A report by Kaéche Liburd for Okay Africa.
Machel Montano is synonymous with soca music. Entering the industry at age 9, he has grown alongside the artform. While Montano matured as an entertainer, soca grew in an intensely competitive way that only pushed him to improve. Now known across the globe as the facilitator of fête, he is telling his life story through a documentary.
In the film about his life recently screened at the Pan-African Film Festival entitled, Machel Montano: Journey of a Soca King, Machel bares it all. Teaming up with director Bart Phillips, he takes viewers on a guided tour of his triumphs and torments as a young man forging himself from poverty in Trinidad and Tobago. Tougher times were met with tears and a spiritual growth that has influenced his studies of religion and wellness practices. He openly discussed the physical and psychological price that one pays in order to regularly deliver award-winning songs and performances. After watching the documentary, we spoke with Montano in-depth on what he shared in the film, as well as a better idea of what goes on in his mind.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Kaéche Liburd for OkayAfrica: Give readers a brief history on what soca music is. Why try soca?
Machel Montano: Well, first of all, soca music is a happy music. The sound or the soul of the Caribbean. You know, soca music started off as the soul of calypso. It was a branch of calypso that was based on the unity of East Indian rhythms and African rhythms. Calypso and East Indian beats. And soca music is the soundtrack of Carnival. Carnival is the celebration of freedom that is expressed across the Caribbean.
You’ve delved into something that I call ‘art diplomacy,’ with many international collaborations. You bring these very different countries together. How do you choose your collaborators?
Collaborations for me have happened organically over the years. You know, as sort of mutual respect when you’re traversing the industry and you’re going across the islands and you perform in different states, you meet different artists and you connect. In recent times, it’s more like following something that is a calling. We have these various forms of soca; dennery segment in St. Lucia, bashment soca in Barbados, Grenadian jab jab, the Vincentian jab jab beat, and now the jab jab could even be coming out of Trinidad and Tobago. So, when you see the sort of patterns, you really have to pay attention and know how to tune in.
In the documentary, you decided to rebel as a family when parts of your community opposed your entrance into the soca arena at such a young age. Tell us more about the early musician as you developed into this career.
Family played an important role in getting us into music. It actually was something extracurricular my parents thought we should get into. I kind of fell into it because of my brother. And it’s something that we used to build community. But in building community, we started learning instruments. I was exposed to Lionel Richie and Michael Jackson and Blondie and these different types of music. Bob, a lot of Bob Marley, so when I was later on introduced to singing to calypso, I kinda had an interest in being a musician. And I’d just be behind the scenes, and I had friends come in and form a band. But somehow, the calling was always there to lead the charge of how do I make my calypso sound or feel or grow or be as accepted as R&B; or proper reggae or anything that I would see on the TV. So my mission as a musician became to tie this music together. To develop this music, develop the sound of soca.
But naturally, humans seem to punish people who are different. And you repeatedly made a conscious decision to be different over and over again before you were successful in making it acceptable. What inside you speaks to that and allows you to renew that? Because it’s a challenging path.
Early in my days at [age] 11, I was really shocked to realize that the young people of Trinidad and Tobago didn’t really love their music. It was an eye-opening point and I think a relationship, for a young kid in the business, was developed with this inner voice. So there’s always an inner voice that I will consult, which I think is what you will call ‘God,’ you will call “the Creator,” speaking to me, sayin’ this the right thing to do. This is the right thing to do. Develop your music, develop your sound. Because you can’t just walk away or sell out when you think that you know deep down inside. I thought I had some of the answers. And you know, over the years, I think that I’ve proven that if you really push the limits, you could solve some of the problems. And that you think is a problem, but as a matter of fact, is just a growing path. We have to grow as a sound, as a music, and now we see the benefits that soca music made all over the world. So for me, being different was necessarily listening to myself and trusting myself at times.
In the documentary, you talk about some really low points. How do you classify them? Talk about being at the bottom and what allowed you to spring back to the top.
