All aboard, ship ahoy | The deal

Live music performance in the Caribbean has evolved over many years beyond what one Caribbean writer decades ago noted as, “[taking] pleasure in living up to the ideals of the tourist brochure”. Diverse island music festivals and massive fetes now dominate the live music scene in the Caribbean. Audiences are now local, regional, and international.

Tourism is still a driver of these events, with cathartic celebration a catalyst for prioritising profits and moving the masses. In recent years, the context of the live music experience has also evolved from the island festival space to a mobile one with a broader engagement of the environment.

Island music festivals are back — some recently chronicled in the March issue of Caribbean Beat. And now, so too are Caribbean music-themed cruises that cater for wanderers looking to elevate their music experience beyond a fete and a disco.

This is a new paradigm for how island creativity can be explored and nurtured. These cruises have become a fresh way for soca, dancehall and reggae artists to engage with audiences — both Caribbean diaspora citizens and travellers to and from the region — in spaces beyond their borders.

An endless stream of parties and concerts, plus exclusive and immersive events — featuring food, drink, and music — make five-day cruises a marathon in which fun is guaranteed, and endurance a necessity.

A little context and background: music-themed cruises sprang up in earnest in the early 2000s with jazz cruises, targeted at a late baby boomer and early Gen X crowd. They created quite a buzz. Damian “Jr Gong” Marley, son of the legend, and his long-time manager, Dan Dalton, proposed and launched the Welcome To Jamrock Reggae Cruise (WTJRC) in 2014, aiming to transform “the reggae festival landscape into a seascape”, with Billboard magazine calling it “the genre’s biggest event”.

A roll-call of talent over the years justifies the magazine’s boast: Beenie Man, Bounty Killer, Sean Paul, Chronixx, Tanya Stephens, Chaka Demus and Pliers, Steel Pulse, Third World, and the Marley children — including Damian and his brothers Stephen, Julian, and Ky-Mani — among many more top-selling iconic names.

That cruise initiated the island music cruise trend, leading a new wave of cultural entrepreneurs to further assemble platforms for the proliferation of island genres, and fuelling the artists and DJ sound systems who make the music.

Promoters and event coordinators in Bermuda and Hawaii — from Trinidad & Tobago to Jamaica — have seen the nexus between a modern luxury cruise experience and live music, above and beyond the old trope of the steelpan player serenading passengers at the poolside.

The major cruise lines working the Caribbean Sea have partnered with these event entrepreneurs to make this a continuing reality (and Caribbean-based fans can fly on Caribbean Airlines to Miami for departure).

Almost every year since Marley’s initiative, a new music cruise is launched. In 2015, Bermudian Nathaniel Turner, along with his partners Daniel Reece and Jodi Lewis, launched The UberSoca Cruise — evolving over the years to rank among top music cruises globally, now with multiple sailings and a complete cruise ship takeover.

In-demand artists — like Kes the Band, Destra, Patrice Roberts, Bunji Garlin, and Iwer George — make this a top music cruise. Soca from St Vincent, Barbados, St Lucia, Bahamas, Sint Maarten, and the US Virgin Islands plays equally with that from Trinidad & Tobago. With casts including Kevin Lyttle, Skinny Fabulous, Rupee, and Teddyson John, a pan-Caribbean soca aesthetic allows for a wider reach and broader definition of the Caribbean soca and Carnival customer.

The spectacle of a Carnival experience on the sea would be duplicated by others in time. Soca on the Seas, conceptualised by Texas-based Trinidadian Juliana Fermin, would launch in 2016. It got immediate buy-in from the Trinidad & Tobago government at that time, which saw a number of potential benefits to local artists, tourism, and local economies.

Soca stars such as Olatunji, Erphaan Alves, Problem Child, Jadel, Lil Bitts, and Edwin Yearwood have been included in casts, showcasing the depth of soca talent beyond a handful of superstars. Importantly, this cruise has included rhythmically related genres like Afrobeats, chutney soca, and konpa on its cruises, allowing for a broader Caribbean music experience.

This cruise uniquely expanded its footprint outside the Caribbean Sea, having multiple soca and Carnival experiences aboard ships cruising Dubai, Singapore, and Malaysia — impacting visitors there and potentially creating new artist discovery and touring opportunities.

The necessary business of music has been aided by the development of these themed cruises. As the evolution and diversification of the performance platforms take hold, the idea of collaboration and networking among Caribbean artists — even among different genres — becomes apparent within the milieu of the cruise ship.

The Love & Harmony Cruise — co-founded by Jamaican Steve “DJ Jabba” Beckford and launched in 2017 — boasts that it provides “world-class foundation acts and emerging artistes” in both reggae and soca. Insisting that it is targeted at a different market than the WTJRC, the cast has featured reggae legends like Beres Hammond, Barrington Levy, Elephant Man, Sanchez and Marcia Griffiths, and continues bringing modern dancehall heroes like Buju Banton, Tarrus Riley, Popcaan, Chris Martin, and soca star Rupee.

The Caribbean Carnival experience has long been exported to diaspora cities in the United States, United Kingdom, Canada and beyond. Carnival at sea has grown more recently to include land-based fetes, concerts, and adventure. Labadie, Haiti and Harvest Caye, Belize add to island spaces where the performances and parties — and the music that drives them — never stop.

Pre-pandemic, soca superstar Machel Montano and Tribe Carnival head honcho Dean Ackin had been planning a new soca cruise venture, Melé Cruise, for a 2020 launch. Making its debut in 2022, with a second edition in September 2023, it pivoted into Melé Destinations, anchoring the music experience — sans boat — onshore in Cancun, Mexico. Montano and other top soca and dancehall artists like Voice and Beenie Man headlined that event, pointing a new way to enhance fan engagement and generate revenue for the musicians and the brands.   

In 2023, Hawaii-based Trinidadian promoter Jonathan Mack added another iteration of the music-themed cruise, when he and his partners — several top Carnival fete promoters and DJs — launched the Epic Carnival Experience. The ship sailed from Barbados with entertainment from DJs like Walshy Fire and DJ Puffy, arriving the Friday before Carnival and serving as a hotel and floating resort — a “floatel” — for its passengers and island-based adventurers in search of something different.

Opulent entertainment defines the newly founded Lush Trinidad Carnival Floatel, which will continue the hotel-like anchored cruise experience concept into 2024.

The exclusivity and excitement surrounding these Caribbean music-themed cruises and experiences offers artists and DJs a unique marketing and promotion opportunity that can be leveraged to generate buzz, attract media attention, and directly engage fans — ultimately enhancing careers and loyalty.

Whether the impulse to develop these cruises was to do something positive for the Caribbean music industry, or simply to create a profitable niche within the larger cruise industry, the continued growth of the island-music cruise demonstrates the potential to go beyond borders — beyond the region. There are now dancehall and reggae cruises in Japan!

Caribbean music wins, and the new ways for audiences and fans to engage with live music from the islands, either on land or sea, continue to emerge.