Machel Montano talks life, music and the future

Machel Montano

Will Vegas get Crunchy?

As part of Trinidad and Tobago’s Cultural Village, which was located at the Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn over the Olympic and Paralympic period, the usually-impossible-to-pin-down Machel Montano performed for five – yes, I did say FIVE – nights in a row. He said the last time that happened was in Germany in 1992; I find it hard to believe that it’s even possible to get this fast-moving creature to stay in one place for so long (maybe I should have turned up every night, just to check).

We spoke in the theatre at the Tricycle, a space both intimate and industrial in its feel – and by coincidence made up entirely of the colours of the twin island state’s flag. We sat at the back, close to where I later stood (um… and wined like crazy) during the evening’s performance. He was a little late, but the excuse – reading his book, Boy Boy and the Magic Drum, (the story of the steel drum) to a room full of children – was undeniably a good one. And in the meantime, I met a manager, a videographer, a photographer… and got the feeling that the entourage went far, far beyond that. Clearly, a village moves with the man.

Machel was impressed with what the High Commission had done at the Tricycle, and was animated about this particular space: “When I walked into here I fell in love. I fell in love with just, the sheer size of it, but yet it still looks grand… [it’s] small but it’s full of vibes and has a powerful, powerful energy.” And then he confided in me, told me a secret; so… it may be an oft-told secret, but it felt like a real one, nevertheless. “I’ve always been a shy person, I’m not someone who wanted to be a star, or wanted to be famous… Ever since I was a child it was always much more frightening to sing to a room full of people than a stadium full of people.” It makes sense, if you think about it; you can see individuals, instead of just a faceless mass. It also makes him suddenly seem very down-to-earth, easy to identify with – normal.

The singer actually wanted to be a sound engineer, to stay behind the scenes, but, “Something definitely went wrong” – said, of course, with an open-mouthed laugh. And then he described the cascade of events that led to his success: Machel’s brother used to make him help with his music homework by singing along to the guitar; his mother heard, thought he had a good voice and suggested singing lessons; the singing teacher thought the choir would be a good idea; the choir knew they’d found their new soloist; then they asked him to represent the school; and, “I just became famous”. So he was catapulted to success faster than an X-Factor winner, and a lot younger than most.

The soca superstar has now been asked by the government of Trinidad and Tobago to be the country’s cultural ambassador, but Machel feels that this changes nothing: “I’ve been doing it all my life. I’ve dedicated my life to the music of my region and my country – soca music – and it’s development; my technique was to take this music to the corners of the globe. That’s why, to me, working with Pitbull, and working with Chaka Khan, and working with Wyclef, it is me spreading the sound of soca on a worldwide level. One of my proudest moments was to see Wyclef performing for the Haiti special on CNN, and doing the soca song that me and him did together.

“It is so difficult to get Machel Montano for five nights in one place. I guess, you know, taking up this responsibility to help London and help people from this land celebrate our 50th anniversary, are just some of the official ways you have to go out and do exactly what you’re asked to do for your nation”.

We talked about the shows in London, and tailoring them acoustically, as one would expect with a venue so much smaller than those he’s used to playing, but also for the audience. Not knowing whether it would be all officials and public figures, the solution was this: two programs, one “cleansed”, one “all hardcore”, and on-the-spot decisions about which way to go. I think the end result was closer to the latter, although without quite such raunchy – or ‘crunchy’, as Machel likes to say – on stage dancing. The audience – well, no one could control how THEY were dancing, could they? “This is what soca music is. It’s not a deep, meditative state or a rock mosh pit where you’re just banging your head against the wall to release your frustration. It’s really a happy, laughter, let go and have a blast. I just think that this is soca music’s mission – should be to touch everybody. Let everybody experience that jump, let everybody experience this energy.” Amen to that.

I wanted to know whether the recent songs which fuse electronic / house music with soca are a result of a fondness for the dance genre and experimentation, or part of a greater strategy to broaden the audience. The response: “I love dance music, I love house music, and the first thought that came to my mind was, we could blend our music with house music, because it’s four on the floor, and soca is four on the floor; it’s very similar. I tasted success immediately by doing that. I think over the years we started mixing it with dancehall, with chutney music, with all the different things – rock music – and now we have come full circle where dance music is once again at the top. And not just dance but electronic music, club music. And I don’t think it’s for the same reasons as back in the day; a lot of the club and the electronic music feeds these music festivals; all across Europe and all across America it has hundreds of fifty thousands people. But they all sing about peace, and love, and coming together, and leaving the world behind. It’s all these spiritual messages. It may come from a hippie place; it may come from the little drugs that they may be doing; but I am totally in support of this message: united people.

“Bend Over was one of the successful ones, there was AOA, which we did dance music with, on the Electrolytes Rhythm, and it was from being influenced by electro music. The only reason we gravitating towards it, is because it’s familiar, it feels like home, and we like it. We’re not just doing it because we think it’s a technical way, or a logistical way, to make soca spread. But it’s destined to be together, you know.” I was also reminded that he’s already mixed in some opera (Jab Molassie), and now, next maybe, Machel would like some grunge. So that’ll be interesting.