Well, I will think first of all prayer. The first leg, you know, praying and trusting God at the lowest points in time. Just praying will keep it together for me. For me I’ve always been searching for ways to be a stronger person. Just to be able to dedicate more to music, to dedicate more to my call. I’ve always been looking for literature and reading books and sometimes liking gospel albums, like a Cece Winans album entitled “Everlasting Love.” You know that would be an album that has brought me through. Many nights when I was feeling down, I’d listen to this album and I’d listen to the lyrics, and you hear the messages that would lift your spirit. Sometimes, it’s just about being. You know? Removing the self from people and going into nature. Nature is one of the most important healers for me. Things that bring me back. And through it all, whether it is listening to an album of good messages or whether it’s going in the jungle and just watching nature, observing nature. The underlying philosophy is to give in; to give up. To give up and give in to God. And sometimes you have to listen, you have to wait and be patient. And you have to have moments when you will lose or when you’ll be down, or when you wouldn’t be in the spotlight. But you have to know where to go to nourish the mind and to nourish the soul.
You also expressed in the documentary the guilt you felt because performing sometimes took you away from your children. Fathers are less often asked about from their children. Talk about what fatherhood looks like for you.
Fatherhood, for me, of course has been an up and down battle of trying to be there. Growing up as a child star and then becoming thrown into being a father, and being a public figure in such magnitude, it was tough. It was tough. As we speak, I’m chilling with my son here right now after Carnival, talking about future plans. So we get to spend time [together] when we can. Sometimes they will come around during a Carnival, and they would see the stress of what it’s like to perform at the highest level. They would be on the outskirts sometimes, learning. And, where you might think you will suffer as not having a normal father-son/father-daughter relationship, I think the work ethic and the dedication to a passion, towards something that is in you; it’s something they have all adopted, that they all put into what they do now. So when we do see each other, we know. And we understand why we work hard and what legacy we want to leave behind and what benefits and what pitfalls come with that.
You say that you want to make music that makes you happy. What are the ingredients of this music?
Well, the best part about it is that there’s this place. There’s a real dark, soft, subtle place called “the unknown,” where you’re stepping off of the shore, you’re stepping off of the ridge, or you’re stepping off of the jetty, for the time being, you’re not sure what the end result would be. But you know what the ingredients are. And most of the time, these ingredients are people—people who want to write the messages that are in my head. And I would collaborate with them about writing things more prolific. And if you want to produce the beats, you want to be organic and want to be tribal and want to be spiritual. The people who want to market this as a visual, as a story, and tell stories of our people, and our journey from ancestors to now, to where we are. We have produced things such as the steel pan, mas, and the bright colors, and the unity that we have produced across the Caribbean. So I wanna kinda just focus on that.
The full “Sankofa Effect” I think took place this year in the song “Soca Kingdom.” You literally linked three generations. With the writing and producing by artists who were in their twenties, Machel Montano in the middle singing with somebody you might consider a father figure, Super Blue. You talked about Super Blue being the first soca artist you remember seeing. Tell us how it feels to have won the hearts of not only your generation, but to have bridged the past and the future of soca.
This is one of the more satisfying achievements, because this is the philosophy that we started off with when we first came up with the “M.O.N.K. philosophy.” M.O.N.K. is the Movement of New Knowledge—the philosophy is like a triangle. We have tradition on the left with Super Blue, technology on the right which would be Travis World and Pronto Music, and then truth in the middle, so the Machel Montano in the present. So you have the past, you have the future, and you have the present. And when you fold the future onto the present, and you fold the past onto the present, you’re in a very powerful position where you can spread omnipresence across the whole nation and gather everybody’s attention. They use a lot of things like the jab jab beat in there. We use a lot of significant lines in the song that was from the guidance of Super Blue. To say things like “every grade and age, every road is a stage.” We took input from him; he took input from us. They took input from me. And I was just the one in the middle holding these two ends of the triangle together. So when you go forward, like an arrow, going forward with the fortification of the past and the elders, and the tradition and the ancient knowledge, but yet you’re going forward with the enthusiasm or the arrow of the young innovative mind. And the risk-taking, to have ideas of what they’re thinking it should sound like as it goes forward into the trajectory in the air. These are the kind of arrows you want to fire. Arrows of unity. Unity not just between race, but between generations. Between young people and elders and culled across a culture that is constantly growing. So for me, this achievement was the best. And this is the philosophy I am living right now as the M.O.N.K. family. This is what we dream of. To put all these people together, work, and continue to develop the sound of our people, which is the sound of the Caribbean.
