Being crowned the king of any genre is an undeniable sign of legendary status. Machel Montano, the bonafide King of Soca, did not receive this title by luck – he earned it. For the past 40 years, Montano has worked to bring “Soca into the domain of mainstream music.” The Caribbean genre combines African and East Indian rhythms with traditional Calypso, and originated from Trinidad and Tobago. Short for the “Soul of Calypso,” this style of music was created by the Father of Soca, Lord Shorty, in the early 1970s. A decade later, a young Montano started his journey as a musician who took Calypso’s birth child to new heights.
“When I wanted to make Soca music more hip for the young people to love, I turned to mixing it with reggae, dancehall, R&B, rap, pop, hip hop, and dance music. It has worked for me,” Montano told REVOLT.
At this year’s inaugural Caribbean Music Awards, the living legend was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award to celebrate 40 years in the music industry – which certainly marks a successful career, but Montano’s just getting started. He is not only continuing his reign in music; the icon is adding more achievements under his belt in business and entertainment. This does not come as a surprise because Montano is no stranger to hard work and started his career at 7 years old.
For 40 years and counting now, he has proved that Soca music is not only meant for Carnival; it’s for the world. In an exclusive interview with REVOLT, Machel Montano dove into his musical journey, childhood stardom, and an exciting new chapter in business. Read the enlightening conversation below.
Recalling your experience as a child star, do you remember the moment you realized you had a special talent?
There [was] not much of a childhood, but I still had really good days. Early on, I realized I had this passion for entertainment. I’d put on shows and try to write poems, but we moved from the city into the country in Trinidad because of my dad’s job. Moving to Siparia, we started to get involved in the school choir and at the age of 8, I was leading the choir and in a lot of Calypso competitions.
I loved looking at “Solid Gold” back at that time. I remember looking at Sting in The Police and Michael Jackson. I loved Lionel Richie [and] Bob Marley. That combined with getting a stereo player from my dad – I was intrigued by the electronics. How do they get all these instruments into a record and how do they get it on there to play back? And that kicked off my career.
Do you feel like you missed out on anything because you started working so early?
I used to think I was missing out on stuff. I sometimes had girlfriends in school who would say, “Hey, you’re coming to the movies with us this weekend?” I couldn’t go because I had to go on tour and eventually, you’d get dumped because you’re never showing up. But, we were having fun on the road, making our own money. We were being taught how to save [and] we had our fun time meeting girls on the road. I think when you understand how much you love what you do and you’re passionate for it, you cannot count the blessings that come with it. The things that you’re missing out [on] get equalized by the things that you’re actually getting in return that you would never have. I’ve always had a childhood that I could look back on and really love.
It seems like you had great foresight. Did you know very early on that you were going to be a huge artist?
Not necessarily. That kind of happened in a divine way for me because I was never someone who was dreaming of being famous. It’s a pretty important point because I used to be very afraid to go onstage. I think very early in my life, two things happened – I realized what my purpose was with music because singing Calypso felt like I was misplaced. I went out seeking my peers — what are they listening to? I realized they were listening to “Tainted Love,” pop, hip hop, and reggae music. At age 11, there was this divine interaction with me saying, “What do I do? Do I sing reggae [or] pop, or do I figure this out?” I became in touch with a voice that said, “Figure this out.”
It was beautiful to see you onstage with your family receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award at the inaugural Caribbean Music Awards. How did it feel to receive so much love?
It’s just a great feeling to be loved. You know, Bob Marley would say, “Could you be loved and be loved?” I try to give 150 percent of myself in everything I do. On that night, [in] a place like Brooklyn, a melting pot for Caribbean culture, people from every island come to celebrate Caribbean music. I was part of the last 40 years [for] a lot of people in that room. From a child to now, and delivering quality and developing in front of their eyes. I think there’s a connection between me, the fans, and Caribbean people who love this music. It was really special to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award when you’re just shy of half your lifetime — because they say 50 is the middle mark and I’m not there yet.
How did it feel to share that experience with your family?
Really special. We are a friendly gang. We have a lot of fun [and] laughs. It’s very demanding to have a career like mine. It means that we don’t get to spend as much time as we should or as we would like to. We come to events like that and understand that this is what it is about… the kids. They laugh when so many people are making so much noise and fuss over me [because] to them, it’s just dad.
What’s next for you?
