Machel resurrects the old

By Raffique Shah
February 19, 2024

Raffique ShahIt took Machel Montano 40 of his 49 years to creatively and graphically make an emphatic statement on this senseless commess that surrounds calypso and soca. I am still not sure however that his contention—that soca is the soul of calypso—is correct, but he laid down the gauntlet for anyone who wishes to argue otherwise. I have never entered the debate before. Not when it raged in the 1970s with flamboyant stage performances by artistes like SuperBlue, Maestro, Ras Shorty I and the like.

As the soca beat sought supremacy in a highly competitive arena, hundreds of singers vied for their space in what was fast becoming the money-making side of Carnival.

Without defining or designing the art form’s super-structure, bards whose claim to fame were dubious but whose catchy lyrics and racy tunes swayed crowds of party-goers into a frenzy, filling the pockets of promoters who seemed to have materialised from nowhere. Suddenly everyone was a fete promoter and every next one, a soca artiste.

The traditionalists who saw calypso as rooted in history, telling stories of today and yesteryear, rightly protested the intrusion of what was seen as a diluted side of the art form.

Because back in the ’60s and ’70s, smut was a part of calypso, almost an art form in its own right, and just about every calypsonian engaged in it. The royalty among them being Zandolee, Blakie and the king of them all, The Mighty Sparrow. Smut took a lot of creativity to cleverly hide the true meaning of songs.

What Machel did on Dimanche Gras night with his “Soul of Calypso” was go back into the toolboxes of some of the earliest bards ever, matching their lyrics, rhyme and melodies, producing a hit. He began with an ancient “lavway”, repackaged it and delivered in his inimitable style, to roars of approval from an eager crowd.

He shifted gears and told a story—a must for any good calypso. He kept rhyming throughout the verses and choruses. Audiences in the Savannah and the world over went wild. They were hearing a “borse” calypso from a master of the art form who could match anything from Broadway in New York to Soho in London.

When Sparrow sang “Jean and Dinah” in 1956, its impact was similar, except we did not have the highly developed electronic transmission systems, and the recording business was near primitive. Singers had to find record producers and it would take time and money to bring voices on to “wax”, as audio-records were known at the time.

Still, Sparrow did not merely blaze a trail. He pioneered some aspects of presenting the art form by staging concerts that were produced with foreign audiences in mind. It was Sparrow and his contemporaries—Melody, Nelson, Rose, Kitchener, and a few others—who successfully opened doors in “foreign”, making the art form accessible and affordable.

They still, however, were not managing their careers the way Machel was able to do from boyhood. His family took the calypso business to greater heights. Machel became a “Boy Wonder” at nine years old, and the Montano family, headed by matriarch Elizabeth Montano, mapped out his life and career almost to the day. Clearly he possessed gifts that were extraordinary. What might have been parlour-type ­operations to the ordinary were, in the Montanos’ hands, seedlings that built an empire.

Except perhaps in the earlies when he would have laboured like everyone else, his pathway to power seemed like a hop, skip and jump. He stuck with the soca beat that Ras Shorty I and others were labouring to keep alive. Success, fame, glory and money came relatively easily even as other young artistes struggled to remain relevant.

Clearly, he decided this was the year for the rebirth of the new Machel. He was not going to be bound in the prism of soca. It seems he believed he could split the atom of local music and yield an explosion that would combine calypso and soca with other local genres that could compete in what is a world revolution in music.

Hence, when the repackaged product was launched to attentive audiences wherever Caribbean people live, that night saw the ­resurrection of the new High Priest. I, an old hand at the old beat, immediately heard strains of “Santimanitay” in some form or other that has always been an integral part of our music.

All praise to Machel for injecting a renaissance in calypso; in fact, using the soul of calypso to propel soca and other indigenous art forms to new heights with one simple song. Machel aside, I still need to address the quality and quantity of excellent songs from the other performers—Karene Asche, Kurt Allen, Brian London. Karene especially for her gripping performance and incisive lyrics.

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