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An Island In the Song

Kevin Lyttle Took a Soca Tune and Made a World-Beating Hit

By Alona Wartofsky
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, September 25, 2004; Page C01


One of the year's biggest pop music hits is also one of the unlikeliest. It was recorded three years ago by an unknown artist in an unremarkable studio on the tiny Caribbean island of St. Vincent.

This summer, Kevin Lyttle's "Turn Me On" became an international smash. It went to No. 1 in the States and became a Top 10 single in much of the rest of the world. Lyttle's self-titled debut album, released by Atlantic Records in July, has reached gold here and sold an additional 350,000 copies worldwide.

Kevin Lyttle: "What I decided when I did 'Turn Me On' is to do a song that had the feel of everything in the world in terms of music." (Helayne Seidman For The Washington Post)

"I have always prayed to be where I'm at," says Lyttle, an earnest 27-year-old with a friendly smile. "It's a blessing from the Almighty."

But it may take more than a blessing to reach the top. It also takes practice. Lyttle, who performs tonight at Air in downtown Washington, honed his vocal skills long ago by singing in the shower.

This was not the private endeavor it is in most places. Lyttle grew up in a small boathouse he shared with his mother, grandmother and great-grandmother. There was no room for washing indoors: The shower and washroom were outside under a mango tree. The semi-open structure was built with concrete blocks and galvanized metal roofing.

There, as water streamed down on him, he strived to hit the high notes in his favorite Boyz II Men songs. "Every time I'm in the shower, I'm in there for, like, an hour and a half," he says. "I was doing that consistently for five, six, seven years strong."

Neighbors and passersby couldn't help but hear him. "People used to be, like, stonin' down the damn shower -- throwin' stones on it and makin' noise and cursin' and sayin' . . . '[We're] fed up, every day it's the same thing with you.' But nobody understood what I wanted to do."

Part of what makes "Turn Me On" an unusual global hit is that it is essentially a soca song. Soca, the up-tempo style of calypso that originated in Trinidad nearly 30 years ago, rarely attracts mainstream audiences outside the Caribbean. But then, "Turn Me On" is also a pop song and an R&B song, with elements of reggae dancehall as well.

"My thing is to create Caribbean music in a way that it becomes appealing to the world in general, not just the Caribbean," says Lyttle. "So what I decided when I did 'Turn Me On' is to do a song that had the feel of everything in the world in terms of music."

In 2003, Lyttle was signed by Atlantic, the same label that teamed with the independent reggae label VP Records to launch the remarkable stardom of reggae dancehall star Sean Paul. The labels also collaborated effectively on promoting two other dancehall artists, Elephant Man and Wayne Wonder.

"Last year we had tremendous success breaking dancehall . . . a genre of music that's been around for decades," says Atlantic Records Co-Chairman Craig Kallman. "Now we're trying to do the same thing for music coming out of the islands of Trinidad, Barbados and St. Vincent."

So far, Atlantic has signed two soca artists -- Lyttle and a more established performer from Barbados known as Rupee. In a move sure to annoy longtime soca fans, Kallman says Atlantic has "branded" their music "the new soul of soca."

Soca was developed in the mid-'70s by a calypsonian known as Lord Shorty. With its galloping 4/4 beats, it is more danceable than calypso and less focused on the satiric commentary that has long characterized that genre. Soca is "jump-up" party music, meant to wind up carnival crowds. Almost every island in the Caribbean has a carnival, and soca is the soundtrack for the annual festivals.

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