Machel Montano: Winer Man

Pat Ganase meets calypso's boy wonder, winer extraordinaire Machel Montano

  • Machel with his father. Photograph by Ranji Ganase
  • Photograph by Ranji Ganase
  • Photographs by Ranji Ganase
  • Photograph by Ranji Ganase
  • Machel Montano. Photograph by Delicious Vinyl

On the Trinidad Carnival stage, he is notorious for every kind of “wine.” Legs apart, he “throws waist” to the wild screams of the women clinging stageside. He has long discarded his T-shirt, and his smooth chest glistens as he works his pelvis with all the vigour of uninhibited youth.This is Machel Montano, Trinidad’s 22-year-old calypso “winerboy”.

Wining is the spontaneous response to most calypso music in the land of its origin. The Trinidadian word has given rise to a whole vocabulary. A wine (rotation of the pelvic region) to wine on; wine down; winer man. Too much wining is a paradox.

Like that of the other vocalists in his band Xtatik — Wayne Rodriguez, Sean Caruth and Darryl Henry — Machel Montano’s wild wining is actually carefully orchestrated. Clips of the frenzied wining crowd on the Big Truck music video — the song that won him this year’s Road March title in Trinidad — include an almost bare revolving backside, a young man grappling a chainlink fence to “jook”, and the fluid rotations of Denise Belfon’s ample bottom and bosom. But the movements of Machel and his frontline of “winerboys” are even more riveting. How do they keep their balance and dance like moko jumbies, backs parallel to the floor; on the tray of a moving truck? Machel’s expressiveness is not only in his pelvis. It is in the contortions of his wide mouth and laughing eyes. His short ras locks whip the air from side to side.

The choreography of his US-released hit single Come Dig It is controlled compared with this. Machel is home!

The season between Christmas and Carnival this year was a short one, a mere six weeks. But Machel’s Carnival CD was ready to go in Christmas week.

Three days into the new year, we are sitting in his parents’ home in Siparia. Liz, his mother, is telling the story about how Machel was “born dead.”

In his home, under the loving watchful eyes of Liz – guidance counsellor turned Xtatik’s manager — and Daddy, petroleum geologist Winston “Monty” Montano, Machel is nothing so much as a happy child.

He rushes in to raise the volume on the radio, which is playing his music. He mouths the chorus and does a Farmer Brown jig. Music Farm peaIs forth: Down in ah Trinidad, we have a music farm. . . Saucy lyrics: Watch ah man have de sugar-cane/Gyal have de acre/Come make we join and cause agriculture/Dig up yuh mountain/Expand yuh river gyal . . . The imagery of the real farm that the Xtatik company runs — E-I-E-I-Oh! — combines in the calypso with all the playful double entendre of Sparrow, the ageless calypso master. That one just happened in an Xtatik jam session “on the farm.”

Liz continues her story. “His middle name is Jesus because he was a special birth. He came about a month before he was due. I had to be rushed to the doctor. There was no movement, and the doctor suspected that the baby was no longer alive. I had no labour pain, no contractions, so he prepared me for a still birth. When the baby came out he just lay there not moving, not even breathing.

“Up to now I don’t know what the doctor saw, but he took up the child and slapped him, and slapped him — whaddap — and he give the tiniest little whimper Then he started slapping him again. I think he even threw cold water on his chest. He must have given him oxygen. He slapped and slapped and slapped until he got a cry. The Doctor said, ‘You have a boy. He will be well, and never be ill in life.’ And then they took him away and put him in an incubator.

Liz retells the story of Machel’s birth in a quiet monotone. She has told it a million times before. But every time, there is the wonder that this is her son.

But there is more.

“Later in the evening,” she says “they bring the baby to me. A fat rosy little Indian girl dressed all in pink with the Montano tag on her wrist. I said ‘but I have a boy.’ They had carried Machel to the other lady. Eventually we got our babies back. They must have mixed up the tags when they were bathed. Samora Machel was the new president of Mozambique at the time. Machel Jesus has a special purpose in life”.

“Come and see the farm!”

Machel’s newly-woven locks are lively above a boyish grin. His face is filling out, his shoulders squarer, his chest broader than last season. He leads the way into Prana Lands where the Xtatik commune has seven acres under pineapple, cassava, lots of yams; there’s even a pond where the caimans grow as fat as the freshwater fish. Later, he flings back into a hammock, and is framed by big heart-shaped callaloo leaves. If Trinidad is home, Prana (Hindu for “breath of life”) Lands outside the southern town of Siparia is where Machel’s “liver string is buried.”

It was here that he and his brother Marcus, with neighbourhood friends Vincent and Joseph Rivers, started the Pranasonic Express, playing on old juice tins, giving concerts from the garage, until Machel at ten years old won the Junior Calypso crown with his high-pitched Too Young to Soca. His costume was an oversized diaper which kept failing off.

Soon after that, Pranasonic became Xtatik, a name that is supposed to evoke ecstasy and a bunch of wonderfully energetic young men who would one day be “international kings’ of Trinidad and Tobago. In their schooldays, they played birthday parties, bazaars, got a sponsor to take them on weekend tours from school to school.

Today, their tours take them all over the world. They have a schedule that is booked to November. “Daddy takes care of negotiations and the itinerary,” says Machel who is busy enjoying the moment.

