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Machel Montano on Drake and how soca is taking over the world

Del Cowie

“Drake is definitely one of the most prolific and influential artists of our time,” says Machel Montano, often referred to as the King of Soca.

He's speaking to me from New York where he is staying ahead of his Toronto date playing the Canadian superstar's OVO Fest (July 30). I ask Montano about the importance of playing the festival and he laughs mischeviously, fully aware of the fact the event is what he calls a “significant step” in the awareness and popularity of soca music.

“[Drake] has been embarking on expanding his horizons, his reach, dipping into dancehall, soca, afrobeat, which is exactly what we’ve been trying to do by dipping into hip-hop and pop and dancehall and to show unity and to reach out to wider communities. Toronto being such a diverse city, a city that really reminds me of the Trinidadian and Caribbean culture where different races live side by side closely to the point where they colour in to each other’s circles a lot – [people] take each other’s traditions, sometimes even more than their own. I think it’s important for that interaction alone.”

Montano’s presence at Drake’s annual concert is occurring within the larger reality of OVO Fest overtly connecting with Toronto’s annual Caribbean Carnival, still referred to as Caribana by its staunch adherents. While OVO Fest has always occurred on the same weekend as the Toronto carnival – one of the largest carnival celebrations outside of the Caribbean in the world – up until now the musical makeup of the festival has been heavily tied to hip-hop and R&B. The presence of Montano and Beenie Man (who was dropped from the bill due to immigration issues) on the festival’s West Indian music-themed first night makes the musical connection overtly for the first time, tying itself to recent influences on Drake’s last album, Views, as well as the Top 40 charts.  

“We’re hearing soca music up and down the Billboard charts, little influences here and there because it is a joyous music,” he says. “It is a music that celebrates happiness, joy, love and coming together. It is a unifying force and that’s why I say our music will play a major role. But we’re at the beginning of this really, it’s starting to take shape y’know.”

It's also a microcosm of Montano's larger goal of increasing the visibility of soca music across the world, while its musical influence is something that is already happening, hidden in plain sight. If there’s a candidate to bring soca music further into the spotlight, there are no candidates more qualified than Machel Montano.

“I think a message that is basically love, unity and a celebration of life and togetherness is a critical theme for the world right now and soca music will play its role.”

Machel Montano

Born and raised in Trinidad, Machel was immersed in soca music, an offspring of calypso music originating on the Caribbean island, from a very young age. Montano began his musical career as a young child, having a hit single “Too Young to Soca” at the age of nine, during a time when legendary calypso artists like Lord KitchenerMighty Sparrow and David Rudder were very prominent. As he nears 35 years in the music business, Montano has assembled an enviable sonic legacy with countless numbers of his songs being directly associated with the annual Trinidadian carnival and beyond. From breakthrough songs like “Big Truck” and “It’s Carnival” with Destra in the late '90s and 2000s up until last year’s “Party Done” and “Like Ah Boss,” as well as this year's "Waiting on the Stage," Montano’s consistency is undeniable. Through touring these songs around the globe with his infectiously kinetic live show, his name has become synonymous with the genre.

“If you have to say what’s the purpose of soca music, soca is the soundtrack to carnival,” Montano says. 

At this point in his career, Montano has taken on the role of soca ambassador to the world, even playing Coachella for the first time earlier this year, as well as performing at Lauryn Hill’s inaugural Diaspora Calling festival. He also visited the White House for a panel discussion on The Impact of Caribbean Culture on America and treated those in attendance to an impromptu acoustic performance.

Earlier this week, Montano premiered Bazodee – a Trinidadian term meaning crazy in love – a film for which he provides the music as well as assuming leading man acting duties. He’s also currently at work on a biographical documentary as well as releasing a concert DVD that will feature appearances from artists like Pitbull and Lil’ Jon. It’s clear Montano is intent on spreading soca music as far as it can go.

