NEW YORK (Billboard) - On a recent subway ride from Brooklyn to Manhattan, soca phenomenon Machel Montano was jolted from the anonymity he enjoys in some areas of New York when a female passenger shouted in a thick Trinidadian accent, “Machel Montano’s on this train!,” prompting many strap-hangers to hurriedly take out their camera phones.
That Montano, the most in-demand musical export from the oil-rich southern Caribbean republic of Trinidad and Tobago — where soca originated — can anonymously ride a train for several stops and then suddenly be swarmed by adoring fans reflects the dichotomy of his musical stature.
Soca, which provides the soundtrack for Caribbean carnivals, is the frenetically paced progeny of calypso. Created in Trinidad in the mid-‘70s, soca has attained very limited success beyond Caribbean shores. Arrow’s durable “Hot Hot Hot” continues to be licensed for new compilations, 20 years after Buster Poindexter’s cover version rendered it an American pop hit. In 2000, the Baha Men transformed Anslem Douglas’ Trinidad carnival hit “Who Let the Dogs Out” into an American sports stadium anthem, and four years later Rupee and Kevin Lyttle cracked the Billboard Hot 100 with their respective hits “Tempted to Touch” and “Turn Me On.”
But these individual triumphs do not constitute broad-based recognition for soca. If the genre does break in the mainstream, Montano’s persistently innovative efforts will undoubtedly have played a pivotal role.
A former child star, he made history in 1986 as the youngest finalist in Trinidad Carnival’s Calypso Monarch competition, performing the aptly titled “Too Young to Soca.” In the mid-‘90s with his band Xtatik, Montano embarked on a mission to modernize soca, subtly injecting the music with hip-hop beats and dancehall rhythms, which resulted in a steady release of fervently received carnival anthems and Montano’s ascension to regional superstar status.
Now, via collaborations with Pitbull and Lil Jon and two high-profile New York shows, the artist is hoping to position himself closer to an international breakthrough.
On one hand Montano, who headlines New York’s S.O.B.’s August 28 and Cipriani’s two nights later, is in rarefied company, having sold out concerts at Madison Square Garden’s WaMu Theater in 2007 and 2008. On the other, he has yet to make an impact in the mainstream despite high-profile collaborations with Wyclef Jean (“Carnival Survivors”), Busta Rhymes (“Let Me See”) and Shaggy, who joins Montano on a remix of the title track from Montano’s current album, “Wining Season.”
Recently, Montano’s single “Defense the Anthem,” a soca-dancehall remix of Pitbull’s “The Anthem,” featuring Lil Jon, has received airplay on Miami’s WEDR (99 Jamz) and New York’s WQHT (Hot 97).
“Because soca artists are viewed as a subculture, we look for help from people who have made it in the mainstream,” Montano said after an exhilarating two-hour performance on the eastern Caribbean island of Barbados as part of its annual Cropover festivities. “Soca has great potential, so I asked Lil Jon and Pitbull to help us and they have responded enthusiastically.”
Montano has chosen to strengthen his ties to his Caribbean fan base while refining his crossover strategies. Refusing numerous offers to perform at summer Caribbean carnivals throughout North America, including Toronto’s Caribana, he spent almost three weeks at Barbados’ Cropover, which parallels Trinidad’s Carnival as that island’s primary season for new releases from Barbadian calypso and soca artists. Montano was the star attraction at Cropover’s largest concert, Cohobblopot, on August 3, for which he recruited Pitbull and Lil Jon.
He went on to sign international deals with Delicious Vinyl and Atlantic and recorded albums for both companies, which remain unreleased. Despite a heavy touring schedule that can include three shows per night during Trinidad’s pre-Lenten carnival season, Montano annually releases a full-length CD of original music on his Mad Bull Music label.
Whether or not he achieves his desired international breakthrough, Montano’s ongoing efforts to establish soca as a global cultural force raise the bar for the genre. “Bob Marley helped propel reggae, and I think I have done that for soca,” he said. “I gather people together, let them have a good time, and I feel good about that. While it’s a goal to conquer the mainstream, I just try to stay focused on improving every day.”