Machel is in no hurry. Making money is not his goat. “When you concentrate too much on making money, then you get distracted. You have to focus on being happy while you are doing whatever, I find if I have a focus, and go after it, the money and other things just come. That doesn’t happen when you are busy counting, one thousand, two thousand, three thousand…”

In 1997, his focus is “the creative stuff.” This means no competitions, no strenuous nightly tent performances, just pure electricity in fetes and jam sessions.

Hard work in the years since he Ieft high school is paying off Machel had intensive training in a recording workshop in Ohio. “We stayed in a cabin up in the hills. It was winter, and cold. We did basic sound engineering, technical … 300 students, people from all over, China too. We made our own recordings, learned everything.” This led to stints in the Engine Room, one of Trinidad’s premier recording studios.

The results are evident in the quality of the reproduction on the 1997 Carnival CD Heavy Duty, engineered under the Xtatik team’s recording label RuffNex. Last year, he was signed by a major California recording company, Delicious Vinyl who produced a single from his 1996 hit, Come Dig It.

Inside the tiny studio at the Montano home, Machel kicks back on a director’s chair. “I think soca has to cross. I always singing here in Trinidad in this big show and that, but I want to do something about putting calypso on the charts, contributing to the big picture. So I sat down right here in this studio and came up with that song, did all the music. And I guess by getting it signed to a major record company, Delicious Vinyl, I was able to do something.

“They came to performances in Miami, New York, kept observing us, and they decided, OK, they were going to sign the single, and me as an artist. With that song, I did a lot of travelling and performing in places we not accustomed to. We usually perform in West Indian communities. But in the heart of LA, San Diego, Chicago, it’s mainly — totally — white audiences. They were so receptive, overwhelmed by the music, they couldn’t get over it. Something was not adding up. I realised that we need to bring the music to them. That was a real experience. It turned me around.”

It’s a two-way thing, he believes. “At the same time, we trying to educate entertainers and audiences here to that direction. So they could go along with us. I don’t want to be the only one doing it. I want to make sure that everyone else could see that this is a positive move and we all move together.”

Machel is also convinced that the music he is creating is still calypso, not an American form. “A lot of people ask me why I don’t find a name for the music I create. I was raised on calypso, and it came to soca. But I still think it is one thing, calypso. Trinidad is the land of calypso. No matter what I do, it will always have calypso in it.

“So I think all the music will still have calypso influence, People have to recognise it as calypso. It is more recognised than soca, which is basically the same. We have to get the name out there, establish it, and then branch out.”

He has been given the opportunity to work “two different avenues.” And in live performances, he says, “you must give a little of what they want, and keep giving them a little of what you want to give them, and they will come around.”

This year Machel has been completing an album with Delicious after Carnival “We are working with people like Robert Livingston who produced Maxi Priest, Shaggy, Apache, top entertainers. I composed and produced some of the songs. When I took my songs to these international producers, I was surprised. Livingston liked what he heard.”

His mischievous smile returns when he talks about one bum from Delicious Vinyl. His drawl might have a south Trinidad country-road slowness, but his mouth enjoys the syllables. “Cock back and roll” is not exactly saintly. The name of the song was originally Woman Control. It is a dance, to cock back and roll, but at the same time a dedication to women who are not depending on men to move forward, so they could afford to cock back and roll, to kick back and relax, roll with the flow, women who do positive things, create music, role models, mothers. We big up all women in the song.”

What does he look for in a woman?

“Freak! I guess she must be able to cook real good, real loving, outgoing, not loud, must be willing to stay up late and party, have ambition, intelligent. If I am working on something in the studio, give an opinion. Make me feel you are right there and it must be me and you against the world.”

He recently bought a house which he is fixing up to be the most “ultra fly apartment” But he is not thinking about settling down yet. “I had a girlfriend in the entertainment business. Almost all the time we were apart, It kinda hard.” On the video for Come Dig It, he worked with a professional choreographer. She had never met a Trinidadian man before: “We went out a lot of places together. She fell in love,” he says slyly, “I showed her how I would move, and she fed off of that. Later, she was always in Japan, somewhere else, flying here and flying there. She used a lot of my moves afterwards in other videos.”

But he wants “big family, big house, five kids, Two is too little bit. The house too quiet at times. Don’t ever pray to have one child. It’s hard. I like a lot of noise in the house. Friends sleeping over. Fun, I could party all night. I don’t sleep much. A small family makes no sense: the Lord said to go forth and multiply.”

In the 1997 Trinidad Carnival, he defended his raunchy, hot hot wining. “They want to know, Machel why yuh wining so? That’s because I’m a good winer man . . . Just because I could wine, they pulling me down like I hang on clothes-line. I going to wine till the day I die, I going to make them critics cry . . .”

And from the top of the music truck which has been part of the band Poison since 1990, he says: “I love to be on the truck. The whole experience of the loud music, hearing your voice echoing down a street and see a whole street of people behind you just doing it. When you can look so far back and see a lot of people just following your command, you feel ten feet tall. That whole experience of driving around on Carnival days, no cars. Nowhere else in the world you have that kind of freedom.”

A week after Carnival, Machel heads “to foreign.” Carnival has been a great holiday. It doesn’t end until he has slept on Maracas beach on Carnival Tuesday night, to wake up near water on Ash Wednesday. “Sometimes you need the sun out there, sometimes you so lonely. There is nothing like the air when you touch down in Piarco airport.”

But on the road, there is little time for nostalgia. Machel is always positive, cheeky, but clear. “De gyal an dem request a good winerman. De gyal an dem want the greatest winer man!”

That’s what they’re going to get.