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The 2013 hit “Differentology” was his international breakthrough, but Trinidadian soca star Bunji Garlin is no overnight success. Lifestyle Caribbean looks back at Bunji’s rise from the pavements of Arima to the world stage, while Mark Lyndersay offers a personal take on the twenty-year evolution of the artiste’s sound

From the mid-1980s through the early 90s, Jamaican dub, and later dancehall, dominated the musical landscape in Trinidad and Tobago outside Carnival season. DJs like Dr Hyde, Downtown Outlaws, Chinese Laundry, Howie T, Papa Rocky, and Starchild, to name a few, gave life to this musical import with their popular mixtapes, and the nation’s maxi taxis — or minibuses — were the primary spaces where these tapes got played.

Outfitted with massive speakers and sophisticated sound systems, the maxi taxis, which make up the bulk of Trinidad and Tobago’s public transport, were like clubs on wheels, with booming bass, and sometimes jam-packed with more schoolchildren than their official twenty-five seats could possibly hold.

On the East-West Corridor, the long urban stretch from Port of Spain to the eastern borough of Arima, maxis with hip names like Hysteria, Survivor (1, 2, and 3), Spoil Child, Red Fury, and Simple But Effective banged out hits from Tiger, Buju Banton, Super Cat, Yellow Man, Shabba Ranks, Tenor Saw, and Barrington Levy — influencing young minds enraptured with the staccato beats and rudeboy lyrics.

Ian Alvarez was one of those students, riding the maxis, soaking in the music, unaware that this would be the foundation upon which he would launch a musical career. Known today as Bunji Garlin, the Arima native is winning worldwide popularity as a crossover soca artist, thanks to his 2013 hit “Differentology”, but long before that, he was a product of the dancehall environment that swept the country.

“St Augustine, El Dorado, Arima Comprehensive . . . schools on the East-West Corridor had talent when it came to dancehall,” he says. “We were influenced by the maxi taxi culture.” Himself a student of Arima Comprehensive Secondary, Bunji found his interest in chanting and freestyling developing in his last year at school, around the age of sixteen.

“Nobody at that time was thinking of a career,” he says. “First of all, we were doing a different style in Trinidad and Tobago. If you did soca, you had a chance to get out there. We were doing something alien to our culture — we were emulating a style that didn’t come from here and adapting well,” he explains, crediting the slower-paced Trinidadian extempo style, the “ultimate freestyle,” for that easy adaptation.

“No one had dreams that we could do this in our future. No one at that time was even thinking about getting more girls to like us, we were just thinking of opening our mouths, saying something and watching the crowd go wild,” Bunji continues. “That was the big thing. Every time you make a new line . . . it says a lot about how people see you and what you represent.”

Liming in Arima, and impressing the crowd gathered to hear these schoolboys drop lyrics on the spot, was nothing but fun for Bunji and his friends — until an empty KFC box changed their perception.

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