Alison Hinds: interview
With Rhianna at Number One seemingly all year, these are good times for Barbadian pop. But the queen of the scene, Alison Hinds, comes from Plaistow, took a career-break to raise kids and is now back to thrill Notting Hill Carnival with her girl power anthem ’Roll It Gal‘
Alison Hinds is one of the biggest pop stars you may never have heard off. In the Caribbean and certain parts of south and west London, the Barbadian-via-Plaistow girl is known as the Queen of Soca, a near-legendary stage presence who has ruled the scene and ridden the waves of change like an ebony Madonna. This week she hits town with a vengeance, as part of her crusade to bring soca to the world. The main event is a headline performance at Notting Hill Carnival on Monday. She is, unsurprisingly, raring to go.
‘The carnival audience is just such an excited audience,’ she says. ‘They really, really give a lot of love. I love to get the crowd involved, and they love it; they’re singing and dancing and swaying and just having a great, great time. That’s my main focus, the audience; to make sure that when they leave that venue that they know they’ve been to a show and that they’ve had a great time. And that they’re gonna go and buy the album the next day, ha ha!’
Like reggae, soca is used as a generalist term in the Caribbean, much like ‘pop music’ over here covers everything from Al Martino to Robyn. Soca runs the gamut from Lord Kitchener’s early steelpan epics to today’s plethora of sub-socas, including the hip hop-flavoured rapso and so-called ‘chutney soca’, a ragga-tinged sound which derives its rhythms from east Indian dhol and dhantal drumming (which MIA would love, if she doesn’t already). The style was invented (and later abandoned) by Lord Shorty, who derived its name from ‘soul calypso’. It has since produced a few crossover hits from the likes of the Baha Men, and influenced artists including Hinds’ fellow Barbados native Rihanna, of whom Hinds is a mutual fan.
‘Rihanna has made Barbados known in a very big way to people who probably had never even heard the word before, let alone that there’s a country called that,’ says Hinds. ‘So she’s well on her way, and it shines a light on Barbados. I’m hoping to be able to continue that, doing the music that is from our region.’
We’re a bit behind the times with soca over here, despite the best efforts of Choice FM, Galaxy and 1Xtra’s soca specialist Alex Jordan. Given its clubwise beats, hefty basslines and melodic similarity to a lot of US R&B, it’s actually pretty surprising soca hasn’t crossed over before now, but if Hinds has anything to do with it, that situation will change very shortly.
‘I think there’s still some work to be done,' she says, ‘but+ if it’s marketed and packaged the right way, soca can become a part of the mainstream. There are people who know of soca music – they know but they don’t know, y’know? So it’s a matter of exposing people to the music in its entirety and its purity. And for me the best way to do that is live performances. Live performance is gonna make a really, really big difference. I did a performance for Galaxy Radio and the DJ [MOBO-winning presenter] Steve Sutherland was so impressed, like “Oh my God!”, and that was just one song to a track, not my whole live show with my band and my dancers. Imagine if you see the entire show!’
Hinds has been a major star in the West Indies for the best part of two decades. She earned her regal title as lead singer of soca stars Square One, who split not long after Hinds elected to take a career break to start a family in 2003. Hinds’ solo debut is about to be released in the UK, having already enjoyed two years of success in the West Indies, hitting Number One across the Caribbean and establishing itself as a summer anthem. ‘Roll It Gal’ is soca’s own ‘Independent Women’ (which itself was produced by Haitian megastar Wyclef Jean). It’s a deliberately strident return to the scene.
‘I really felt that the song spoke to me,' says Hinds, ‘and I hoped that the way it spoke to me it would speak to other women as well. And it has, it definitely has. There are many women who have come to me and said, “Alison, this is my anthem, when I’m feeling down and I’m feeling out of sorts I can put this song on and it lifts me up and it makes me feel like I can continue, that I am a strong woman and I can do whatever I put my mind to.” That is awesome for me, that makes me feel so good. And it humbles me, to think that a song has been able to affect so many. I can’t even explain to you how I feel, and it’s still going strong. Whenever I perform it, it still gets the response from the women – and guys love it as well. Strong men love strong women.’
The song’s success has borne this theory out. Adding to its general ubiquity, Rihanna guested on a recent cover by Jamaicans J-Status. Although it has an undeniably fantastic rhythm, the track also stands out by presenting another archetype for women in a field which, like it or not, is dominated by masculocentric imagery. ‘I think women, especially young girls, they’re watching TV and they’re seeing what they see in the media, in print magazines, on billboards, and they’re influenced by these things, we can’t get away from that,’ she admits. ‘I guess it’s kinda hard to find positive females out there that they can emulate. There’s a lot of other stuff out there, especially in videos. Girls just around, just being there and shaking up, y’know. So I’m glad that I was able to do a song like this. The music is great, but I hope that the message gets across as well and it makes somebody, especially the younger women, think: You know what, I should take pride in who I am and I should take pride in my body and how I treat it and take pride in my mind and what I think about.’
Soca has long had a tradition of being sexy, satirical and political, and sometimes all three, (as with Lord Shorty’s 1977 track ‘The PM Sex Probe’). Hinds’ gift has been to been to stay in control of all these elements, without taking the fun out of the music.
‘I still enjoy myself on stage,’ she says. ‘We do West Indian music, it’s wining and gyrating and waistline movement, but there’s a way to do it that isn’t offensive to people and doesn’t go overboard, y’know? I have a daughter, so I have to also think about her. I want her to feel comfortable and happy that she can see her mum perform on stage and think: Yeah, that’s my mum and not have to hide her face and be like: Oh… My… God!’’
Alison Hinds plays Nottting Hill Carnival on Monday. ‘Roll It Gal’ is released on Black Coral/Sony the same day.
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