you would see comments in the pandemic that people couldn't wait to get back out there, and Fay always used to say: Ian you need to put the injection back in the ground. Her whole focus was getting back into that ground mode because the energy comes from the ground.
“The focus for us, too, was to be truthful to the art form itself, to the music itself, and not to any particular area or certain events because what you find happening a lot is that people are making music to fit into a space in order not to be left out. Our thing was: Aye, this music is bigger than all of us, bigger than all events, promoters etc. Let's do it the way it's supposed to be done and the reward would be in and of itself,” he said.
In the first real return to Carnival this year in the aftermath of a punishing pandemic, the song took on a life of its own wherever it was played.
“So when it started going down this road [becoming a runaway hit], we just poured the energy behind it,” Bunji recalled.
They had even registered the soca hit a bit later than most of the other contenders. It would eventually be declared as having been heard 135 times at judging points on the road by TUCO.
He said what also made the experience a little strange, as well, was that while he and Lyons-Alvarez had taken a short lime near a big truck on the outskirts of the Savannah and had walked across the grass on Carnival Monday evening, they really had not gotten a chance to appreciate the full vibe on the ground as in previous years since they had been preparing to fly to New York to receive Young Gifted and Black ICON awards on Ash Wednesday night.
At the Black tie event presented during Black History Month which recognises African-American and Caribbean individuals who are ambassadors of entrepreneurial spirit and who continue to pursue success, Bunji and Lyons-Alavarez both were awarded in the field of Caribbean Music; and Bunji was inducted into their Hall of Fame. The awards came with proclamations from the US House of Representatives and Certificates of Recognition by the city of New York.
Despite being unable to fully soak up the energy during the two days that determine the people's road song for the season, he said he was appreciative of the support of his wife, his team, and his numerous fans who had contributed to “Hard Fete's” Road March success.
One lady's comment on Twitter some weeks ago had really stuck with him, he said. “She said: Sir, we are going to get you over that finish line. That text stuck with me. It was like the people pick you up and go with you.”
Emerging over the years as the First Couple of Soca, the power duo share the spotlight complementing and enhancing each other on and off the stage. Each is seen allowing the other to do his or her thing and commending each other during their explosive performances and they build on each other's strengths while balancing out each other's weaknesses.
The two have developed a fierce fan base which they continue to cultivate on social media. There, they consistently uplift each other, with Lyons-Alvarez losing no time in encouraging her husband on social media recently in the lead-up to the Road March. Bunji enjoyed a pivotal moment in his career in 2013 with the international breakthrough of his hit “Differentology” for which he received the Soul Train Award for Best International Performance. The powerhouse pair also balance hectic travelling schedules with the management of their Viking Band and other businesses, and nurturing their 13-year-old daughter, Syri.
The road to success has had its bumps, however. Bunji faced heavy criticism for many years for changing the course of soca, infusing it with reggae, dancehall, rap and hip-hop features after the styles of early ragga soca proponents General Grant and KMC (Ken Marlon Charles). Influenced by such styles which he grew up hearing, and spitting from age 16 in the schoolyard of his alma mater Arima Senior Comprehensive, Bunji sharpened his chanting and freestyling chops against his peers before small crowds of mainly youths on the streets of Arima.
Erupting onto the soca scene in 1999, he lit up the International Soca Monarch stage with fluorescent green hair, outfit and shoes, pelting out his first hit “Send Dem Riddim Crazy” on a rhythm by then-dancehall and hip-hop producer Darryl Braxton. Over the years, Garlin put his stamp on a new brand of soca, evolving from De Girls Dem Darlin', dreadlocked and deep-voiced into the Fireman blazing the place with sizzling, tongue-twisting lyrics to the Black Spaniard and then to the current Viking of Soca, continuing to experiment with lashing lyrics and innovative melodies.
International Soca Monarch his famous battleground, along his professional journey, his first win came as a tie with Iwer George in 2002 when he sang “We From De Ghetto”. He would run away with the title back-to-back in 2004 and 2005 with “Warrior Cry” and “Blaze De Fire” respectively, and leave the competitors to stumble in his flames again in 2008 with a re-make of Maestro's “Fiery”.
By then, the lyrical king of soca and Lyons-Alvarez had emerged as a couple in the industry, having appeared on stage together and having tied the knot in 2006. In 2009, Bunji held the other contenders at bay, taking second place with “Clear De Road” while clearing the way for his wife to seize the title with a scintillating performance of “Meet Super Blue” while heavily pregnant. Her compelling voice and skilful command of audiences also helped bring Lyons-Alvarez the Groovy Soca Monarch title that night with “Heavy T Bumpa”, proving her mettle to her detractors who said she could not compete while expecting a baby.
A Road March winner in 2003, 2008 and 2009, Lyons-Alvarez had her beginnings in school performances and made her debut in soca at the age of 21. With her father soca legend Superblue (Austin Lyons), the ViQueen is a dynamo on and off the stage.
Apart from her exceptional entertainment career and bringing legendary moments to International Soca Monarch like Bunji, the soca superstar continues to hold down motherhood, negotiating with record labels and other giants in the industry, being a wife, leading her venture, the Carnival pump up to the Lady Chancellor Hill, and even organised and produced an International Soca Monarch show in 2019 to resounding reviews.
The proud mother shared that their daughter, who was delivered while her mother was still at the height of her Soca Monarch triumph, was a happy teen, interested in art, animation, musicals, and had a unique understanding of voice-overs and voice-acting. Lyons-Alvarez said though her daughter does her back-and-forth lyrical bouts with her father, she was like “an old soul” when it comes to music, with a passion for listening to oldies from such greats as Calypso Rose and '80s dance music. Syri sang with her mother at her St Joseph's Convent, Port-of-Spain Carnival jump-up recently.
