Machel Montano, king of soca

Caribbean Carnival fixture keeps the music young, hip and constantly evolving

MACHEL MONTANO at Sound Academy (11 Polson) as part of Daylight, Friday (July 31), doors 1 pm. $40 and at Carnival Kingdom at Wild Water Kingdom (7855 Finch East, Brampton), Saturday (August 1), 8:30 pm. $60-$95, both available from and at the Caribbean Carnival Grand Parade (Exhibition Place), August 1, 9:30 am-8 pm. Free (seating $20-$25, Win tickets here!

Machel Montano has called himself Mr. Fete, the Happiest Man Alive and most recently Monk Monte. Others simply call the seven-time winner of the Trinidad Carnival’s Road March competition the King of Soca, that uptempo calypso offshoot that echoes from Lake Shore every time Toronto’s Carnival hits the pavement.

This year Montano will be going big at the parade, collaborating with Toronto’s mas band king Louis Saldenah and Project Runway-winning designer Anya Ayoung-Chee. Saldenah’s band will pay tribute to the perennial Soca Monarch, each section sporting decadent costumes inspired by his songs.

There’s a reason for the tribute. Montano is celebrating 33 years in the business. He began as a child phenomenon who went onstage in a diaper to sing Too Young To Soca.

Ever since, he’s been keeping the music young, hip and constantly evolving. He infused the genre with Jamaica’s dancehall riddims in the mid-90s, when he won his first Road March with the classic Big Truck, and continued to mash it up with the multicultural influences (African, Indian, Spanish, Chinese) typical of his native Trinidad and Tobago.

He even borrowed a bit from Cyndi Lauper for his major anthem with Destra Garcia, Carnival.

Montano’s ear-to-ear grin has been a fixture at Caribana weekend, revving up fans at regular venues like Kool Haus and Wild Water Kingdom. At those soca fetes, he treats the stage like a trampoline. Keeping up with the throng of backup dancers, he bounds and floats sweat glistens from his dreadlocks as he breaks out his power anthems for tens of thousands.

If he wears anything more than a T-shirt and shorts, you better believe that unnecessary fabric is coming off. The flag-bearing soca massive chants back, two-stepping to the left and the right, surging in formation like the world’s biggest Zumba class, hanging on Montano’s every instruction: wine down, jump up, rags in the air, higher than high-igh-igh.

“Going to Toronto is like going to the Disney World of race relations,” says Montano, on the phone from the studio in his L.A.home.

He’ll sometimes get a bigger response from Toronto crowds than he would in T&T, because our cosmopolitan city brings out fans from the West Indies, Africa and Asia, all coming out to jump up.

“The girls are so friendly, and the guys aren’t so threatened by you coming. It’s always this welcoming place. People bring us into their houses and cook for us in their backyards. We hit up the LCBO and chill on their porches.”

Machel sounds relaxed and low-key, as if he’s saving all that Red Bull energy I’m used to hearing to let loose at a recording session afterward. He’s still got some melody in his voice and an infectious chuckle remembering those intimate times in Toronto. 

Lately, Montano has been turning up worldwide, raising the Trini flag across Europe and at major music festivals like Ultra and SXSW. Soca, once a well-kept secret of the West Indian diaspora, has been gaining mainstream traction. That’s partly due to EDM, with its popular MacBook-infused adrenaline hits from David Guetta, Diplo, Skrillex and Steve Aoki.

“There’s a lot of soca DNA in EDM,” says Montano, who notes that the beat in popular music has finally caught up to his riddims. “We see hundreds of thousands of people jumping to the speed of soca. The tempo is aligned right now.”

He also cites Rihanna and Nicki Minaj, both of West Indian descent, as influences who made Caribbean culture, and Carnival in particular, appealing to a broader audience. The new appreciation motivated his move to L.A., where he collaborates with international talents like Major Lazer and Pitbull. 

