In previous articles, I revealed genius Trini musical talents who have had global impact—to give context to Machel Montano. Let's examine Machel now:
In 2003, I wrote: "Machel is the pure distillation of the phallic power in Trinbago music. There's a direct line between him, Sparrow, the original Shorty, and a whole band of cocksmen—musical and village-ram alike. He's that in presence as performer as he's it as songwriter. His music is shot-through with that pure life-force that at times even he does not know how to control. He's been the channel the music has chosen—just as it chose SuperBlue years before... He's the one transforming the festival and thus the country, and taking a generation of celebrants along with him." I stand by those words.
We need to understand people who embody our collective self—like Kitchener, Shorty, Rudder... For more than a decade, Machel projected himself into the centre of our Carnival. He's matched that ambition with material and performing skills that place him there on merit. He provides the premium soundtrack for the 300 Trini-style carnivals and is their biggest draw. All our festival musicians aspire to this—he's done it. He's our biggest home-grown talent at present, raking in tens of millions annually—far outstripping his closest soca peers.
His presence is so seismic that at least two Carnivals in the last 15 suffered economically and otherwise by his absence. He draws crowds up to 45,000 locally, and up to 15,000 in the metropolitan diaspora. However, the global mainstream career he's dreamed of has eluded him. Thus far... Apart from interesting forays I will map, Machel remains largely unknown outside of Caribbean diaspora circuits, although buzzes exist on fringes of metropolitan markets.
Machel's max-ing his possibilities in the diaspora—and is again exploring crossover. For this reason—and because he consumes so much attention from our political and corporate elite—we need to understand his career. We can then facilitate him wisely and help our elites diversify their attention. I've broken Machel's career into seven stages. Each offers clues to successes, failures and lessons.
The first age of Machel was child prodigy. Groomed in the mould of the greatest—Michael Jackson—Machel sang, danced and charmed, but importantly, even at that age, Machel localised his performance, borrowing tropes from Blueboy and Sparrow. Placing fifth in Dimanche Gras with "Too Young to Soca", he could have been an historical footnote—but his parents had other plans...
The key to Machel's difference was the formation of Pranasonic Express—a band of boys, like the Rivers brothers, from musical families. Pranasonic became the lever for all Machel's transformations. And the committed, obsessive management of mother Liz.
Machel's second age was his teens. He had choices: the culture was "become a Dimanche Gras calypsonian". He tried, but Pranasonic gave him options—but nobody believed Pranasonic could evolve to match a Sound Revolution.
The third age is the key: in the late '80s, after two decades of sophistication built on brass bands and Trini pop, local music entered crisis. Suddenly the best bands were Bajan. The biggest was Spice. They played better, their songs were sweeter, their rhythm more true... Soca's sound changed.
T&T culture has crises of inheritance brought on by absences of institutions to pass on skill generationally. Results include youngsters lacking traditional skill and elders who cannot adapt to modernity.
Trini music suffered transition into the digital age of drum-machines and keyboards. The brilliant arrangements of Golden Age soca by producers like Art D Couteau, Errol Ince and Ed Watson became dumbed-down by producers who couldn't translate old into new, couldn't find sounds that conjugated the age. Soca moved out of step with the times—reduced to the ridiculous tuk-kung-ku-tuku-tung. Trini bands couldn't connect to audiences... "Anybody from Trinidad!" gimmicks entered—to get crowd participation—because the music was weak...
Xtatic admitted this—and didn't try to cheat. They stared soca's irrelevance in the face. This is the difference: they confessed nobody was interested in Trini-Soca. More importantly, they experimented. They admitted when they performed international hits crowds responded, but vowed never to become a cover band. But there was no denying Trinis wanted international music over local.
Xtatic began to study why international music connected to audiences more—production, rhythm, melody, beats, song structure, hooks, lyrics... They incorporated passages from international songs in their sets- but Soca-fied them. They began writing from that place pop music comes from. They failed many times. But gradually they saw performances and songs connect.
Most soca bands still rely on international songs to establish connection with crowds. Until every soca band wrestles to find soca songs, a sound and arrangements to sustain audiences for a three-hour set, then soca will continue to be dominated by one band—and our Carnival will continue to be in crisis globally.
In this third age in the early '90s, Machel transcended: he stared down the crisis and unlocked more power within soca... The other band doing that—using a different formula—was David Rudder's Charlie's Roots...
Next: Crises and victories.
• Rubadiri Victor is a cultural activist.