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 ‘King Of Soca’ Shares 40-Year Music Journey Of Machel Montano

The Trinidadian superstar is celebrating 40 years in the music industry. His rise to fame is chronicled in a new book written by the "ultimate insider," his mother Elizabeth "Lady" Montano.

I still remember the sound of the truck horns, the signature fast-paced tempos and pumping bass. It was Labor Day in 1997, and “Big Truck” by Machel Montano and Xtatik was blasting through the speakers as I stood near the corner of Brooklyn’s Utica Avenue and Eastern Parkway. I was nine years old and it was the first time my parents brought me “on de parkway” for The West Indian Day parade.

I heard the lyrics “Run, if yah cyah keep yah have to run, when de driver blow de truck horn, run, everybody follow de song badang, badang, badang, bang….Hold on to de big truck!” At the same time, I saw thousands of masqueraders jumping and waving on command behind the music trucks. 

That was the day I became a fan of Machel Montano’s music and gained even more of an appreciation for the genre I grew up listening to—soca. 

This year, the Trinidadian superstar is celebrating 40 years in the music industry. His rise to fame is chronicled in a new book titled King of Soca—The Biography of Machel Montano.

“I wanted people to understand what it took for him to get there.”

“40 years in music feels unbelievable for me,” Montano told ESSENCE after performing at the 2022 ESSENCE Festival of Culture. “I feel blessed, really blessed.” During our conversation,  I got a chance to tell him about the day I became a fan on Eastern Parkway. He couldn’t believe I remembered that day. Little did he know, I could never forget it. 

King Of Soca Explores The 40-Year Career Of Machel Montano

Montano also shared that New York holds a special place in his heart. He first performed at Madison Square Garden as a child alongside calypso legends like The Mighty Sparrow and Lord Kitchener. He would go on to headline and sell out the venue five times throughout his career. New York is also where he wrote “Big Truck.” The song earned him “road march,” one of soca’s most coveted titles.

Additionally, Brooklyn is home to the largest community of people of Caribbean ancestry outside the West Indies. It is known as “Little Caribbean.”

Soca soundtracks Carnival, celebrations rooted in resistance and rebellion from oppression, across the Caribbean. Held annually at various times throughout the year, Carnival festivities are massive, multi-day events. They are steeped in traditions like playing mas, the soca monarch music competition and the grand steelpan competition called panorama. They draw thousands of people from across the globe to the Caribbean and communities across the diaspora.

Montano is a giant of the soca genre. He earned the title due to his vast number of international shows, soca monarch wins and collaborations that have pushed the genre forward. You can’t talk about soca without mentioning Montano. 

Soca, a portmanteau of ‘Soul of Calypso,’ was birthed from a fusion of African and East Indian rhythms. Lord Shorty created it in the early 1970s. While calypso music is a form of socio-political commentary on current affairs, its sub-genre of soca emphasizes high-energy, feel-good vibes  made to make you just want to get up and dance. King of Soca captures the essence of the genre, while celebrating the singer’s journey. 

“If you call out a song of Machel’s [or] a concert, I can tell you what year it was. I just know it, so I said that I wanted to share it,” says the 71-year old. 

The singer’s mother, Elizabeth “Lady” Montano, an educator and businesswoman who managed Machel’s career for over thirty years, wrote the book.  

“I wanted to show the world the story of a young Caribbean boy from the country, from an island, who had certain core values that manifested in him and showed up in his work,” Lady Montano says to ESSENCE. “What happened as a result is that he has had a very sustainable career for 40 years. I wanted people to understand what it took for him to get there.”

The two are close and have been for the entirety of Machel’s life and career. 

“If you call out a song of Machel’s [or] a concert, I can tell you what year it was. I just know it, so I said that I wanted to share it,” says the 71-year old. 

King Of Soca Explores The 40-Year Career Of Machel Montano

Lady Montano organized the book into specific eras of the entertainer’s career: The Early Years, The Winer Boi period, The H.D. period, The Monk Evolution, and Beyond 40.  The breakdown offers insight into the singer’s growth; including him going from being a child star to being known as “Mr. Fete” to embracing his spirituality and becoming an advocate for global issues like food security and climate change. 

“I wanted it to be inspirational. I wanted to motivate people, especially young people, to know that they too can achieve but understand that success is never a straight road,” Lady Montano adds. “It wasn’t for Machel but he never folded.”

King Of Soca Explores The 40-Year Career Of Machel Montano

“Machel is a man of integrity. He’s a hard worker; he loves his people.”

King of Soca is also more than a standard biography; Lady Montano packed it with family photos, album covers and anecdotes from those closest to the soca legend. She lovingly curated each memory. 

“I had collected 40 years of memorabilia, 40 years of pictures, of stories and features,” Lady Montano says. “I’m gonna put it in color because the Caribbean people are people of color. I cannot describe our culture in black and white. She believes her son’s biography will resonate with many, whether they want to learn about his contribution to soca music’s evolution, or  just his life. She hopes his effort shines through.

“Machel is a man of integrity. He’s a hard worker; he loves his people. He loves his country [and] he loves what he does. His resilience and ability to reinvent himself will bring him continued success,” she says. 

In celebration of the milestone, Montano has an anniversary concert set to take place in Brooklyn on Labor Day. I will be there with my Guyana flag in hand, waiting to see him mash up de stage. I’m sure it will take me back to the moment that made me a fan.

The U.S. launch of “The King of Soca” will take place on September 9 during the fourth annual Brooklyn Caribbean Literary Festival.