Moving to the beat: Machel Montano, Soca Musician, on the Caribbean musical landscape and the future of soca

Machel Montano, Soca Musician

 

How did soca music come into existence, and how does it fit into the Caribbean’s music scene?

MONTANO: Calypso music was one of the most popular forms of music in the world at one point in time. The first full-length album to be given gold status was Harry Belafonte’s Calypso. This impact can be found in ska, Jamaican music and even in big band music, which influenced guys like Frank Sinatra. Soca rose as the successor to calypso, pioneered by the musician Ras Shorty I, who brought spirituality back into the sound of calypso music, employing east Indian rhythms and creating music based on mantras, which grew from there to become the soundtrack to Carnival. Originally an acronym for “soul of calypso”, soca might more accurately represent “sound of the Caribbean”, as it isn’t just the music of Trinidad and Tobago anymore. We’ve had a great contribution from Barbados, Grenada, St Lucia, St Vincent and the wider Caribbean. We’re even seeing the Jamaicans embrace soca. It’s a cultural shift, but one that’s connected to an economic change. Dancehall music and some forms of rap started to decline because they were often too focused on struggle, violence and drugs. Here in the Caribbean, life is beyond that now. People are looking more towards wellness, and joyful and healthy living.

What reasons are behind the growing popularity of soca music internationally?

MONTANO: Timing is everything. Over the years we’ve seen soca enter the international scene, but there’s never been a consistent supply of soca music to the international market, because we’ve lacked a strategy to serve it to the world. We’re still in the process of making soca music for ourselves, for its original purpose of fuelling Carnival, and to express our lifestyle. There have been a few people like myself working to internationalise the genre, but it’s a tough balance to strike between the international and the domestic, and recorded and live performance. T&T’s soca industry is really based on live music for income and revenue, as there’s not much revenue from recording albums. But we’ve worked so hard to introduce the genre to the world, and the world has finally caught on to this beat. Proper management, business structure, marketing strategies and branding have been key to laying the foundation for the genre’s ascendant popularity. Soca is now filtering through to mainstream music, and there is a rush of interest in the genre, with people looking to learn, document and be inspired by it. We’re now seeing the influence through artists like Justin Bieber, Drake and Rihanna.

Meanwhile, they have also been reaching out to us; I was invited to play at Drake’s OVO Festival in Toronto in 2016. As a nation it took us a while to better understand the reasons for marketing soca music, as we’d never really been sure of the purpose of sharing it internationally. But we’ve seen the world start to demand soca music and what it symbolises, which is happiness, relief, joy and celebration.

In what way would you like to see the artistic industries supported at a local level?

MONTANO: It’s always a challenge for government organisations to balance support for traditional and contemporary cultural groups; traditional shows that draw small crowds, and then people like myself who sell out stadiums. So there must be a conversation about what our culture means to us, to define its present purpose. We’re not thinking of our culture only as tradition, but also as something that is alive and constantly changing. We can then consider the investments we’re making to support its future growth. It is about giving people the right tools and creating a holistic approach. Outside of Carnival time, it is difficult to find places to hear our own music live. We need a grand hall, like Carnegie Hall in New York City, directed to our music and culture, which could function as a museum in the day and a theatre at night.

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