OVO Festival 2016 Opens With Soca King Machel Montano, Sean Paul & More in Toronto

Sean Paul performs in 2016
Sipa via AP Images

Sean Paul performs on July 14 2016.

To celebrate the seventh edition of Drake’s annual OVO hip-hop festival, organizers added a Caribbean music concert featuring soca and dancehall artists to launch the series Saturday (July 30) at Toronto’s Echo Beach.  

The move made sense for a few reasons. First, OVO occurs during Toronto’s Caribbean Carnival festival, the largest carnival-styled event of its kind in North America, attracting more than 1 million attendees annually. Secondly, most of Drake’s inner crew of collaborators and producers are of Jamaican and Caribbean descent, which arguably has resulted in him dabbling in dancehall on Views (“One Dance,” “Controlla”). This Caribbean music concert’s inclusion in OVO fest was viewed as him giving back to the culture that greatly informs his music.

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The King of Soca Machel Montano and veteran dancehall don Beenie Man were scheduled as co-headliners, until Beenie was denied entry into Canada a few days before the event over “immigration issues” concerning his apparent contraction of the Zika virus.

At the sold-out, 6,300-capacity venue, concern over a Beenie Man-less concert were quickly dashed once the music began. Capably headlined by Montano, who has been on a heat-seeking mission with manager Che Kothari to cross soca music into the mainstream -- recently playing Coachella with Major Lazer and bringing soca to the White House for the first time last month -- borrowed elements of a typical OVO fest, which was to bring out a relentless string of previously unannounced special guests.

A rotating cast of prominent DJs -- including Toronto’s D’bandit and Miami’s Black Chiney -- spent the first hour warming up the audience by rotating reggae and soca anthems. Stage host and local TV personality T-Rex introduced the first guest artist Kranium.  Dressed in all black with matching black bandana, the artist performed his one recognizable hit “Nobody Has to Know” and segued into a well received acapella freestyle rendition.

Next up, Trinidad and Tobago’s rising soca and R&B star Kes took to the stage. The overwhelmingly female audience erupted and sang along word-for-word to his regional hits “People” and “Fallin’.” By the time DJ Black Chiney spun a demonstrably retro R&B set, playing everything from Cameo’s "Candy" to Montell Jordan’s "This Is How We Do It,” the stage had been set for one of OVO fest’s coup de gras.

Donning a tightly fitted baseball cap and sunglasses, Sean Paul sauntered onto the stage with two exceptional stage dancers, running through a virtual medley of some of his greatest hits, including “Get Busy,” “Gimme the Light” and “Give It Up to Me,” as the sizable Jamaican flag waving audience came out in full force and made their presence known.

Guest stage co-host Ebro from Apple Beats 1 further amplified the OVO flag waving on stage with T-Rex, both literally waving OVO branded flags, as Drake’s “One Dance” played.

The King of Soca and festival headliner Montano then ran on stage with a casual yet flashy black sleeveless shirt and matching pants with white stripes and baseball cap, accompanied by some of the finest choreographed dancers one could see. The eight ultra high energy dancers, comprised of an equal split of four men and women sporting Monk tees to commemorate Montano’s label and latest album, accompanied him effortlessly through many of his multiple power anthems.

Montano’s set started out strong, as he powered his way through “Waiting on the Stage,” his 2016 road march song that had most of the 6,000-plus attendees jumping in unison. Next he played the hyper “In We Blood” before doing a roll call to the audience, shouting out attendees representing a multiplicity of Caribbean islands, getting the most raucous response from the Trinidad and Tobago, Guyanese and Jamaican audience members.

There’s no soca artist dead or alive who has the catalog of hit singles that Montano does, given that he’s been recording regional songs hit songs since he was 9 years old (“Too Young To Soca”). He ran through his hits, beginning with 2015 road and soca monarch hit “Like ah Boss,” all the way to “Happiest Man Alive” and “Epic.” A rare pyrotechnics fire sequence not usually experienced at soca shows in Toronto reminded the audiences just how big of a deal this debut OVO Caribbean music night was.

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Unlike the North American rap scene where it’s quite rare to see elite-level acts of the same genre complimenting one another’s set, Montano demonstrated his firm grip on the soca scene in Trinidad by bringing out a virtual who’s who of friend hitmakers to support his OVO foray.  First it was Olatunji, the 2015 Soca Monarch groovy champion who performed his smash singles “Ola” and “Oh Ya.” Then Montano brought out Voice, this year’s 2016 Soca Monarch winner, to perform his “Cheers to Life” anthem, followed up by Grammy Award-winning Trini-American Angela Hunte (co-writer of Jay Z and Alicia Keys’ “Empire State of Mind”), who capably performed her “Party Done” duet with Montano.

Montano reached into his arsenal of crossover soca-fueled duets as if to send a message to the masses about his musical navigability, and topped this part of the set off with his Major Lazer and Walshy Fire collaboration “Sound Bang,” where he and Walshy Fire performing animated reggae medleys.

Machel’s power soca set, which is comprised of many of his Road March or Soca Monarch winning songs is unrivaled, so by the time he crescendo’s his last set with “Ministry of Road” to “Is Carnival,” based on the loud audience reaction, it becomes quite clear that soca will likely play a significant role in any future OVO fest.

Just the audience began thinking it was time to leave, Montano dangled the idea of bringing out some more all-star guests to demo his pull -- and did just that as dancehall maverick Mavado comes out to do his version of the “Goodbye Haters.” Mavodo then launched into his own set of dancehall hit singles, including “Wha Dem A Do” and “I'm So Special.”

By the time Machel brought Sean Paul back on stage to perform their Major Lazer collab “One Wine,” a fireworks display coupled with on stage pyrotechnics make this OVO Caribbean music experiment an over the top success.