Like a Pied Piper, Machel Montano pulls a crowd. He only has to utter his signature “Yeah yeah” for fete patrons to drop their geera pork and scotch and head in the direction of his voice, as if in a trance. His draw has been so magnetic that when he was unexpectedly absent from Trinidad & Tobago’s 2010 Carnival season, fete lovers and fans were left with a serious tabanca.
Inundated with complaints and appeals to return to the Carnival stage, Montano announced on November 24, his 36th birthday, that he would be back for Carnival 2011.
Montano said he would be very selective about where he appeared. In his usual fashion, he has collaborated with numerous artistes who may in turn perform with him, including Barbados’ Hyper Dawg, Skinny Fabulous of St Vincent, and several Jamaican performers. Dubbed The Return, Montano’s comeback was expected to be huge, a fitting apology perhaps for the void created by his previous decision to stay out of the annual festival.
His absence, he explained, 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.”
His absence was also influenced, in part, by 2009, when his music didn’t work its usual magic and backstage controversies overshadowed the Carnival season for him.
“To say it didn’t, I would be lying,” he said of that season’s impact on his decision.
Montano says too he has given up partying and all he does now is work and try to improve himself. It’s part of a spiritual journey he has been on since the age of nine. That was when the tiny lad held his own among the likes of Sparrow and others in the calypso arena. He was unsure how to relate to the giants of the art form, and needed confidence to go on stage and perform.
He acknowledged a higher force for that strength, but admitted as he “learnt to soca and wine”, he forgot what carried him, and fell for the attendant pleasures celebrity brings.
He says in 2000, after the collapse of the VIP stands mere minutes into his Real Unity concert, he returned to the journey he had embarked on years before.
But although Montano says his songs have a spiritual message, he knows many people perceive his music as having sexual connotations, fuelled in part by his antics on stage.
“It is a long time I stopped making sexiness a priority. I know I am misunderstood because when I stand there and the message flows through me, that is how it comes out. I am sexual, I am an African man, I am a Trinidadian.”
Those perceptions of Montano go beyond his stage performances. There has been talk about his backstage temper tantrums, his dalliances with women, and the highly publicised assault charges, which he still faces, along with three of his band members, arising from a fracas at a nightclub in 2007.
Still, that has not affected his ability to make people move at Carnival. This, he said, is the arena he has to use to get his message across.
“My assignment is not in the church, jungle or charity. My assignment is in the middle of the field with people in drunk stupor.”
Tagging “HD”, for “High Definition”, to his name was his way of trying to get people to understand him, to transmit a clearer image of who he is and what he’s about, he said. Real Unity was the first time he tried to do that. Then there was the year he went Bobo Shanti, sporting a beard and head wraps.
The Return, of course, is also full of symbolism. On one level, it is meant to reflect a new consciousness sweeping Trinidad & Tobago, as manifested by a new political administration.
On a more personal level, it’s about the HD reconnecting with his fans. Now present on Twitter and Facebook and with a new website, machelmontano.com, Montano is emerging from his reflection to engage more with the people who have supported him for years. “ Coming Again”, the debut song off his new album, was written entirely from messages he received from fans on Twitter.
Despite The Return, his journey isn’t over.
“I am like a wave: one minute I am up, the next I am down. I can’t do the same thing forever; I would get bored. In 2009, I got fed up of the hunt for Road March and all that. I was riding a downward crest. I need to keep myself entertained, I must keep reinventing myself.”