You were able to make it from modest means to be a master of music. What do you think worked for you?
I think that one of the things we had was parents who believed in education. And education was the key. So, one of the first rules was always, we had to do really good in school to be able to get to the music room or get to the music time. But even when we got into music, the whole team, my dad and mom, said we had to educate ourselves about music. So, early in life, we had books about the business of music. They would educate themselves, then they would educate us. And then we would educate ourselves musically. And even when I finished educating myself, from grade school I immediately went to sound engineering school to educate myself musically. I think the key was always about understanding [that] education was really about learning how to learn. So in any situation that we were placed in, we were able to learn and adapt and really figure out how to maximize our purpose. And our purpose was always attached to developing our sound, developing our music, making people like it more. Somewhere in between there, all those things fused together and made magic.
You’re a dispenser of joy through your music. How is Machel Montano the human being thriving under all of this constant pressure?
I would say that you’re not always thriving, [though] you might look like you’re always thriving. There are times when you will be spent and your spirit will be low. I really tend to turn a lot to meditation and proper eating. I think keeping healthy as much as possible is tantamount to having a healthy spirit and a happy soul. Under the pressure, I think you’re truly trying to know yourself. And getting in touch with yourself helps you to love better. It helps you to serve others better. It helps you to find a space of peace in yourself that you could actually dream of things in life and engage in things you like. It may not be ideas of just your own, but it may be ideas of other people, and you connect. I am really fortunate right now to connect with a lot of young musicians and young writers and not just young, but prolific. Like Peter Mitchell and Super Blue, and people who are really interested in art—the art that we’re living in right now. Because I think, in the world, we have a lot of distractions of disharmony going on. And, in times like that, sometimes music and art really come together and come alive as something that would attract people who want to be on a different wavelength, to be about a different vibration.
What makes you get up everyday?
Gratitude for life. You know, it’s a very special privilege to be human; to be able to share relationships with people and create things and, you know, make history.
All things considered, which life experiences have most contributed to the truth of who you are?
I would say some of my failures. I was thrust into fame at a very young age and became a hero across the nation. And I had to enter the competition again in the next year. So I came into an arena where competition was king. And you had to win the competition to maintain your stature. So to win in 1984 and to go back in 1985 to lose, I think that was one of the important times that my Mom taught me how to lose. You know, to hold your head high and not be sad about it. And know that there would always be a time to work again. Somebody else has to win. I think that was the time when, you know, I was able to carry that truth for the rest of the times when I had to lose. And then in the year 2000, I happened to fail again at a concert that was important to me. It was a disastrous outcome of the concert; the stage fell in. That was a thing that thrust me into getting spiritual. Getting connected with God and really, truly trying to find my purpose. So I think, the lowest times, those times are the times when you have to pray or you had to go on your knees or you had to go to the gospel music. Those are the times that really make me the true person that I am—the person that seeks God. The person that seeks spirituality. The person that seeks to be his truest self. To find and be his highest and truest self. To know thyself. And to share it with others. ‘Cause the joy of knowing thyself is to share it with others. And I think just going through those tough times helped to create some skill or create some connection, or create bridge or some tool that will forever be something that I could share with others. As this is how I overcame.
I want to make sure that you have the opportunity to shout out the next person you want to invite to collaborate.
We certainly would like to make a big collaboration with RiRi. We love Rihanna. We think this is a time for Caribbean unity. Nicki Minaj. These are some of our sisters and some of the leaders of music in the world. They’re from Trinidad and Barbados, so we wanna work with our sisters. Drake is always high on our list. And then on the African continent, Wizkid, RunTown. We have so many people that we love out there in Africa. Maleek Berry, Tunez, you name it. So many, man! Dotman, Mah boy Timaya. Big up the whole Nigerian crew. Stonebwoy—the list goes on. Right now we love the whole fraternity and we’re open to people who wanna help us spread the joy of soca music to the corners of the globe.