January 3, 2018

Words by Meg Prosper
Photos by Sean Michael Field

Soca music has always had the strangest effect on people at a gathering. At the drop of a rhythm, partygoers are ready to pelt waist for their dear lives.

In recent years, soca has evolved into so many new forms and sub-genres, it’s been hard to track them all. Sometimes elements from EDM music are used to rock a fete. Other times a dancehall-inspired, bashment approach is taken to lock enthusiasts in and keep the party (and waist lines) going.

The most notable recent development in soca music is currently belting out of St. Lucia. Kuduro music, wild drums and key Kreyòl lyrics come together in what’s become known as the “Dennery Segment,” a raw, infectious style that’s been referred to as “the bacchanal within the bacchanal.” But, to call this sound new would be inaccurate. Although it has just begun to penetrate soca’s mainstream in the last year, it has been circulating on islands like St. Lucia, Martinique and Guadeloupe for about a decade.

What exactly is a Dennery Segment? To understand what a Dennery Segment is, you have to first understand where it came from. Originally termed as Lucian Kuduro, it’s a style derived from the original Kuduro sound that developed in the West African nation of Angola. Paired with elements of zouk (the sound of the French Caribbean), Lucian percussions and Kreyòl lyrics, it took on a life of its own in St. Lucia. More recently, it’s been re-dubbed “Dennery Segment” after the town in St. Lucia’s Mabouya Valley where the sound was birthed. When selectors begin to play raw, suggestive tracks with a Kreyòl accent like Freezy’s “Split In Di Middle,” you’ve entered the Dennery Segment.

Patrons outside Plante's Place, a popular local bar in Dennery, St. Lucia Patrons outside Plante’s Place, a bar in Dennery, St. Lucia

Subance of Jamming Entertainment, who collaborated with fellow artist Mighty for one of the year’s biggest Dennery Segment tracks in “Bad in Bum Bum,” speaks to the influence and evolution of the sound: “We got inspired by Kuduro from the Angolans,” he says. “The kind of drums they use, that’s where we got the vibe and flavour from.”

At first, local artists in St. Lucia voiced over existing kuduro loops, primarily from Angola. (Kuduro has also gained a foothold in other Portuguese-speaking African nations, including the islands of Cape Verde, as well as in Portugal itself). “Local artists in St. Lucia were singing on loops for a while, but our camp actually built the first riddim,” Subance says. “It was made by DRC, and that’s when the genre really kicked off. Back in the day, producers would take hooks from other beats and build around it. But to start a riddim from scratch? We were one of the first people to actually build and sing on a Dennery Segment beat.”

Compared to other strains of soca, Dennery Segment tracks have a simple build, an aggressive drum pattern, and some of the most explicit lyrics… if you can understand them, that is. Nearly all Dennery Segment tracks are colored with lyrics in Kreyòl and other St. Lucian slangs.

“Lucian Kuduro/Dennery Segment is different from commercial soca because of the pacing and the unique delivery that St. Lucians have,” says Lashley Winter, better known as Motto, one of the most prolific producers of Lucian kuduro. A popular artist himself, his credits include the Force It riddim and his own “Bend Down” (often styled as “Bend Dong”).

St Lucia’s Selectah Twis runs tunes at a recent edition of Desperados Adventures, a roving soca party, in Dennery

“When it comes to elements in production, I would say you would have to look at the BPM (beats per minute),” Motto says, breaking down the elements of a Dennery Segment/Lucian Kuduro beat. “Anything above 140 [can be] Lucian Kuduro, anything below that [can] not. It’s usually a straightforward bass line. Other soca is more melodic, there are more chords and arrangements. Lucian Kuduro only has one lead instrument, and that one instrument usually carries the entire beat or carries the entire drum on the rhythm.”

Although the Dennery Segment is widely, and wildly, enjoyed now, it wasn’t always supported within St. Lucia. As the sound began to define itself and become more popular, there were politics in play that sought to shut it down.

“A lot of songs were completely banned from the airwaves,” Motto says. “There was like a three-month ban, where there was no Kuduro whatsoever on the radio in St. Lucia. It was all politics about the lyrics being too explicit, and they eventually removed the ban, but it was a huge deal for a while.”

Airplay bans weren’t only things that stifled the budding genre. The same factors that made the Dennery Segment sound highly favoured in the islands are the same ones that kept it there, and kept it quiet for so long. The aggressive drums, repetitive, fast-paced beats and strictly Kreyòl lyrics made it difficult to break mainstream.

Listen to a Dennery Segment mix from Blackwidow Sounds

“It just wasn’t something people were used to hearing,” says Hyper of Blackwidow Sounds, a collective of St. Lucian DJs currently based in Philadelphia. “We’d have to ease the sound in with other mixes when we played out in parties in the States. As the times change, so does the music. The easiest way to have the music appeal to mainstream is simple, just sing parts of it in English. And that’s what the artists began to do, and it worked. Small adjustments can go a long way.”

In its early stages, the Dennery Segment was music that was really just made by the artists for the people. In fact, some in St. Lucia still refer to it simply as “local” or “local music.”

“When I released ‘Bend Dong’ with Problem Child, it was actually a remix,” Motto says of his breakthrough track, originally released in 2014. “The first time I dropped that track, it was in Kreyòl. It was well received, but I knew that if I really wanted it to hit, I’d have to change a few things.”

The surging in popularity and demand surrounding the Dennery Segment this year was no coincidence. Changes in how the music was identified and packaged happened almost mellifluously, building towards a tipping point. There was a push for the sound to be bigger than just St. Lucia and the West Indies, and the term “Lucian Kuduro” just wouldn’t do the movement justice. The term was promptly changed from Lucian Kudoro to Dennery Segment. This was to make note of where the sound was birthed but also with the intent of giving it international appeal. And the push wasn’t made by the artists or producers, but rather by the listeners and the people.

Members of Lucian soca crew Reckless Gang performing Dennery Segment tunes at Plante's Place
Members of Lucian soca crew Reckless Gang performing at Plante’s Place

Maybe it was this shift that prompted artists and producers to start thinking of how their music could appeal beyond familiar shores. Or maybe the time was just right for soca to embrace a new sound. Changing the ratio of English to Kreyòl lyrics certainly played a role in raising Lucian soca’s profile. Increasingly, artists from across the waters, including Machel Montano, Patrice Roberts and Problem Child, have looked to St. Lucia and collaborated with artists and producers associated with the Dennery Segment. For his first major release of the 2018 Trinidad Carnival season, “Go Ask Yuh Mudda,” Bunji Garlin looked to Motto and his latest production, the Gwada Riddim.

Through these small but efficient steps, this once strictly local genre has attained a truly international presence. Rapper Cardi B was even seen wining to Freezy’s “Split In Di Middle” on social media. Would “Split In Di Middle” have the same effect if it was strictly Kreyòl? Probably not. But what does this change mean for the future of the Dennery Segment, St. Lucia and its culture? We look forward to seeing how things unfold.

Special thanks to Hyper, Crazy D and Sleepy of Blackwidow Sounds, Paul Parris and Desperados Adventures.