He met producer Deputy at a Lakers game, and the two worked together on this year’s Road March and Power Soca Monarch winner Like Ah Boss. He also got into the mix with Angela Hunte, who wrote Empire State Of Mind for Jay Z and Alicia Keys. Together, the two dropped this year’s addictive female empowerment duet Party Done, a song about the struggle for girls to have fun that goes beyond admiring how bouncy a waist can be on the dance floor.

Montano’s music has been maturing in recent years. It’s still young and hip, but it’s improving with new styles and clear, positive messages. He’s taking soca beyond all the happy-happy-jump-joy.

People are going through tough economic challenges, but they need their jump-up. so They find money, sing and drink rum to throw their stress away.

However, he believes expressing happiness in his music is its own political point.

“Every day I wake up struggling to be happy,” he says. “I call myself the Happiest Man Alive, and through that song I had to learn to be happy. I had to learn that happiness is a choice, a state you can put yourself in despite what’s going on. Through that song, I connected with people who had cancer, who were dying, who appreciated the power of saying that you’re happy and becoming happy. It took me to the essence of what soca music really is.”

He describes soca as the soundtrack for the Caribbean person, its roots stretching back to the songs slaves sung while picking cotton and cutting down trees, at times mocking their masters.

“They would be singing through their pain to find happiness,” says Montano. “It’s the same thing with soca music at Carnival. People are jumping in the streets and putting on costumes. Sometimes they’re putting on that costume via getting a loan from the bank. They’re going through the toughest economic challenges of their life, but they need their jump-up. So they find money, jump up, sing, smile and drink their bottle of rum just to throw their stress away. It’s a phenomenon that is the essence of who we are.”

For Montano, the music is also about celebrating unity and bridging gaps by mixing and blending cultures. He’s been doing that since he first put his lyrics on a dancehall riddim and embraced those chutney flavours with Drupatee.

Today, the steel pan is joined by Major Lazer’s laptop on songs like Sound Bang, while Europeans are crowding around to bust a wine. Next, Montano wants to see some rags in the air at OVO, hoping for some collaboration with Drake’s big hometown festival, which has cast a shadow over Caribana since plopping down on the same weekend.

“We kind of stopped going to Toronto for a minute,” says Montano, lamenting shrinkage in the parade turnout. Ironically, while Montano has been gaining traction worldwide, local interest has been waning.

“There’s a big upsurge of hip-hop, with the city’s new alter ego as the 6ix, Drake and the OVO.”

Montano noticed how hip-hop culture started creeping up on Caribana back when Puff Daddy brought his own truck into the parade in 97. Sitting in a Toronto hotel room last year, Montano was hurt when local news stations were chattering about OVO, while Carnival was mentioned only occasionally.

“They would talk about the Caribbean parade as if they were removed from it,” says Montano. “They would talk about ‘it’s happening down there and this is what it is.’ They wouldn’t embrace it as their own.”

Montano wants to see OVO and Carnival complement each other, mixing soca and hip-hop as he did in the past with  Doug E. Fresh on We Not Giving Up.

Competition is against his mantra he’s all about unity. He’s also extending his arm out to another distant demographic he would like to see jump up at Carnival. They’re already doing it, only a month earlier at Pride.

“I believe we are one, whether we are gay, straight, black or white,” says Montano, even though gay sex is illegal in his homeland. 

“The struggle [expressed in] soca music definitely aligns with the struggles of gay pride. Both are not widely accepted. They are not widely accepted because they are not widely understood in many communities.

“When I go into these crowds, people are singing songs that celebrate the environment, peace and love, which is what gay pride is fighting for. They’re fighting for love, for understanding and acceptance. The same thing, I think, with soca music. We go to Carnival and we fight for people to jump together in the street in harmony.”

[Get caught up on some of Machel Montano’s biggest tracks with our roundup of his 10 essential hits here.]  

Montano on creating his sound, from Too Young to Soca to Sound Bang:

On bringing soca to Jamaica:

On his move to LA:

Montano on the power of Women and Party Done:

On OVO and the difficulty of getting into Air Canada Centre with the Soca Monarchs: | @freshandfrowsy

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