“We’ve been screaming from stage tops during carnival times all over in different cities, but now it’s time to reach into the social media and the visual media, the streaming world and the digital platforms to really try and put this music on the map,” he says. “I think a message that is basically love, unity and a celebration of life and togetherness is a critical theme for the world right now and soca music will play its role.”

While Montano’s music is high-energy and, to the casual eye, may seem to be focused only on carefree partying, it’s highly evident in speaking to him that philosophically, music represents a deeper and cathartic meaning to him, borne out in Monk Evolution, the title of his album released earlier this year.

“I think music really carries messages well,” says Montano. “And I think right now we need to carry a lot of messages. We see every single day a mass shooting, a mass bombing and a mass stabbing. There are a lot of people who are probably frustrated and probably mentally misguided and some people might be hopeless and I think music is the thing that lifts people up and gives people some ease. So now we are dancing to the beats and each other’s cultural vibes, but I think eventually we’re going to really listen to each other’s voices and each other’s messages more, and the messages are going to be about us coming together and one of the greatest ways to come together is love.”

To this end, Montano has embraced working with artists outside of the genre of soca music, appearing on songs with artists like Major Lazer and Ariana Grande, fuelling influences of soca music in EDM, and vice-versa.

“I think it’s a conversation because music is a call and response, it’s a melody and a harmony,” says Montano. “It’s a lead and a background, you know you put notes out there and people hear it and they sing it back to you and you sing it back to them. It’s a conversation. So when you see EDM talking to soca by blending soca beats, soca is going to talk back to EDM. It’s like saying, ‘Hey, we come in peace.’”

For examples of this influence, Montano turns to his OVO host Drake, whose recent music, whether appearing on songs like Rihanna’s “Work” or his own tracks like “Controlla,” feature the incorporation of Caribbean and African diasporic musical forms, all of which are being produced or co-produced by his cadre of Toronto producers, many of whom have familial ties to the West Indies.

“You listen to “Too Good” by Drake and Rihanna it’s a straight soca beat with straight pop hip-hop [and] dancehall in there and it’s because [the musical forms], they’re all talking to each other and now these songs could play in a soca fete and people will dance to it because it speaks to them," he says. "And now they will try to make sounds like that and that’s what we’re doing, we’re just interacting with each other.”

Montano also cites Drake’s “One Dance,” easily one of the most globally successful singles of the year so far, as contributing to this pattern. “You listen to Drake’s 'One Dance' and some people say he’s doing dancehall, some people say he’s doing afrobeat, some people say he’s singing soca, some people say this is the new hip-hop. And the whole point about it, is this whole reaching in. It’s reaching across cultures, it’s reaching across barriers and really making something that can relate to more people because in the end it will bring more people together. And being on top of the Billboard [charts] for so long, this is what the movement of new is pointing towards.”

But Montano is also quick to point out many more artists aside from Drake who are influential in this realm, such as Nicki Minaj, who is of Trinidadian descent, as well as others. “There’s soca music on Major Lazer tracks, Sia tracks you can hear soca in David Guetta and Zara Larsson tracks. The fact is the word is spreading by natural word of mouth by natural rise of a wave. It’s making it’s way, it’s coming. People like me who have a POV of 30-plus years can measure the change and it’s almost tectonic. It’s almost like an earthquake that you measure over years the movement of a plate over a plate. I could see it, but can see it happening organically and it’s really true to the work everybody has put in.”

When Montano says everybody, he’s referring to the ground work that has been laid by artists who have been peers and pioneers, such as Kevin Lyttle, Arrow and Rupee, as well as contemporary soca artists like Bunji Garlin. Kes the Band and Alison Hinds, widely referred to as the Queen of Soca. It’s probably why he’s slightly ambivalent about the King of Soca title that has been bestowed upon him by others.

“I don’t know how I feel about the King of Soca,” he says. “There have been many kings and I think there a lot of kings and queens of soca right now. I just now that I am a leader and I have been a leader. Somebody who has been pioneering the changes for soca music. ... I like to lead by example and my example is reaching out to people and bridging gaps and bridging barriers and really making links. ... That will stand the test of time and will leave a mark on history.”

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