Sunday 5 April, 2020

Artiste of the Decade: Machel Montano

Machel Montano started the decade absent from Carnival 2010 and returned the following year with gale-force energy to seal his reputation as the most dominant force in soca.

Since his return over the last decade, Montano has won five soca monarch titles, six Road March titles to bring his haul to 10, a Soul Train Music Award, rebranded his annual concert which became the biggest event in Carnival, received an honorary doctorate and even produced and starred in his own movie. He continued to tour the world, performed in Japan for the first time, performed at Drake's OVO fest in Canada, at a Tidal event in New York with DJ Khaled and closed 2019 with his first performance in Ghana. 

The Return

Following a disappointing Carnival in 2009 in which some of his music wasn’t well-received and rumours of backstage conflicts dogged him, Montano decided to sit out Carnival in 2010. Though he did release music, he did not perform at any fetes with his band and his absence was palpable.

He did, however, surprise fans when he appeared on stage as a guest act at the Beyoncé concert immediately following Carnival with Destra Garcia who was also absent from Carnival due to pregnancy.

Montano told Caribbean Beat magazine that his absence was necessary for introspection.

“Machel Montano’s sole objective is to make music reflecting the highest expression of who I am. I am trying to better myself all the time, making music, videos and books and taking [them] to the corners of the globe. Along that journey, I put careful consideration into what I want to convey. Sometimes I have to ‘go in’.  I take time to do that – sometimes I take the whole year.”

On his birthday that year, Montano announced that he would be back for Carnival 2011. His triumphant return song ‘Coming Again’ was influenced by fans on Twitter, a platform he had embraced along with Facebook and a new website. Montano had entered the social media era.

The Return album, his 35th, was chock full of hits: ‘Bend Over, Hard Wuk’, ‘So High’, the EDM-infused AOA and Advantage.

With the stage returning to Queen’s Park Savannah, 'Advantage' was the anthem that masqueraders felt the most, enabling it to Road March victory. Montano sealed his return by entering the International Soca Monarch competition for the first time and won the Power Soca title.

The Return concert at the National Stadium was a considered at the time, the mother of all Machel Montano shows. Later that year, he staged his fifth show at Madison Square Garden in New York, selling out in three weeks, a record for the venue.

Winning Ways

Well into his third decade as a performer, Montano would demonstrate his shrewdness in the business by teaming up with new, young songwriters, many introduced to him by Kasey Phillips of Precision Productions. One set, in particular, Full Blown Entertainment, comprising brothers Kory and Kevon Hart, proved to be instrumental in keeping the star relevant with songs such as Fog, Mr Fete, Bottle of Rum, Epic, Like ah Boss and Vibes Cyah Done, to name a few.

Montano won his first Groovy Soca title with Mr Fete in 2012 and retained the title with Fog in 2013. In 2012, Montano made a clean sweep, taking the Road March and Power Soca titles as well with the song ‘Pump Yuh Flag’, penned by Kernal Roberts, son of the legendary Lord Kitchener. He also helped to pen 'Float' which won the 2013 Power Soca title in a tie with Superblue’s 'Fantastic Friday'.

Jelani ‘Pops’ Shaw is another young songwriter that Montano tapped for his writing prowess. Shaw wrote 'Ministry of Road', which won the Road March and Power Soca titles in 2014. In 2015, FBE’s 'Like ah Boss' swept the Carnival, picking up the Road March and Power Soca titles, his last year in the competition. In 2016, he won the Road March with the Badjohn Republic penned and produced EDM soca ‘Waiting on the Stage’.

Youth again reigned in Montano’s career when he won his ninth Road March title in 2018 with ‘ Soca Kingdom’ a surprise collaboration with Superblue written by Joseph Figueroa and produced by Travis Hosein aka Travis World, who at 22, became the youngest producer to win a Road March.

In 2019, Montano claimed his 10th Road March title with 'Famalay', a collaboration with St Vincent’s Skinny Fabulous and Bunji Garlin.

The birth of Machel Monday

After seven years of staging his own show, the Alternative Concept, Montano rebranded the annual concert, claiming the Monday before Carnival as his own.

