Machel Montano’s “The Wedding Album”: Beyond crossing over

​Caribbean music always needs a ta-dah moment to break onto the global stage. Belafonte in 1956 with his Calypso album, Jimmy Cliff starring in “The Harder They Come” and Clapton covering Marley’s “I Shot The Sheriff” in 1973-74, Ricky Martin igniting a Latin Explosion with a single Grammy performance in 1999. In 2021, Puerto Rican and Dominicano musical identity, heritage and diasporic dreams are reinforced with the releases of movie versions of Broadway hits West Side Story and In The Heights. This year too, soca music has a golden moment for changing the way audiences everywhere engage and consume it with the release last March of Trinidadian soca superstar Machel Montano’s album, The Wedding Album.

Delayed by a year due to Montano’s desire not to celebrate during a time of COVID-19 pandemic uncertainty, this album is a triumph of the cross cultural appeal and influence of Caribbean music. Unlike a lot of soca, it moves way beyond the idea of “jump and wave” or a post-Carnival album compilation, to create a broad-ranging, globally inspired recording that addresses emotions not tied with festivity on the road. The Wedding Album is a template for the forging of new ways of connecting with an African diaspora and a new world market, and new ways of reinforcing the Caribbean ethos as the starting point for much popular music in the Americas.

Photo by Che Kothari

Montano says that, “the inspiration for this album has always been what we call ‘an elusive goal,’ the goal of creating outside the lines: Carnival and the Carnival season. So for me, not having to produce an album for Carnival fetes or a road parade, but yet still deliver a soca product, meant that we can take these chances in a bigger way. We can colour abstract and go way past the lines.” What could be a limiting factor for others, in the hands of Montano is an opportunity to innovate the sound with superlative production values and fine songcraft.

Collaborators include a score of producers, DJs, singers and musicians: the children of Africa born in the diaspora, Afrobeats stars from the continent, the Caribbean music family. And, with modern Black music icons, Ms. Lauryn Hill and Teddy Riley, a case for going beyond crossover is made. Afrobeats and dancehall fuse with soca, R&B and rap absorbs the power of Caribbean music. Our dance is not frenetic, but glorified. “Production comes first. There is a moment here for us to reflect on what our production would need to become a little more palatable, to be a little more related and streamlined to fit in with some of the genres that are doing well out there,” suggests Montano.

The distinction of that production showcases this album’s potential in new markets, including those recently added to music streaming giant Spotify here in the Caribbean and in Africa. Global audiences are listening to new music now. Montano notes, “there is a natural environment for heavier collaboration, and of course, this will definitely be in our best interest to use these vehicles to share what soca has to offer.”

Machel Montano is cognizant of legacy. Going into the fortieth year of his career, he says this will not be his last album forever, but “the beginnings of some new styles.” He has created an important body of work, 49 albums thus far, and The Wedding Album points to a reckoning of a maturity needed to break inured biases that sometimes relegate “world music” to a cult of nostalgia, similar to that which brought fame to The Jolly Boys, Cesária Évora and Calypso Rose in their golden years. Hits matter in the music business. Ta-dah moments hinge of sensing those opportunities outside. The world is now moving to a Caribbean beat. Soca’s time now.

© 2021, Nigel A Campbell. All Rights Reserved.

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