“Tonight I’m happy,” Machel Montano told a wildly cheering, capacity crowd during his headlining set at Hot 97’s annual Labor Day weekend Caribbean concert. “I am happy because this show is no longer On Da Reggae Tip, it’s now On Da Reggae and Soca Tip — and I represent soca,” he declared, the audience responding with screams and raised flags representing various Caribbean nations.
Hot 97’s willingness to amend the title of their well-established, annually sold-out event (held Sept. 5 at the Governor’s Club, Governors Island, New York City) — per Montano’s request — is indicative of the Trinidad-born singer’s powerful stature within the Caribbean music landscape. Now 40, the Los Angeles-based Montano is a 33-year industry veteran whose voluminous repertoire and adrenaline-pumping live performances have made him soca’s preeminent ambassador for both the uninitiated and seasoned fans alike. Backed by his Monk Band, Montano’s Hot 97 set included his biggest hit for 2015, an invigorating balance of vintage calypso’s horn riffs with contemporary soca’s irresistibly frenetic cadence, its title neatly summarizing the finesse which he has handled his career and numerous business interests: “Like Ah Boss.”
“In the early ’70s [the late] Ras Shorty I took Indian dholak drumming [from chutney music, another Indo-Trinidadian creation], fused it with calypso’s African rhythms, and soca was born — against the wishes of the purists,” notes Montano, who came to prominence in 1986 as the youngest person in carnival’s history to compete in the Calypso Monarch competition’s final round. With his engaging hit “Too Young to Soca” the precocious 11-year old challenged detractors who argued children shouldn’t be singing calypso alongside adults, going on to earn an impressive 5th place.
The annual pre-Lenten carnival season in cosmopolitan Trinidad and its smaller sister island Tobago, referred to as T&T, rife with fetes and musical contests, has been the catalyst for many of the twin island nation’s indigenous genres. Among them are the steel drum or pan, calypso (the first recorded music of the English speaking Caribbean) and calypso’s energetic descendant soca, created as a fusion of the sonic expressions of Trinidad’s dominant African and Indian populations.
Montano graduated from Ohio’s Recording Workshop in 1993, where he studied recording engineering. In 1995 he signed to the now-defunct US independent Delicious Vinyl, releasing the soca/house hit “Come Dig It.” Throughout the remainder of the ’90s Montano and his band Xtatik (now the Monk Band) streamlined and accelerated soca’s beat, fusing it with elements of hip-hop and dancehall reggae, striving to make Trinidadian music palatable to a younger generation. The formula yielded numerous carnival hits including “Big Truck,” the 1997 Road March Winner, which solidified Montano’s soca superstardom, a status he has preserved through his tireless work ethic and hit-making consistency.
“Machel is not the greatest singer, or the greatest dancer, but he stays at the top because he is extremely bright, gives the people what they want and is always looking to better what he did the last time,” says Elizabeth Montano, Machel’s mother, who has managed his career since he was a child star. In May 2014, Mrs. Montano ceded key management responsibilities to Toronto-based Che Kothari, but Mrs. Montano remains actively involved in her son’s career.
Montano releases his songs and albums on his Monk Music label (formerly Mad Bull Music), to coincide with Trinidad’s carnival season. Machel’s diligence in bringing soca out from carnival has yielded notable results, including duets with Sean Paul, Pit Bull, Wyclef Jean and a feature on the official remix of Ariana Grande’s “All My Love,” produced by Major Lazer. He’s performed sold-out shows at Manhattan’s Madison Square Garden and Radio City Music Hall, and in December 2014 received a Soul Train Award for Best International Performance. On Labor Day weekend, Montano co-headlined Live Nation’s inaugural Culture Sounds concert with Nigerian hip hop star Ice Prince at Manhattan’s Irving Plaza. He’s also in talks with HBO executives around a possible documentary on the island’s carnival.
Machel has accomplished all of this despite lackluster record sales. His 2015 album Monk Monté (so named for Machel’s current self-reinvention, Monk, an acronym for ‘movement of new knowledge,’ and Monté, a tribute his father Winston Montano a.k.a. Monty) spent just one week on the Reggae Album chart. Sluggish sales have long plagued the soca genre; artists with the most popular singles at Trinidad carnival, soca’s main event, will be booked throughout the season and at subsequent Caribbean styled carnivals in the U.S. but busy performance schedules rarely translate into a significant movement of units. “At carnival, artists make their music available for free on various platforms, to get it out there, so there isn’t the need to buy it,” observes Che Kothari. “Soca artists make their income from live shows, not publishing and sales. But many songs could be synced and licensed for movies, video games, etc; I would love to see more songs released throughout the year, not just for carnival and I am excited to work with Machel on that soca industry shift and other ideas to help the business grow.”
“Whether you know soca or not, Machel is the best performer in the world, I don’t care who you are talking about, Beyonce, whoever, he’s a different entity all together,” declares Grammy Award-winning singer/songwriter Angela Hunte, whose writing credits include Jay Z’s “Empire State of Mind.” New York-born, Trinidad-raised Hunte first met Montano in 2000, when he was signed to Atlantic Records and based in Sweden. She was hired to write songs for an album intended as his crossover vehicle, but was never released. Montano and Hunte reunited for the 2015 soca hit “Party Done,” made their joint performance debut at Machel Monday and have appeared at events in London, Barbados (where Montano was briefly joined onstage by Rihanna), at On Da Reggae and Soca Tip, and are collaborating on future projects including songs for carnival 2016.
Montano reflected on an unexpected outcome of his sojourn in Sweden at the mid-December 2014 launch in Port of Spain of his career retrospective exhibition On Stage. “The year 2000 was one of the happiest of my life, I was signed to Atlantic then I went away and was supposed to become this big star — but it didn’t work out because I didn’t know myself,” Montano surmised. “I had to come back to Trinidad to find out why I was born here and what I am supposed to be doing.”
Ever since, Montano has been intently focused on integrating the indigenous music of his birthplace and the complexities of its carnival into broadly appealing projects. One such undertaking is the film Bazodee, T&T parlance for love-induced dizziness or confusion. The film is a romantic comedy inspired by Montano’s carnival hits, filmed in T&T. Montano serves as Bazodee’s musical director/supervisor, and makes his acting debut portraying soca singer Lee de Leon. Claire Ince, half of the husband-and-wife team behind Indiepelago Productions, wrote the script, which was awarded Best Screenplay at the Bahamas International Film Festival, 2008.
Bazodee’s world premiere takes place at Port of Spain’s Movie Towne tonight (Sep. 23), as part of the 10th annual Trinidad and Tobago Film Festival (TTFF). “We are extremely proud that Bazodee will debut in Trinidad, because it lays down a foundation for strengthening our film and music industries,” says Camille Selvon Abrahams, Chairman of Film TT, a state board committed to developing T&T’s local film sector. “This is another segment within Machel’s legacy, a patriot who has never sold out the soul of Trinidad’s music; through all of his experimentation, the soca remains.”
Bazodee debuts just two weeks after a polarizing general election in T&T (September 7th) with the now incumbent, predominantly African People’s National Movement led by Tobago born Dr. Keith Rowley unseating the mostly Indo-Trinidadian People’s Partnership. Beyond advancing his acting aspirations and soca music among a broader audience, Montano hopes Bazodee will further real unity within T&T. “This movie is about the love that exists during our carnival, a celebration of Indian and African communities coming together,” Montano states. “People hear the party aspect of my music but Claire and Ancil understood it’s really all about breaking down boundaries and uniting people so I had to get involved and help to get this movie made.”