Controversial, yes, but personally I am not a huge fan of the ‘riddim’ in soca, which is when a basic rhythm is created, which different songs will then be written for and recorded onto, usually by various artists. So I felt compelled to ask Machel how he feels about them. “I am the creator of rhythms in soca music – well, I can’t say the creator, but I started the trend. Now it’s fully accepted, and now that everybody’s doing it, I try to tend to stay away from it – a lot. I think the rhythm thing has become saturated. It’s overdone. You miss the opportunity to have songs that may stand out, sometimes you do these rhythms and take up a lot of air time on the radio, and only one of the songs will last well.” He thinks they’re a phase that has come, and will go – and I’m more than happy to believe him.

I thought I’d try and clear up a bit of confusion, because in the late nineties, Machel announced that he was no longer going to compete. And, as we know, 2011 rolled around, and there he was again. This is what he had to say on the subject: “The prime minister came into power and said, ‘Two million dollars first prize.’ When she said [that], it was a feeding frenzy, like a pool of piranhas. Here we have taxi drivers wanting to sing soca, radio DJs wanting to sing soca… what was right about it was the impetus, everybody getting excited, it was the enthusiasm; everybody was just wanting to take part in their culture… [There were] all these guys trying to get songs, and trying to write songs, and trying to sing, and it was about getting soca money; everybody was saying, I wanna get the soca money, the soca money… My thing was, let me let them compete against me. Cos I know the kind of fierce competitor I am. I know what I bring to the table. Let me turn it up a notch, so that the competition could raise. That year, Soca Monarch was sold out. It was the biggest turn out ever.” And then, of course, he went on to win the triple in 2012. Nevertheless, “I’m not gonna be there for long, you know; I think 2013 I’ll call it a day for competing here.”

The soca superstar is happy to be a businessman, too, exemplified by his newest project, Three Zero rum, which is about to add a brown ‘Gold’ product to the white ‘Platinum’ one which was passed amongst the audience during the London shows. “I started to think about alcohol business and the industry, and I started to see a trend. You know, people like P Diddy had a vodka, Ludicris came with a cognac, you know. It started to speak to me – especially as a West Indian. You know, sugar cane; the plantations; the slaves, our ancestors, came here to grow sugar cane, to work the sugar cane fields. And from that sugar cane we produced rum, so rum was our thing. I thought it would be a good idea, it would marry well, because I play in fetes every night and the two most important things are the alcohol and the music. You know, it goes hand in hand.” The product’s name is inspired by his thirtieth year in the calypso arena; that led to the idea of making it 30% stronger, exacerbated by the phenomenon of the curfew parties in the latterhalf of 2011, when it was particularly useful if one bottle could take you through the entire night. And Bottle of Rum? Well, surprisingly, the song came along as just a (very happy) coincidence.

Of course, most of us think immediately of Machel’s music, his performances, and the accolades that he’s won with both. But he thinks of himself as a creator, of music – or anything else. His spectacular shows are acts of creation, his book, videos, and he does come across as absolutely driven to continue to push the boundaries – in any direction. And he may not be singing to us forever: “I think I will step away from being an artist, and really try to work with other young people and help them develop their trade, develop their skills, help them to perform. I have a lot of insight in how you deal with audiences and stage performances. I know whatever I end up doing, I will do my best, and it will definitely be some sort of creation and something that is beneficial to humanity.”

Would Machel Montano like his own children to follow in his footsteps and become performers? “I would like one to be a lawyer, one to be a doctor, and one to be in finance, so they could take care of everything around the house, and take care of themselves. But, you know, I learnt that you have to pay attention to kids, you have to pay attention towhat they wanna be… or what they’re good at. And then you push them. So if I see any one of my kids swinging something, he’s going straight to golf lessons. I want to make sure that I could put them in a position to be the best at what they are destined to be. But you have to pay attention, you know, and you have to support the crazy ideas that they may have. I will support, whatever.”

In general, though, “It’s good when you could see young people choosing this path and being serious about it, and trying to do it with integrity, because it’s a thin line between being a musician and being a bum – or being seen as a slacker. I try being a musician and being a businessman, and also being an inspiration, so when you see people like that, that follow your lead, and look up to you, you have to support them regardless, you know, because this is the dream, this is the continuum that we’re looking for.”

Someone who is clearly inspirational for Machel is Peter Minshall. “I think Trinidad and Tobago has one of the greatest creators in the world, in the likes of Peter Minshall; he has done many Olympics, he studied here, in London, and in theatre. He has influenced so many people in Trinidad, he has made carnival stand out better over the years, put deep meanings into fun and revelry, that you would never think there is a social commentary happening there. I think that is genius.” And one of his favourite moments over all these years was producing the Resurrect show in 2006 with that very genius. “For me to be able to work with him, and not only work with him, but gain his respect, and gain his interest… That was a remarkable moment in my life.”

But that is not the end of that; Machel has an ultimate dream. And you never know, he really could get there, and it’d definitely be something to see: “A show on the Vegas strip, in one of the hotels; just really dedicated to Caribbean carnival. But a huge Cirque de Soleil – type production. I’m aiming for this, this is my goal. I think we should have a thousand Jamaican dancers, doing Pon de River, Pon de Bank, like the Rockettes, you know, where they’re doing all the Jamaican dances, and then we have Brazilians in thongs, and big drums, and then we have the Trinidad element. And then once we put this in and marry it with all the top bands from Barbados and the Zouk from Dominica – I mean, we could have something that would be amazing.”

Clearly, after 30 years, Machel Montano has not stopped being a matter of ‘watch this space’. If he has his way – and I think he usually does – there’ll be plenty more to see. I, for one, can’t wait to see if Vegas gets crunchy.

by Katie Segal

Visit the official Machel Montano website