The dread locs are gone, replaced by a clean-shaven head. The street-cred threads have given way to slick suits. Has the fireman gone soft?
Apparently not. Instead, says ragga-soca artist extraordinaire Bunji Garlin (Ian Alvarez), he’s now grown up. And - watch out - he’s getting ready to transport you to the Fourth Galaxy, a dimension of his own design, where nothing is ordinary. This inter-galactic mode sees Garlin coining a whole new vocabulary and, whilst not entirely relinquishing his fireman image, a newer persona is emerging: the iSpaniard, whose, “Swagger is prolific”. The artist recently spoke to Soca News about reinvention, rivalry and the rise of ragga-soca.
Four of your current releases (Irregular, Alcohol, Tun Up and Cosmic Shift) are on riddims. How do you decide which riddims to work on?
I feel for the vibe in the riddim. If after the first three times I don't feel it, I leave. Music shouldn't be forced, it's a natural mystic – it works its own magic.
Do you ever feel left out if you don't feature on a successful riddim?
No, not at all.
There's been an explosion in soca riddims in the last five years or so. What would you say is driving this?
A few things, but mainly the fact that it saves time and money (lol) and the world seems to be heading into a crisis with both.
Some say these riddims stifle creativity and the variety of music being produced. What's your view?
People will have problems with ‘riddims’ in soca because our music was always a one-to-one art (one song to its own music).
What other material are you working on for 2012? Is there a theme/focus for your music this year?
Well, I'll be working on a lot more material for this season, that will go beyond the festival timeline. And yes, there is a theme, which is what I would say is the Presidential/iOS movement, hence the newly added title 'iSpaniard' (I am the Spaniard).
Who are some of the producers you have on board, and are you collaborating with any other artists?
So far, I have worked with some new blood and they have great vibe and spirit. Jrod Records and Sheriff Music, they are some focussed young people that I have a lot of heart and respect for. I will also be working with Precision Productions, Madmen Productions, Shaft Vibes Music, Iam Smash and, of course, from my own Asylum Band, the keyboardist Keston Patrick, producer of the X6 Riddim.
As for artists, I have collaborated with Kerwin Dubois, and will be working with a younger artist named Revelation, who has some extreme lyrical skill. [I’m also working with] three females, one young in the game and two experienced.
Will you be releasing an album?
At the rate I am doing music, it seems I may do an album. The amount of songs, I think, will determine that, and I am dropping one new tune every two weeks.
Will you be competing in the International Soca Monarch contest? If yes, why do you keep going back to it?
I cannot answer on if I am going back, just as times before. But what keeps me going back is the contest is the rush that comes with the atmosphere. To defy the odds, to prove the point, to snatch victory from defeat, to feel the soul of the victory after weeks of planning and hassle and things going wrong or unexpected, and then have a chance to turn around through skill and knowledge of that arena. The truth is, not even the prize, whatever it may be, could match the feeling of winning that. Ask any Soca Monarch.
Do you plan to enter any other competitions?
Are you ever tempted to stop competing, either for good or a season?
Yes, I want to stop competing - and be able to bring a show and performance or the same level or better through the natural strength of what I do. I am a combat artist by attributes, but by design I am more, and the purpose of natural design will always claw its way out no matter how long stifled.
Will you be performing with the Asylum Band during the season?
Yes, of course.
There appears to be a rivalry between you and Machel Montano, which surfaced at Carnival 2011. Is this true? Or are you friends?
I will answer in the only way I can which is truthful. We are not enemies. We are not friends. We have different points of view, and different concepts on how things should / would / could be done. What happened in 2011 was something that existed in the art naturally and it was 1) forgotten and, 2) misunderstood terribly.
I carry no malice to him or any other artist. I have no time for malice. I have a family to focus on, and I can't spare any energy to hate any artist because everyone has his / her way of getting things done. I may not agree with some concepts, but I am not God either.
Given how competitive the business is, how easy is it to be friends with other soca artists?
