Meet Machel Montano: Soca Boss, Trinida­dian Booster and . . . Film Star?

The Star (St. Lucia) - - ENTERTAINMENT -

By Pa­tri­cia Meschino (for Bill­board)

“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 its wellestab­lished, an­nu­ally sold-out event -- per Montano’s re­quest -- is in­dica­tive of the Trinidad­born singer’s pow­er­ful stature. Now 40, the Los An­ge­les-based Montano is a 33-year in­dus­try vet­eran whose vo­lu­mi­nous reper­toire and adrenalinepump­ing live per­for­mances have made him soca’s pre­em­i­nent am­bas­sador. 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 with which he has han­dled his ca­reer and nu­mer­ous busi­ness in­ter­ests: “Like Ah Boss.” “In the early ‘70s [the late] Ras Shorty and 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.

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 hit­mak­ing 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 Toron­to­based 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. He’s per­formed sold­out 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.

Montano has 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 lovein­duced 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.

Ba­zodee’s world pre­miere took place at Port of Spain’s Movie Towne Sept. 23, as part of the 10th an­nual Trinidad and Tobago Film Fes­ti­val.

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 . . . it’s re­ally all about break­ing down bound­aries and unit­ing peo­ple.”

Machel Montano and Natalie Per­era, from the movie


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