Thursday, August 30, 2007

WE Cover Story - Machel Montano HD – Clear and Simple

by Karen L. Richardson

“I want to be seen clearly.” Behind the blinged-out tour bus, away from the thousands of adoring fans, there is a man called Machel Montano who simply is. The 32-year-old soca icon is celebrating 25 years in the business in 2007 and it’s a celebration like no other. The season began with an incomparable impact on Trinidad Carnival, linked to a cache of hit songs that swept through the Caribbean and its Diaspora reminiscent of Michael Jackson’s thriller album of the early eighties. The collector’s item was a CD called, Book of Angels. Jumbie won road march and the region has been spellbound by the hypnotic spirit of Machel Montano HD ever since.

And so engrossed was I, on a picture perfect Friday afternoon when I met the man responsible for so many fond memories of my adolescence. No band. No big screen. No light show – just a cool-ass dreadlocked guy in a button-down shirt and jeans, liming in the lounge of the Westin Harbour Castle Hotel in Toronto.

“I came in involuntarily as a Calypsonian. You know, I never really saw this as what I want to do. I never really had that dream. I wanted to be a lawyer. And when I started to decide I have to make music, I have to be in this music world as a career, I started to have to create my way,” admitted Montano.

“I grew up in a carnival world, in those characters in carnival, in that lifestyle, in that nation carrying concept of carnival. I have become somebody who lived through it, who lived as different characters in there at the same time,” he said.

The decision to pursue music was made on Machel’s behalf as a child. He began singing in the choir at Trinidad’s prestigious Presentation College, where teachers encouraged him to represent the school as a junior calypsonian. In 1984, his voice earned him his first pay cheque for USD $1600 singing at the Mother’s Day Show at Madison Square Garden. Two years later he would be the youngest entrant in Trinidad’s national calypso competition, placing fifth overall with “Too Young to Soca”. Then it was back to the United States to become the first ever soca artist to appear on Star Search when he was just 11.

“It really dawned on me that I was sort of a young person that was put into a big world when I was 9 years old. I was in Madison Square Garden performing with all these adults and my life has been that way. I have never ever been one to have stage fright and I wondered why. I was always prepared to go on stage even though it wasn’t my thing. I didn’t think I was born for this. I always say, I’m not the best dancer, I’m not the best singer, I’m not the best musician, but I can put all of them together and do a good job,” Montano shared.

He is the consummate chameleon. Adapting to any situation that befalls him, Machel has learned to blend his colours and observe before going in for the kill.

“At that time, young people didn’t like soca music, so we had to learn hip-hop, we had to learn reggae, we had to be exposed to a lot of pop music, and we had to learn it to sorta influence them and then throw in the calypso there. When we wanted to work at the really big shows with the adults, we had to make our way to the stars to kinda be accepted. And I’ve been thus far on that sort of evolutionary path where I’m always trying to create something new to be accepted on a wider basis and it is the movement of soca music, ” said Montano.

It was a revelation that I hadn’t considered before. Here was a Caribbean man who was led into fame, his hands gently guided by those of his parents. Now as an adult he was infinitely more famous, calling the shots on his own, not from a place of pride, but humility.
“Ever since 2000, I’ve been on a sort of spiritual path, a spiritual quest, which means I had to reintroduce myself to what God was and the meaning of God and life.” Montano says, he knows that he is blessed. I observed as recognized various members of the team working tirelessly to keep him on top. However, I noted that Machel is no bleeding-heart trying to win approval by portraying false modesty. Realness oozes from Machel like melted cheese. He won’t hide the essence of what is inside, whether he’s angrily correcting a touchy-feely fan from the stage, or flirtatiously chatting up his interviewer from across the table. Clearly, chameleon changes only in colour.

“I want people to see more of me in the music, in my image, in my words and the things that I do. Becoming simpler, but becoming more complete. So you see less, but you see more,” said Montano.

In 2007, Machel Montano became Machel Montano HD, with the focus of the musical act zeroing onto him directly as the star. “I have to develop into the best artist I can be, which would mean working with the best writers, the best musicians, and creating anything I could possibly want to create to represent exactly what I want to say. Because I really want to connect with people about the things that go on in my life, the things that I’ve been faced with, the things that I’ve seen from my point of view,” said Montano. The man and the band became synonymous. The concept of oneness is borrowed from the artist’s personal spiritual philosophy.
“What are they doing when they transmit in HD or when they have a movie in HD? They are transmitting at a higher quality. They want you to see things clearer. They want to paint a more vivid picture with colours. I mean, this is just what it was for me,” Montano explained.
“I’m trying to compete on a world level. The only competition is me trying to give a higher standard. To be a leader in setting trends in the world, it’s deeply rooted in having that side of spiritual understanding. I’m trying to increase all my training in dancing, singing, instrumentation, and at the same time do better business for all the artists who are around me.
“Soca music for me in the beginning was ‘the soul of calypso’, now it’s kinda changed perspective. Now it’s the culture of the Southern Caribbean. So I kinda see myself as somebody who is spearheading the movement. Any movement would be upward change, constant change, constant positive dissatisfaction. It’s almost like you always want to be better than you were before. And with that, I kinda live my life very alert and very aware of what’s happening worldwide. I look at those changes and I wonder how do those changes affect me? They become changes I could put in my music. It becomes something new every time. So, every time I go to speak, I go to speak in music. I speak about myself in relation to where the world is at,” said Montano.

Currently, the soca world is at his feet. Off the heels of his return to the Garden for a sold out anniversary performance, Machel is stronger than ever. He is marking the 40th anniversary of Caribana by providing music on the road for NBA player Jamaal Magloire’s Toronto Reveller’s Mas Band. Then he takes the Machel Montano HD show to Lamport Stadium on Caribana Saturday and to the DOCKs (Fire Fete) and the Kool Haus (Breakfast Party) on Sunday.
With every reason to feel higher than high, Machel pushes forward positively dissatisfied. “I think I’ve grown with a generation of people who are now poised to actually look back to influence and affect the generation that’s coming.

“I think it’s very special for me being someone born of African heritage in the Caribbean. It’s a special place. We’re faced with a lot of serious decisions to make as a world, not as a race, not as a continent, or a country or a flag, but as a world. Things like the environment, the changes that we are experiencing right now. We have to sing songs about that. We have to influence people about that. We have to think about that together, so our responsibility is a little greater,” he says.

“I want to be the soundtrack. I want people to tell their kids and their grandkids, ‘You know, this was our time, and this was the music that accompanied it.’ This was the person who gave us that energy to go on everyday,” Machel pondered in an audible whisper.I closed my notebook, energized. We exchanged niceties and promised to keep in touch, both aware that his music might become our only point of contact. The heavens had opened and the sun kissed day I had left earlier was transformed to into a stormy scene from a horror film. Silently I exited, entranced by the jumbie.

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