It is very easy if you know what is given. People in soca will defend their own fiercely, and many times without even thinking. During competition time it gets overwhelming, but it somehow irons itself out.
Mixing business and family...
Your wife also competes against you in carnival competitions. How do you both handle one placing higher than the other?
We have a very clear and simple understanding of the nature of things: there's position number one, and then there are all the positions after that. Find your fit (lol). You can't always win and you can't always lose.
What are the challenges of being married to a fellow artist - and the positives?
What would normally be a challenge for a lot is actually no challenge at all. We have been taught that as a male in music you must look available and many males in the industry will find a marriage hindering in that aspect. In truth, though, what I have seen through my marriage makes that statement a myth because I have never seen so many women try for a chance (way more than when I was single) and don't care about wedlock. They just want a fling and go. When Fay and I talk about this we are amazed for hours. The positive is, you learn from the artist / spouse and from yourself, because I never could adjust my life like this, and it's a great lesson and more.
You and Fay-Ann are still fairly new parents. What have been some of the highs and lows you've faced so far being a working father in the music industry?
The only low is when I have to leave Syri [pronounced Serai] behind to go for a show in another country, and Fay feels it worse because the mommy mode kicks in heavy, and that is natural. Everything else with the baby is a high. It's joyous feelings non-stop, inspiration to go on. It's filling to know after years of searching that there was / is purpose to my life.
Do you plan to have more children?
With your shaven head and slick suits, you are projecting a much softer image than in the past decade. Have you softened or changed as a person? How about as an artist?
I am a more focussed human being now. I am also an adult now. Back then I was basically learning through my own observations and what I thought was the way of approach and doing stuff. Some backfired; some stained me for years; some helped me grow, which now affects what I do as an artist. The artist is a job, but it's the same body I use to do both forms of existing. So both sides – human and artist – will be affected.
Your explanation for cutting your locs was simple. But, given that locs are associated with African militancy and consciousness, did your locs ever mean more to you than just a hairstyle?
I started growing them just for style's sake. Then, at its length and researching and reading on how locks played their role in history, I realised I am in something here way bigger than what I thought it was. People's lives were challenged, some even destroyed, because of this. So I kind of tamed myself to be in sync with what locks meant. Eventually, I just decided ‘hey I did it, now it can go’.
You've coined some new terms which you showcase on Irregular. Could you explain their meanings?
I have a concept called 4ourth Galaxy, which basically means I am not anything the normal way anymore. My approach must seem like it's from a whole other dimension as far as a fourth galaxy and because I say irregular, I flipped the ‘f’ for a ‘4’. I had the idea, and Fay said go all out on it. So I just thought up some crazy concept lines and used them. It plays with your mind a bit; after all, you’re supposed to be able to have fun with this.
It seems to signal the end of the 'fireman’ period of your musical journey and the start of a new phase. Is that correct?
Well, yes. But I think the term ‘fireman’ will stay, no matter what phase I shift to.
As a person and as an artist, what goals are you focussed on achieving now?
One of my goals right now is to see the sub-genre ragga-soca rise to recognition and proper acceptance in Trinidad. We travel all over the world, and it is never rejected. It allows for some artists who are skilled to end up in forums where another genre is the main. [But] we then fit in, and then stand out.
The truth, no matter how offensive it may sound, is that there are many places that soca music goes and it is frowned upon. Ragga-soca ends up in that same arena and they take [it] up and [this] automatically brings it full circle to where they accept soca in its natural form. I can say it and not feel like I'm disrespecting anyone because I have seen it happen all the time. So you see there is a purpose to artists like myself existing - maybe to go in and make headway for the real deal to come in on grounds well-prepared, or to pick up the few on the sidelines who missed the real vibe.
*Since this interview both Bunji and his wife Fay-Ann bowed out of taking part in this year's international Soca Monarch competition.
Click to listen to some of Bunji's 2012 carnival releases