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 well-established, annually sold-out event — per Montano’s request — is indicative of the Trinidad-born singer’s powerful stature. 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 pre-eminent 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 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. 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.
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 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. 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.”