Trinidad Carnival 2015, from a music standpoint, was dominated by one name: Machel Montano. Trinidadians opted for one or more of his dozen new songs as anthems for fervent frolic. They were also inundated with the news of a re-invention of the Machel Montano brand into Monk Monté, the vessel for the “Movement Of New Knowledge.” The ebb and flow, the Carnival cycle of re-invention is a part of our DNA, yet examples made clear and fixed are viewed with awe. This name change was the critics’ focus for grudging accolade and the cynics’ target of mock praise.
The subjective role of the critic to analyse objective realities and contextualise them either locally or absolutely is often disparaged. In making the case that Monk Monté, in addition to signalling a spiritual “apex-ing” of a long but young career that has had some disappointments, is also a renewal of the brand Montano, there is a recognition that the subject in question could be a further target for cynical reproach.
On the eve of Independence, Eric Williams writing in History of the People of Trinidad and Tobago, noted the “harsh criticism of those in the society who seek to parade their superior knowledge by continuing in the well established colonial tradition of depreciating local efforts and disparaging local forms.” VS Naipaul around the same time wrote in The Middle Passage, “…the Trinidadian is a cosmopolitan. He is adaptable; he is cynical; having no rigid social conventions of his own, he is amused by the conventions of others. He is a natural anarchist, who has never been able to take the eminent at their own valuation.”
Ironically 50 years later, the criticism and cynicism endure among a public slowly becoming aware of the nature of our nascent creative economy. Montano has been subjected to these “ongoing contestations” as noted by Kwynn Johnson, curator of the recent ONSTAGE exhibition of artefacts from his 33-year career: “1998, Montano’s use of red, his high energy performances and the effect his music had on audiences was widely criticised.”
Social media in 2015 was abuzz with sceptical deference to the idea that Montano’s name is Jesus! His father had to explain at a recent panel discussion at the exhibition why his son’s middle name is the same as the son of God; a miracle survival after a difficult birth and the rapture thereafter felt by the parents. The level of cynicism is high!
The beatification of Monk Monté
On the evening of Wednesday 28 January, an important discussion was held at Boissière’s House, the location of the ONSTAGE exhibition of artefacts from Machel Montano’s 33 year career, which signalled to the perceptive, another turning point in the career of this shrewd music business phenomenon.
Chaired by Trinidad Guardian features editor, Franka Philip, the panel included clerics Fr. Steve Ransome and Sr. Theresa Vialva, Montano’s manager Che Kothari, journalist Laura Dowrich-Phillips, and Montano’s parents Elizabeth and Winston Montano. ONSTAGE exhibition curator, Kwynn Johnson and Machel picked this catholic (as in wide-ranging) panel balancing journalistic inquiry and academic research.
Part of panel at ONSTAGE discussion, l-r: Laura Dowrich-Phillips, Sr. Theresa Vialva, Fr. Steve Ransome, Franka Philip, and Machel Montano. Photo by Gabrielle Punch. © 2015, Gabrielle Punch. All rights reserved by Gabrielle Punch.
The two clergy folk, Montano’s choice, have written theses that articulate him in a context unexpected by the laity here, but informed by direct conversation and recognising the tenets of his lyricism that jibe with theology, and that were good enough for graduate matriculation. The clergy folk also locate this event on an arc, which could be called the beatification of Monk Monté.
Timely critical intervention outside the norm is sometimes necessary. Acknowledgement from ministry of God officials adds fuel to the fire that opinions reasoned from the point of view that the sacred and profane co-exist must be prophetic and just. How can it be wrong if father or sister said so about the Minister of Road?
One is pointed to the example of the ageing pop star and their need to re-invent themselves in order to sustain their popularity. Madonna, in the late 1990s embraced the esoteric Jewish school of thought, Kabbalah, for a period, and sparked media interest all over again after Evita. Montano on the other hand is his own guru. No shrinking violet when it comes to his career and still hugely popular, Montano has clinically plotted his oeuvre and arc. Montano reminded us at that panel discussion held before Carnival, that in the sphere of soca competition, “I am not ruthless, I am strategic.”
That strategy—not dissimilar to Madonna’s or even Michael Jackson seeking succour with Rabbi Shmuley Boteach late in his career—to re-chart the ruins and to return to the centre works in synergy with the grander vision of abandoning obsolete brands; HD, the clear vision, for Monk Monté, the new avatar of an older Montano and a mentor for new music acts. Some question why is re-branding still such an odd concept for some in this market. The recent example of the Neal & Massy group rebranding to the simpler and succinct Massy highlighted the hysteria of a few and the short time spans of controversies.
Montano’s non-profit, the Machel Montano Foundation for Greatness recently presented the exhibition ONSTAGE, a month-long cerebral and tangible prelude to Machel Monday, at the Junior Sammy Boissière House. That exhibition was evidence of the gap between Montano and popular soca artists today, and even in the recent past. Fans of the biggest music stars in the world, The Beatles, Michael Jackson, the Rolling Stones, have the pleasure of revelling in branded merchandise, collated recordings, and ephemera as collector’s items, as commercial products. Montano from an early age, as one could glean from that exhibition was ahead of the curve locally branding Pranasonic Express, through Double M to HD to his new incarnation, Monk Monté.
Beyond the chronological age of the modern pop star, Machel Montano, Monk Monté is safe in the knowledge that his legacy and his brand are sound despite the din of naysayers. The exhibition together with the panel discussion therein could not fully capture his 33-year career, but only highlight the larger picture of the evolution of Jesus from kid “too young to soca” to Caribbean music icon—doing it his way, singing what he wants—who is still relevant to the desires of governments and corporations as an avatar for a wished-for music business transformation in these islands.
- A version of this article appears in the Trinidad and Tobago Guardian newspapers published as, “The legacy of Brand Montano”
© 2015, Nigel A. Campbell. All Rights Reserved.