Music has given me the experience of what life means on a deeper level. I started to look into my spirituality, which is that [the] essence of life is just beyond the physical level. Music is always something that I will do, but I’m really interested now in giving back to the community in terms of not just music but culture.
I just came back from Nigeria [and was] working with our lovely top Afrobeat musicians. I see a future where we get a closer understanding of Afrobeats, and the role that Calypso and Soca played in that synergy, and venturing out into Indo and Latin music. We are all connected along a couple of lines and I am dabbling into making a body of work that expresses that. Everything is on the board for me, making music, film, content, storytelling, commerce, even agriculture. On the main horizon, when you say, “What’s next?” I am in my second year of doing my master’s in Carnival studies at The University of Trinidad and Tobago.
What does your master’s program entail and why did you decide to enroll?
I’m studying steelpan, Calypso, the mask-making aspects of Carnival, Caribbean history, cultural studies, and social sciences. This has been a real task and journey for me, but something very beneficial because of where I want to go next in making my music, which is going to dabble in film, live performance, and, of course, recorded works. It’s important for me to know the real background of Carnival and my culture because this is the story that I’ve been involved in, and I will be able to spread my joy, passion, and ability to have impact with people in this field.
You mentioned your love for electronics and fusing different genres. What is your creative process when making a song?
My creative process is definitely creativity itself, which is being open to the essence of the universe. In any field, you have to try to hone your skills. I went to sound engineering school. I learned a lot of equipment. I always try to keep refreshing my knowledge of this ever-changing technology. I listen to all sorts of music, and sometimes it’s fun when I see the patterns that I think will work in Soca by mixing these things, sampling, which is a famous way of making hip hop music. Growing into a producer [with] drum machines and computer programming, I started building beats. You start with a beat, you put [on] some chords, and then you think of what songs you want to write.
You recently executive produced an album, Siparia to Soweto. How did that come about?
Siparia to Soweto is a collaborative effort of Hugh Masekela, the great jazz trumpeter from South Africa, and the Siparia Deltones, the steel band orchestra from my hometown. I was so intrigued by the project that I jumped in and decided to help. We had the privilege to work on a single named “The Meeting Place,” which features Hugh playing trumpet, but also singing there alongside Machel Montano, and this was a magical moment for me because I got to meet him.
Out of your catalog, what is your favorite song?
I call each one of my songs my children. [You] have to know each child and you can’t love any child more than [another]. I love a lot of my songs like “One More Time,” which I wrote and produced. “Soca Kingdom” which I collaborated [on] with young producers and veteran Calypsonian Super Blue. I love a lot of my collaborations, too, like “Defense” with Pitbull. When you put love, blood, sweat, and tears into songs, they’re all special now.
Let’s talk about Melé Destinations. What inspired you to create this big festival?
Melé is a collaboration with Tribe, one of the biggest mass production companies in the world. They were looking into the next step for Carnival at the same time that I was because I may be coming from a musical point of view, but I do a lot of production with my shows, and I try to tell that Carnival story on a global level. We had the concept of taking Carnival on a cruise ship, but the pandemic happened. We got derailed just as we were going to launch, so we switched gears halfway in between when we were able to gather again and came up with the Melé Destinations Carnival.
How will your master’s degree help with the success of Melé Destinations?
I always thought that my mission was to take Soca music to the corners of the globe. Ultimately, when I started my master’s, I realized that the story of Carnival begins in Africa. There’s a Carnival everywhere.
Carnival is a very satisfying time when [people] get to release their tension [and] feel free. Taking these new frontiers like Melé to places like Cancun and involving all the Soca artists… These are the platforms that [allow us to] reach out to people like spring breakers or people across the globe who travel for leisure and are interested in new festivals. There is some way we can find that right version that would speak of what Carnival does to the soul. In school, I get an understanding of the past and I have inspiration for the future. But, I’m also very steep in the present, which is: How do we expand our carnival, make it more professional, reach more people, make it serve humanity in the right way, and spread love, joy, awareness, and oneness?
What was it like having Buju Banton as a headliner for Melé?
Amazing. I’m a big Buju fan; Buju’s an icon. For reggae and dancehall to really meet with Soca, it’s been tough in the past. One is conscious reggae music and one is seen as fun and revelry. A lot of Buju Banton’s inspiration is in my music. Now, a lot of the music that dancehall is making is inspired by Soca and Calypso. I feel like we have come full circle to be able to meet in events like this. So, it was really an honor for Buju to accept the invitation.