Words by Jesse Serwer
Photos by Sherwin Dyer
No one knows the value of turning down better than Trinidad’s King of Carnival, Machel Montano.
“My life is basically turned up on loud and fast, all the time, on the loudest volume and probably the fastest pace,” Machel told us during a rare moment of public peace and tranquility in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene Park last summer before New York’s Labor Day Carnival. “My entire life has been touring, shows, parties, carnivals, whistles, huge crowds… and sometimes you can get lost in that.”
As the literal King—or Monarch—of Power Soca, one of the world’s fastest music genres, Montano is expected to maintain his reputation for high-energy stage shows with a hectic, year-round performance schedule that peaks right now at Carnival time with performances across Trinidad, including his annual Machel Monday concert and the International Soca Monarch competition from which he typically emerges victorious. And that’s to say nothing of the nearly 48-hour-long bacchanal that is Trinidad Carnival itself, where no one’s presence is in higher demand than Machel’s. It’s a lot of pressure, but pressure that Machel is known to handle practically without breaking a sweat. As much as he’s known for bringing the energy in any room he’s working to its peak level, in private Machel is notably mellow, thoughtful and conscientious.
For him, the secret to this duality is meditation, a practice he’s kept up for more than 15 years, and which has come into focus with his adoption of his Monk Monté persona this Carnival season.
In part 2 of our “The King of Carnival” video series, Mr. Fete shares the story of his spiritual journey that began during his days as a kiddie soca star required to navigate an adult’s world. “From birth, I was a very quiet person,” Machel recalls. “I was never the person who was openly willing to be social, and I had to learn how to do that. I remember always being scared to be on stage—really mortified—and having to depend on some little voice, like an imaginary friend. I would talk to this voice and this voice would help me over the threshold. Later in my life, I started realizing this voice is the creator, this voice is that thing, and I started working with it.”
His awakening continued years later when he found himself alone and out of his element, during an ultimately unfruitful period recording in Scandinavia. “I had to find strength,” Machel recalls. “I thought people wasn’t getting the message of who Machel Montano was. I wanted to get deeper, so I sought out meditation and silence.”
Easily the most successful and visible soca star of the last 20 years, Machel attributes his enduring success to his commitment to taking things down a notch and communicate with his inner self in spite of all the action. “These things have helped me, because I always believed my music was based on real unity,” Machel says. “Uniting East Indians with Africans, uniting Caribbean culture with international standards… So I always use this meditation and this depth to help me build really strong purpose and integrity in the music, and take the people through that journey.”
Watch the video below for a rare and insightful look into the mind of one of the Caribbean’s—and the world’s—most dynamic performers, watch Part 1 of our King of Carnival series here, look out for Part 3 on Friday, and see all of our Trinidad Carnival coverage here.