Also in the talented family are Lyons-Alvarez's sister, 2020 Calypso Monarch and soca entertainer Terri Lyons and soca star Patrice Roberts who is Bunji's second cousin.
Bunji told Sunday Guardian that maturity and actually liking each other contributed to their continued professional and personal partnership. Lyons-Alvarez said that especially being a woman and having to emerge from the shadows of her father's fame was difficult but finding a happy union with her life and business partner Bunji and being able to leave a strong cultural legacy for her daughter had been rewarding.
Bunji Garlin and his wife Faye-Ann Lyons perform during the BSquare concert series at Woodford Square, Port-of-Spain earlier this month.
Q&A with Bunji and Fay-Ann
Back in the day and for a long time you had to fight for your music to be accepted in mainstream fetes etc, would you consider winning with “Hard Fete” a sort of vindication?
Bunji Garlin: I don't want to use the word 'vindication' per se because as far as I'm concerned the fight is always there. As long as we exist, there will always be a perception of what contemporary soca should or could sound like. Anything that is different is going to face questions; in my case, it would be more obvious because I might come across with a little more grit and that may not go over well with everyone.
So how would you class your brand of music nowadays, as a sort of neo-ragga soca?
Bunji Garlin: Not “Hard Fete”, maybe other songs like “Up on The Cooler”, and other Viking tracks. Not “Hard Fete”. It fits right in with all the other power socas of the past that didn't have all that melody and so on, was just raw power.
You've been able to balance your career with being a mum, and wife, dealing with record producers, and the fitness venture. How are you able to do all of this?
Lyons-Alvarez: Firstly, you have to like what you're doing because when it gets tough, you're not going to go back and do it again. The stress that comes with it is going to throw you off and you're going to quit in the middle of the project or the mission. So, I like it, I actually like what I do.
The other thing for me is prioritising. A lot of times things get crisscrossed because you don't prioritise and structure what you have to do. I know that people would have seen that for the Carnival, we went from fetes to our daughter's school to support her for the Carnival jump-up they had and even the Sports Day, so for us, it's prioritising and finding a balance.
We saw your abs even back when you first came out, did you always have this knack for fitness?
Lyons-Alvarez: Well, I grew up in the bush. (Laughter) Country living is a different type of living. Back in the day, you had to walk a lot. You had to be fit because I had to walk to and from school. I went to Fyzabad Composite so sometimes I would walk from Fyzabad to Siparia Road (a 40-minute walk). So you either made it something that stressed you out or something you did in the fastest time. I grew up bathing in the river, going in the bush for fruits and hunting, so it was natural to be fit. We didn't have cars–I grew up in a small village called Thick Village–, we didn't have washing machines, dishwashers and then I made it a thing to do activities in school. So, it went from something you did because of necessity to something you incorporated into your lifestyle.
Bunji, journeying back a bit, would you say another crucial point in your career and life was when you and Fay-Ann were emerging as a soca couple?
Bunji Garlin: Yeah! We had both established our individual careers and we really didn't know what the journey would be like being together. We started to do collabs, and exchange ideas, so naturally Fay would rub off on me with ideas. I would rub off on Fay with ideas. Things we would not have experienced in the world of music, we started to experience. We sort of flowed over into each other's cup musically. So that was a pivotal moment because we had new energy and opportunities to visit new spaces and see new responses.
All sorts of feelings and views from different people happened inside of this but we did what we had to do. In our society, you know you have some fathers encouraging the males to go out and live wild and some mothers that encourage their sons and daughters to go out and live. We had surpassed, in terms of maturity, that kind of expectation. People thought we were still in that mindset and they couldn't understand that we had already navigated that. The comments didn't faze us.
It all worked because we didn't get together for a show. We fell for each other because we genuinely like each other. We feel something for each other and they realised these are two people that love each other and want to do things their way.
And Fay Ann, Bunji said part of it is that you like each other and had maturity, what do you feel keeps the partnership going?
Lyons-Alvarez: He's right, it's been nearly 20 years since we started dating and for us, if it wasn't real, if it's fake, this is the longest-running fake relationship I've seen. (Laughter) you can see it's not, we have a whole kid, started a whole family, a whole business life and sometimes people don't understand, you pick and you don't pick correctly and sometimes what you pick works. You can't have people subscribe to a particular formula because what might work for us, may not work for you. For us, it was always a real relationship with real intentions and purpose. Once you start the right way, the right things will always materialise in the end…We wish other people would experience what we experience in our family life. It would change a lot of perspectives.
You built on your dad, Superblue's legacy, but of course, you forged your own path. Tell me about that.
Lyons-Alvarez: He definitely opened doors for me not just as an artiste but as a daughter because I was 100 per cent recognised as Superblue's daughter when I came out. And as grateful as I am, for me, that's not a place I wanted to stay–not Superblue's daughter or Bunji's wife. Anybody who can't see past those two men because of their greatness is not looking hard enough at me. I decided I wanted to create my own legacy. I can't hand my daughter's grandfather's legacy to her. I can't even pass Bunji's legacy to my daughter. I have to pass mine on to her and Bunji has to do the same.
As much as I appreciate and love the doors my father has opened, I also have to say that people do not understand how difficult it is to be a female and have such a great man be your father. You have to work to get out from under the umbrella and there are a lot of kids that get swallowed by their parent's greatness. Sometimes society doesn't see you as an individual, they always compare. But luckily for me, when they compare, I have the same kinds of accolades–Road March, Soca Monarch–same as my husband, as well.