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The legacy of Brand Montano

Music industry observer Nigel Campbell takes a look at Machel Montano’s continuing reinvention and the soca star’s hold over the public imagination particularly during the Carnival season.
Tuesday, March 3, 2015
Machel Montano during his winning performance in the power category of the 2015 International Soca Monarch. He dominated the season with 12 releases and appearances at many of the most popular parties. PHOTO: ABRAHAM DIAZ

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 Machel Montano 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 an 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. 

Around Independence, VS Naipaul 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 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. 

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, he has clinically plotted his oeuvre and arc. Montano reminded us at a 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—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 organisation, the Machel Montano Foundation for Greatness recently presented the exhibition Onstage, a month-long cerebral and tangible prelude to Machel Monday, at the Boissière House, Queen’s Park West, Port-of-Spain. 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 collectors 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. 

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