The Man Who’s Been Taking Trinidad’s Carnival on the Road

John Eligon profiles Trinidad and Tobago’s soca king Machel Montano for the New York Times.

Machel Montano was a teenage calypso prodigy when he discovered something that would horrify any young person: He was so not cool.

He came to that unfortunate realization after his first performances at a popular nightclub in his native Trinidad and Tobago in the late 1980s. While the crowd was rapt by other acts that covered hip-hop, R&B and reggae songs, they dismissed his homegrown tunes as old people’s music.

“I was the butt of the joke,” Mr. Montano said, adding that people “would turn their back and walk off, and I wouldn’t be getting the girls.”

“Fellas who were lip-syncing would be getting all the girls,” he said. “I was like, ‘Wait, but something’s wrong here.’ ”

The experience started him on a mission: He began to blend sounds from around the world with his home island’s traditional music. The result was a high-octane brand of soca (soul of calypso). Soca is generally a more up-tempo, rhythmical, pop-sounding version of calypso that originated in the mid-1970s with Ras Shorty I, who blended in Afro and Indian beats to create the sound.

“I immediately felt my purpose was to make this music young, make it successful, make it attractive to the younger audience, make it hip,” Mr. Montano said by telephone from Trinidad.

As Mr. Montano prepares for his fifth headlining performance at the Theater at Madison Square Garden on Friday, his place as soca’s most transformative star is undeniable.

His songs are ubiquitous on the radio and in the streets of Trinidad around Carnival time every year. This year, he won Soca Monarch, Trinidad’s annual competition for best soca artist, and his hit song “Advantage” was played more than any other during Carnival.

Mr. Montano has packed nightclubs, auditoriums and stadiums in New York and abroad. His performances often send crowds into frenzied jubilance. In a few weeks, this slightly built, dreadlocked 36-year-old will release his 35th album, “The Return.”

“No one can argue the fact that, as an entertainer, he’s done more for Trinidad and Tobago than anyone has done for Trinidad and Tobago in the last 15 to 20 years,” said Simon Baptiste, whose company, Question Mark Entertainment, manages several Caribbean musicians (though not Mr. Montano). “You put him on any stage anywhere in the world and he knows how to tap into that particular environment and change it for his benefit.”

Despite his popularity among Caribbean people in the United States and elsewhere, Mr. Montano remains relatively anonymous internationally — the same way that soca, despite a rabid fan base, has not cracked the American mainstream as reggae, reggaetón, salsa and other types of island music have.

To some who work in the industry, soca is not marketed properly. They say that the message in some songs speaks only to a small demographic and that soca artists focus too much on creating music just for Carnival season.

Mr. Montano, whose songs range from smooth ballads to frenetic beats meant to incite dancing, said he was making greater efforts to tap into the mainstream through collaborations with writers, producers and managers who have global connections. He has already collaborated with the likes of Wyclef Jean, Doug E. Fresh, Busta Rhymes and Pitbull.

These ambitions are nothing new for Mr. Montano. His mother, Elizabeth Montano, recalled an interview he did in New York with a radio station as a child. “He said that his goal was to take the music worldwide and internationalize it,” she said. “The same thing he was saying at 7, he is saying now, 30 years later.”

In some ways, Mr. Montano was an accidental soca star. When he was 5 his older brother, Marcus, made him sing while Marcus practiced the guitar. Mr. Montano would record their jam sessions on a cassette tape and turn it into a mock version of a popular Trinidadian radio talent show, acting as the host, the judge and the singer.

He honed his performance skills by watching calypso stars and Michael Jackson, mimicking, for instance, the way they threw the microphone between their hands. In 1984, at age 9, he had his first hit, “The Letter,” in which he belted out a critique of schoolteachers (his parents’ profession) in a powerful, high-pitched voice.

That same year, he performed for the first time at the Garden as part of a show that included the calypso great The Mighty Sparrow. He also performed that year at a nightclub in Brooklyn, where the line of people hoping to get in to see him stretched around the corner, his mother recalled. Mr. Montano said he began to see the potential of a music career when he formed a band at 12: traveling, making money and getting girls.

What Mr. Montano has blossomed into does not always sit well with everyone. Calypso purists say that his performances and music are overly sexual and that he has contributed to the decline of the days when soca and calypso songs told stories. He is facing criminal charges of assault and obscene language stemming from an altercation at a nightclub in Trinidad four years ago that started, he has said, when a woman made unwanted advances toward him.

After not performing in Soca Monarch for about a decade and a half, Mr. Montano returned this year — after the government raised the prize money to $2 million in local currency (about $300,000). He won, but many fans and some in the news media said that Iwer George, who finished second, should have won. When Mr. Montano was performing, the crowd “was chanting Iwer,” Mr. George said. “I’m not saying he didn’t perform well, but that’s a bad signal.”

Critics said Mr. Montano’s cozy relationship with the new prime minister and her cabinet worked to his advantage. In the song he performed, he thanked the government for changes it made to Carnival.

Then again, that performance perhaps demonstrated his talent for spinning the issues of the day into something popular.

“A lot of them would like to say that was playing politics,” Mr. Montano said. “I think that was playing intelligent.”

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