The rebrand actually came about after Montano could not get use of the stadium on the Saturday he usually held AC and he decided to move the show to the Monday in 2011, naming it Machel Monday.

Over the years, Machel Monday became the biggest event on the Carnival calendar, eclipsing Soca Monarch in terms of audience attendance.  The over the top, glitzy spectacle not only positioned Montano as the star he is but also became a showcase for new and emerging talent, nostalgia and Montano’s foreign collaborators.

Boyz II Men, Ashanti, Timaya, Spice, French Montana, Lil John and Pitbull, with whom Montano toured the US in 2010, are among the international acts who have graced the Machel Monday stage in addition to several regional acts.

The show has also become a stage for unity. Fractured relationships were repaired on the MM stage, most memorably Montano and Destra who performed their classic ‘It’s Carnival’ in 2014, Montano and Bunji, who buried their axes in 2017 to duet on ‘Busshead’ and Chinese Laundry and Signal 2 Noise, who reunited to relive their glory days of dancehall.

Enter the Monk

Montano is no stranger to reinvention and rebranding and in 2015, after years of going by the HD moniker, he unveiled a new persona, Monk Monte.

In an interview session to explore his new name and journey, Montano said the Monk philosophy is a Movement of New Knowledge which signified his evolution in becoming his own person and publicly embracing his spirituality.

Today, Double M is fully immersed in that spirituality; he became a vegan, meditates daily, posts inspirational passages and prayers on Instagram and travels around the world seeking knowledge.

The unveiling of the new moniker, coincided with Montano’s 33rd year in the business, which was celebrated with a pop up museum of artefacts from his career from since he burst on to the scene with The Letter.

Under the new name, Montano also diversified his company, introducing Monk Films under which his debut movie Bazodee was produced in collaboration with Indiepelago Productions owned by husband and wife team Claire Ince and Ancil McKain.

Ince wrote the screenplay for the movie which starred Montano in a lead role as a singer called Lee. The soca love story starred British based actress Natalie Perera, veteran Bollywood actor Kabir Bedi and actor Staz Nair who acted in Game of Thrones.

Bazodee debuted at the 2016 Trinidad and Tobago Film Festival and found global distribution with screenings in Jamaica, Barbados, Canada, India and the US.

Montano also launched the Machel Montano Foundation of Greatness to help youth in T&T.

Controversies

Despite his accomplishments, it wasn’t all roses for Montano over the decade.

In 2012, Montano was found guilty of five criminal offences stemming from a fracas at Zen nightclub in 2007.

Montano was charged along with Kernal Roberts, Joel “Zan” Feveck and Rodney “Benjai” LeBlanc. Benjai and Zan were found not guilty of their offences while Montano and Roberts were found guilty, convicted and ordered to pay fines and compensation.

In 2017, Roberts and Montano successfully appealed and the judge ordered a retrial.

In 2012, Montano was also forced to defend Government’s decision to fund his Going for Gold album to the tune of five million dollars.

Then Planning Minister Bhoe Tewarie said expenses included band fees, fees of professional producers, purchasing of merchandise, administrative fee,; performers; dancers; costumes, related to the production of a 12-track music CD album, one documentary DVD; eight music videos; promotion of the album through launches and live performances in London, England; Miami, Florida, USA; and Trinidad.

The album was meant to double as an Olympic album and a celebration of the country‘s 50th Independence anniversary.

The backlash against Government’s support of the project resulted in poor sales and lack of airplay for the double album which featured collaborations from soca artistes and calypsonians.

In 2018, public opinion was divided when comedian and radio host Sunny Bling revealed that Montano blocked him from performing at Machel Monday with Iwer George.

In 2019, that issue featured when George and Montano appeared to engage in a feud, dissing each other in song and on stage during Carnival events.

Like him or not, there is no denying that Montano has been a dominant force on the entertainment landscape as he continues to tour the world to fulfil his mission to take soca to all corners of the globe. With a new generation of artistes emerging, finding more relevance among their peers, it is left to be seen if Montano can hold on to his dominance in the next decade and how his role will evolve.

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