One of the biggest hits of Trinidad and Tobago’s (T&T) Carnival 2008 was Machel Montano’s irresistibly upbeat “Blazin D Trail.” The song’s lyrics capture the effervescence of carnival’s climactic street parade, while its title provides an accurate summation of Machel’s exhaustive musical pursuits. Over the past 26 years, the single constant in Machel’s ever-changing, stellar career has been his trailblazing approach to T&T’s indigenous soca music. Through his various fusions, which include everything from performing with marching bands to collaborating with Grammy-winning reggae artists, Machel has worked tirelessly to establish soca, calypso’s energetic offshoot, as a viable entity that can impact beyond T&T’s internationally renowned carnival celebrations.
Born in Port of Spain, the capital of the oil rich island of Trinidad, on November 24, 1974, Machel has already made great strides in moving soca towards the mainstream. The former child star made history in March 2007 as the first soca artist to sell out two back-to-back shows at New York City’s Madison Square Garden and he returned to the Garden on March 28, 2008 for another sold out affair. The MSG shows, which earned rave reviews for their innovative use of carnival’s elaborate masquerade tradition and seamless incorporation of T&T’s various musical strains, including calypso, Indian chutney, and the country’s national instrument the steel pan, also solidified Machel’s reputation as a consummate showman who can dazzle any crowd, anywhere, not just in a carnival setting. “Performing at Madison Square Garden is a goal that I always had,” says the soca superstar. “But we didn’t just come and sing; we brought the culture of T&T to one of the most prestigious venues in the world.”
Now with the release of his 2008 album Wining Season, Machel continues to blaze the trail, this time with an even hotter fire. The CD’s retro flavored title track, produced by Dwain “Dwaingerous” Antrobus, celebrates carnival’s unofficial dance, the seductive, pelvic-gyrating movement referred to as “wining.” A remix featuring Shaggy made the song one of the biggest hits of the carnival.
“Defense (The Anthem)” is a remix of Cuban-American rapper Pitbull’s hit “The Anthem” featuring Machel, Pitbull and Atlanta-based “crunk” sensation Lil Jon; enhanced by Machel’s distinctly Trinidadian flavor, the song is already making inroads into crossover markets.
While Machel’s diversified musical partnerships have helped to broaden soca’s appeal, he also consistently celebrates T&T’s musical roots. Machel wrote all of the CDs thirteen tracks, with eight co-written by Kernal Roberts, the son of calypso icon, the late Lord Kitchener, including the carnival 2008 hits “Unconditional Love,” “Rollin” featuring rising female singer Patrice Roberts, and “Make Love,” which boasts Buju Banton on its smashing remix.
Soca was created in the mid-70s, when the late Ras Shorty I blended the musical expressions of Trinidad’s dominant African and Indian populations and called that fusion the soul of calypso, or soca. Some twenty years later, Machel and his band Xtatik modernized soca, injected it with hip-hop beats and dancehall rhythms, and made it palatable to a younger generation. “Before that, young people in Trinidad couldn’t relate to anything local,” says Machel who became the youngest finalist in the history of carnival’s Calypso Monarch competition back in 1986, performing the aptly title “Too Young to Soca.” “So I started adding slang, and we started producing our own music and saw a big change in the crowds reaction.”
Because Wining Season is Machel’s most versatile album to date, he hopes to conquer the musical mainstream as skillfully as he has commanded the carnival/soca circuit since the 1990s. To facilitate this mission, Machel will base himself outside of T&T for several months and focus on recording songs that will solidify soca’s presence in the crossover market. “We want to use our experience to take soca international,” he says. “We have had the chart success of Kevin Lyttle with “Turn Me On” and Rupee’s “Tempted to Touch” (both songs entered the Billboard Hot 100 in 2004) but we need more than that. I have been trying to revolutionize soca, trying to improve its quality. It is very difficult to bring soca to the mainstream and stay grounded at home, but we have created a sound that we believe is palatable to all markets and can play on the radio in rotation with other popular songs. That is a dream I have always had and something I look forward to achieving.”